Can You “Waste Ballast?”

ballasts picture

A sign guy I know had just come from inspecting an electric sign that was not lighting. I heard him tell the boss to order a ballast that would power three 8-foot fluorescent lamps. Looking up from the catalog, the boss said there were two ballasts available. One would power up to 24 lineal feet, and the other would run up to 28 feet of lamp. The installer said, “Use the one for 24 feet.” I expected him to comment that it was cheaper. Instead, he said, “The bigger one will waste ballast.” I looked up anticipating a smile. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

Wasting ballast? His argument was not about price, that the larger ballast cost too much more. He was talking about some kind of “yield.” Like cutting up a sheet of sign board so there is no waste. His idea was that you get the most out of a ballast when you hook it up to its maximum load. I didn’t question his logic at the time. He is no dummy. But I question the logic now.

Whether a ballast’s full capacity is utilized is a moot point, a nonsense argument. The real issue concerns the lifespan of the ballast. How long do you want it to last before replacing it?

Planned Obsolescence

Modern manufacturing methods include the effort to program a product’s lifespan. Engineers design appliances so that the life expectancy will be a little longer than the warranty period, assuming the product is used at 100 percent capacity. If you have you ever had a device fail shortly after the warranty period expired, you know what I’m talking about. So, when you use a sign ballast at its highest rated load, you may be reducing its life expectancy to the maker’s lowest expectation—in the case of a ballast, two years, generally.

That means that you can get more life out of a ballast, or a neon transformer for that matter, by using it at less than the maximum load rating. Is that a good thing, to make a ballast last longer? Well, it depends on your business philosophy.

If you are a proponent of “planned obsolescence” you may want your sign ballasts to fail right after their warranties are expired—to generate more service calls. But this can be a dangerous game. I think most consumers find the idea of planned obsolescence distasteful, as evidenced by the decline in favorable reputation experienced by American car manufacturers when longer-lasting Japanese imports first entered the US market. In the 1920s, US car makers had perceived that the automobile had saturated the market, and they were looking for ways to keep consumer demand strong. Changing the style and design of cars each year was proposed as a good way to do this. And the idea of artificially limiting the lifespan of a vehicle, or its components, was part of this thinking as well. So building a car cheaper would not just be about lowering the sticker price. It was also about built-in obsolescence.

What kind of reputation do you want?

It’s good to remember that most people are not necessarily interested in the cheapest product. Most people do not buy the cheapest car on the car lot. Do you? Other factors, in addition to price, contribute to an automobile purchase. Rather than always wanting the cheapest, what most consumers really want is a good value, and that’s not the same thing.

It’s revealing that US car makers these days are intent on fostering the perception of durability. And it’s true that the average automobile today is more reliable than cars of the past. Hence, the longer warranties many manufacturers offer. The invention of the extended warranty goes a step further. It guarantees a longer lifespan for a product, for a price.

So, as a sign maker, what kind of reputation do you want? Do you want to be known as a shop that builds a cheaper sign that requires servicing more often and may be more expensive in the long run? Or do you want to be seen as a shop that charges a little more but builds signs requiring less maintenance?

One thing is clear. Loading a sign ballast to less than its rated capacity is not “wasting ballast.” It’s simply a way to extend ballast life.

For a more detailed discussion of this subject, see Dan Hale’s article Superior Signmaking (Signweb, 2007). Hale recommends loading a ballast or transformer to 80% of its load capacity, where possible.



Electric signs and sign goobers

Most sign companies in the US do not have real, live electricians on the payroll. The typical sign shop doesn’t want to pay what a licensed electrician would demand for wages, so lesser paid employees are trained to assemble and wire internally-illuminated signs, and service them after installation. The learning curve is not steep, as electric signs are very simply built. These employees will have varying degrees of electrical knowledge and ability, ranging from people who are very experienced to complete novices. Pre-cut knock-down kits are available that allow practically anyone to put together lighted signs with a minimum of fabrication equipment. They can be assembled with screws, high-bond adhesives or by welding. Translucent vinyl lettering can be used for the plastic faces, eliminating the need for painting. This type of work can be done by the most unskilled labor. It can be done in someone’s garage.
In fact, if the general public in this country knew how inexperienced some people are who work on electric signs, they would be surprised.
In the US, using unskilled workers for this type of electrical work is usually not a problem for licensing authorities. Sign companies in most municipalities are legally allowed to do limited electrical work without a license, without any credentials at all, in fact. Further, after paying the fees and receiving an inspection of a sample completed sign, most any shop may receive UL certification.

So just as practically anyone in this country can start a sign company and be a “sign designer,” practically anyone can make electric signs, too. I’m not saying this is bad, necessarily. But just as I would like to see sign makers strive for better design work and a better understanding of design principles, I would also like to see sign makers improve their knowledge of electricity and their understanding of basic electrical troubleshooting.

Though this site will be primarily devoted to design, there will also be posts related to lighted signs.