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Fiber optics provide visibility for awnings

November 1st, 2011 / By: / Awnings & Shades, Markets

Shedding new light in historic districts.

When you have a business in an area of the country as historically rich as the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, there are many rules to follow about what you can and cannot do. Historic preservation boards are notoriously strict about what they will allow for signage—and that generally excludes any sort of lighted signs; however, backlit signs and spotlights are just about the only way to draw attention to a business and make signs legible in low light.

Business owners in the Lehigh Valley are getting around this restricting ordinance by contracting with Kaplan’s Enterprises Inc. of Easton, Pa. to make custom awnings that are lit from within using fiber optics. Through a local chamber of commerce, Kaplan’s connected with JFMagic LLC, Bethlehem, Pa., which licenses the fiber optic technology developed by Off-Grid Technologies LLC in Bethlehem.

Kaplan’s has been creating and installing awnings in the Lehigh Valley region since 1923, but with the JFMagic partnership, business opportunities have opened up in new areas.

The better to see you

Adding fiber optics is a surprisingly straightforward process. Once the awning is fabricated, it is sent to JFMagic where the fiber optics are inserted—sewn on the back of the awning, with holes made for small LED lights. In just a few days, it’s returned to Kaplan’s for a backing that tastefully conceals the wiring and battery casing, making the awning aesthetically pleasing from front to back.

Technologically, the setup is also uncomplicated. Because the LEDs require so little power, in the right configuration a small solar panel can be installed to provide all the power the awning will need. Kaplan’s Enterprises’ Randi Kaplan DellaVechia boasts that this makes the awning “totally off the grid. It costs so much less to run with fiber optics than with fluorescent light bulbs,” she says. If the right configuration cannot be achieved, the awning requires nothing more than a watch battery to power it.

And fiber optic technology itself has dramatically reduced in price over the past decade. JFMagic’s Miko Green says, “What was possible for five dollars with one LED ten years ago you can do with hundreds of LEDs today.” While there is no set cost per project, an awning can be outfitted with this technology on just about any budget. Lee Wainwright, vice president of research and development for Off-Grid Technologies, says the technology would cost as little as $150 and up to $1,000, depending on the size of the letters and the complexity of the project.

“It all depends on the number of fibers and number of LEDs and power of LEDs, battery sources, do you want an AC adapter, do you want it to be batteries, or do you want it to be solar?” Green says.

Kaplan’s has had good luck selling fiber optic awnings and banners to businesses that are regulated by strict ordinances. “We have a lot of historic towns that will not allow backlit awnings. [Our] goal with the fiber optics is to create a more visible sign without taking the step to being backlit,” says DellaVechia. This is possible because the state of Pennsylvania does not consider fiber optic lighting in awnings to be in violation of a ban on spotlights, backlit signs and neon in some areas.

“It’s a subtle outline,” DellaVechia says, “It improves the visibility and legibility without going to spotlights or backlights.”

This subtlety is key. “It doesn’t flash; the luminosity doesn’t change; it doesn’t get brighter or fade in and out. It’s just a constant outline around the graphics,” says DellaVechia.

Lighting the future

This aspect of the technology makes a fiber optic awning potentially attractive for almost any type of business, regardless of location or restrictions, particularly companies looking for new and creative ways to save on energy costs and to strengthen their “green” energy uses, or for anyone who prefers a modern alternative to bright neon or backlit signs.

What’s more, a new awning need not be fabricated to take advantage of this technology. JFMagic and Kaplan’s can fully retrofit any existing awning for fiber optics, which opens the system to many more awning configurations and potential customers, and, according to Green, the material or type of fabric used is not a factor. Fiber optics can be inserted into anything—even paper or carpet. “It’s all about flexible surfaces,” she says.

According to Wainwright, safety is not an issue, either. The fiber used is a larger version of the material surgeons use inside blood vessels, “So that’s about as safe as you can get,” he says, and the fibers are encased in the awning with a UV fixative, just like a dentist uses to “cement” dental work. Once the fiber is attached, “It will never come out,” he says. In fact, the awning will wear out before the technology and before the lighting burns out. “It takes about one-half watt to light up a pretty good-sized awning,” he says. “We definitely save money.”

According to Wainwright, safety is not an issue, either. The fiber used is a larger version of the material surgeons use inside blood vessels, “So that’s about as safe as you can get,” he says, and the fibers are encased in the awning with a UV fixative, just like a dentist uses to “cement” dental work. Once the fiber is attached, “It will never come out,” he says. In fact, the awning will wear out before the technology and before the lighting burns out. “It takes about one-half watt to light up a pretty good-sized awning,” he says. “We definitely save money.”

Where else?

There are many innovative uses for fiber optic lighting being implemented or in development right now. “There are fiber optics on the banners they put on street posts that work totally off-grid with the solar panels,” DellaVechia says, and Kaplan’s is working on integrating fiber optics into patio umbrellas. Also in development are small, decorative garden flags that say “open” that can be placed in front of a business or in the window in place of a neon sign. “It’s permitted if there’s an ordinance where they don’t want neon signs in the window,” she says. “It fills a little niche.”

“I think the possibilities are endless,” she says. “It’s a different way to tastefully promote a business.”

Green agrees, “This technology is now at the jucture where we can use it in anything and everything.” And JFMagic is preparing for the demand. “We are in the process of developing a manufacturing process that is repeatable with all the configurations in the market,” Green says.

Future plans for Kaplan’s fiber optic awning sales are still developing. Though Kaplan’s reach is regional (to eastern Pennsylvania and Rhode Island), she says they’re keeping the door open. “We’ll see where it takes us.”

Art Allen is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn. Janet Preus is editor of Specialty Fabrics Review.

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