U-Drop Inn will swap out neon lighting for LEDs

The historic U-Drop Inn gas station in Shamrock, Texas, soon will replace its neon lighting with durable LED tubing after a hailstorm destroyed most of the neon in May.

The change — if successful — might signal the eventual replacement of notoriously fragile neon with LEDs on scores of historic signs on Route 66.

After a hailstorm in May (video of the storm here) destroyed all but one section of neon tubing on the Route 66 landmark, Shamrock city manager David Rushing said the city stood ready to replace it with new neon tubing within weeks after receiving a settlement from the insurance company.

But Rushing said he realized a 10-year preservation-grant agreement — which required the U-Drop Inn use neon lighting common for the 1936 period when the structure was built — would expire in August. If the city delayed action for a few months, it could replace the neon tubing with LEDs without breaching the agreement.

Rushing said he and the city council became convinced two years ago to eventually go the LED route when a representative from a lighting company made a side-by-side comparison between red neon tubing and a red LED tube. He slapped the lighted LED tubing on a table to show its durability. But it was the color and brightness of the newer technology that also impressed Rushing.

“Between that and the LED, you can’t tell the difference,” he said. “It was just as bright and just as clear.”

LED (stands for light-emitting diode) boasts other significant advantages. Rushing said it uses about half of the electricity as neon, and it lasts for an astounding 80,000 hours.

Rushing acknowledged he was skeptical of LEDs compared to neon (“We didn’t want to change the integrity of the U-Drop Inn; we want it to be right”). But he said the LED industry keeps making improvements to its aesthetics.

As an example, he cited the automatic teller machine across the street from the U-Drop Inn — a design inspired by the Art Deco gas station. It uses LEDs, which was unharmed by the May hailstorm.

“It surprises a lot of people when you tell them the ATM uses LED,” Rushing said. “The majority aren’t going to know the difference.”

Rushing estimates it will cost about $40,000 for the city to swap out neon for LED on the U-Drop Inn — a hefty initial investment. However, when one considers $8,000 to $10,000 in neon must be replaced each year because of breakage, the investment in sturdy LEDs looks smart in the long term. “We’ll get that back in four to five years,” he said.

He said the only other option to reduce damage to the U-Drop Inn’s neon was a special protective coating on the glass tubing. But he said the coating yellows with age and reduces the amount of light produced.

Rushing said the city council within days will take bids for new LEDs on the U-Drop Inn. He anticipates it will be installed by October.

Purists might quibble with the use of LEDs on historic neon signs. However, breakage remains an ongoing problem for those sign owners — especially in volatile-weather regions such as the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma.

If successful, the warm glow of red and green LED tubing at the U-Drop Inn — along with its energy savings and ruggedness — may inspire many Route 66 business owners to go the high-tech way, too.

(Hat tip to Frank Gifford; night image of the U-Drop Inn in April 2013 by Larry Myhre, via Flickr)

6 thoughts on “U-Drop Inn will swap out neon lighting for LEDs

  1. Up until now I’ve stayed quiet on this, but if insurance will pay for it, why replace it with something that doesn’t quite look right. Not to mention affecting the businesses still specializing in the art.
    Why do I say it doesn’t “look right”?
    Take a look at something printed on a dot matrix printer, and one on a more modern inkjet or laser printer. The dot matrix looks fuzzy. It’s a row of DOTS. Just like LED lighting. I look at LED lighting and see DOTS, not beautiful flowing neon lighting.
    Just one man’s opinion.

    1. One big reason Shamrock is going to LEDs, Gary, is they will use a lot less taxpayer money in the long run.

      Not only will you not have to shell out for insurance deductibles on storm damage every year, but you’ll save a lot of money on electricity.

      Business owners can do what they like on neon vs. LED. But when you’re involving taxpayer dollars, you have a certain obligation to be more frugal.

      1. “when you’re involving taxpayer dollars, you have a certain obligation to be more frugal.”
        No offense, as a taxpayer (not in this particular instance granted), I understand the argument. I just don’t agree with it. Especially if, as I suggest, it changes the look.
        In this case, I’d rather it be “when you’re involving taxpayer dollars, you have a certain obligation to be more historically accurate”

  2. I’d say that, since 1.7 million tax dollars (sourced from Wikipedia) already paid for the initial restoration with the goal of preserving a historically significant landmark, ripping out period correct neon in lieu of LEDs is a travesty. The tax dollars spent on this place are almost certainly overshadowed by the traffic brought into Shamrock.

    In that sense, neon upkeep is a wise investment.

    The argument against the protective coating over neon? It degrades and yellows because it is plastic. The same issues will face the plastic diffusers used with LEDs. Give it 5-10 years in the weather and see how it looks then.

    Finally, red LEDs cannot begin to look like red neon. Red LEDs emit narrow spectrum light centered around ~660 nm, while neon gas has significant emission spectra from green through deep red. Totally different look.

  3. LEDs only “mimic” neon, but they make perfect sense here. This is a relatively large building with long expanses of exposed tubing…very near the center of the hail-belt.

    I found this on-line:

    “…Neon is more vibrant, warm, inviting and attractive…more like art than just a sign. LED signs tend to be more industrial and straight forward. This may sound corny but neon seems to be more “romantic” and “elegant” and LED’s are more “medical” and “cold.” –www.brightneonsigns.com

    I agree. I ALSO agree it’s a shame.

    But the reality is…this is Texas, and taxpayer money.

  4. Since this is taxpayer money maybe someone should ask them how they want their money spent. They might prefer the higher cost to stay authentic.

    It would be nice to see a smaller non historic place give it a try and see how it looks first. I would like to see some of the new lighting in place not just a sales sample. Has anyone seen any actually used on a building? The U-Drop is such an icon and has such a massive amount of light on it that it would be a shame to get it wrong.

    I know the LED used in the Yukon sign looks great and the colors are rich. It was not originally neon and the replacement not intended to look like neon, but it looks really good.

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