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.