How is neon made?
It all starts with glass tubes, usually between 9mm and 15mm. There are many different types of glass, but the quality of each is dependant on the manufacturer. Variations in clarity and color of the glass and the coatings applied determine the overall lighting results. Clearer tubes allow the true color of the gas to show; colored glass changes the hue and intensity of the color.
Next, over an open flame, the tubes are bent into various letters and shaped based on a pre-designed pattern, the design and complexity of which is typically limited only by the imagination.
Once the desired form is reached, the ends are capped off with glass electrodes. Wires inside these electrodes pass from the inside of the tube to the outside. One of the ends also has a small tube that is sealed to a pumping system. The pump creates a vacuum inside the tube while a high voltage transformer bombards the remaining air particles to approximately 500 degrees.
An inert gas (neon, argon, xenon, or other noble gas) is pumped into the tube once a high vacuum is achieved. The small tube connected to the pumping system is then heated and pulled away, sealing the main tube in the process.
Electrical current bombards the inert gas atoms with electrons knocking neon's atoms out of their orbits. The electrons collide with other free electrons sending them back toward the atoms. As the electrons are absorbed into the atom, energy is given off as light.
The results can be stunning!
How long does neon last?
Decades - unless a glass tube breaks. Neon can be repaired and transformers can be replaced or recharged.
How much does a neon piece cost?
There is a wide range to the cost of custom neon. Some pieces can be bought for about $200.00. Other pieces can cost in the thousands of dollars. The cost is directly related to the time it takes to produce the sign and the cost of materials which include the transformer needed to power the sign.
Can you leave neon on all the time?
Yes. It does not become hot to the touch. Turning neon on and off does not affect its life span. Some neon signs have been left on for over 50 years!
Is neon dangerous?
Neon and argon gas by themselves are not because they're inert. As with typical fluorescent tubes, the minute droplets of mercury present in some colors are safe as long as the tube is not broken. Improper handling can be a threat to both the environment and health. Many modern neon shops refuse repair of broken argon-mercury tubes for this reason. Neon is powered by voltages in the 2,000 to 15,000 volt range. A well-constructed neon piece should be problem free for many years.