Neon lights make cities come alive at night. If you’ve visited Tokyo, New York, or Las Vegas, you’ll know what we’re talking about. The public debut of modern neon lighting took place on 3rd December 1910 at the Paris Motor Show.

Since then, businesses have used neon signs to attract customers for decades—and they continue to do so for a reason. They're ingenious marketing techniques that light up the windows and signage of pubs, motels, cafés, and theatres, attracting passersby.

Neon emits red light, but you can get over 100 different colours by blending neon with various gases—allowing you to paint your business with any colour you desire. Neon lights can be as simple or elaborate as you want and can even be personalised to your desire. With that said, we’ll look at how neon lights work.

How Do Neon Signs Work?

A neon sign is made of a neon tube with a small amount of gas at low pressure. Neon is used because it’s a noble gas (unreactive gases that don’t form compounds), so it's not harmful to the environment. For a neon atom to ionize, electrons must be removed from it, requiring lots of energy. So we use electricity to provide the energy needed.

A neon glass tube has positive (anode) and negative (cathode) metal electrodes—so a neon light can run on either alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). However, only the cathode glows when you use DC, so you’ll end up with not-so-beautiful neon light. But when you use AC, both electrodes glow, resulting in a beautiful neon light.

When you introduce an electric current to the end of the tube, it produces enough energy to remove outer electrons, which ionize the neon atom. If you don’t supply a high enough current, the electrons won't escape the neon atoms (since there won't be enough kinetic energy). So the neon atom won’t ionize, and you won’t see any coloured light.

After neon ionizes, the negative terminal attracts the positively charged neon atoms (cations), and free electrons (since they’re negatively charged) flow to the positive terminal. These charged particles (cations and free electrons) are called plasma, and they complete the circuit.

cations and free electrons

What is the Glowing of a Neon Light Caused By?

After gaining enough energy from electricity, the charged particles move around in the neon glass tube, hitting and transferring energy to each other. As a result, they produce lots of heat. For the atoms to calm down, they emit light to release energy.

What Produces Different Colours in Neon Lights?

We’ve seen the science behind the beautiful colours lighting up various businesses and cities. Now we’ll look at how we can produce multiple colours. There are two ways to achieve this—and we’ll break it down for you.

Using Different Gases with Neon Gas

As stated above, neon only produces a reddish-orange light. To get other colours, we use other gases. For example, helium gas emits a pink light when energised. We’ve highlighted the gases that yield other colours of light (most are noble gases).

Gas Used Colour of Light
Hydrogen Blue-violet
Helium Pink-orange
Argon Violet
Krypton Lavender
Gas Used Colour of Light
Xenon Blue
Mercury Vapour Blue-violet
Oxygen Blue-violet
Water Vapour Pink

Coating the Glass Tube

You can coat the glass tubes with phosphor or fluorescent powder, too, so when neon is energised, it will glow with a different colour. However, since flex neon came into the market, glass neon has become obsolete because flex neon has many advantages over glass neon. At Kings of Neon, all our neon lights are made of LED flex because they’re more eco-friendly, durable, and energy-efficient.

Another way that’s not used much in light fixtures is using energy to regulate the flow of light. Although each gas emits one colour, various energy levels can excite the electrons and produce a different light.

Do Neon Lights Need Electricity?

Yes, they do, but a neon light is highly energy-efficient, using less electricity than a fluorescent light. You might assume, given how brightly they glow, they use a lot of electricity, but that’s not true. Most current advertising signs have a 240V transformer and need approximately the same energy as a single 60W–100W residential light bulb. A typical LED neon sign will use only 15%–20% of the traditional glass neon sign’s power on similar work.

Red Neon Lights and the Science Behind Their Attraction

When comparing the input voltage of flex neon vs glass neon, flex neon is the safer option. The flex neon has a 24V–120V input voltage. Glass neon, on the other hand, has a voltage range of 3 to 18 kV.

Do Neon Lights Last Forever?

Forever is a long time, but the typical lifespan of a neon sign is determined by how you use it and how well you install and maintain it. A flex neon lifespan averages 50,000 hours, while that of a glass neon lasts about 10,000 hours. So we’d highly recommend flex neon to glass neon. Leaving a sign on for an extended amount of time might reduce its lifespan and put it at danger of overheating or electrical surge damage.

Does Cold Weather Have Any Effect on Neon Lights?

Since cold temperatures affect gases, neon lights can lose their brightness. Neon itself is not affected by cold weather, but the gases used to form other colours are the victims. For example, a neon lamp that uses neon and argon to create signs might become dim or flicker in cold temperatures.

Why? Cold temperatures affect how gases in tubes emit light and heat when you apply an electric current. So under 45˚F (7.2°C), Argon atoms become slow, and its light becomes faint. However, this shouldn’t trouble you because the lights will work fine when it gets warmer.

You can also use fluorescent lamps to warm the signs during cold weather. Alternatively, you can install flex neon that uses solid-state semiconductors. This feature makes them immune to cold weather. It will also relieve the stress of worrying about your signs during winter.

Does a Neon Light and Fluorescent Light Work the Same Way?

Yes. Although, the significant difference is how they produce light. When applying a high voltage, neon gas ionizes and emits red light while other gases emit different colours. So a neon tube's light is the coloured light that the atoms directly emit. Fluorescent light is a low-pressure mercury-vapour gas-discharge tube that emits ultraviolet light (UV) when ionized.

Since human eyes cannot see UV light, fluorescent light is coated with a phosphor that absorbs UV photons’ energy to produce visible light. The more noticeable difference between the two would be:

  • A neon light is used in advertising signs. You can bend it into different shapes to create letters and brand names.
  • A fluorescent lamp, on the other hand, is a long straight tube that produces white light. Most often, you’ll see them in stores, offices, and in some homes.

Make Your Business Glow With Neon Signs

Now that you’ve seen how neon lights work, you should take advantage of the benefits they offer. They’ll attract and add to the number of customers visiting your business premises. You’ll need to make them visible, understandable, and easy to spot to be effective.

And that’s where we come in. We have a huge collection of neon signs that you can explore and find inspiration for your business. Our signs have safe to touch technology, over 50,000 hours lifespan and are remote control dimmable. You can check out our Frequently Asked Questions page to learn more about our products and shipping. Once you’re ready to make your business glow, we’ll be there to help you shine

Featured Image from: Pixabay by contemporaryarts