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Neon sign repair

This page was created to help you, the do it yourselfer 
fix, repair and / or replace parts on your neon beer or other neon signs.
With basic skills and tools you can diagnose and repair your neon sign.
Some things can be fixed, other things like broken or burned out neon tubes 
or weak or burned up transformers must be replaced.

Links to specific brands of replacement tubes are to the left.

Click on pictures to enlarge.

First some warnings!

1. Neon sign transformers typically have an output of 4,000 - 12,000 volts.
Yes that's enough to kill you, at the very least it will knock you down.
Worse yet you might jump and break another tube on your sign, and you know how painful that is.
With a little care you will live through this. 
Use common sense, if you have a weak heart, some medical condition  or a 
pace maker stay away.

2. Neon tubes are very fragile, you should treat them like you are diffusing a bomb!
One slip and boom, its broke.
Ok, it won't kill you, but the thought of breaking another tube might.

3. Unless I say PLUG IT IN, leave it un-plugged.


Shortcuts to particular areas
Is it a tube or the transformer ?

Replacing neon tubes

Testing your neon tube(s)

Cleaning your neon sign

Painting your neon tubes

Re-assembling your neon sign

Parts & stuff

 

Is it a tube or a transformer?

Carefully (lightly) wiggle the tubes every couple of inches to check for breaks.
If broken, replace it.
None available? Check with a sign company to see about repair.
Usually the cheapest repair will be more than a replacement, and may not look as good.


No breaks?

You can do a basic check of the transformer by disconnecting the transformer lead wires from the tubes.
connection.JPG (63458 bytes) Find the spot where the transformer lead connects.

IF the insulation boot is loose slide it away from the glass tube, twisting helps (be careful don't twist the glass tube).
Assuming it isn't loose, you should heat it with a heat gun or blow dryer to
soften it, if still stuck cut it as described below.

cut_con.JPG (63969 bytes) Using a very sharp razor/knife, cut the insulation tube. 
You MUST NOT push on the glass neon tube unless you support it with 
your other hand
(the hand you are about to cut if you slip).
Heating it before cutting helps too.

pull_cover.JPG (64177 bytes)
Now you can pull the insulation tube away from the glass tube.
You may need to lightly twist or cut it in several places.

wires.JPG (57701 bytes) You should see something like this, usually the wires are wound
well. Be careful, the neon tube electrode wires are tiny and you don't want to break them off, don't twist them too much!

After disconnecting both leads you can do a basic, non-scientific check of your neon transformer. (This will probably only work with the older heavy style transformers, the newer electronic ones may fail this test even if good.
Test the newer ones by trying another trans on your sign or hook your electronic trans to a known good tube.)

Try to arrange the leads so that the bare ends are about 1/2 inch apart.
Use wood blocks or wire ties to accomplish this. Also have a well insulated screwdriver or a stick handy. With the stick / screwdriver in one hand, plug in the transformer with the other.
Is the switch on? If not turn it on.
If you get no arcing try pushing one lead closer with the stick.
Still nothing? Try pulling the switch on. If you get an arc take the stick and widen the gap between the wires. Typically you can go about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch before it quits arcing.

ck_spark.JPG (60494 bytes) Not the best picture of an arc, but this is it.

If you get a tiny spark that barely will arc you have a bad transformer (sorry).

If you get nothing at all you may have a bad trans or better, a bad switch or cord. 

UN PLUG it now!

If you suspect a bad switch, after un plugging, remove the small cover around the switch, unwire the 2 switch wires and wire the 2 wires that they connected to together.
Be sure to put a wire nut back on this connection.
Plug it in.
Now try the arc test again.
If you get a good arc, your switch was bad.
No arc, bad trans or bad cord.
You can check the cord for continuity with a test light. Be careful.

Transformers can be purchased from sign companies but can be pricey, friendly beer distributors can help get you one or point you in the right direction. 
Ebay is a good source for both new and used transformers, search under neon transformer, sign transformer, neon power supply or tesla coil. You can also search out the brand names such as Franceformer. Just be sure you are buying a working transformer, watch for terms like "I don't know anything about this" or "as is".
As long as the input voltage (120v or 240v) and the output voltage (4,000v or 5,000v) and the output amperage (20ma or 30ma) is the same as your transformer, it will work. If it's a different size or style you may have to drill holes or whatever, but it will power the sign correctly. All this assumes the trans on your sign was the right one in the first place.

Replacing tubes

Again, UN PLUG IT!

cut_con.JPG (63969 bytes) You will have to find the places that the neon tube connects to the lead wires or other tubes. Check to see if it is loose and can be twisted and pulled back. If not, heat it with a heat gun or blow dryer and or cut the insulation tubing with a very sharp knife. Be careful not to break the neon tube with pressure, support it with your other hand . 
(
boy is that knife sharp, wink-wink).

pull_cover.JPG (64177 bytes) Pull the insulation tube back to expose the electrode wires.

wires.JPG (57701 bytes) You will see something like this. The wires should be twisted together, be careful not to break these tiny wires. Just un-twist them in the proper direction.
Do this to both ends of the tube(s). the small wires on the neon tube can break off it bent too many times at the tube. Always try to not bend twist them at the glass, you can even use needle nose to steady the wire while un-twisting.
Some older signs use a metal crimp to hold the wires together, these can be difficult to remove. You can try lightly crushing it in the opposite direction to loosen it, you can try using dykes to split it length wise (being careful to not cut through your little wires). If all else fails you can just cut off your HV wire near the tube or if you have 2 tubes connecting together you can cut the bad tubes wires if one is a bad one.

tie_down.JPG (60147 bytes) Most neon signs will have the tubes held on with small wires like this.
Just un-twist them. Some newer signs have plastic ties, you will have to cut and discard those then use wire to re-assemble, some just snap in place.

un_twist.JPG (61864 bytes) Once un-twisted, you will have to remove them.
Notice how these are done, you will want to re-install them later.

Take all these ties off, then you can remove the neon tube. Note newer signs may have plastic tube mounts that snap onto the tubes.

Do pay attention to the order that the neon tubes must come off, you will need to 
follow this order when re-assembling.

 

Testing your neon tube(s)
ck_tube.JPG (60458 bytes)

All you need to test a tube is a good transformer.
Just put the leads on the tube electrode wires, plug it in, turn on the switch.
If it lights it's good. If it's weak it needs gas, usually this means trash it or 
get another, some neon shops can break and re-gas some tubes.

 

Cleaning your neon sign

If you want to make your neon sign real nice you will want to clean it.

You can dust it if it's not bad, but if it has 10 years worth of nicotine 
and grill grease on it, then the only real way is to disassemble it and wash 
the tubes and frame. Using the basic rules for neon tube removal, take them off.
Once off you can wash them in the sink, a good detergent works best, soaking is good.
I like using a soft pot scrubber, gently rub the tubes till the gook comes off, and rinse.
IF the tubes are coated on the outside I wouldn't recommend trying this as most coated tubes will already be nicked and flaking and scrubbing would possibly remove the coating. You can remove the transformer from the frame and do the same to the frame, you can even pressure wash the frame at the car wash if you like. 

If you don't want to try taking it apart you can try spraying the sign with a detergent / cleaner and spray it off with water. Keep in mind you should blow off all excess water and let it air dry for several days (setting it in the sun would help).

Painting your neon sign

You may want to paint the frame after washing it (if it's bad enough).
If the black out paint on the tube(s) has came off, it is easy to touch up. 
There is a professional black out paint for this, but a good oil based enamel works fine.
I like Rust-Oleum, brush only, spray just doesn't cover. 
The best way to be sure and get the back areas blacked out is to power the tube up and paint it while lighted, this way you can see the thin spots that you might miss when
not lighted. Note that the paint flows well when hot, cures best when cooled down.

Re-assembling your neon sign.

Basically just reverse the take apart.

If all your tubes have been removed, I suggest doing a trial run re-installing them before tying them down, this way you can be sure you are doing it in the right order.
Don't forget to put the insulation tubes on the tubes, before assembling,
you may not be able to after installing them.

I suggest lightly tying all the tubes on until all tubes are on the frame (to be sure all are in the right order and fit), then twisting the ties down until snug (twist too hard and oops). Snip off the extra tie wire. 

Neon parts & stuff.

If you cut your insulation boots when dis-assembling you can tape over them,
or you can buy some new ones here.

If you can't reuse your copper neon tube tie down wires I have tie wire on the supply page.

I have high voltage wire to connect tubes to transformers on the supply page.

If you have a bad lead from a transformer, or one is too short, you can splice on to it
using the above mentioned wire. Using one or two layers of shrink tube over the splice is a good idea.

I hope this has helped you to figure out your neon sign problems and/or repair them.
I have tried to explain things the best I can, let me know if you have any suggestions or helpful hints 

Need parts? I may have them here.