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Neon Lighting 101

Learn the science behind neon lighting, and its common applications. This article provides an overview of neon lighting.

Neon lighting is typically associated with lighted signs.  Neon is similar to fluorescent lighting.

Similar to Fluorescent Lighting

Neon Lighting

Neon bears some similarities to fluorescent lighting.

Like fluorescent, neon is a discharge source.  The neon tube has electrodes at both ends, though they are different in construction.

A fluorescent bulb has filament-like electrodes, but a neon bulb has sheet metal electrodes formed in various shapes, such as cylinders.

Both neon and fluorescent bulbs have a low-pressure gas inside, though the gas pressure in neon bulbs is about 50 times greater than that of fluorescent.

Neon tubes are at about 1/15 atmospheric pressure, whereas fluorescent bulbs are only at about 1/750 atmospheric pressure.

Require Ballast Circuitry

Like fluorescent, most neon bulbs need a high voltage, so they need a ballast circuit.  Unlike fluorescent, neon bulbs don’t necessarily have to have mercury and phosphors, though many neon bulbs do have both.

A special version of neon lights called “glow lamps” are very small (about an inch long), give off an orange color, and run on common household 110 VAC.

Color Selection

The color depends on what kind of fill gas is inside of the bulb and the phosphors.

Pure neon without phosphors will produce a fiery red color.  An argon-mercury bulb without phosphors will produce blue light. An argon-mercury bulb can with phosphors can produce a variety of colors depending on the phosphors used.  In some designs, the glass is tinted as well.


Thanks to our guest lighting expert – Lance Kaczorowski, who brings a wealth of expertise to the site:

Kaczorowski, a native of New York City, now resides in Fort Wayne, IN.  Kaczorowski has a 4-year degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, and also a 2-year degree in Electronics Engineering Technology from the Community College of the Air Force.  Kaczorowski’s broad work history includes (chronologically): Three years as a Mercedes-Benz mechanic; six years as an electronics technician with the Air Force; three years as a new product development engineer with General Electric Lighting in Cleveland; seven years as a new product development engineer and an engineering analyst with Grote Industries in Madison, IN; and currently as an engineering analyst with International Truck and Engine Corporation in Fort Wayne.

The first two years of Kaczorowski’s employment with General Electric consisted of extensive training in light source sciences and engineering under GE’s Edison Engineering Program.  Kaczorowski’s experience with lighting was broadened at Grote Industries, which is a supplier of vehicle lighting for heavy duty trucks.

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