Sign specialist electricians install, maintain, upgrade and repair outdoor electrical signs and billboard lighting. This includes both stand-alone signs and building-mounted signage. Sign specialist electricians wire up the lighting used to illuminate conventional non-electric signs, and also work with more advanced electronic signs, including message signs often seen on roadways and at airports and safety signage seen at road work sites. They may also be involved in erecting and altering signs and the towers the signs are mounted on.
What It’s Like Working As a Sign Specialist Electrician
Sign specialists are adept at working with wiring designed to survive in extreme wind and weather since the signs they install and update are expected to remain in service for years without maintenance. Increasingly, sign installers are using long-life LED bulbs that can last for 50,000 hours before needing to be replaced.
Sign specialists are also responsible for installing and maintaining streetlights and other forms of outside overhead lighting. They may change bulbs and clean covers as part of routine maintenance activities.
The work can be physically demanding. A lot of climbing and lifting is involved, sometimes performed in hard to get to locations. Sign installers also have to work in all kinds of weather, and sometimes overnight so that signs can be up and running during business hours.
Since they often find themselves installing or servicing tall tower signs designed to be seen from far away, they are no strangers to operating cranes, lifts, and bucket trucks. Some signs can be hundreds of feet in the air, and are primarily accessed by ladder. This means that learning how to work safely at heights is an important part of becoming a sign specialist electrician.
Electrical Codes and Restrictions for Electrical Sign Installers and Repairers
Sign specialist electricians have to know and work within the established electrical codes for sign installations. Article 600 of the National Electrical Code (NEC) governs the installation of conductors, equipment, and wiring for outdoor electrical signs. It covers such topics as:
- Power disconnect accessibility and marking
- Equipment marking and labeling
- Minimum distances between elements
- Grounding and bonding protection from lightning
They might also have to become familiar with various local codes, either specific to the electrical field, or those that have to do with outdoor advertising restrictions. The federal Department of Transportation outlines a framework for restricting certain sizes and types of signs within 660 feet of interstate highways, but state and local authorities sometimes enact even stricter bans on sizes and locations of signs. Sign specialists have to be familiar with these restrictions during both the permitting and installation processes for outdoor signs.
Sign specialists are also typically restricted in the systems they can work on in terms of voltage and interconnection. In Florida, for example, they are prohibited from working on systems operating at more than 250 volts. They are also restricted to working only with the primary electrical service to the site, except when a billboard is not attached to another structure and the load does not exceed 25 kilowatts.
Becoming An Electrical Sign Specialist
Sign specialist licensing requirements vary from state to state, but in most cases the licensing process is comprised of three fundamental levels: Apprentice, journeyman, master electrician.
Apprenticeship Programs – In most states, the progression to becoming a master sign specialist electrician begins with an apprentice program where newly hired trainees work under more experienced electricians for two to four years before advancing to become journeymen. The apprenticeship period usually includes some classroom training, considerable on-the-job training and experience, as well as specialized courses in high-angle rescue and safety training for working at heights.
Apprenticeship programs may be administered through private companies that service and install signs, local unions or joint committees comprised of electrical education providers and the local union. The National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee is a partnership between the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and the NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association) that provides apprenticeships through local chapters throughout the United States.
Many sign specialist electricians get their start through trade school programs at community colleges before going on to an apprenticeship. Although most colleges do not offer degrees or certificates specific to sign specialists, their general electrician education associate’s programs can lead into sign specialist work.
Becoming a Journeyman – In some jurisdictions, a general or commercial electrician license issued through the licensing board covers electrical sign work, while the licensing boards in other jurisdictions may offer an electrical sign specialist license with a different set of requirements. In Oregon, for example, apprentice sign specialists can expect to undergo between 84 and 144 hours of classroom instruction per year and a total of 8000 hours of on-the-job training before advancing to become journeymen electricians.
Commercial Driver’s License – Because much of their work is done from large bucket or crane trucks, sign specialists are usually required to have a Class B or better Commercial Driver’s License. Having a good familiarity with basic hand tools and some mechanical ability also goes a long way for prospective sign specialists.
Electrical Sign Specialists Salary and Job Outlook
Most electrical sign specialists work for privately owned companies that specialize in installing and repairing electric signage. Some positions, however, are available with state and local government agencies, particularly with transportation departments, which are responsible for installing and maintaining street and highway signs. Government positions usually pay in the same range as private positions, but the benefits and job security tend to be better in the long term.
Apprentice sign specialists start off at anywhere from half to 60 percent of the salary of journeymen electricians. Pay can vary considerably based on geography, as can be seen in some of these examples taken from job listings posted in August of 2016 (these examples are shown for illustrative purposes and do not represent job offers or any assurance of a certain level of pay):
- Sign Technician Helper in South Carolina – $10/hour
- Electrical Sign Maintenance Technician in Connecticut – $17 to $22/hour
- Sign Installer in Minneapolis-St. Paul – $25/hour
- Highway Signal Electrician in Minnesota – $53,014 to $61,429/year
- Journeyman Sign Installer in Colorado – $22 to $28/hour