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Green Technology: Being Green Means Being Aware and Making Smart Decisions

While the effect of digital signage on the environment may be less than traditional signs, minimizing its impact requires being aware of factors like power consumption, and the use of hazardous materials.

Digital signage offers certain advantages from the standpoint of environmental protection over traditional printed signs, but that's not to say the digital medium isn't without its own set of environmental concerns.

Among the most serious are power consumption and the associated carbon footprint of producing the electricity needed to drive the displays and computers that feed them; the use of hazardous materials in the production of digital signage displays and computers; and the impact of display and computer disposal as well as that of the packing materials needed to ship the devices to their locations safely.

Display power consumption: On the display side of the equation, the growth of LED technology for backlights presents an alternative to fluorescents and has made it possible for display manufacturers to employ new power savings strategies, unavailable with fluorescent backlights, in an increasing number of panels. One such strategy is the use of Pulse Width Modulation, which can be used to vary LED power consumption and brightness. A simple way to evaluate energy efficiency is to get familiar with the government's ENERGY STAR program as relates to monitors. It's also wise in many applications to turn off individual digital signs or all the signs on a network after hours to save energy.

Digital signage player power consumption: The other power draw in a digital signage system is the player -typically a computer running dedicated software. Here, a few alternatives are possible to minimize power consumption, depending upon the application. Embedding the computer in the actual digital signage display can produce power savings -simply by eliminating an entire computer monitor and other redundant pieces of hardware, such as a second video card. Even if using an embedded computer is not possible, certain things can be done to minimize power consumption of a standalone system, such as replacing spinning disks with solid-state disks. SSDs also require less cooling, which can translate into power savings.

Hazardous substances: A couple of years ago, an article in New Scientist magazine based on research by a University of California-Irvine professor set off alarm bells in the press about NF3, a gas used in the production of LCD panels, solar panels and integrated circuits. According to the article, the gas has thousands of times the affect on the atmosphere as a comparable amount of carbon dioxide. But as a Columbia Journalism Review article said in August 2008, the media hyped the findings and distorted the impact of NF3 on the environment -mostly because of the small quantity of the gas being released into the atmosphere. The article quoted Michael Prather, the professor responsible study, as say: "It's not a big deal by itself," Prather said in an interview. "We're looking at less than half a percent [the impact] of CO2. Is it the most important thing? No. But it should be in the market basket. And it should be monitored."

Regardless, hazardous substances used in digital signage players (computers) and fluorescent backlights are legitimate concerns with the former using components with lead and cadmium content and the latter containing mercury. On the positive side, however, the European Union has established its RoHS (Restrictions of Hazardous Substances) directive restricting the use of six hazardous materials, including lead and cadmium. Further, California has enacted its own restrictions on the use of certain hazardous materials in electronics manufacturing. Such efforts have and will continue to make digital signage greener.

Disposal and waste: One way to minimize the impact of disposing digital signage components is to extend their lives. Doing things like choosing longer-life backlighting options, such as LED technology, and limiting monitors use to the time of day when, for example, a store is open or an air terminal is actually in use, can lengthen life. Additionally, donating old displays to charity not only can benefit worthy organizations but also keep panels in use and out of landfills. In fact, many communities will not accept monitors and computers as waste.

Finally, the fragility of monitors and computers makes proper packing material essential for safe transport. Asking about the use of recycled packing material and recycling that material after delivery of panels and players are also important for those wishing to make their digital signage installation as environmentally friendly as possible.

As I noted in my previous column, we are all powerless to put an end to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But we are in control of our own actions, and to the best of our ability we can make our digital signage implementations a greener experience by being mindful of the environment as we plan our use of the technology. 

David Little is a charter member of the Digital Screenmedia Association with 20 years of experience helping professionals use technology to effectively communicate. For further digital signage insight from Keywest Technology, visit our website for many helpful tips and examples. For more in-depth research from Keywest Technology, download our free digital signage white papers and case studies.

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