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FHWA Highway Safety Programs

II. Repair and Replacement of Sign Panels

Bent and Damaged Signs

When signs are damaged, bent or vandalized, you have to determine if the sign should be repaired, replaced or left as is. This is usually a field judgment-more often than not, it is cheaper to replace a badly damaged or unreadable sign than attempt many repairs. Consider the repair costs, remaining service life of the sign face after repairs and the value of the sign blank (when it is reusable) against replacing it with a new or recycled sign. Do not leave a sign down or take a sign away and leave nothing. Always try to have a replacement sign or sufficient repair materials with you. If you decide a field repair is appropriate or you have to repair the sign until a replacement sign can be obtained, consider the following points:

"Bent DEAD END sign"

Bent Signs


Signs may be bent like this DEAD END sign. While many bent signs can be read in the daylight, some bent signs, even signs with minor bending, are difficult to see at night because they no longer reflect the light from the vehicle's headlights back to the driver's eyes. Minor bending like this may be repaired by removing the sign from the post and straightening the sign face.

Accident Damaged Signs and Sign Supports


"Photo of a signL Turn - 50 miles per hour" The sign face is cracking. Retroreflective surfaces that have splits, breaks, peels, or separations should be replaced as soon as practical with a new sign.
"Photo of a sign support" Sign supports should be repaired or replaced to original conditions. This "breakaway" support was propped up with a diagonal brace, which could affect its safe performance if it were hit again.

When a sign requires repeated maintenance, consideration should be given to the reason why and the possibility of relocation considered.

Simple Maintenance


"Photo of a sign: Turn - 50 miles per hour" This sign is adequate under normal conditions but when tampered with, it can induce a lack of respect in the driver, additionally the drivers attention is diverted from the warning message. Local community employees should be trained to report or resolve such conditions immediately.
"Photo of a sign - cattle crossing" This sign is old and the surface is seriously cracked - it has lost its retroreflective characteristic and appears as a distorted image at night. If the signs are still appropriate they should be scheduled for replacement.

Cracked, crazed, or faded sign faces do not provide adequate night time retroreflectivity.

Damaged Signs

Damaged signs are often more than just bent signs. They can be damaged as a result of natural actions, accidents, or vandalism.

  •         Natural action, such as exposure to sunlight, can result in color fading, discoloration, and loss of the retroreflective characteristics.
  • Accidents can result in bends and scrapes that remove part of the retroreflective material or the message on the sign, additionally bullet holes, dings, and peeled, worn, or separated surfaces can make a sign difficult to read.
  •         Vandalized signs are usually either missing or over-sprayed with paint.

Signs may also be considered damaged if, because of their retroreflective characteristics and orientation, they cannot be seen at night. These signs sustained both physical and chemical damage and are no longer visible at night. Additionally they should be mounted (remounted) at the appropriate height.

"Photo of the signs: Private Drive, Slow - watch out for children, Dead End"

While some signs may be repairable in the field, most will require removal (and replacement), restoration or salvage.

Field Repair of Bent Signs

A bent sign can often be fixed simply by straightening. If after straightening the message remains clear, legible, retro-reflective and the sign surface is not opened, cracked or separated from the sign face, it may be reused. Remember, if a sign is so badly bent that it will take several hours to fix, it is often cheaper to replace the sign and leave any repair or salvage to a shop operation. To repair a sign with minor bends, you should:

  1. First try to straighten the sign. If possible, bend the sign back in place on the sign post with hand pressure (wear leather gloves).
  1. If the sign can't be straightened sufficiently with hand pressure, remove the sign from the support and place it on a flat surface such as a truck bed, trailer bed, or fender dolly. Use cardboard or cloth to protect the sign face and pound it flat with a rubber mallet. (The cloth and rubber mallet will minimize further damage to the reflective sheeting.)
  1. You must use your judgment to determine if the sign remains serviceable; remember, this means it is legible both day and night (retroreflective) and there is no cracking or separation of the sheeting material.
  1. If, in your opinion, the sign is no longer serviceable replace it immediately. If no sign is available at the site, remount the existing sign until you return later with a satisfactory replacement.

Field Repair of Scrapes and Holes

Signs with scraped faces (usually as a result of being hit) or signs that have holes in them (occasionally as a result of vandalism) are often no longer legible, particularly at night. The damaged areas no longer reflect light back to the driver. These signs often cannot be read at night. While signs with severe damage are usually replaced (to be repaired later in the shop), minor damage can often be repaired in the field.

"Photo of a damaged sign with holes on the surface"

Field patching can be done by preparing a repair kit that includes the appropriate colors and types of new sheeting materials (including pressure-sensitive adhesive sheeting), cleaners and sealants.

Field Repair of Damaged Signs

  1. Once the sign has been straightened and any bullet holes pounded flat (when necessary), new sheeting can be applied to the face of the sign.
  1. Clean the area(s) to be patched with Xylol, then Varnish naphtha.
  1. If you carry replacement sign faces or patching materials, make sure that the retroreflective material being used for patching is the same as the material on the face of the sign. There are different grades of retro-reflective sheeting; generally the manufacturer's material will have a certain mark or pattern which will allow you to determine the type of retroreflective material on the sign face. (It is important to use the same retroreflective materials to ensure the sign will remain legible at night.) If in doubt about what type of sheeting to use replace the sign.
  1. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations. Cut background field patches slightly larger than the damaged area. Pressure sensitive material should be extended at least 1/2-inch beyond the damaged area.
  1. Replace the damaged legend with diecut, pressure sensitive, pre-spaced letters, borders and symbols and firmly squeegee into place.
  1. Seal the hole on the back of the sign by applying aluminum foil tape to stop moisture from reaching the adhesive on the sign sheeting patch. For large holes, start placing the foil at the bottom of the hole, overlapping about 1/2-inch in a shingle fashion as you move up covering the hole.
  1. If the sign is subject to snow burial and the replacement sheeting extends to the top edge of the sign, place transparent film along the top edge to seal out any moisture. Of course, if signs can be relocated to an area to avoid burial, they should be.

"Photo of a guidance sign on the road"

"Photo of a guidance sign burried under the snow"

Vandalized Signs

The resolution of problems associated with vandalism should be a part of all sign maintenance programs. Sign vandalism is a growing problem. Signs over-sprayed with paints are difficult to read, particularly at night, and do not demand the respect and attention of a driver. The removal of paint or other materials from the face of a sign can and often does reduce its retroreflective characteristics and therefore its effectiveness. Vandalism also occurs in rural areas where, in addition to overpainting, signs may be the target of disgruntled motorists or hunters or be taken by souvenir hunters.

Spray Paint on Signs

"Photo of a STOP sign sprayed with light-colored paint" This sign has been sprayed with a light colored paint. Everyone who looks at the sign notices it. At night the message becomes hard to read. The safety effectiveness of this sign is significantly reduced and requires immediate attention.

Missing Signs

Missing signs are also a very significant problem. While signs can be blown down in storms, missing signs are often removed by individuals seeking a souvenir or engaged in what they might consider a "Harmless Prank." Of course a missing sign provides no information for the driver and may create or contribute to a potentially hazardous situation. This is particularly true when the missing signs are regulatory or warning signs.

Bullet hole damage

"Photo of a 'DO NOT PASS' sign hit by several gunshots" This sign has been hit by several gunshots. Even with the holes the sign can be read during the day and functions as intended, but leaving a sign up in this condition does not convey a serious message and may encourage more gun shots to this and other signs. The sign should be replaced or repaired as soon as practical.

Shotgun blast damage

"Photo of a 'NO PARKING' sign struck by several gunshot blasts" This sign has been struck by several shotgun blasts. The retro-reflective material is severely damaged and while the sign is still legible during the day, it is not at night.

Sign faces that are painted, damaged as a result of shot holes, or being struck by other objects (such as bottles) should be noted and checked later that night to determine if their retroreflective characteristics are acceptable.

Bullet holes and shotgun blasts may be repaired as discussed under damaged signs.

Overpainted signs can often be cleaned but may also require replacement. There are several approaches to overpainted signs. All these approaches work to varying degrees to help reduce and control this problem. Generally a combination of these approaches is recommended for communities with recurring or increasing vandalism problems. Although sign vandalism in some cases seems to be an overwhelming problem, it is a situation that cannot be ignored.

  1. Paint can sometimes be removed from the face of signs without damaging or reducing the sign's retroreflective properties. Several manufacturers have developed sign protective overlays that are more tolerant to paints and cleaning agents, and they have also developed improved cleaners.
  1. Paint should not be removed with abrasive compounds or implements that will leave the sign face scratched (i.e. steel wool). After cleaning off paint, signs should be inspected under night conditions to determine if they have retained sufficient retroreflective characteristics to remain legible at night. There are special electronic retro-reflectometers available to measure the amount of light being reflected by a sign and, when available, these devices facilitate the inspection process; however, most of the inspection done at the local level can also be done effectively with visual inspection techniques.

"Graphic  for a practical method for retroflective inspection"

A practical method is to use a series of retroreflective inspection guide panels and a flashlight at night or during hours of relative darkness. Agencies should assemble their own field repair kits, and include all tools and materials, such as adhesive sheeting and aluminum tape, that they need for common field repairs.

(a)    Use masking tape or a spring clip to hold the appropriate 8" X 10" sign inspection guide panel to the clean area of the sign face,

(b)   Stand back about 30 feet from the sign,

(c)    Hold a flashlight about 2 inches from your eye and shine it on the sign.

(d)   If the inspection guide panel is brighter than the sign face or the sign is illegible, the sign should be replaced.

(e)    If the inspection guide panel blends with the sign and is about the same brightness, the sign should be considered as marginal and inspected again after a year.

Nighttime retroreflectivity can also be checked during the day by using a high intensity spotlight. The spotlight can be flashed on the sign face from inside a maintenance vehicle. If the sign flashes back, its retroreflectivity is good. If there is no flashback, the sign's sheeting is dead and the sign should be replaced. The spotlight should have a 200,000 to 400,000 candlepower bulb and be powered through the vehicle's cigarette lighter. The light and observer should be between 100 and 200 feet from the sign.

"Photo of guidance signs (night)"

Remember, night reviews are still important, while a sign may appear adequate during the day, it may be non-visible at night.

Vegetation Clearing

These pictures of a local road were taken with in twenty feet of each other and shows how easily the growth of vegetation can block the visibility of a critical sign.

"Photo of a road" "Photo of a road (2)"

Missing Signs

Sign vandalism also includes the theft of signs. Missing signs can be the result of storms or traffic incidents; however, the primary reason in many areas is simply theft. While theft can't be eliminated it may be substantially reduced by making it difficult to remove a sign and by developing and implementing laws to penalize vandals.

Specific fasteners can be used to attach signs to support posts which make it far more difficult for vandals to remove sign panels. Among the more common special fasteners in use are:

  • Expanding anchor bolts and blind aluminum rivets.
  • Bolts (or nuts) that require special tools to install and remove them (such as fluted nuts or star bolts).
  • Nuts with shearoff heads.
  • Simply hammering down the excess portion of the threaded bolt so that it cannot be easily unscrewed.

"Graphic: Simple details of anti theft anti vandal fasteners"

Simple details of anti theft anti vandal fasteners

"Graphic: Expanding anchor and blind Aluminum Rivets"

Expanding anchor and blind Aluminum Rivets

"Graphic: Fluted nuts (double pyramid shapes)"

Fluted nuts (double pyramid shapes)

"Graphic: Shear off heads"

Shear off heads

"Graphic: Bent over bolts"

Bent over bolts

Illegible and nonreflective signs

"Photo of a 'STOP' sign" When a sign face becomes so worn or faded that the message is not legible or can be misread during daytime or night, the sign should be replaced. A sign needs to be readable in ordinary sunlight and still reflect enough light at night to be a useful sign.

Nighttime visibility

"Photograph of an illegible road sign" Signs that may appear bright and clear during the day may lose their retroreflective characteristics after long exposure to sunlight and/or salt splashes. Nighttime retroreflectivity can be inspected by using the criteria provided in Section II, Vandalized Signs. Reviews should also focus on identification and removal of non-standard signs, such as the one below.

General Procedures in the Repair and Maintenance of Signs

  1. A record of all signs (in use and belonging to the agency) should be maintained. Larger communities should maintain a computer inventory of all signs and the essential information about each sign. Smaller communities with a limited number of signs (say 200 or less) should either maintain a computer inventory or a file card inventory of each sign in service.

    The essential information that should be maintained includes but is not limited to:
    • Type sign (i.e. R-1, STOP)
    • Size of sign (i.e. 24" X 24")
    • Location (i.e. NW corner of 1st and Barr and/or GPS satellite location)
    • Date of installation (or how long sign panel has been in use)
    • Accident/maintenance history (i.e. each event of repair due to accidents and maintenance activities, including changes made)
    • Inspection dates (i.e. day/night or cleaning dates)
    • Sign support type
    • Any other signs mounted on the same support
  2. Each sign should have a unique inventory serial number firmly attached or engraved on the back of the sign (this helps in maintaining signs, relocating sign panels that are found, and enforcing legal actions when stolen signs are recovered).

    "Property of City of Fairfax: It is UNLAWFUL to deface, detach or remove any official road sign or traffic control device. It is UNLAWFUL to buy or sell this item for scrap or any other purpose punishable by fine and/or imprisonment - Report sign damage or theft by calling (703) 385-7987"

  3. Signs essential to driver, pedestrian and bicycle safety (such as regulatory and warning) should be reviewed for visibility and legibility annually, and as appropriate after severe wind and snow storms (reviewers should be prepared to clean signs that have salt and road oil build-up).