Without a doubt, there always will be electrical contractors who opt to perform higher- voltage electrical work exclusively and stay out of low-voltage cabling, believing it is the best use of their resources. In contrast, many other contractors actively seek, perform and make money in low-voltage cabling.
But for those electrical contractors who remain unsure about whether to pursue that field, review the following opinions of two contractors and a leading manufacturer of cabling testing equipment. Each was asked about the low-voltage cabling business and what a contractor needs to be successful in that industry.
Cabling versus electrical work
“The first thing to understand is that electrical work is a lot harder than cabling,” said David Stallings, manager of communications for Miller Electric Co., Jacksonville, Fla. “So if you can understand electrical work, you can understand cabling. It’s just that cabling sounds different.”
He first recommends to get and read the Telecommunications Distribution Methods (TDM) Manual from The Building Industry Consulting Service International Inc. (BICSI) and learn its acronym dictionary.
“Study the terms and the language, and learn to converse in the industry,” Stallings said.
Miller Electric is an 80-year-old company with offices as far north as Baltimore and as far west as Little Rock, Ark. Of its $250 million in revenues in 2006, $25 million was in low-voltage work. The firm ventured into cabling in the 1980s and now employs 200 field technicians and 16 management staff in its new construction and moves/adds/changes sectors.
When it comes to the actual tools, Stallings said, “Start with the almighty punchdown tool,” a spring-loaded impact tool designed to terminate and cut UTP cable and seat connecting blocks. Different types of termination block styles require either different tools or a single tool with interchangeable blades; the four most common are 66- or 110-style, Krone or BIX. Available from multiple manufacturers, punchdown tools are manufactured to perform either single-wire or five-pair terminations.
“After the punchdown tool, installers just need standard electrician’s hand tools to get them through most installations,” he said. “Things like strippers, knives, pliers, screwdrivers, keyhole saws and levels. I’d recommend a wire cart, but even that is not essential for smaller installations. And, of course, the contractor will need ladders for overhead cabling runs.”
The most important tool
Of course, quality cabling is not just dependent on what an installer keeps in his service van.
“Your most important tool is your field technician,” said Dan Smith, president of the Electric Co. of Omaha, Neb.
His 25-year-old firm employs 70 field staff. Eighteen of whom are dedicated to low-voltage work, which generates about 25 percent of the company’s revenue. In addition to telecommunications cabling, the Electric Co. of Omaha also provides low-voltage security, card access, closed-circuit television and total building integration installations.
“We learned the importance of having the right people in 1999 on our first big cabling job, the Children’s Hospital in Omaha. We had won the electrical contract on that project, and the owner and general contractor really wanted a single provider of all of the electrical services. We had done some low-voltage before then, but that job set us up to take on work that was at the next level.
“We ended up with 14 techs on that project, but we had to go through 40 different installers just to come up with those 14 quality men,” Smith said. “But honestly, that is how I would recommend that an EC get into low-voltage work: Start with small projects, get the right people, and then slowly work up to bigger and bigger projects.”
Just like Stallings in Florida, Smith said that low-voltage cabling is a field that ECs can do. “It requires a low investment up front—substantially lower than electrical work. You will actually spend your money on training and certifications.”
But don’t go at it alone, he recommends. Rather, he suggests a contractor team up with a specific manufacturer for training and certification. Another partnership might be to hire a qualified low-voltage team leader with a BICSI installer or technician certification, and maybe even a registered communications distribution designer (RCDD), which is BICSI’s “professional designation recognizing superior design knowledge.”
With the right people and the proper training and tools, Smith has found his low-voltage division is actually more profitable than his electrical division.
“There are about 50 NECA-member electrical contractors that service Omaha but only nine NECA contractors that do low-voltage work. That makes the low-voltage work a lot less competitive, so we can be more profitable in that area.” And now that both divisions are established, they win jobs for each other, he said, by identifying and winning work for the other division before it ever goes to bid.
The Electric Co. of Omaha has expanded from just installing low-voltage cabling to installing and programming the head-end equipment for the various systems. It has found that head-end equipment and the relatively minimal labor that it requires are fixed costs that provide predictable and appreciable profits. That is in contrast to the often unpredictable labor costs in cabling installation.
“Why should we do all of the work and take all of the risk [in the cabling work],” Smith asked, “and then not get any of the ‘gravy’ of doing the head-end equipment?” But all of that comes back, again, to having the right people who are properly trained and certified.
Electronic testing equipment
Although both Stallings and Smith agreed that, while the equipment entry costs are relatively low in cabling, electronic testing devices make up the biggest portion of that cost, especially certification testers. Subrata Mukherjee, Fluke Networks’ verification tools product manager, said that while there are numerous kinds of testers on the market, they generally can be classified into three broad categories: verification, qualification and certification. Fluke Networks offers products for testing, monitoring and analysis of copper and fiber optic telecommunications cables and networks.
Verification test tools are simple, relatively low-cost devices that are typically used by a cabling technician to check basic connectivity of the installed links (for example, wiremapping or toning), and to find connection and wire-pairing faults. In addition, they perform a quick and easy screening on large-scale installations to verify that cables have been correctly wired and terminated. They can identify breaks and shorts before the certification tests are performed, which can save valuable time and significantly reduce the overall costs of testing.
Qualification testers are designed for network technicians to determine if an existing cabling link can support certain network speeds and technologies (100BASE-TX, Voice over Internet Protocol, gigabit Ethernet, etc.) and to quickly isolate cabling problems from network problems. Qualification tools are most commonly used in residential installation projects. They are more powerful than verification tools but still do not perform the battery of tests required of a certification tool.
Certification is the most rigorous of all cable testing and determines if an installed cabling link complies with Telecommunications Industry Association/International Standards Organization (TIA/ISO) standards. While verification and qualification tools generally test the channel configuration, only certification testers are able to test the permanent link to certify that it meets all the performance criteria of a given category or class of cable (e.g., Category 5e/6/A6 or Class D/E). Project owners typically require contractors to provide documented test results (in print and/or electronic format) collected in the field from a high-accuracy certification tool. Similarly, structured cabling manufacturers require test results to warranty certified projects.
Depending on the brand and model, some copper certification testers can attach to fiber optic testing devices, including those for loss link and OTDR testing.
There is a range of features in copper certification testers. The prices reflect those differences, but the general cost (without fiber optic testing attachments) is about $5,000 to $8,000. But as Harley Lang, Fluke Networks’ product marketing manager for fiber test, explained, “The growth rate of cabling is high, but so is the demand for quality. In this market, the job must be done right. Proper testing ‘future-proofs’ both the installation and the installer.”
Fluke Networks’ public relations manager Dan Wright agreed. “The right equipment allows a contractor to show that he is serious so that he can win jobs. It also keeps his work profitable by ensuring that he does not have to return to a job to perform repairs on work that should have been done right the first time.”
The conclusion of those already in the low-voltage industry is that the tools, technology and know-how of that work are typically all within reach of an electrical contractor. If a contractor is considering a move into that field, there’s little that would be a prohibitive factor for what could prove to be a profitable venture. EC
MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.