Licensing for integrated building systems (IBS) work is a pretty confusing subject—not too surprising for a field experiencing rapid expansion and change. In fact, the very idea of something called integrated building systems is new. It encompasses fields of work that have, until recently, been considered separate. On the other hand, licensing for electricians has been around for a long time, and even though there continue to be changes in power wiring technology, the basic structure remains fairly constant.
The first question that needs to be asked regarding IBS work is, “Which areas of work are to be covered by the license?” A review of licensing requirements quickly reveals this question is far from settled. For power wiring, it’s generally understood that the National Electrical Code (NEC) is the accepted code that is the basis for licensing. But for low-voltage work, the laws vary from state to state and can even vary within states from county to county and city to city. So rule No. 1 is you must check the state and the specific locality where you’re planning a project that includes any kind of low-voltage work to make sure you meet the requirements well in advance.
Before going into the details of licensing, it’s important to understand the difference between “licensed” and “certified.” A government agency issues a license according to the laws of a specific locality. A certification is issued by an independent organization that specializes in a particular area of work.
A look at the state-by-state listing on www.neca-neis.org makes very clear the level of variation. One pattern that can be seen from reading through these requirements, however, is the most common requirements are for fire and security systems.
There are some exceptions. Starting with the easiest, there are no statewide low-voltage licensing requirements in Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. While Colorado, Indiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania have no statewide requirements, localities in these states do have them.
South Carolina, for example, has pretty straightforward requirements. They also are typical, in that the license requirements are for fire alarms and burglar alarms.
A contractor can apply to the state for a burglar alarm license, fire alarm license or both. According to the instructions posted on South Carolina’s Web site, www.llr.state.sc.us, Document #130, all applicants must pass a technical exam plus an exam on the South Carolina Code of Laws that regulate alarm businesses. In addition to the specific exams required by the state, burglar contractors must be certified to NTS Level I by the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association National Training School (www.alarm.org). NTS Level I requires that the applicant take a three-day Certified Alarm Technician course followed by a two-hour, multiple-choice examination. And “[a]ny owner, partner, officer or employee of a licensed burglar alarm business who accesses a client’s property or burglar alarm records must be registered with the department and must submit a criminal background report for each employee.”
Fire alarm contractors need National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) Level II certification (www.nicet.org). That level of NICET certification requires two years of supervised work in the field in addition to an extensive exam. The exam to achieve Level II includes 30 different subject areas, including basic metric units and conversions and such topics as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, system acceptance and periodic tests, detector spacing and signal processing.
A few other clauses of note:
• “All licensees must designate a primary qualifying party who has passed the required examinations and is a full-time employee holding a managerial or supervisory position.”
• “The alarm business must conduct business in the name in which the license was obtained. The license belongs to the alarm business, not the qualifier.”
• “The applicant must submit with the application a current insurance Certificate of Comprehensive General Liability Insurance providing for a minimum coverage of $100,000 …”
Getting licensed for low-voltage work in California is more than a little different from South Carolina. In South Carolina, the only two low-voltage categories are fire and burglar alarm systems. In California, however, those are the only two low-voltage categories that don’t require a special license. According to its contractors’ licensing Web site (www.cslb.ca.gov), all you need is a general electrical contractor’s license—C10—to do fire alarm system work. But if you dig a little further, you discover that in order to pass the C10 exam, you need to study, among other resources, the National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72). Take a look at that code, and you’ll find that Section 4.3.3 requires using “qualified” fire alarm installation personnel.
It states: “Installation personnel shall be qualified or shall be supervised by persons who are qualified in the installation, inspection, and testing of fire alarm systems. Evidence of qualifications or certification shall be provided when requested by the authority having jurisdiction. Qualified personnel shall include, but not be limited to, one or more of the following:
1) “Personnel who are factory trained and certified for fire alarm system installation of the specific type and brand of system being installed
2) “Personnel who are certified by a nationally recognized fire alarm certification organization acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction
3) “Personnel who are registered, licensed, or certified by a state or local authority.”
So by requiring the electrical contractor license for fire alarm work, the state is calling out these specific qualifications—not so very different from South Carolina after all. But it takes probing to figure it out. Fortunately, California maintains a very useful helpline (800.321.CSLB) to answer all your California state licensing questions.
For security, in California “Individuals who install, maintain, monitor, sell, alter or service burglar alarm systems are exempt from licensure under the Contractors License Law … provided they are licensed by BSIS [Bureau of Security and Investigative Services].” The BSIS requirements include that there is a qualified manager who passes a criminal background check, has two years of experience in burglar alarm work and passes a two-hour, multiple-choice exam.
In addition, California requires a C-7 license for low-voltage system contractors. According to the requirements for this category, a “communication and low voltage contractor installs, services and maintains all types of communication and low voltage systems which are energy limited and do not exceed 91 volts. These systems include, but are not limited to telephone systems, sound systems, cable television systems, closed-circuit video systems, satellite dish antennas, instrumentation and temperature controls, and low voltage landscape lighting.”
In order to get the license, you must have at least five years of experience in your field working at the journeyman level; submit an application; and pass two 2½-hour, multiple-choice exams. The first exam, required for every category of work, is the law and business exam, which has questions relating to business management and construction law. The second exam covers low-voltage systems. You can obtain study guides and also check out the list of suggested reference books. The C-7 study guide outlines five major sections in the exam:
1) “Job Planning and Estimating
• Interpretation and application of plans for low voltage systems
• Compliance with codes
• Coordination with owner, architect and other trades
2) Cable Installation
• Termination and labeling
• Testing methods and testing equipment
3) End Use Equipment Installation
• Installation of data/voice equipment
• Installation of audio/video equipment
• Installation of other low voltage equipment
4) System Performance Testing, Troubleshooting And Repair
• Repair/Replacement of low-voltage systems and components
5) Worker and Job Site Safety
• Identification of work site hazards
• Safe work practices”
Regardless of legal licensing requirements, each political jurisdiction imposes regulations on the work done and who may do it. I’ve already mentioned certification requirements that may form a part of the licensing procedure. Even more certain, regardless of the legal licensing requirements, is that every locality will have codes to regulate the building trades. So for example, in Iowa, where there are no statewide low-voltage licensing regulations, a contractor who wants to install fire alarm systems would be bound by NFPA 72, which, as I outlined under the California requirements, calls for specific levels of “qualified” workers.
If an electrical contractor wants to take on low-voltage work for the first time, he or she will have to sort through some often confusing regulations.
• A good first step would be to check out the listing of state licensing regulations at www.neca-neis.org. This listing gives a state-by-state summary of low-voltage licensing requirements and, even more importantly, contact information for the relevant state offices.
• Go to the appropriate authority where you intend to work, and research exactly what is needed, including “licensed,” “certified” and “qualified” personnel. Make sure you are clear about whether the actual installer needs to be licensed, or just supervised by a licensed person.
• One important item to watch out for is that in a number of states, such as Minnesota, the electrical contractor license also covers low-voltage work, so an electrical contractor doesn’t need any further special low-voltage licensing.
• Be certain to find out how long the licensing process takes. It usually involves an application, which may be time consuming, and studying for and passing an exam.
• Licensing also will usually require personnel who have a specified number of years of experience.
• Licensing also may require certifications by national associations in the particular low-voltage specialty for which the license is being sought.
• Many licenses also call for regular renewals every so many years and require that the license holder take a number of continuing education classes during each renewal period.
Some regulations are very general, and some are very specific with regard to particular subspecialties, which may be many. For example, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma subspecialties, which my be too many. For example, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arizona require different licenses for residential and commercial work. Minnesota distinguishes between contractors and technicians. In other states, e.g., South Dakota and Virginia, low-voltage work is covered by the regular electrical contractor license, but the contractor is responsible for meeting the applicable low-voltage standards.
As IBS technology expands, it is becoming increasingly crucial that the quality of workmanship in this area be ensured. It is, therefore, likely that as time goes on, low-voltage licensing requirements will become more widespread and stringent.
Researching requirements requires sorting through often confusing regulations, which can be quite different from locality to locality. It will pay off in the long run to spend the time early on to make sure that you learn exactly what has to be done.
BROWN is an electrical engineer, technical writer and editor. He serves as managing editor for SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS magazine. For many years, he designed high-power electronics systems for industry, research laboratories and government. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.