Despite years of forecasting the future of low-voltage installations, the use of tablets and smartphones still took the market by surprise. While the industry was gearing up to meet the need for Cat 5 and Cat 5e cable to bring the Internet into people’s homes and operate computers and TVs, the gadgets that most Americans carry in their hands changed the playing field. It’s now up to electrical and low-voltage contractors to help residents manage their homes with a staggering array of functions on their mobile devices.
Teaching electricians to provide these services is a major challenge.Tom Collins, a professor at Gateway Community and Technical College and an instructor of fiber, datacom and energy efficiency for the JATC Local 212 in Cincinnati, has to prepare electricians to service homes with everything from the newest cabling to ancient coaxial cable and 66-block telephone terminations. Low-voltage installation in homes has never been such a broad topic. Today’s family may still gather around a TV set, but that is possibly the only thing that isn’t mobile when it comes to entertainment, which means the coaxial and even Cat 5 or 5e cables are becoming passe in new homes.
With that said, the large majority of homes are not new, and no one plans to pull all the wire out of their homes, if they can help it.
So contractors are closely watching what is being done to leverage the latest mobile gadgets. The residential market is closely tied to the commercial sector. Businesses are migrating to managing lighting and other controls and doing computer work with their tablets. That offers greater energy efficiency, as well. For example, Collins said, smaller tablets use milliwatts in comparison to the wattage required for PCs.
“Wireless is the future. You can’t do away with any of this technology,” he said. But since the old systems are still prevalent, you have to know all this stuff. So from an educational standpoint, I’ve got to teach more,” he said. If he just teaches fiber, for example, electricians will open the walls of an older home and ask, “What is this stuff?” Therefore, Collins ensures not only that he provides the fundamentals of low-voltage residential wiring, but also that he gets them access to do the research needed when faced with something outside of the basics they learned in school.
“YouTube has a ton of good material,” he said, adding that reputable sites, such as The Fiber Optic Association, for which he is a board member, also offer information, usually in the form of short videos.
“The other thing we have to do is start working with other skilled crafts,” he said.
Teaming up with an HVAC contractor or security or alarm system provider can be a way to move more quickly into low-voltage installations in the residential market.
“The key thing is that contractors have to be comfortable, and they have to have skilled people,” Collins said.
However, the comfort level can be the greater obstacle. Many contractors still feel that investing in a low-voltage division, training staff and acquiring the necessary tools won’t necessarily ensure the phone will ring when they’re ready to offer services.
“In some ways, there has to be a leap of faith,” Collins said.
To help forecast the market, he said he always looks at government agencies. For example, where rebates are being offered for photovoltaic panel installations, you find a larger number of electricians are specializing in solar panels. Where no such rebate exists, the business is low.
In addition to systems operated by tablets or phones, the smart grid and advanced communications networks are coming to most American homes, some faster than others. Chattanooga, Tenn.’s Electric Power Board (EPB) is one of the first community-owned utilities that installed a fiber optic network for every home and business within the city limits. It uses the fiber optic network for smart grid applications, in addition to the three-pronged media services that include high-speed Internet, video and phone. The broadband communications network transforms EPB’s electric system into a tool that measures consumption, allows users to interact with that data, can recognize its own weaknesses, and is self-healing. As a result, the system promises to reduce customer outage duration by 40 percent and provide users with the ability to manage their own energy use.
What the EPB calls “virtually unlimited bandwidth” enables fast, two-way communications between the company and every device in its distribution system. EPB also determined that fiber is essential for its load-shedding activities, which are tightly coordinated.
Since bandwidth is so broad, EPB offers residents simultaneous Internet upload and download speeds of up to 1 gigabit, which the company says is 200 times faster than the national average. EPB does not expect its network to get congested even with the millions of smart meters and smart appliances coming onto the network in the coming decade and their data-intensive communications because this smart grid has almost unlimited data capacity.
To stay up to speed with such changes, Collins visits conferences and vendors around the country and invites them to the school to provide training.
When it comes to his own students, Collins said, “We want to attract the best to our trade. This a high-tech business.”
It’s far beyond simply digging trenches and pulling cable. In that same vein, intelligence in today’s homes is about a lot more than entertainment systems. Throughout the country, the need for fiber-based networks will only increase as more appliances require Internet connectivity and people move from traditional phone lines to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services.
No less important, lighting is evolving into the low-voltage market as well. LEDs have become a mainstream option in homes, according to cable provider Q-Tran.
“People are trying to be energy-conscious,” said Gean Tremaine, Q-Tran vice president of sales and marketing. And, that applies to lighting that not only should consume less energy when on, but also make it easy for residents to ensure the lights are off when no one is using them.
The company has developed a magnetic dimming LED system both in basic and filtered versions to control dimming. In 2008, the company released a series of LED landscape lighting products, with a submersible power supply, but, at that time, the construction market was dropping. Since then, the products have become big sellers. They include marine-grade copper with colored tin coating to better conceal in locations, such as a tree.
“Those wires are a huge growth sector,” Tremaine said. “I think LEDs have definitely come into their own.”
For the future, Collins said, “I don’t think anyone knows, I don’t think the vendors know where we’re going next.” Some new gadget, he said, could change the market and the way residents interact with their homes.