With technology advancing daily and customer demands for improved building performance and reduced costs, electrical contractors can no longer approach projects in the commercial, institutional and industrial (CII) market in a traditional fashion; instead, contractors have to work faster and leaner and provide customers with the latest systems, controls and integrated building and facility management capabilities.
The first thing contractors need to understand, according to James Cleveland, chairman and CEO of Cleveland Electric Co., Atlanta, Ga., is the commercial and institutional segments have to be approached separately than the industrial sector.
“Different skill sets are required, and the work forces and supervisory skills are not interchangeable,” he said. In industrial projects, the final installation is transparent: the machinery and equipment, conduit, lighting fixtures, etc., are all out in the open, while in commercial and institutional projects, the installation is mostly hidden from view. “We have discovered that electricians that are well versed in industrial applications tend to have less efficient production rates when thrown into the commercial and institutional market. The different requirements involved may be one reason that the great majority of contractors don’t perform work in all three segments,” Cleveland said.
Because most of the work in a factory or industrial plant is exposed, it must appear finished, which, according to Dave Washebek, president of Lemberg Electric Co., Inc. Wauwatosa, Wis., requires experienced craftsmen trained in ensuring the installation “looks good” and has a more mechanically sound appearance than a commercial installation.
Skills and tools
Unlike industrial projects, the commercial and institutional conduit is flexible, and the tools used to wire lights, receptacles and low-voltage systems are smaller and more lightweight.
“But in industrial projects,” Cleveland said, “the current is greater, the conduit and all the tools used are generally heavier, and the wiring is of a heavier gauge.”
For larger commercial and institutional projects, according to Washebek, the foremen on the job site have to have computer skills to communicate electronically with the general contractor’s construction and design team.
“Smaller jobs don’t usually require that level of communication,” he said. In addition, many projects require the establishment of job site offices to enable field staff to immediately implement any changes or new decisions and to more effectively solve problems. And although knowledge of the National Electrical Code(NEC) is essential for any project, the requirements are more complex for the medical segment of the institutional market than, for example, commercial office buildings.
“This is particularly true for life safety and backup power systems in facilities such as hospitals, where people’s lives are endangered if there’s a power outage,” Washebek said. For industrial projects, on the other hand, the electrician is required to understand control systems as well as how to safely maintain high-voltage systems.
“In addition, the atmosphere in an industrial facility is generally more dangerous because of the presence of equipment and machinery and the need to work in a high-bay environment,” he said.
Regardless of the environment, the tools of the trade generally remain the same for commercial, institutional or industrial projects, including testing equipment, power analyzers, ground fault testers, lifts, circuit breaker load-testing equipment and labeling and terminating tools, for example.
“In industrial applications, the construction materials are explosion proof and more heavy-duty, so heavier tools are required for installing them,” said Blake Landon, general manager for Empire Electric Co., Portland, Ore.
In order to work safely in the industrial environment, Landon said, the contractor and its field staff need to understand the plant’s processes and develop working relationships with in-house maintenance personnel to react quickly to problems and minimize downtime for the customer.
“It’s important to stay technologically current and be familiar with the plant’s machinery and its control and infrastructure systems since the machinery operates almost constantly and must be maintained closely,” he said.
On the commercial side, Landon advises that contractors develop the skills that will enable them to integrate building systems, such as power, lighting, HVAC, telecommunications, computer networks and building management systems.
“It’s important to be able to adapt and know how to source systems, such as security and fire alarm, or who to partner with to supply the end-user with the appropriate expertise,” he said.
Obtaining sufficient knowledge of current technology means using the educational opportunities and training offered by system manufacturers and industry organizations.
Trends and technologies
Understanding the current trends and the new technologies being used in the CII market will enable contractors to perform better and provide their customers with the cost-effective and cutting-edge systems in demand. According to Cleveland, the general direction in the low-voltage sector, in particular, is the growing demand for contractors to bid on the project’s entire package, from traditional power distribution to specialty systems such as security, fire alarm and voice/data/video.
“Electrical contractors are also becoming more involved in cabling voice over Internet protocol [VoIP] technology, which requires a higher-rated cable and very careful terminations,” he said. In addition, building and facility owners are spending less capital on in-house engineering staffs and outsourcing those functions to electrical contractors.
“The contractor almost has to be able to design the project in order to submit a bid,” Cleveland said. Because of this trend, contractors are receiving more one-line drawings and diagrams with just the project’s overall concept, rather than hard plans and specifications, forcing them to develop more engineering skills and become providers of design/build services.
On the technological side, more modular and prefabricated assemblies are being purchased by the owner and delivered directly to the site for the electrical contractor to install.
According to Washebek, the technologies most common in low-voltage installations today, which electrical contractors are doing more of than ever before, include Category 5, Category 6 and phone cabling; VoIP cabling; and fiber optic wiring for security, fire alarm and datacom systems. “It is very common today for contractors to have a separate low-voltage department, so that they can provide turnkey solutions for the customer, from traditional power and lighting to all of the low-voltage systems,” he said.
In addition to fire alarm, security and call systems, contractors also are required to understand and install sophisticated lighting controls, energy management systems, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), computer networks and variable frequency drives (VFDs) to decrease the energy consumption of a building or facility.
“Many of these technologies have been around for almost 20 years, but are becoming more advanced and efficient,” said Jon Treder, president of Electricraft Inc., San Luis Obispo, Calif. Solar power, however, is a newer technology that is only beginning to become more prevalent today, though more so in the residential sector than in CII projects.
“Technological changes are taking place in solar power, but mostly in the efficiency of the panels and not in the utilization of the power or the installation methods,” Treder said.
Contractors must be versed in how all of these different technologies and systems operate separately as well as how to integrate, control and manage them. Creation of such a complete integrated building system (IBS) requires the unification of all of the building systems or components to unify all of them to fulfill the owner’s particular needs. This segment of the CII market has been predicted to, in time, dwarf the traditional power distribution market.
Approaching CII projects
Today, as a function of the more prevalent demand for design/build delivery, contractors must have more engineering and design capabilities. “However, they can choose to either invest in developing those skills in-house or subcontract the project’s design and engineering responsibilities,” Cleveland said.
Another issue in approaching CII projects today is the faster-track schedules the owners are demanding. “Faster even than fast-track schedules, is the hyper-track approach,” Washebek said. Buildings that would have taken two years to erect 20 years ago now must be delivered in half that time, affecting the overall cost of the project, the contractor’s profitability and the need for greater planning and coordination among the trades from conception through design and completion.
“In addition, contractors have to closely adhere to the NFPA 70E safety standard in building constructions and maintenance,” Washebek said. NFPA 70E has been updated recently and addresses those electrical safety requirements for employee workplaces; with increased enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), diligent adherence is how to best maintain today’s hyper-track project schedules.
“Contractors need to approach CII projects more efficiently and put more effort into preplanning construction and prefabricating systems to reduce repetitive activities and reduce installation costs,” Treder said. Experienced, seasoned estimators and project mangers are becoming even more important for their abilities to anticipate potential problems and to communicate effectively with the rest of the construction team.
According to Landon, it’s becoming harder for an electrical contractor to remain a generalist in these markets and more necessary for them to change their approach in order to handle the large scope of systems required for these projects today and the constant changes in technology.
“Electrical contractors are more frequently growing their market share by establishing separate divisions and staffing them with the necessary expertise, subcontracting the engineering and design responsibilities to specialty contractors or partnering with other companies, such as systems integrators,” he said. EC
BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or by e-mail at email@example.com.