A list of basic tools needed by electricians usually includes pliers, wire strippers, fishing tools, measuring devices, other basic hand tools and power tools. Other essential tools vary with individual needs.

Electricians often forget to include the labeling tool, but accurately labeling cable and components of electrical and voice/data/video (VDV) installations is an essential part of every electrical or VDV project, and often it is necessary to make labels at the job site. Typical labeling requirements for basic electrical work include heat shrink tubing and adhesive labels for marking wire, terminal block markers, and Underwriters Laboratories- approved polyester materials, such as white, clear and metalized polyesters for marking panels and components.

For VDV jobs, labels are needed for cables, faceplates, 66 and 110 blocks, and to identify racks, shelving and bays.

Compared to pliers and wire strippers, the hand-held labeling tool is a relatively new product. It was introduced to the professional market just over 20 years ago. Since then, labeling equipment technology—both for hand-held tools and in-office labeling equipment—has evolved rapidly with significant advances in the capabilities of label printers, labeling software and the materials from which labels are made.

“The most significant innovation to hit the electrical identification industry in years is the long-awaited introduction of smart chip technology to the benchtop thermal transfer printer category,” said Matt Luger, senior marketing manager for Brady Worldwide Inc. “This new technology allows the printer and label creation software to automatically identify the material installed in the printer and automatically calibrate and set the heat settings. This significantly reduces changeover time and effort, reduces label waste and offers a hassle-free process. It is as easy as load, click, print.”

The second major innovation in electrical ID, Luger said, is a new alternative to engraved plates for pushbutton labels and general panel labels.

“These flexible raised-profile labels,” he said, “are quicker to produce, up to 80 percent less expensive than engraved plates and will run through bench-top printers.”

Label-creation software, Luger said, has not changed dramatically but works more efficiently than older versions.

“The big changes,” he said, “have taken place in the area of new software programs that increase productivity in other areas and that work in concert with label--creation software to make it work better.”

Luger said for electrical work, four types of labels are used for the majority of wire and panel identification: self-laminating labels with a clear “tail” that wraps around the printed area to protect printed text; repositionable cloth markers often used when both ends of a wire are labeled without the final length of the wire known until final installation and termination; heat-shrink sleeving, a fast-growing type of marker providing durability and quality of appearance; and flexible raised-profile pushbutton labels as a quicker, more flexible and far less expensive alternative to engraved plates.

“For VDV,” Luger said, “The self-laminating cable marker reigns supreme and is particularly effective for cable labeling because cables are frequently moved around after installation, and the protective overlaminate prevents abrasion and handling damage to the text.“

Duane Yamashita, Brother International director of marketing, believes a professional job with accurate, clear labels increases project owner satisfaction and can help give electrical contractors an edge in today’s competitive market.

“Our labeling customers are requiring solutions to make labels in both the office and on-site, depending upon the size and types of jobs,” Yamashita said. “A growing number of customers use computer-based labeling solutions because they offer more productivity and efficiency over conventional labeling methods. Further research has determined decisions to use computer-based labels is to complement and not replace traditional manual data-entry labeling because both deliver productivity and efficiency in different situations and applications.”

Yamashita said for large projects or those requiring high-data-density labels, preparing labels in the office is the preference in order to use databases and special software to organize and batch print labels.

“For small jobs and spot labeling, it often is not possible to plan requirements in advance, so labels are made on-site,” he said. “‘Smart’ features of our latest hand-held labeling tool save time by making it easy to enter data. Smart technology does layout and design of the label. Simply turn on the tool, type in the data and print. A transfer feature on some models permits a keyword search for a label record, editing the record if necessary, and prints the label. Label templates also can be transmitted to the tool.”

Yamashita said basic features electricians expect in labeling equipment include the capability to print labels that fit needed applications, ease of use with intuitive operation with a short learning curve, ergonomic design, reliable and dependable performance for high-volume operation, compatibility with most software programs, and affordable pricing.

Todd Fries, marketing manager of identification systems for HellermannTyton, said the trend in labeling equipment is toward smart systems that keep track of installations.

“Software that can keep track of moves, adds and changes in a VDV environment will be critical,” he said. “As installations become more complex, the need to label correctly will increase. It will also become more important to track that data and ensure that it is always up-to-date and correct. Too often, an installation becomes out of date almost as soon as it is labeled because changes are not documented and new additions are not labeled.”

Labeling software, he said, is becoming more intelligent and driven toward monitoring, tracking and documenting data in conjunction with physical labeling that has the capability of creating label batches that can be recalled using a bar-code scanner.

“Manufacturers have added features to tools that facilitate making labels for electrical components,” Fries said, “but the bigger challenge is making sure the correct label is applied to the correct cable, patch panel or terminal block and keeping track of all of this data.

“For VDV projects, ANSI/TIA/EIA-606-A labeling standard guides the installer on what and how to identify all of the critical components in a data center or closet. This standard specifies that the labels must be of sufficient quality to last the life of the installation and must be mechanically generated. Any print method can be used as long as it is not handwritten. The 606-A labeling standard guides the installer on not only labeling, but documenting what was labeled so that anyone in the future can follow the logic and understand the infrastructure.”

Regarding label materials, Fries said polyester and vinyl films are durable and resist UV exposure. Polyesters are best for flat or slightly curved surfaces. They can withstand continuous temperatures up to 300°F, and vinyl is conformable for use on wire and cable and also is UV resistant.

Ernie Racenet, global business unit director, Rhino Division of Dymo, said label tools on the market today are easier to use and more affordable than ever before. Racenet said buyers want tools that are easy to use and durable.

“They want a user interface that makes labeling for common applications easy,” he said. “For example, hot keys that allow electrical and low-voltage contractors to make wire and cable wraps in three easy steps. For durability, today’s market demands label printers as tough as the power tools in an electrician’s lock box, so we have integrated bumpers on label printers.”

Current models use thermal transfer printing technology to print on nylon, vinyl, heat shrink tubes and other specialty materials without smearing or smudging. They also resist chemicals, solvents, heat, humidity and stick securely to a variety of surfaces. Software also is important.

“In general,” Racenet said, “label software has become easier to use. Our version walks users through the creation of their labels, and connection software allows insertion of graphics, importing data from any Windows-based program, downloading to the printer and uploading back to connect software for documentation purposes.”

Shawn Whittaker, product line manager, Panduit Corp., said the most significant developments in label tool technology are the following:

• The capability of sharing information by drawing data from an existing spreadsheet or databases

• Application-specific labeling tools that help the user select the proper label for their application

• The ability to create label information faster and more efficiently and ensure the labels produced are compliant with applicable industry standards

• The integration of labeling software, desktop printers and hand-held label printers for an end-to-end identification solution

“Labeling software continues to become more feature-rich and easier to use,” he said. “Specific changes and developments in labeling software include the ability to utilize information from an existing CAD file, spreadsheet or database, resulting in significant time savings and elimination of data entry errors, [and] application-specific labeling ‘wizards’ compatible with the latest operating systems, including Microsoft Windows Vista.”

Other significant market trends, said Whittaker, include continued convergence of IP-based voice/data networks with electrical systems, compliance issues with new and evolving standards including TIA/EIA-606-A, TIA/EIA-942, National Electrical Code arc flash labeling requirements, UL 508A short circuit current rating labeling requirements, and a continuation of the shift from preprinted to on-demand label solutions.

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.