The categories of hand tools needed to make electrical connections haven’t changed much over the years, but the latest versions are easier to use than older models. Properly used, they make it easier to make quality connections and do it faster than ever.
Basic connection tools include cable cutters, strippers to remove the insulating jacket, hand tools for making mechanical connections, and crimping tools to install compression connectors by either compressing or “crimping” a connector around a prestripped wire or cable, or by pushing wire or cable into a connector designed to pierce or displace the insulation and attach to the conductor.
There are two general categories of connectors—mechanical and compression—and the connection tools an electrician needs on a particular job depend on the types of connectors and the ways in which they are used, sizes, and types of cable. Common connectors are lugs that have a hole on the end, allowing the connector to be attached to a piece of equipment using a bolt. Splices to connect to pieces of cable also are available in compression and mechanical versions.
Precisely cutting and stripping wire is essential to making quality wire connections. Stripping tools ensure accurate preparation of wire without nicked surfaces. Many strippers come with crimp dies for use on crimp connections, bolt cutters for preparing fixtures for attachment, and wire-looping features to prepare wire for screw-mount terminations.
Crimping tools are used with bare and insulated crimp connectors to obtain UL-approved wire connections. There are two types of crimping tools: die-type tools use dies and matching connectors to make terminations, and dieless tools use an indenter in the tool to make the proper termination.
Hand crimp tools range in size from small 22 AWG to 2 AWG wires and crimps. Power crimps go up to 750 MCM for use with utility power cables.
The compression force rating of the tool limits the size of the connector it can terminate. Small mechanical hand tools are lightweight and easy to use; however, their lightweight frame and limitations of their mechanical linkage restrict their capabilities to the low end of the wire sizes. Hydraulic tools with rugged crimp heads provide a higher level of crimping force (from 6 to 15 tons) and are capable of crimping a wider range of connector sizes. Early hydraulic crimping tools required manual pumping force to pressurize the hydraulic system and an electrically operated hydraulic pump to pressurize the crimp tool. Newer models use rechargeable batteries to power the hydraulic systems. These tools are completely self-contained, lightweight, compact and provide fast crimp cycle times.
As with most types of tools used in most trades today, ergonomic features are considered important by both toolmakers and tool users.
Generally, the latest connection tools are lighter in weight, easier to use, and more durable than older tool designs. Tool shapes make them more efficient and reduce physical stress during use. Wire strippers are shaped to take strain off the weak areas of the wrist, reducing the risk of repetitive-motion injuries and increasing the number of connections that can be made in a work day.
Several manufacturers weighed in on the subject.
PANDUIT, Larry Hillegonds, technical consultant, said: “Recently introduced connection tools are designed to significantly reduce installation time and maximize worker efficiency, including handheld crimping tools that use continuously molded ferrules to speed installation; [a] built-in wire cutter and stripper for faster wire preparation; small, lightweight battery-powered crimp tools for use in tight areas; compact lithium-ion-powered crimp tools; inline hydraulic lug crimp tools with lithium-ion batteries for more crimps per charge; and high-capacity cutting tools small enough to fit in tight areas.
“The size of cable directly determines the tonnage of the tools. Traditionally, larger cables have required bigger, more awkward and more difficult-to-use tools in order to provide secure crimps and terminations. However, new inline battery-powered hydraulic tools that are lighter and more maneuverable than their traditional counterparts can handle larger sized cables, providing additional ease of use for connections in tight areas.
“Knowledge of performing and inspecting a proper crimp is paramount; correcting an improper termination at the time of the crimp can literally cost pennies and ensure quality and reliable performance. In contrast, letting improper terminations creep into your physical infrastructure can result in product failure, intermittent connections, and safety issues, which can ultimately cost thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of dollars in potential repairs, customer down time, costly field service, and damage to reputation. The worst-case scenario—fire and death—is tragically common.”
GREENLEE TEXTRON, Jim Eisele, senior product manager, said: “For cutting and crimping, manual tools are often used on smaller cables, 300 kcmil and smaller, while hydraulic and battery-powered tools are more often used on cables 250 kcmil and larger.
“An innovative feature on recently introduced 12-ton die-type and dieless crimping tools allows the operator to stop the ram retraction at any point and start the next crimp from that position, significantly shortening the cycle time for the second and subsequent crimps on a connector.
“Late-model cable stripping tools can cut the cable jacket in three directions: rotary, longitudinal and spiral. Our model has interchangeable cable guides, enabling the one tool to cover the cable size range from 0.18 inches to 1.57 inches (8 AWG to 1,250 kcmil THHN) in diameter and has a hook on the cable guide to grab the jacket and start peeling it from the cable. Without this feature, the user must have a screwdriver or pliers to start peeling the jacket.
“We find using the wrong crimping dies for the connector is one of the most common problems when making connection.”
FCI BURNDY, Bob Poirier, senior product manager, said: “Faster, lighter, more powerful, better ergonomics, and more crimps per charge are the recent improvements. Smaller sizes of cable are more likely to be installed with mechanical or ratchet-type tools. The larger cables and connectors would normally be installed with hydraulic or battery-actuated tools. We are always looking at new technology to make our tools faster and more efficient while being more ergonomic to the user.
“When selecting connection tools, a good practice is to find a manufacturer that offers a complete system of tools, dies and connectors. This will help eliminate confusion when making electrical connections and ensure that all the proper standards are being met while making a safe and reliable connection.
“The No. 1 reason causing poorly made connections is using the wrong tool/die combination for the cable, which causes overcrimping or undercrimping. Another factor can be that the conductor was not prepared properly before installing the connector.
“Results of improperly made connections include power loss, overheating of connectors, cable pull out, equipment failure, injury or death.”
IDEAL INDUSTRIES, Jim MacMurdo, construction market development manager, said:
“Traditional tool designs, such as a screwdriver or wire stripper, are being reengineered into more versatile multi-use tools with added features that allow contractors to do more with less. A perfect example is our screwdriver tool that performs seven tasks, including driving a variety of screws and twisting-on wire connectors with a wrench formed into the end of the handle.
“Ergonomics plays a major role in tool design today. Tools are engineered for maximum comfort with curved handles featuring textured grips to reduce wrist fatigue and provide maximum control. Many times, ideas for improvements come from input from electricians at job sites and training programs.
“To cut wire, electricians use handheld wire strippers or pliers with quality cutting edges. For armored aluminum or steel cable, such as BX, MC, AC or Greenfield, they’ll need to use a dedicated cable cutter. The challenge here is to not nick the conductors, which could lead to a short circuit. Wire cutters, shears or hacksaws are not recommended for armored cable. Instead, use rotary cutters, a long-arm cutter, a ratcheting cutter or one powered by a handheld drill.
“Handheld strippers must match the wire gauge to correctly strip the insulating jacket. Most strippers have the AWG printed next to the stripping holes. Using the right tool according to its instructions, wire stripping should be a fast, easy job. The key is to avoid nicking the wire. A nicked wire can snap off when it’s bent to form a loop; if this happens, it’s best to snip it off and start again.
“A quality crimping tool is required for crimping on terminals, disconnects or splices. For repetitive crimps, a ratcheting crimp tool is recommended to minimize fatigue and assure uniform crimps.
“Wire connectors vary widely in quality, just as do tools, and it is important to remember that wire connectors are a key electrical system safety device. Features to look for include a live-action, square-wire spring that picks up quickly and holds the wire connection tightly without pre-twisting, and provides the leverage and torque needed on larger wire combinations. Some electricians prefer a wing design for a more secure grip, while others like the standard ribbed shell.
“The most common causes of residential electrical fires are problems within the branch-circuit wiring. These fires are a result of a high resistance connection within a branch circuit, caused by conditions such as loose or corroded connections, improper installed devices or incorrect devices.”
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.