Examples range from easy-to-use calculators and electronic circuit finders to tablet computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs)—and from calculators developed specifically for electrical work to wireless telephones that also are two-way radios.

Please note: some devices covered in this report are new; many are not. In most cases, products similar to the examples provided are also available from other suppliers. Some of the more interesting “devices” available today include:

Circuit breaker and circuit locators. Zircon’s electronic circuit breaker finder with one-button operation and single green LED indicator was a showstopper at the 2002 NECA show. A more advanced professional model became available in August. The company also offers a circuit finder to locate and trace wiring and several stud and joist locators.

Calculators for electricians. The ElectriCalc Pro from Calculated Industries makes various electrical design, estimating and construction calculations providing information conforming to the current electrical Code. The device is upgradeable to accommodate future Code changes. The same company offers the compact Scale Master II for accurate take-offs from blueprints and plans. Both work in U.S. units and metrics.

Tape measures. The latest tape measures are easier to use and feature ergonomic designs with impact-absorbing cases and non-slip surfaces for easy gripping. Klein Tools’ power return tape has a rare-earth magnet tip that holds to any ferrous metal to make one-person measurements easier and its two-step lock button permits slow and rapid tape retraction.

Labeling tools. Affordable, easy-to-use, ergonomically friendly labeling tools are available today to meet electrical and VDV applications. Hand-held printers are the new industry standard because users need to identify control panels, components, patch panels, workstation outlets and even their storage bins in addition to their wire and cable, said Matt Luger, Brady Corporation product manager. Brady’s ID PAL fits comfortably in the hand, has all standard electrical and voice-data symbols and offers the user choices of labeling material, character sizes and label lengths.

Nailers and staplers. Electric nail and staple guns come in a variety of single-function and combination models firing brand nails and staples for fastening jobs and tacking down wiring. Electrical power eliminates the need for noisy air compressors. Electric glue guns are also useful fastening tools. There is a wide selection of models from many manufacturers.

Portable lights. Compact, battery-powered lights illuminate dark work areas. DeWalt heavy-duty cordless floodlights can stand on their bases or flexible necks wrap around pipe, posts or rafters. Cordless flashlights can also have solid bases for hands-free operation with pivoting heads to direct light where it is needed.

Digital cameras. Job-site photos can be useful in a number of ways, and it appears photography is rapidly switching to digital technology. Digital photos don’t require a trip to the lab to process film and make prints—they can be viewed immediately on the camera’s small screen and loaded onto PCs or laptops, sent to others by e-mail and posted to Web sites. Prices have dropped significantly in the past year with low-end consumer models selling for well under $200, but they lack the resolution necessary for use in printed materials.

Laser tools. Compact, easy-to-use laser tools—small and light enough to be carried in holders on workers’ belts—have changed the ways contractors lay out work, providing instant reference points for conduit runs; positioning hanger systems; cable tray installations; for aligning locations of wall boxes, switches and light fixtures; to transfer floor markings to ceilings, and any other leveling or alignment task.

Laser tools measure distances with the touch of a button. In addition to measurements, Kevin Kolbeck, director of positioning at Hilti, said the company’s new PD 22 Laser Range Meter measures right triangle distances to figure the height of a wall and can compute volume of an area. A step up to the PD 28 adds capabilities, including taking measurements from remote locations (such as instantly calculating the height and width of a building; distance between third and sixth floors, etc.).

Tools for communicating

Two-way radios, pagers, cellular telephones; there are more ways than ever before for management to keep in touch with field personnel and workers to communicate with their supervisors and with each other. Wireless transmission of data perhaps is the most significant advance in communications technology, and its potential has yet to be realized.

Two-way radios and pagers have been used on construction sites for years. Radios have been steadily improved and today are available in a wide range of models from several manufacturers who specialize in products for professional users.

“Two-ways radios have become smaller, lighter in weight and are made in shapes to fit the hand better, making them easier to hold and use,” said Keith Davis of the Midland Radio Corporation. “Batteries are better, lasting longer before recharges are needed.”

Despite the popularity of cell phones, two-way radios remain popular and in wide use.

“Workers like the simplicity of two-ways,” Davis added. “They are less expensive, and there’s no air time.”

Radios still have their place, but wireless phones have dramatically changed the way contracting company personnel communicate with each other and with suppliers. Indeed few organizations today operate without at least a few wireless phones. Mobile telephones continue to get smaller while packed with a dizzying array of features and capabilities. Although lost calls and dead areas still plague all wireless carriers, service is more reliable and combination wireless telephone/two-way radios continue to grow in popularity. Nextel, a leading provider of wireless telephone-radio services, now offers digital walkie-talkie service nationwide. Blackberry offers a combination telephone-personal organizer that provides wireless access to e-mail through Nextel and other service providers.

Combination phone-radios have all the features consumers expect, including voicemail, speed dial, vibration alert, speakerphone and more, said Motorola’s Lea Fasco.

“As radios,” she continued, “users are not limited. Talk to one person or 100. There’s no dialing or waiting, and telephone minutes aren’t used for radio communications.”

Current wireless products offer Internet access.

Continued Fasco: “You can download applications such as navigation and application programs. Java-enabled instruments permit creation of personnel applications to access company data bases.”

Computers in the field

Tablet computers are replacing larger laptops for many who take computers to construction sites, and even smaller PDAs are turning up on a growing number of projects. Not much larger than a clipboard, tablet computers let users write electronic notes using a small keyboard or by writing or drawing on the touch-sensitive screen with a tablet pen. Field notes can easily be transferred to other programs or to the database at the office.

“Tablets are very well accepted, because they can run all of a company’s regular software,” said Ed Bundy, product developer for software manufacturer McCormick Systems. “Tablets also are used as personal organizers, providing immediate access to telephone numbers, other contact information and other data.”

PDAs, widely used by business executives to organize their schedules, also allow construction personnel to take pertinent data to projects and make paperless notes and records, and McCormick’s PDA take-off software enables field personnel to record data on walk throughs and make on location change orders and service estimates without a laptop.

“A contractor’s estimating database—including special items and assemblies—can be loaded onto a PDA,” said Bundy. “After completing a take-off, an estimator can send data from the PDA to the office wirelessly or take the handheld in and download information directly from the PDA to the company’s main computer system.”

Who needs what?

Determining how best to utilize sophisticated wireless communication and job-site computers is a daunting task, one that many electrical contracting companies are still addressing. Rapid advances in technology do not make the job any easier.

Who actually needs cell phones, combination phone/radios, tablet computers and PDAs? Which wireless network is best? Will employees without computer experience be able to take full advantage of tablet and PDA technology?

“Our company has been using two-way radios for more than 20 years,” said Tony Davis, assets manager for Atlanta’s Cleveland Electric, which currently has from 600 to 650 electricians working on jobs. “Usage peaked about four years ago with about 125 units. Implementation of Nextel wireless telephone-radios has allowed us to phase out pagers altogether and reduce the number of radios. Radios now are mostly used for cable pulling operations.”

Davis said that he finds wireless text messaging particularly useful for passing along information when a conversation is not necessary.

All members of Cleveland’s service department and most project foremen carry combination radio-telephones. Some project managers and upper management carry straight cell phones because they like their performance better than the telephone capability of the two-way instruments.

Some Cleveland field people carry PDAs and many service personnel use laptops, said Betty Browning, Cleveland vice president who oversees information services.

“However,” she continued, “we are not using them to transmit information wirelessly. One of our sister companies uses radio-wireless phones to transmit data, but it is very slow, and we haven’t found a network that suits our needs.”

For the future, Browning said the company plans to begin using PDAs to make time entries into its accounting system, and plans on acquiring Blackberry instruments for wireless e-mail capabilities. EC

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