Soon after electricity made its appearance in homes and businesses, some unknown tradesman realized that marking the wires he was installing would simplify his work. It's likely those first labels were made with a pen or pencil on pieces of tape or paper affixed to wires and boxes.

Obviously, this method was temporary at best. Writing would easily smear and fade with time, and the material could not be depended on to stay attached to the surface it was intended to mark.

But electricians are quick to find better ways of doing things and, as the industry developed, more durable ways of marking were devised.

Surprisingly, considering advances in tools of the trade, it was less than 20 years ago that the first portable labeling device for use on electrical job sites was introduced.

“I believe we introduced the first true industrial labeling tool in 1987,” said Jim Pettit, marketing manager for the Brady Corp. “That was followed by our IDPro and IDPro+ models in 1994 and 1996. These printers were the only industrial portables that allowed a user to hold the printer in one hand and enter text with the other.”

At that time, all industrial portables used dot-matrix print.

Rapid advances

Advances followed at a rapid pace. The first thermal-transfer, industrial portable labeling tool-providing improved, no-smear print quality-was introduced in 1998, Pettit said. Today, sophisticated portable tools have numerous automated features, operate with specialized labeling software and print on dozens of different types of labels made from a variety of materials. Some models are able to import label files from other databases and store information for later use.

For electrical jobs, labeling requirements include heat-shrink tubing and adhesive labels for marking wire, terminal block markers and UL-approved polyester materials, including white, clear and metallized polyesters for marking panels and components. Data communications jobs also require labeling cables and patch-panel labels, faceplate labels, 66- and 110-block labels, and different size labels of various sizes to identify racks, shelving and bays.

On-site and in-office systems

Of course, not all labels are printed on the job site, and preprinted versions of many labels are available.

“The decision whether to print labels on-site or at the home office is influenced by many factors,” said Todd Fries, marketing manager for identification systems at HellermannTyton.

“If the job is large enough and is well planned, most of the labels can be preprinted at the home office and sent to the installation site. At the site, additional labels can be printed as needed using portable label printing systems,” Fries said.

According to Fries, office systems still must be relatively small and portable and provide fast printing speeds.

“Label printing software is the most critical component of the system,” he said. “Creating and maintaining the wire list database is critical, and it is important to find a system that can both import and export data to a table that is similar to Excel or Access databases that are understood by most users and which allows viewing of data in one complete file. It also allows the user to add more information beyond just the wire number to be printed.”

Shawn Whitaker, Panduit's product line manager for the, said larger jobs often are produced in the office using PC-based labeling software and desktop printers because it can be the most economical and efficient means.

“On-site label production is most often utilized for smaller jobs, and on many projects, a combination of both methods is used to complete the installation,” Whitaker said. “Printers have become smaller, lighter, more portable; they have time-saving features such as automatic legend repeat for wire and cable markers and automatic spacing of legends to line [up] with terminal block, panel, face-place positions, etc.; and they print with higher resolution on more types of materials.”

He said the most significant recent improvements in portable labeling equipment are PC connectivity and interactivity; high-resolution graphics; the capability of consolidated solutions among handheld, desktop and PRD equipment; automatic recognition of labels by the printer, eliminating setup and formatting; and intuitive “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” interface.

HellermannTyton's Fries said portable printing equipment today can print the same types of die-cut labels as those found in desktop labeling systems and do it with almost the same speed.

“These tools have become part of the complete process of the design and installation of a system and are critical to finishing jobs quickly and making the work look uniform,” he said.

“Easy-to-use handheld thermal transfer printers can create labels on demand in remote locations where power might not be available. What-you-see-is-what-you get interface makes printing labels as easy as pressing one button. These systems offer the best solution to label design as they allow the users to see exactly what they are going to get prior to printing. Label design is easier, speeding production and reducing labor time.”

Brady's Pettit said labeling systems for electrical and information transport system projects must be of industrial quality and capable of printing on a variety of industrial label materials in sizes to accommodate a range of labeling applications.

“Printers need to be small and portable and the labels they produce must to be legible and, most importantly, have to stick to the different surfaces they are applied to-over time, nonindustrial materials and adhesives fail and the labels fall off,” he said. “This is important to understand when dealing with curved surfaces (wire and cable) and textured or hard-to-stick-to surfaces like powder-coated racks, frames and shelving. And off-site equipment needs to be easy to use and PC compatible.

“Our customers have been telling us for more than 20 years that printers need to be rugged, that their labels must be legible, and that they must not fall off the surfaces to which they are applied. The evolution to thermal transfer print, PC compatibility and the wide range of materials that are now offered in these portables have been the greatest advances. The ability of portable printers to recognize the material type, size and its application by simply reading a 'smart chip' within the role of labels has eliminated the need to manually format text, lines and spacing.”

Many types of labels

Innovations in labels have kept pace with the equipment used to create them.

“There are literally dozens of different labeling materials available for use in industrial portable printers. The most common electrical materials are heat-shrink tubing markers, self-laminating wire markers, cloth material for marking wire and terminal blocks, and UL-approved metallized, clear and white polyester materials for identifying panels and components,” said Pettit. “The most common datacom label materials include self-laminating cable markers and polyester labels for faceplates and panels.”

Fries said self-laminating labels are most popular for wire and cable.

“These materials are conformable to small diameter wires and will not come off over time,” Fries said. “For any of the flat surfaces found on patch panels and wall outlet plates, a good polyester material is best as it is resistant to UV exposure, chemicals and solvents and should last the life of the installation. We are finding installers are moving away from the use of preprinted labels for datacom work. Software and printer systems have advanced to the point where the contractor can now print almost anything to a blank label and have it look just like any preprinted label. This reduces the need to keep preprinted inventories or pay setup charges or have to wait for long lead times. Just-in-time printing of labels is far more efficient, especially when quick changes are needed or when design changes occur frequently.”

Panduit's Whitaker classified self- laminating labels, heat-shrink markers, die-cut component labels, and continuous tapes as those most used for both electrical and data communications installations.

“Heat-shrink markers also are popular for electrical work because they provide superior durability in a nonadhesive solution,” Fries said. “Die-cut labels are most often used for component identification, such as patch panels, face plates, assets ID, and warning and information labels. Continuous tapes are commonly used for terminal blocks, pipe and conduit marking, and marking bins.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or