Correctly connecting and terminating fiber optic cable requires special tools and techniques. Some contractors have found working with fiber is becoming routine and a growing segment of their income—indeed, for some electrical contractors, information transport systems (or VDV) projects, including fiber—account for more of their income than electrical work.

For those new to fiber, training is essential to understand the specialized nature of this expanding market and how to properly use the special tools needed to install and maintain fiber systems.

“Experienced electricians can easily be trained and certified on installing fiber optic cabling through courses that vary from three to five days,” said James Dallas, manager of training for Kitco Fiber Optics. “While fiber optic cable is not as fragile as most people believe, it is important that the technician knows how to properly handle the fiber optic cable in compliance with applicable industry standards.”

The fiber medium is very powerful and reliable, yet delicate,” said Salvador Lara, Unicom marketing manager. “Installers of UTP can find it easy to migrate in becoming fiber optic installers because they understand and practice the principles of cabling.”

Training is “very, very critical,” emphasized Mitchel Macauley, product line manager at ICC. “If you are going to perform fiber installations, get trained and certified,” he said.

Tom Reinert, fiber optic product manager for Ideal Industries, noted there are many excellent sources of training, including NECA-IBEW. Many manufacturers, distributors and associations also provide hands-on training across North America.

Fiber to the premises

There should be growing demand for contractors proficient in fiber work.

With the emphasis on extending broadband Internet connections and the importance of data transmission speeds, fiber to the home (FTTH)—or, more accurately, fiber to the premises (FTTP)—is being deployed at an accelerated pace.

Last summer, Verizon began deploying FTTP in three cities in three states with portions of six more states added this year. According to Verizon, by the end of 2005, more than three million homes and businesses will be “passed” by fiber, meaning they will be ready to connect directly to fiber.

Meanwhile, SBC has announced it is accelerating its fiber network deployment program. The company announced last fall it will deploy 38,000 miles of fiber to provide access to fiber connections to more than 18 million households in two to three years. Neither target areas nor construction schedules were included in the announcement.

Basic tools for fiber

Basic tools necessary to install or service a fiber optic network include jacket strippers to remove the outer jacket on simplex and duplex fiber cables; serrated Kevlar cutters to cut and trim the Kevlar strength member directly beneath the jacket; fiber buffer strippers, a precise, close-tolerance tool for removing acrylate coating from the bare glass fiber; bare fiber cleaner, swabs treated with an approved cleaning agent, such as 99 percent isopropyl alcohol, which is good for this task; scribes to score cable to fracture cleanly leaving flat ends; cleavers, a multipurpose tool that measures distance from the end of the coating to the point where the break will be made and scribes the glass so it fractures at an angle of less than three degrees; polishing tools, including polishing fixture to hold the connector perpendicular to polishing pad and film, polishing film to provide a consistent and uniform finish to the connector’s end face, and polishing pad; crimp tools, used with some types of connectors (some connectors require epoxy to attach cable to connector); an inspection microscope for inspecting end-face polish of fiber; and visual fault finders that use a laser light to locate breaks and faulty splices.

Which specific tools are needed depend largely on the type of connectors being used, said Tom Kopp, Greenlee Textron technical specialist.

“Kevlar shears, microscope with a minimum magnification of 200x, polishing puck, polishing pad and polishing papers, buffer stripper, precision cleaving tool and a carbide-tipped scribe are all common tools for fiber technicians,” Kopp said.

While tools used to cut and strip electrical cable could be used for fiber also, many advise against it.

“You could use your electrician’s scissors for Kevlar sheers; however Kevlar is a very dense material and you will quickly dull poor-quality scissors and the same goes for using wire strippers for the jacket strip tool,” Dallas advised. “You really need separate tools for terminating fiber. I have not seen any tool company offering tools that are used for copper and fiber. Basically, you do not want to mix your tools; instead, use the right tool for the right job. It will make a big difference in the quality of the final product.”

“Due to the substantial differences between twisted pair and fiber optic cables and basic termination practices, we see no trend toward developing multiuse tools that can be used on both types of cable,” said Reinert. “Most electricians keep all their fiber tools in a special fiber tool kit with all the tools and materials they may need for a fiber project.”

Many factors set fiber installations apart from traditional electrical projects.

“Fiber optic termination is a craft-sensitive ‘art,’” said Tyler Vander Ploeg, RCDD associate product manager, Leviton Voice & Data. “Training is absolutely critical to success. Fiber cleanliness is vital to performance of a system.”

From the Ripley Co.’s perspective, Stephanie Beck, marketing communications manager, defined the primary issues for electricians inexperienced in working with glass fiber:

• The fragility of the glass conductor cannot be overemphasized. The slightest scratch, mark or even speck of dirt will affect the transmission of light, degrading the signal.

• Because of the fragility of the glass, technicians must be trained properly to cut, strip, terminate, connect and splice without damaging the fiber conductor—using a knife for the steps in preparing fiber simply will not work.

• Safety—always wear the proper hand and eye protection while working with glass fiber.

In addition to correct termination practices, Reinert pointed out that installers must be familiar with requirements related to cable pulling, placement and routing. In addition to the correct cable-handling considerations, the installer must also be trained on correct termination practices.

“When pulling a fiber optic cable into place, be sure not to secure pulling eyes to the outside jacket of cable,” advised Kirk Donley, vice president of sales, Fiber Instrument Sales. “Pulling on the outer jacket stretches the PVC jacket and causes the fibers to bunch up when pulling tension is released. This bunching of the fiber and Kevlar within the cable will result in high attenuation.”

ICC’s Macauley said: “Minimum bend radius and maximum tensile rating are two very important factors. These critical specifications should be met through the installation process and throughout the life cycle of the cable. Note that minimum bend radius allowed during installation is larger than that allowed after installation because allowable radius increases with increase in load.

“Any bends in the pull should be near the beginning of the pull and during pulling, force must be carefully and regularly calculated and monitored. Working in a clean environment is important; it is very hard to terminate or splice in a dusty area, and never work under heating vents. To keep them clean, cover connectors and patch panels when not in use,” he added.

For safety, Macauley reminds workers to keep fiber away from their eyes and never to look directly into fiber.

“Remember that fiber is glass after all, and care needs to be taken not to accidentally get small pieces of it into your skin,” said Kopp.

Special labeling needs

Labeling fiber cable also is different than with electrical cable. From a labeling perspective, special considerations need to be made when identifying fiber optic cable, said Jim Pettit, business development manager, Brady Corp.

“First of all, because you are dealing with small-diameter cable, it may be difficult to use a wraparound cable marker,” he explained. “Instead, flagging a cable label around the fiber optic cable is a better solution. It is important to use a printer that can print on materials, such as cloth and vinyl, which are easily flagged. Because of the limited space on the label in which to print, it is important to use a printer that can print a small enough font that prints crisp and clean without smearing. A portable thermal transfer printer allows the user to print crisp, clean labels in the field.”

Long-haul fiber routes are complete, but will new deployments offer opportunities to electrical contractors experienced in utility construction?

“Maybe,” said Lara, “but in most cases telecom companies are contracted to do this type of installation. Many large companies have dedicated crews for fiber optic installs.”

Said Vander Ploeg: “Most of the time, the telecommunications portion is subcontracted out to a certified installer. The same is true during the design phase.”

Others are more optimistic. Donley believes electrical contractors “absolutely” will be involved as fiber replaces copper in premise installations.

Macauley said, “Expect the trend of electrical contractors being involved in outside plant construction to continue as fiber equipment gets less expensive, allowing consumers to move to fiber backbones and bring fiber to desktops.”

As the telecommunications market expands and extends fiber to end-users, electricians can expect to be called on to assist with and make fiber installations when installing premises wiring, said Reinert.

“Because outside plant is owned and controlled by service providers, this may offer less of an opportunity for electrical contractors,” Reinert said.

Convergence is truly happening, observed Beck.

“Contractors,” she said, “are expected to be able to work in a variety of mediums—fiber, twisted-copper pair, coax, electrical—to provide turnkey service during installations for new home construction, industrial construction and upgrades, and for new deployments. Telephone providers are deploying FTTH, competing for the local and long-distance phone service, DSL for data transmission, and have even begun advertising to provide cable television. In this type of market, contractors had better be able to provide the entire installation process in all mediums to stay competitive.” EC

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