When it comes to project work, electrical contractors (ECs) have essentials at their side—the tools they require. Be they basic gear or other equipment, these essentials help contractors get the job done. The trick is having what you need when you need it. That necessitates access, organization and product upgrades that make sense. It can make a difference between a well-run job and one fraught with frustration.

It all begins in the tool shop—a world of ladders, cable reels, copper wire, measurement devices, fittings and more. A shop is in many ways the key essential tool that keeps a contractor’s business on track. The better run, organized and stocked, the quicker and cheaper a job can be done. If essential tools are not available due to misplacement, damage or limited stock, the client faces unnecessary delays.

“Time is money when the general contractor looks to you for a job well done in the least amount of time,” said Tim Koehler, president of J W Koehler Electric Inc. in Davenport, Iowa. “Want to keep worker morale up? Reduce needless aggravation and downtime on a job site caused by a broken, undercharged or mistakenly assigned tool.”

In business since 1969, J W Koehler Electric provides electrical contracting services in Iowa and Illinois for commercial, industrial and residential customers. It also provides voice and data cabling services.

Brian Westerlund, president of VECA Electric Co. Inc., also recognizes the value of having essential tools available at all times and sees it as a sense of pride for the shop and the technicians. VECA serves the greater Seattle area; the company celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.

“Our goal at VECA is to empower our people, so they can be the best they can be,” Westerlund said. “Giving them quality tools is our investment in them. The dividends lie in the quality of work and professionalism our crew provides to our clients.”

Arms around inventory

Approximately 25 years ago, management at J W Koehler Electric was looking for a way to effectively track its tools.

“At the end of the day, we wanted to make sure the same tool was back in the shop or accounted for off-site,” Koehler said. “Tools are a major investment for a contracting company. It was time to get a handle on that investment, while creating accountability for our employees.”

They invested in a software tracking and management system called ToolWatch, a program that continues to evolve today. In fact, it was featured in Jeff Griffin’s Cool Tools column in the May 2006 issue of Electrical Contractor. ToolWatch is one of a handful of management software programs tailored to the construction industry.

“We also wanted a program that helped our contractors request the tools they needed,” Koehler said, which is a feature of the program.

Rick Soucy is the warehouse representative for the company. He makes sure everyone gets the right tools and equipment.

“When you can track who has what, who borrowed what and who left what at a job site, you’re ahead of the game,” Soucy said. “Our tools are identified and numbered in our system. We also have tool details specific to each tool—everything from available bit sizes for a hammer drill to the contents in our first aid kits.”

Soucy added that tracking a tool’s history from “cradle to grave” isn’t the only advantage of this software. “I can access warranty information, date of purchase, model and serial number, and how many were purchased. The system gives me safety inspection reminders for tools, such as high voltage gloves or sticks.”

Soucy noted that the Windows-based program helps other departments, as well.

“Showing how, what and how often our tools are used helps in purchasing decisions,” Soucy said. “We can note how often a tool has been rented to determine whether we should rent or buy. We can also spot boom items or tools typically needed in multiples. All of this helps identify our essential tools.”

Another approach to accountability

VECA’s Westerlund is all for building accountability with his technicians.

“Tools are a major cost for your company. They represent bottom line dollars. You have to keep tabs on them,” Westerlund said. To that end, he’s embarking on a new tact when it comes to major essential gear.

“I’m looking at a program where all my electricians receive their own personal hole saw and battery-operated drill,” Westerlund said. “We buy them. The tools are theirs to keep and their liability if they lose them. I feel ownership breeds responsibility. We’re giving it a try.”

Though an expensive initial cost, Westerlund thinks this program will actually save money in the end. He’s looking at implementing the program sometime this fall.

Maintaining an organized shop

Graybar Electric Co. Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., is an electrical products distribution firm. Dennis Rees serves the company as a product specialist. He found professional organizational products can go a long way toward helping ECs improve their efficiency and productivity.

“Certainly, ECs who stay as organized as possible can reduce the number of hours spent on a job and, ultimately, increase their profitability and win more business,” Rees said. He cited mobile wire carts, caddies, other work carts and conduit/pipe storage racks as items that can make it easier to store commodities in the shop and transport them to and from work areas.

“Wire carts are designed to pass through doorways easily and even help payout cable,” Rees said. “Some have built-in wire guides for horizontal dispensing and fold for easy storage when they’re not in use.”

Want to eliminate clutter? Consider storage boxes in a variety of sizes. “Many boxes have concealed lock protectors for added security and built-in loading ramps to help store larger, heavier items,” Rees said. “Some come with swivel or rigid casters for better portability. There’s even a ‘field office’ storage box, featuring a slant work surface and lockable storage areas.” Rees added that mesh boxes will allow you to see what’s inside.

Having the best tools

Tools are an investment, so buying the best ones can provide peace of mind.

“My father always ran our business believing you can’t afford not to buy the best tools and equipment,” Koehler said. “It’s just cost effective. You want quality equipment that works right away, especially considering today’s dollar-a-minute labor costs.”

Rees said ECs tell him they are always looking for tools that will improve their performance.

“I don’t think that a professional installer would ever scrimp on a tool, especially if it made his or her job easier,” Rees said. “Plus, who can afford job downtime or the hassle and cost to keep replacing tools? We’ve found installers will always seek out and buy the best tool for the money.”

“The old saying, ‘you get what you pay for,’ is true,” Westerlund said. “But don’t pay more than you should. A little homework will help you identify overpricing.”

Weighing the latest and greatest

Today’s essential tools may change tomorrow as ECs discover new products.

“There will always be a need for a 120V outlet that will require wire, conduit and the tools to pull the wire through,” Koehler said. “That doesn’t mean you won’t find something new or improved that becomes a new essential on the job.”

“Tools do improve, and ECs need to be aware of these improvements to stay competitive,” Rees said.

Koehler and Soucy find that, though it’s technically a piece of equipment, the handheld core drill has become a new essential tool on their job sites.

“I’m always keeping an eye open for tools that allow us to do the job better and quicker,” Koehler said. “The handheld core drill does that for us. We own a few. The older technologies were large and bulky, needing to be anchored to the wall or floor. These handheld versions are smaller and lighter. Using one is now a one-man operation. Some of the designs don’t even need water. A two-hour job is now closer to a half-hour.”

“The new core drill is the perfect example of how we noted how often it was rented and realized we’d save money by purchasing it,” Soucy said.

Research and development

Research and development is vital to manufacturers who hope to improve their products or discover something new. Contractors should take note.

“Klein Tools and IDEAL Industries are always working to produce the most ergonomic designs possible,” Rees said. “Not only do these designs help to prevent repetitive-motion injuries and make working more comfortable, they can help ECs improve their cutting and gripping power, as well.”

A technology Rees regards as the new essential is lithium-ion batteries. “Lithium-ion battery technology provides cordless tools with longer runtime and more consistent power throughout the life of the battery charge,” he said. “The tools are also lighter and smaller than their NiCd battery-powered predecessors, which may help reduce injuries due to lifting and supporting heavier tools. ECs should consider making the upgrade to lithium-ion battery-powered cordless tools.”

Inventory reduction

There are a lot of ways to ensure technicians receive the essential tools they need when they need them. You might consider giving your tool managers a helping hand.

“Sometimes, it makes sense to look at outsourcing some material management to a distributor that can ship materials just-in-time to the job site,” Rees said. “Materials can be packaged or kitted and labeled according to the EC’s specifications and delivered to specific areas of a job site if needed. This frees up the EC to focus on the installation when the material is exactly where they need it, when they need it, and reduces the potential for material theft and breakage.”

VECA is looking at piloting a partial material management program.

“For the bigger jobs, having a vendor stock on-site of the little pieces, like washers, plates and screws, could be very efficient,” Westerlund said. “We would order a set number of pieces. The materials vendor would then charge us for what we use and take back what we don’t. This would take some pressure off our shop and allow them to turn to other things. To me, this could be one more way to be faster, better and minimize downtime on a job.”

Westerlund said he is just waiting for the right job to try out this materials-handling approach.   EC

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction and the landscaping industries. He writes trend, design and other business articles.