Despite downturns in construction, demand for low-voltage cabling—including voice, data and video (VDV)—is growing. VDV work, fueled by the interest in energy-efficient buildings, is bread and butter for security and telecom specialists. Integrated building systems (IBS) generally are managed by technology vendors and a handful of specialized electrical contractors. Together, IBS and VDV contractors provide installation, service and upgrades for backup power, climate controls, wireless networks, energy--efficient lighting, telecommunications, fiber optics, security and life safety systems.

Government agencies currently are struggling with the need to integrate building systems to improve efficiency while maintaining functionality and interoperability and optimizing the overall building functions. As a result, in the past few years, some companies have made IBS their niche. Thomas Glavinich, University of Kansas professor and industry expert, believes this is a good idea. While proprietary systems provided by security and lighting automation vendors are still generally installed and programmed by the vendors themselves, increasingly the open networks—mostly LonWorks and BACnet—are up for grabs. Owners who wish to install these open-network systems typically find the installers are electrical contractors.

Integrated building systems

IBS require both hardware and software. Typical hardware consists of conductors and raceways; network equipment, such as servers and hubs; instrumentation and terminal devices, which interface with a building’s equipment; and gateways to establish a communication link between integrated and stand-alone systems. The software portion includes control sequences that describe how the integrated system will operate.

The National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC)—a project of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)—is expanding its coursework. It focuses on the kind of IBS that are becoming more commonplace, said Terry Coleman, NJATC director of telecommunications training. Although, in the past, the NJATC offered only introductory programs in this area, increased demand has led to a more detailed set of courses that can get technicians up to speed with the different independent systems controls—heating, ventilating and air conditioning; security; elevators; and plumbing, to name a few—and how they can be tied together. It is not being done at all new construction sites, Coleman said, but the use of IBS systems is growing, and contractors may be the best fit for supplying the installation and the service.

“There’s certainly a niche for some contractors,” Glavinich said. “Yes, there’s a learning curve, but I think IBS will get to be a very big thing. I think with everything going on right now—looking at stimulus packages, including last fall with the Emergency [Economic] Stabilization Act, there will be more monies and tax incentives to push energy efficiency.”

If electrical contractors don’t jump into the arena, they will lose out, he said.

“There will be someone who will do it. But for [...] contractors, it makes all the sense in the world,” Glavinich said, adding that this is because the contractor already is on-site and working with the owner on power. He noted that transitions such as this can meet with some resistance, and contractors typically still prefer the jobs in power. He pointed out that low-voltage growth over the past years has been driven by telecommunications, but that is about to change.

“We’ve been coming at low voltage from a datacom angle, but soon we’ll have to be coming at it from an energy angle,” Glavinich said.

Because IBS work comes from scattered sources, it may take contractors more effort to find customers. The best targets for electrical contractors are the company’s existing power customers, although another route is to subcontract from other electrical and mechanical contractors. Referrals from distributors and component dealers also lead to good opportunities, and sales calls, direct mail and telemarketing can help.

Contractors interviewed for this story all advised that, when starting low-voltage work, whether IBS or VDV, they need to prepare for a slow start. This may be an advantage since the first projects will be learning experiences, and going slow is the best way to guarantee success early on. Although the potential to expand follows, contractors may need a year or two to see any real profit. Flexibility is key in low-voltage fields. Since the technology is constantly changing, training needs to be ongoing.

How do ECs do it?

Electrical contractors can form a company that specializes in IBS systems or low-voltage cabling or establish their own low-voltage or IBS division.

ELECTRIC CO. OF OMAHA

Electric Co. of Omaha, Neb., (ECOO) took the latter approach while building its business in the healthcare market. The company began training some of its technicians in IBS about five years ago when the company installed a lighting system at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing, said ECOO president Daniel Smith. A proposal was put on the table for an integrated system. Smith decided then that if the company wanted to compete in all areas of low voltage, its electricians needed to be able to provide this service. The company spent about three years in training, he said, and now has six trained technicians who install IBS.

“We pursued the business aggressively,” Smith said.

The company has found the work growing with industrial and healthcare clients but also expects to be offering the service at public facilities, such as the General Services Administration (GSA) buildings, as government incentives for green building continue to grow.

ECOO currently is helping Children’s Hospital in Omaha transition its existing proprietary system to an open-control one that will support multiple entities as the hospital grows.

CABLING SYSTEMS INC.

Companies, such as Cabling Systems Inc., Beltsville, Md., specialize in voice and data installation at large government projects. Its 25 electricians know their way around Category 5, Cat 6 and fiber cable and take that work out of the hands of the traditional electrical contractor.

Company president John Narron ran the voice/data divisions for several large electrical contractors, he said, before he decided to start his own business. He saw the demand for voice and data services but found that electrical contractors tended to make the work a lower priority, viewing it as not a major source of revenue.

Promoting his fledgling company five years ago was challenging, Narron said. He used the Internet and other marketing tools to gain the notice of building owners and general contractors. The company has been growing every year since, in large part because it made a point of performing work in a professional manner.

That, he said, has allowed the company to build a positive reputation through word of mouth, which has been the most influential in securing work.

“It seems like we’ve had a lot of big projects lately,” Narron said, adding that typically the company teams up with large electrical firms that don’t have a communications division.

“We provide our services to many contractors,” he said.

Often a general contractor will contact the company to secure telecom bids. Then, when the GC awards the electrical installation to the electrical contractor, it passes along the low telecom bid and a recommendation to contact Cabling Systems.

“The general knows the electrical contractor doesn’t have all the expertise and manpower [to provide low-voltage installations],” Narron said.

Cabling Systems currently is installing voice and data connections for the U.S. State Department.

MILLER ELECTRIC CO.

Miller Electric Co. (MECO) Jacksonville, Fla., with offices around the state and in Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; Charlotte, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Baltimore, first started performing low-voltage communications work in 1979.

The company does voice/data, closed-circuit television/access control, and audiovisual work.

MECO initially established its low-voltage division in anticipation of the pending divestiture of AT&T. Manager of Communications David Stallings said this opened up an opportunity for teledata installations.

“Many of our customers felt they needed someone outside of the phone company to rely on. They turned to Miller Electric Co., who responded by preparing a group dedicated to their needs,” Stallings said. “The union hall did not at that time provide communications employees.”

MECO crosstrained existing journeyman electricians.

“This provided us with exceptionally skilled craftsmen who could perform many services for a customer, not just one trade or the other,” Stallings said.

Although MECO got low-voltage work from its existing customers, obtaining work outside of its regular customer base was not as easy.

“Our existing customers trusted us, so we where able to obtain their work easily. But new customers viewed us as ‘electricians’.”

That has slowly changed as MECO continues to spread the word about its work, often through satisfied customers.

“We now have a customer base and an industry reputation, which allows us to be seen as a communication integrator, not just an electrical contractor,” Stallings said.

Today the company earns $30–35 million annually.

MECO works with a diverse customer base that includes military; state and local government; the Department of Transportation; and medical, commercial and industrial projects with an emphasis on data centers for corporate clients. Public and government low-voltage projects include the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville, Alltel Stadium and multiple DOT projects for intelligent traffic systems.

“Our work is spread very evenly between new construction and service work for existing customers,” Stallings said.

The work has shifted in the past year with fewer new constructions to more renovations, he said.

“By the end of 2009, the economy will be coming out of the recession it is in now,” Stallings said. “In addition, I would expect somewhat of a boom in the industry for a short period of time due to the suppressed demand for work to be done currently that customers are putting off.”

Miller’s technicians are trained in-house and by information systems trade group BICSI to perform all aspects of copper and fiber infrastructure installations.

Grow your business

Aggressive selling may be what it takes at first, Glavinich said. “You have to do some selling, and there’s a learning curve,” he said. “I think this will get to be a very big thing.”

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.