E J Weber Co Inc, a San Francisco company, has completed more than 800 projects over the last 25 years at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF), one of the nation’s top 10 hospitals, according to U.S. News & World Report. Yet, like many electrical contractors, Weber is not a large national company, and it’s not the company’s aim to become one.

“We do between $8 and 10 million a year and bid jobs anywhere from $10,000 to $2 million,” said Jim Coffman, president and owner. Coffman began work 27 years ago at the company created in 1942 by Emil J. Weber.

“Mr. Weber had a clear vision that his company would succeed, and he worked very hard to ensure that it would. The company was one of several well-established electrical companies that helped transform the city during significant building phases. In appreciation, then-Mayor George Christopher presented Emil J. Weber with the key to the city in the late ’50s.”

In 1974, Weber sold the company to James Dulles, who had been his apprentice. In 1982, Coffman started working for the company as an electrician, and in 1996, purchased the company from Dulles.

Weber has adopted practices that allow it to be successful in a competitive market: training and supporting its employees, working with consultants rather than adding staff members, and acquiring and applying knowledge of its facet of the business and of facilities it has worked in for years. Although the company has contracts with Pacific Bell and others, it sticks to these rules and has carved out the majority of its work in the healthcare market, specifically at UCSF, which includes several campuses located in various areas of the city. While other companies might get the larger contracts at the hospital, Weber continues to garner a steady succession of smaller ones and works continuously on multiple projects.

Overcoming challenges

The campus that poses the most challenges for Weber and other contractors is Parnassus, which has grown during the last 100 years. Today, it is a six-block complex situated on a steep hill, accessible by only one main street. It encompasses a 15-story, 600-bed main hospital composed of two adjoining buildings, clinics, the health sciences schools, and the 180-bed UCSF Children’s Hospital.

“It’s a tight area, so there are many difficulties in terms of management of materials and manpower,” Coffman said. “One challenge we face is that parking isn’t provided for contractors, and UCSF’s parking enforcement is very diligent. We have to search out places for our employees to park or provide transportation for them, and material delivery has to be coordinated for certain times.”

Foremen and electricians working at that and other UCSF facilities have to be aware of rules specific to UCSF. In addition, they have to know the requirements relating to hospital installations in the National Electrical Code, and the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD) enforces compliance with California State Senate Bill 1953, which was prompted by the damage to the state’s hospitals in 1972 and 1994 earthquakes.

“As an owner, if you bid a job at UCSF, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got someone capable and committed to run the project,” Coffman said. “The electrician who runs my UCSF jobs has worked there for over 15 years. When he came to work for Weber, I was an electrician working at UCSF, running the jobs, and I trained him. Now, he trains our other employees working there.”

Weber hires electricians who are well trained but not necessarily in the specifics of working at UCSF Medical Center or in hospitals. To get them up to speed, hospital policy requires every electrician going to work at UCSF take a one-hour infection control training program before starting work.

“UCSF jobs are very difficult projects due to stringent requirements,” Coffman said. “We do the jobs for both the satisfaction of accomplishment and for the profit; although, the actual projects are challenging, difficult and dangerous for the amount of risk and profit involved.”

Infection control procedures include information about temporary, dust-tight, construction barriers and closures above ceilings; removal of debris outside of normal work hours and in tightly covered containers; working with negative air machines that provide airflow into construction areas; immediate removal of dust and dirt at entrances or outside of barriers; immediate replacement of any removed ceiling tiles; and blocking off of existing ventilation ducts within construction areas by capping those ducts.

“We want to make sure that when electricians work at UCSF, they are not exposing our patients to any of the germs or bacteria that might be in the debris from projects or demolition while it is being taken out of the hospital or in ceilings that are opened up during a project,” said Tom Spotts, construction coordinator, UCSF Medical Center. “For all the rules we have here, Weber does a great job in helping protect our patients and in getting their job done.”

New employees work alongside Weber’s foremen.

“My electricians have to know where they can and where they cannot go and that they cannot turn any hospital equipment or machinery on or off without getting permission, or open up a ceiling without a permit,” Coffman said. “If we have an apprentice working at UCSF and he’s really conscientious, when he becomes a journeyman, we work hard at getting him back at Weber. We know that if he worked well in the UCSF pressure cooker, we want him to work for us,” Coffman said.

Weber also supports and encourages education for its employees, including the office staff. An administrative assistant was sent to school to learn computer-aided design (CAD) in order to prepare as-built drawings for finished projects, freeing the company from the expense of hiring a full-time CAD operator. Some employees have taken electrical estimating and other related courses.

Prior relationship wins again

Familiarity with the specific UCSF facilities and OSHPD requirements, and knowledge of the details about and the cost of the required supplies, pays off for Weber when the company is bidding jobs. Since it works at UCSF facilities so often, it is familiar with the infrastructure of the different buildings, giving the company an edge over contractors who don’t have that experience. Weber’s knowledge helps it to draw up realistic, and often successful, bids.

“We’re always working on several bids, and if we don’t get one, we just try to get another. That’s the game,” Coffman said.

In 2008, the company completed a $950,000 electrical project—part of the $6 million Pathology Lab Renovation—at the Parnassus campus, under general contractor, J W & Sons, Petaluma, Calif. It involved a full renovation of the 11,000-square-foot fourth floor of the west tower. The interior was demolished, which required hazardous material abatement. The new floor plan created two “open labs”—patient-free research laboratories, configured with workstations like those in academic or classroom settings—along with support and office space. Weber’s responsibilities included lighting, electrical service and distribution, and upgraded data/telecommunications service and distribution, some of that being connected to workbenches within the laboratory.

“We had to do things in phases because the branch circuits go back to several different panels, and we couldn’t finish pulling all the wire until they finished building it,” said Ron Chesnut, Weber’s general foreman. “That complicated things.”

Last year, Weber also worked on two projects at UCSF’s Parnassus campus for general contractor, John Plane Construction, Brisbane, Calif. One was the Medical Sciences Building seismic upgrade, which included selective demolition of architecture, asbestos abatement, and structural, mechanical and electrical work. Specifications for the seismic upgrade called for installation of larger beams in the roof and on the floors leading up to it.

Weber completed another project on the 12th floor: the M12 pediatrics catheterization lab equipment replacement at the UCSF Medical Center Office of Design and Construction. It involved the removal of an existing MRI machine and its replacement with a new GE 1.5T TwinSpeed MRI. Existing space had to be demolished and asbestos and lead-based paint abatement done, along with cutting and patching.

While the machine itself was installed by General Electric, Weber electricians had complicated tasks to complete before the room could accept the machine.

“Machines like that can’t have any ferrous metal above them. That necessitated that all the conduits and duct work above or in close proximity be relocated,” Coffman said.

This was no small task. The room was located on the 12th floor, above the 11th floor intensive care unit (ICU) and below the 13th floor catheterization laboratory. The electrical wiring came from above and below. That called for working through the ceiling of the ICU. For infection control, Plane Construction created a tent in the ICU with Visqueen, a polyethylene film, sheeting used to close off areas when a ceiling is opened. The electricians worked inside the tent.

“It was one of the most difficult projects we’ve ever encountered there because of the tight conditions and with surgery above and below,” said Albert Lara, project manager, John Plane Construction.

Michael E. Toporkoff, associate director, capital programs, UCSF Capital Programs and Facilities Management, said Weber’s expertise showed in another recent project.

“Not only did they follow the designs that were put together by Gayner Engineers, but they also had some innovations that saved us money, and they installed the electrical so that it can be easily maintained by our facilities. That’s important to us,” he said.

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks.com.