In economic downturns, businesses and individuals tend to renovate existing facilities rather than invest in new construction. That still presents electrical contractors with many opportunities to keep growing, even through hard times.

“There are a lot of great opportunities for electrical contractors, especially with the economic downturn,” said Jim Bagnall, senior project manager, Rosendin Electric Inc., San Jose, Calif.

Owners of older buildings that require technology upgrades for the business to remain competitive are renovating rather than building new. The building renovation market also provides opportunities for owners to work with their contractors and design teams to create a work environment that is productive as well as pleasant and attractive for employees and customers, according to Danny Pharr, senior project manager for Dryer Electric Inc, Portland, Ore.

“Creative spaces can also contribute to a business’ bottom line in more ways than just productivity,” Pharr said.

Sustainable building practices, improved energy efficiency, and long-term energy reduction also contribute significantly to the profitability of any environment and provide electrical contractors with opportunities to expand their renovation offerings.

“The cost and availability of electricity is a major concern, and the need for electricity can be greatly reduced through renovation,” Pharr said.

For example, replacing older, electrically driven equipment with modern, energy-efficient models, using energy-saving lighting fixtures and designs and improved control of lighting and energy management all reduce consumption. Although other renovation opportunities certainly include ensuring older buildings are up to current codes and rejuvenating downtown areas, green building and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification are two of the top contenders.

“LEED certification for buildings undergoing major renovation, including removing and replacing all HVAC [heating, ventilating and air conditioning] and electrical systems, installing new exterior windows, upgrading exterior walls, and new interior construction throughout the building, falls under LEED for New Construction [LEED-NC],” said Mike Opitz, vice president of LEED implementation for the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington, D.C. The LEED For Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) rating system, however, is intended to allow existing buildings to attain certification even if based on operational and maintenance improvements.

“Even a building that isn’t undergoing construction work can be an opportunity for electrical contractors to participate in performing energy audits to determine what energy efficiency improvements can be implemented or what maintenance can be performed that will optimize operations of existing controls, equipment and systems,” Optiz said.

To identify possible renovation projects and build clientele, electrical contractors can work with their regular general contractors, architects, designers, and existing customer base.

“There are also public work project information databases, such as the Open Source Resource Book, that electrical contractors can research online to see what’s available to bid,” Bagnall said.

Electrical contractors also can use energy audits—performed either by them, the local utility or an electrical system designer— to help demonstrate to the potential customer the ways in which a building can reduce its energy consumption.

“Some opportunities may simply include changing light bulbs or ballasts, while other more involved changes can include occupancy sensors or other automatic lighting control schemes. Taking it further, a complete renovation might include alternative energy sources, such as solar panels or cogeneration systems,” Pharr said.

If part of the design team, the electrical contractor can take the opportunity to suggest exploring ways to improve the building’s energy efficiency and to reduce consumption, Opitz said. The LEED program has a downloadable standards guide that can be used for efficiency-improvement ideas, even if the renovation project is not pursuing LEED certification. LEED also rewards efforts that improve controls for equipment and lighting or for improving room temperature and humidity levels and improving air quality. In addition, there are now any number of green design and construction Web sites that provide educational information on how to approach a green job and the best way to implement green building best practices.

“Until recently, most building owners have not focused on optimizing efficiency, providing contractors with a great number of opportunities,” Optiz said.

Payback times for energy-efficiency improvements can be very short, and if the building owner is renovating anyway, it is a great opportunity to examine more efficient equipment and systems and for electrical contractors to specify them for the job.

“In addition to a quick return in investment for installing more energy-efficient and LEED-certified systems, the owner has a public relations advantage when trying to lease space,” Bagnall said.

If the owner of the project is taking a whole-building approach to the renovation, the electrical contractor will most likely be involved from the beginning as the whole building methodology necessitates a team approach to a project.

“When the electrical contractor is involved in a project from its inception, it has a great opportunity to ensure that the electrical systems and infrastructure can be optimized for the client,” Opitz said.

Once a renovation project and its goals have been identified, smart planning increases the chances that it will be completed successfully. The first and possibly most crucial element is having the right project team.

“As a member of the team, a design/build electrical contractor can lead the building owner though the steps of deciding on the renovation’s scope, schedule and budget,” Pharr said.

The successful team also will thoroughly evaluate existing conditions, and develop a realistic schedule.

“Planning a successful renovation requires a complete and clear scope of work and a project schedule with distinct milestone and benchmarks to measure against,” Bagnall said.

Identifying and mitigating hazards

Various hazards are likely to be uncovered during any renovation project, although they vary on the type and age of the building being worked on. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the most common hazards on renovation jobs are fall injuries, electrocution, caught-in and struck-by hazards, exposure to overhead objects, confined spaces, and airborne contaminates, such as dust, asbestos and silica. There also may be issues involving stabilization when load-bearing walls and supports are being repaired, altered or removed. Regarding electrical renovations in particular, asbestos has been used in the past for raceway systems and for insulation material in high-temperature applications, such as conductor insulation and arc chutes in circuit breakers and disconnect devices.

Additionally, renovation work sites may contain potentially hazardous materials not regulated by OSHA. For example, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which may be found in transformers, oil circuit breakers, capacitors, lead cables and lighting fixture ballasts, are regulated instead by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Other hazardous materials might be encountered on a job site, especially during renovations. Arsenic, a carcinogenic heavy metal known to cause conditions ranging from contact dermatitis to kidney damage, can be found in pressure-treated wood preserved with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which was used before 2004 to construct residential decks and foundations. Fiberglass, a synthetic spun-glass fiber found in wall and attic insulation, can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. There is no current consensus on its long-term health effects. Lead is a toxic metal that, even in small amounts, can stunt cognitive development in children and cause high blood pressure and reproductive and kidney problems in adults. Although not used in paints manufactured after 1978, it still can be found in old faucets, plumbing pipes, solder and walls painted before 1978.

A whole class of hazards, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are noxious chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, and xylene. VOCs can trigger headaches, dizziness, nausea, chronic respiratory problems and increased cancer risk. VOCs are emitted from carpeting, caulk, cleaners, glues, paints, plastics, pressed wood products and stains, all of which can be found during a renovation.

“Of course, there is asbestos in older buildings, but other hazards exist, such as old ballasts and fluorescent lamps, which can discharge toxins and carcinogens during a renovation,” Bagnall said.

Unseen hazards that also may be uncovered during renovation, according to Pharr, sometimes present special challenges for the construction and design team.

“Generally, until you actually see the building’s structure behind the existing walls, you don’t know what you will find,” he said.

A detailed examination of the existing building and its systems can help identify potential hazards.

“A detailed building survey should identify the bigger hazards, while the demolition phase will often expose any hidden hazards,” Pharr said.

In addition, the age of the building provides clues as to what might be found, and original as-built drawings and specifications help determine what areas of the building to specifically target for hazard investigation, according to Bagnall.

Once identified and targeted, hazards must be mitigated to ensure a safe working environment for everyone involved. Once surveys are complete, a well-developed construction plan should enable the team to proceed safely with renovation. According to Pharr, if the team follows the plan, examines its effectiveness during the renovation, and adjusts it as needed, hazards exposure will be reduced. In addition, Bagnall suggested contractors not only have a safety team, but provide safety training for all staff members.

According to OSHA, contractors can eliminate or control most hazards through the proper use of fall protection, scaffolds and ladders; locking and tagging out hazardous equipment; equipment guarding; the proper use of personal protective equipment; and the elimination and control of airborne contaminants and other chemical hazards. Contractors may reference applicable subparts of the Construction Industry Rule (29 CFR Part 1926) or applicable industry consensus standards for hazard-specific abatement methods. OSHA also provides general safety and health guidance for electrical work at www.osha.gov/SLTC/electricalcontractors/hazards.html.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.