Need a tool you don't have, and need it now? Chances are it’s available at a nearby rental center. The rental industry in the United States has experienced remarkable growth in the past decade, and a study conducted for the American Rental Association (ARA) published earlier in the year reported that the market’s construction and equipment segment is its largest category, accounting for 68.6 percent of revenue. Within that segment, tool rentals represent the fastest-growing subcategory.

Most basic power hand tools used by electricians are available at general rental centers. Specialist rental businesses carry sophisticated electrical and datacom test meters and other tools needed for electrical and low-voltage projects.

Perhaps the largest number of rentals by electrical contractors falls in the equipment category, although the line between “tools” and “equipment” isn’t always clear. For example, a basic hand conduit bender obviously is a tool, but the popular Greenlee quad bender can be more accurately described as equipment. Many of the items most often rented by electrical contractors—generators, work platforms, trenchers and loader-backhoes—clearly are equipment.

Whether it is a tool or equipment, customers can rent by the day, week, month or longer, and many rental outlets offer rent-to-buy deals and leasing options. Rental centers also are a good source for buying well-maintained used equipment, and because most turn inventories frequently, for-sale products usually are relatively recent models.

With 450 locations nationwide, Sunbelt Rentals (www.sunbeltrentals.com) is the second-largest rental company in the United States. Sunbelt promotes itself as having the widest variety of specialized equipment in the rental industry.

“We understand the importance of serving specialized trades, and electricians are an important market,” said Nat Brookhouse, Sunbelt director of marketing and communications.

Brookhouse said items most frequently rented by electricians include cable benders, cable cutters, cable pullers and feeders, cable reel rollers and reel stands, wire dispensers, circuit tracers, conduit benders, conduit racks, crimping tools, hydraulic punch drivers, pipe cutters, and pipe threaders.

Rentals vary by project needs, and both individual electricians and rental contracting companies rent tools with the size and scope of a project also a factor.

“Electricians tell us they rent for many reasons,” Brookhouse said. “It may be taking on a project that requires more tools and equipment than is owned or available, or a project that needs more or larger equipment to complete the job. For many electrical contractors, the cost of ownership of larger equipment is not considered an efficient use of funds.”

The ARA study and other research clearly document that renting of tools and equipment is a trend that continues to grow.

“At Sunbelt, we always have offered a broad range of tools, and they have been a part of our product mix,” Brookhouse said. “There is a trend toward renting rather than purchasing, so we think tool rentals will continue to grow.”

Brookhouse added that he believes the benefits of renting tools are recognized, but Sunbelt continues to educate the marketplace by exhibiting at trade shows, participating in opportunities to contribute information to articles such as this one, and working with strategic partners to provide information and rental options to customers.

Two specialist rental companies with a narrower focus are Electro Rent (www.electrorent.com), based in Van Nuys, Calif., and TRS RenTelco (www.trs-rentelco.com), located near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Electro Rent is one of the world’s largest sources of test and measurement equipment for renting, rent-to-own and leasing options. TRS RenTelco operates nationally, renting and leasing general-purpose and communications test equipment.

Patrick Chu, director of marketing for Electro Rent, said the most frequently rented items by electrician customers are power analyzers, relay and transformer testers, cable fault locators, bore scopes for inspecting hard-to-access spots, hipots for testing electrical insulation, and megaohmeters.

Chu said electrical customers typically rent when peak demands require additional tools, for short-term use of tools only needed occasionally, and at times when capital is in short supply.

“Tools are being rented more often,” he said, “because users realize the true cost of ownership is not only the one-time purchase cost, but there are added costs for maintenance and calibration of testing equipment, as well as lost-opportunity costs associated with idle tools and improved efficiency to be gained by using newer tools available for rent. In addition, rentals can be used not only to expand a contractor’s current business and as an inexpensive way to test new business opportunities.”

At TRS RenTelco, marketing manager Greg Barkemeyer said the greatest rental and leasing demand is for power quality analyzers, ground testers, resistance test sets, protective relay test sets, circuit breaker tests sets and chart recorders.

“The electrical market industry is very project-oriented, so the need for a particular piece of equipment is often short-term, making the cost of purchasing the equipment prohibitive,” Barkemeyer said. “Rentals and leases are taken out by contractors, individual electricians or their end-user customers or clients; it depends on how the job has been structured. The contractor may be responsible for supplying all tools, or the client may agree to provide them.”

Controlling operating expenses is essential in today’s competitive marketplace.“Renting and leasing is a way to keep tight control on costs while having the breadth of equipment necessary to meet changing job requirements,” Barkemeyer said. “Rental in the electrical industry continues to grow because it is an increasingly important option that allows contractors to manage cash flows and peak demand periods without having to invest in equipment that might not be fully utilized throughout the year. It also allows contractors to bid on jobs that they may have previously passed on, due to test equipment requirements they could not supply.”

The costs of ownership become an increasingly important factor with more expensive tools or machines.

Sunbelt’s Brookhouse said equipment most often rented to customers in the electrical market is aerial work platforms, generators and accessories, trenchers and trench shoring.

Compact trenchers have been a staple in rental stores for nearly 50 years, with most general rental centers having one or more walk-along machines, which are popular with small electrical contracting companies for installing curb-to-house services. Equipment rental specialists inventory larger riding models, which accept a variety of attachments.

Skid-steer loaders with trencher and auger attachments and compact excavators also are found in most general rental stores, even small, neighborhood stores.

Other high-end tool and general equipment items used by electricians include concrete saws, pavement breakers, electronic pipe and cable locators, air compressors, hydraulic power units, pumps, and hydraulic and air hammers.

Much of the equipment rented by electrical contractors is for both aerial and underground utility construction and is offered by many different companies. For instance, NES Rentals (www.nesrentals.com) in Chicago specializes in work platforms, cable cutters, cable pullers, fish tape, generators and compressors, compaction equipment, and concrete saws. Also, the Georgia Underground Superstore (www.georgiaunderground.com), located near the Atlanta airport, specializes in serving utility contractors throughout the Southeast.

President David Bartosh said electrical contractors who perform both power and telecommunications work are among the company’s regular clients.

Bartosh said items frequently rented include cable reels and trailers, fusion equipment for connecting segments of HDPE conduit, pneumatic piercing tools for making short bores under drives and sidewalks to install cable and duct, and both fiber optic and heavy-duty electrical cable pullers.

“While we write short-term rentals,” Bartosh said, “many rentals frequently [turn] into purchases.”

Rental history: from independent to consolidated

Rental stores first appeared in the United States in the 1950s and grew on the strength of individually owned neighborhood stores. As the benefits of renting caught on with homeowners and businesses, renting as an industry began to evolve and in 2006 generated revenues of just under $33 billion, based on information gathered for the recent ARA report.

By the last half of the 1990s, big business had taken notice of the rental industry, and it went through a period of consolidation. Rental chains were not new. Many independents had developed into small chains, but a wave of consolidations resulted in fast growth of several rental giants whose ranking and size changed quickly with acquisitions and buyouts.

Today, United Rentals (www.ur.com), with about 700 locations, is the largest, and Sunbelt Rentals recently moved to the number two spot. Add to the mix equipment dealerships, which rent equipment such as directional drilling units, vibratory plows, vacuum excavators, skid-steer loaders, compact excavators and trenchers.

In what has come as a surprise to many in the industry, big chains and independents coexist in the marketplace. Some expected the powerful chains to force independents out of business, while independents did not believe the chains could provide the level of service rental customers had come to expect. Equipment rental is a service business, and family-owned independents have built success on excellent customer service. Many independents have long-time electrical contractor and small electrician customers.

Barry Sawyer, second-generation owner of A&B Rent-All (www.abrentall.com) in Oklahoma City, has electrical contractor customers who have been clients for more than 20 years.

“Most rent for utility or utility-related jobs,” Sawyer said. “They need trenchers to bury electrical service lines, hammers for breaking concrete to run cable under floors, and concrete saws. Cable locators often are rented by electricians doing maintenance work on lighting at service stations. They also often rent power hammers to drive ground rods.”

Jeff Wearing operates four Ready Rent-All centers (www.readyrentall.com) in the metropolitan Atlanta area. He, too, has long-time electrical contractor customers and estimates his electrical market to be about 15 percent of business.

“We occasionally rent hand tools if the contractor has a job in the area and has an immediate need for a particular tool or tools,” Wearing said. “Most of our electrical rentals are trenchers, cable pullers, conduit benders, and small portable lifting tools powered by separate power sources. Many of our electrician customers are repeat customers.”

Tool and equipment rental is an important and growing business that can help keep electrical contractors stocked with the items needed to succeed. EC

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