Map out a plan, but approach specifications with care:

As lighting and electrical equipment gets more complex, more end-users are turning to contractors to make their product decisions; why? It is cumbersome for a customer to make four phone calls when they can get the project taken care of with one. End-users expect contractors to take on diverse roles, such as lighting designer or energy-savings specifier, in addition to traditional roles as equipment installer. Increasingly, electrical contractors who decline the specification role are losing out to the other contractors who do.

“Some of the contractors who are way ahead in the game are seeing their expertise show up in their bottom line,” said Otto Hottendorf, senior manager for linear fluorescent product at TCP. And as the marketplace gets more competitive, contractors are feeling the pressure to provide more value-added services.

“We see end-users coming to us who are not getting the information they need,” Hottendorf said. “I think there’s a hunger in the market right now [to know more about energy-efficient options] and that makes this the perfect time for a contractor to roll up his sleeves and get to work.”

Careful contractors

To gain credibility as a specifier, contractors must use care and caution when choosing products. If not, becoming a specifier may be bad business.

“Contractors are being asked to specify, and they’re considered the experts,” Hottendorf said. “It would be smart for any electrical contractor to be able to represent themselves as an expert.”

Being regarded as an expert is good, but only if this designation is true. If the customer discovers he has been given bad advice, the business relationship with that contractor is over.

“Don’t be a specifier if you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Les Webster, president, Paragon Lighting, Hudson, Wis. “That’s the monster in the closet. If you are holding yourself up as an expert, it can be a liability issue.” Webster can make the liability argument because he sees the disaster potential in his other job as a lawyer. While he has not seen such a case ever go to court, he said it is entirely possible. His recommendation? Electrical contractors must take the responsibility seriously.

“The first thing is you have to know what you’re doing, or [if not] contact a lighting professional,” Webster said. “Make sure you have someone to fall back on. Every week I see people who specified metal halides and the customer doesn’t know any better. They’re assuming the guy they hired knows what he is specifying, and that guy is often an electrical contractor.”

“A lot of the time, they get away with it. The day you put [in] the system, it looks pretty damn good, that’s why people have gotten away with it,” Webster said. On the other hand, he said, “If a fluorescent lighting guy walks into the room and explains to the end-user ‘you got took,’ someone’s going to get sued.”

The bottom line? The electrical contractor can make huge strides in customer relationship building, profit potential and business growth, but only if he uses the specification role properly. One way to prepare is to learn about products.

Gearing up

To become knowledgeable and successful specifiers, contractors need to do their homework, said James Benya, president and principal of Benya Lighting Design, West Linn, Ore. Technology, especially in lighting, changes fast.

“If you knew a product two years ago, your knowledge is dated,” he said. Therefore, contractors need updated and correct information, which can be found by approaching manufacturers and distributors.

“Work with one or more lighting sales reps,” Benya said. “They are among the best trained and knowledgeable people you can access.”

Major lighting fixture companies, such as Cooper Lighting and Acuity, regularly offer training seminars. In addition, manufacturers often have sales groups that provide on-site seminars.

In addition, most contractors have a distributor with which they work. “Go to them, [and] say we need the details,” he said.

Like Benya, Webster urges contractors to consult with lighting vendors and distributors. However, Webster said, some distributors will only provide the real specialists if you ask for and develop a relationship with them.

Hottendorf urges contractors to work with their distributors and manufacturers and encourage them to host educational programs.

“A lot of times, building relationships with the right manufacturers will keep a contractor at the front of the pack, which is where they want to be, while not on the bleeding edge,” Hottendorf added.

Contractors should also invest in continuing education and go to several seminars a year. Hottendorf recommends that contractors go to the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA), which puts on educational programs.

Lighting designers can also be a source of training seminars. “We get a lot of electrical contractor attendee[s],” Benya said of his own seminars. “You can learn a great deal in a short amount of time.”

Knowing the utility rebates that are available as well as tax incentives of states and the federal government will also give contractors a leg up. For example, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 allowed property owners to take a substantial cut in first year taxes based on energy-efficient products.

“Check with your local utilities; learn the energy policy act and tax incentives in your area,” Hottendorf said.

Contractors also need to be able to work with utilities to develop industry and rebate standards. Benya said contractors need to know these standards because they do affect pricing.

Look to the lighting

Many construction engineers are behind when it comes to lighting options and often turn to the electrical contractors for solutions, Hottendorf said. Engineers spec in metal halides out of habit, and the end-user must then live with the lighting system.

“Lighting gets more fussy and detailed all the time,” Benya said. “The pressure is on for energy efficiency, and as a result, the details, the complexities for specifying are getting more difficult as well.”

Contractors need to realize they have to be detailed in their specifications, especially because the types of systems contractors install are significantly more complicated, Benya said.

“It used to be dimming switch, ballast and dimmer. Now there are five different types of dimmers and none is the least bit compatible [with equipment for another],” he said.

“Many of the most efficient things today are proprietary. The bottom line is that the entire specifying process requires significantly more detail. It’s very important for electrical contractors to understand that,” Benya said.

In addition, Hottendorf said, “It helps to show a little creativity. Don’t pull out the vanilla lighting solution; there are lots of other things out in the marketplace.” (See sidebar, next page).

Home automation and audio

When it comes to Ethernet, cable TV, phone, distributed audio and home theater, developers and homeowners have questions. Homeowners and developers need information, and usually, their questions center around home audio and DVD solutions. Steven Borich, president, Imagine Audio, Hermosa Beach, Calif., said clients need some hand holding when it comes to their low-voltage systems. But they are not the only ones.

“Electrical contractors can be very reticent to moving into an area they’re not comfortable in,” he said. “They may have established a good customer base, and they don’t want to ruin that.”

They may not have a choice, however, because the marketplace is changing. “What we’re seeing in an evolution. The guys who pick up the ball and run with it are the ones seeing huge growth. It’s the way to keep the competitive edge,” Borich said.

Borich, who has a background in audio/video contracting, said the A/V contractors leave much to be desired when it comes to specifying, which opens up opportunities for electrical contractors.

A/V contractors tend to be high priced—in fact, overpriced—he said, but they are embracing the idea of data-communications and low-voltage. In most states, the work is still not inspected, making it a simpler business to run.

But the electrical contractor has advantages over the A/V contractors. With new construction and retrofits, they are already in the house, installing the electrical system, and if they’re knowledgeable, they can install the whole system, save the client money and have a lower overhead than the A/V contractor.

It’s a huge opportunity and one that should not be ignored by contractors. For example, some technologies, which would only be found in homes of the rich and famous a decade ago, have trickled down to tract housing. Because typical A/V contractors prefer the larger, more lucrative jobs, Borich said, the electrical contractor becomes the only professional who can provide the work.

So electrical contractors may be saying no to home automation specifying, but they’re being asked more than ever.

Like other vendors, Imagine Audio offers some assistance with specification packets. Contractors can send the blueprints and his company will help out, Borich said. But it’s an easier specification market to break into for the electrical contractor. “This stuff is easier than what they’re doing now; it’s just different,” Borich said.

Motor control When it comes to motors, clients are expecting contractors to take the decision-making role. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 established minimum performance standards for motors, but since that time, manufacturers have enhanced the technology to the point it exceeds the standards.

“What was considered efficiency in 1992 has become standard,” said David Brender, Copper Development Association, New York.

When it comes to motors, energy efficiency takes priority. According to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, (NEMA), motor-driven systems account for 57 percent of all electrical-energy usage. Over a 10-year life, a motor running constantly can consume 50 times its original purchase price in energy. For that reason, many clients need all the energy efficiency they can get.

The Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) developed a guideline based on the minimum efficiency a motor must surpass to be considered “premium efficiency.” Premium efficiency is an important part of the discussion when specifying motor replacements, Brender said. He said that recently, “NEMA premium-efficiency motors have been replaced by super premium-efficiency motors.”

These motors, being manufactured by companies such as Siemens, can save significant energy in a short amount of time.

But contractors need to know more than just how efficient it is. For example, if a NEMA premium motor is installed incorrectly, it can drive more water or air through the system and cause energy consumption to increase. So how does the contractor find out what he needs to know?

“A local motor distributor can answer those kinds of questions,” Brender said.

According to Brender, with the right knowledge, however, they are easily replaced and can lead to large savings. More information about specifying motors is available at a CEE Web site, Motor Decisions Matter, www.motorsmatter.org.

Electrical contractors are being asked to have a closer relationship with clients and must fill the specifier role much more than in the past. For any electrical system, it is all about education. Electrical contractors can protect themselves and their clients by learning as much as possible about the products and technology, making their company the one that will be hired for subsequent projects. EC

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