According to the FBI, there were more than 1.4 million acts of violent crime, or 466.9 offenses per 100,000 Americans, in 2007. Over the same period, nearly 10 million property crimes occurred, or 3,263.5 per 100,000. Although the overall level of crime has gone down in recent years, the need for security is still on the minds of those responsible for the security and safety of large corporations and institutional facilities. This is a great time for electrical contractors (ECs) to enter the security market, especially where it involves access control. The need to control foot traffic into and from office buildings, warehouses and other facilities has never been so great.

Look before you leap

The first step in the process of entering any market is to carefully pick a primary vendor. This company is where your firm will obtain most of the access control equipment your low--voltage technicians install. The same company also must provide assistance in order for your company to succeed.

ECs should consider the following basic issues:

• Product support and longevity

• Quality technical support

• Product reliability

• Ease of installation

• Ease of programming

When selecting an access control system, ECs should take a close look at the manufacturer that designs and builds it. Be sure to ask questions, such as the following:

• How long has the firm been in business?

• What is its track record in the field?

• Can it provide replacement parts when needed?

If an equipment manufacturer hasn’t been in business for at least five years, you may hesitate to choose it as your primary vendor. As a general rule, it takes three to five years before a new startup company’s survival is somewhat assured. Also, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a list of companies that purchase products from it. Be sure to contact some of these firms for a reference.

Lastly, what is its chain of distribution? Does the distributors stock replacement parts, or do you have to rely entirely on the factory? As equipment ages and breakdowns occur, you must be able to procure replacement parts quickly. The fact is timely product delivery and technical support can make or break you in the security business.

Getting quality help when needed

Another issue that should be looked at is whether quality technical help is available and how long your technicians have to wait to get it. Traditionally, the most important means of assistance in this regard is the telephone. Unfortunately, some companies have a high turnover in technical representatives, which means a good percentage of their work force may lack the knowledge needed to provide quality, timely help.

The other part of the support issue is how long your field techs have to wait to get help. The last thing you want is for your technicians to sit idle while on hold, waiting for a representative to answer the phone. After all, time is money.

The quality and format of the technical manuals provided by the equipment manufacturer also are important. Quality vendors continue to provide hardcopy manuals with the products. In addition, most offer them online on their Web site. These manuals must be easy to read and understand or your technicians will need to call the manufacturer’s support department.

The bottom line is look for a vendor that offers a fax-back service and an extensive document section on its Web site. Both services usually are available on a 24-hour basis. Some may require you to enroll.

Product reliability

Another important criteria to consider when choosing an equipment vendor is reliability. You should not select your primary vendor on the basis of price alone. Although price must figure into the equation, product quality and reliability should be considered foremost. Otherwise, your technicians will be running free service calls all the time during the warranty period.

For example, clients who use computer-based access control systems could experience problems with software unless a careful examination of an access control product is carried out before selection occurs. You may need to hire a consultant on a short-term basis to assist you with this type of in-depth review.

Another factor to consider is the duration of trouble-free operation of the selected system when the host computer goes offline for prolonged time periods.

Today, most of the systems sold employ distributed architecture, which means they are designed to operate in stand-alone or distributed mode. The concern here is event storage, which directly relates to the time period that reader controllers will continue to operate when in stand-alone mode. Once the host comes back online, every event that has taken place since it went offline is uploaded to the host by each reader controller for analysis, report generation and long-term storage.

Considering the relatively low cost of data storage, these systems should operate for prolonged periods without a hitch.

Many systems require the software to send a command to lock a door, make valid cardholder decisions according to a time schedule, process elevator requests and change cardholder area status. A good system will be able to do all of this while the host is offline.

Installation considerations

One of the things that makes access control systems easier to install today than previously is the introduction of packaged systems. Using this approach, electrical contractors new to the access control market are better assured that they will have what is needed to put a basic system in place. Many of the manufacturers who offer this convenience do so by signing purchase agreements with peripheral manufacturers.

Because the primary system manufacturer assumes the task of purchasing and stocking the various peripherals, the dealer does not have to. This simplifies the dealer’s job; he does not have to hassle with procuring each piece of hardware. This saves the dealer time and allows him to place his hard-earned money where it will do the most good, rather than as stock on a shelf.

Another important feature related to installation is the ability to accommodate a wide variety of applications. Certainly, the system selected should be flexible enough to handle small, single-door installations to larger multiple-door installations.

One way to do this is to use a system that uses access readers and controllers that can be used in stand-alone or multiple-door modes. Thus, single-door readers installed today can be used later when a client decides to expand the system. This reduces the amount of stock the dealer must keep on the shelf. It also assures the client that what he purchases today will fulfill his needs tomorrow.

Dealers also should use access control systems that employ common communication protocols, instead of proprietary ones. The Wiegand protocol, for example, offers the ability to install anybody’s keypad, card reader, optical card scanner or proximity reader on anyone else’s access control platform.

In addition, an access control system should have the ability to communicate using hardwire, a local area network, a wide area network, dial-up, wireless and optical-fiber technologies. Lack of flexibility in this regard could cause the client to replace his or her system, hiring another contractor in the process.

Programming

Another important aspect associated with product choice is programming ease and flexibility. The system that lacks these qualities will ultimately cost the electrical contractor more in time, effort and future business.

There are several essentials dealers need to look for with regard to programming:

• Feature expandability

• Customized reports

• Panel status queries

• Online programming help

• Online troubleshooting help

• Remote panel access

• Addition of database fields in software

As mentioned earlier, the access control system selected should be expandable beyond a single door, ensuring that the electrical contractor will be able to meet a variety of applications. Otherwise, it may be faced with supporting more than one manufacturer’s software.

An expandable access control platform also ensures that the contractor does not have to carry and support several different access control systems made by two or more vendors. A quality system may require a license based on the number of doors needed and other criteria. Of course, the more doors you must cover, the more the license will cost.

The software also should provide the dealer with the necessary tools to add database fields to the card holder entry screen. In addition, it must provide the dealer and his client with the necessary tools to customize reports, using the activity data and other information stored within the system.

Another important programming feature is the ability to query the panel for its current status. This feature is extremely helpful when fine-tuning the programming and ferreting out communication problems and bugs in software.

Dealers also should look for extensive help files. Be sure help is available from each edit screen, otherwise your installers must leaf through the operator’s manual more than they would like, which takes time away from more pressing matters.

There is no doubt that this is a great time for the electrical contractor to enter the access control market. Doing the necessary homework up front is essential to starting off on the right foot. Otherwise, a contractor might be forced to back up and start over later by looking for another access control platform that will better suit his or her client’s varying needs.

COLOMBO is a 33-year veteran in the security and life safety markets. He is director with FireNetOnline.com and a nationally recognized trade journalist in East Canton, Ohio. Reach him at abc@alcolombo.us.