During these tough economic times, contractors are looking for ways to expand their business beyond the traditional installation and wiring of power systems. What follows are some ideas.

Step 1: Ask building owners what they want. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) have been advancing an agenda for their members to maximize the efficiency of their buildings.

Step 2: Figure out what owners need but aren’t aware of yet. In retrofit situations, for example, many owners are unaware of the savings they might capture by implementing more efficient lighting.

Step 3: Analyze the market. One study predicted that green construction will grow from $173 billion to $554 billion over the period from 2009 to 2013. This will provide a huge opportunity for contractors who take on integrating systems, e.g., illumination and heating, ventilating and air conditioning, for energy savings.

Integrating systems
To integrate building systems, start with an integrated approach to design, installation, testing and maintenance. When building systems are connected, there must be a role—a master integrator—with the responsibility for overseeing all of the systems, starting with the initial design and following through with procurement of components, installation, commissioning and startup. The integrator doesn’t have to be an expert in each separate system. However, the integrator position requires a great deal of technical expertise, including knowledge of information technology (IT), software, control engineering techniques and a working understanding of all building systems.

Since the electrical contractor installs both the power and low-voltage wiring, it would be a natural fit for him or her to act as the integrator. After all, the one feature common to all integrated systems is that they require control (low-voltage) wiring. And most require power wiring as well.
And the job shouldn’t stop when the systems are turned over to the end-user. A proper integration job should include educating the end-users and maintaining the systems. The contractor who can take this on brings his business to a whole new level. See “Service with a Smile."

Practical lessons
When I was beginning my education in engineering, I was taught the way to develop a circuit was to do a careful paper design, then build a “breadboard” version to test and optimize it. Much to my consternation, I discovered that, when a perfectly functioning breadboard was built into a system, it no longer worked, more often than not. Once my “brilliant” device was part of a larger system, there were many things that could go wrong. I learned, for example, that a crucial piece of the work is the wiring, which should be planned as carefully as the rest of the system. The best designs can be messed up because of electrical interference (caused by thoughtless layout), poor grounding or connections, or environmental factors, such as heat and humidity. A contractor should realize that not every system will work as designed and should test and maintain the system so that it is efficient and fully functional.

When I advanced to designing entire systems, I found my earlier lessons still applied. Start with a paper design, do a computer model, supervise the electrical and mechanical installation and wiring, and don’t expect everything to work as planned. You could tune each system for best performance, e.g., temperature controls and conveyor drives, but tying them together presents another challenge.

Another lesson, which I shall never forget, was when the Navy wanted a system to test the effects of radar on airplane control and communication systems; the Navy asked us to build a full-scale radar simulator. They aimed it at an actual airplane that was suspended from the ceiling of a hangar because using a model wasn’t good enough.

From industry to electrical contracting

What do these stories have to do with the electrical contracting business? Plenty!

To successfully install and operate integrated automated building systems, the entire building must be treated as a single system with multiple subsystems. Each subsystem must be designed to be compatible with all of the others; they all must be able to communicate with the same protocol, preferably an Internet protocol-based, open system.

After all of the systems have been commissioned and installed, they should be tested and retuned during actual operation in normal day-to-day usage. In other words, the systems will have to be tweaked in real-life operation.

Distinguish yourself from the crowd by expanding your role to include systems integration. It may take your company to a new level.

Thanks to Robert Akovity of Integrated Building Controls Inc. and Frank Bisbee of Communication Planning Corp. for contributing to this article.


BROWN is an electrical engineer, technical writer and editor. For many years, he designed high-power electronics systems for industry, research laboratories and government. Reach him at ebeditor@gmail.com or at www.writingengineer.com, an independent professional writing service.