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

Step 1: Figure out what building owners want. Ask them. Both the Building Owners and Managers Association International and NAIOP, the commercial real estate and development association, have been advancing an agenda for their members to maximize the efficiency of their buildings.

Step 2: Figure out what building owners need but aren’t aware of yet. That’s a bit harder; you’ll need to educate them. For example, in retrofit lighting, many owners are still unaware of the savings they might capture from a new system.

Step 3: Analyze the market to help you figure out which way the industry is moving. One study predicted that green construction will grow from a $173 billion industry over the eight years preceding 2008 to $554 billion over the period from 2009 to 2013. This is a huge growth opportunity for contractors who take on the integration of systems for energy savings.

To integrate building systems, you must have an integrated approach to design, installation, testing and maintenance. When building systems are interconnected, there must be a master integrator to oversee all of the systems, starting with the design and following through with procurement of components, installation, commissioning and startup. The role of integrator requires a great deal of technical expertise, including knowledge of information technology, software, control engineering techniques and a working understanding of all building systems. The integrator doesn’t have to be an expert in each separate system but has to understand each.

Since electrical contractors install both the power and low-voltage wiring for the whole building, it is natural for them to become integrators. After all, the common feature to integrated systems is that they require power, which means cabling. In addition, most require control (low-voltage) wiring.

But the job shouldn’t stop when the systems are turned over to the end-user. A proper job should include educating the end-users about proper system operation and maintaining the systems to ensure they continue to work as planned. The contractor who can take this on brings his or her business to a whole new level. See “Service with a Smile.

Lessons in integrating systems
Some experience from my engineering days illustrates an approach for automating and integrating building systems.

When I was starting out, I learned to develop a circuit with a careful paper design, then to build a “breadboard” version to test and optimize it. Much to my consternation, when a perfectly functioning breadboard was built into a system, it often no longer worked. Once my “brilliant” device was part of a larger system, there were a lot of things that could go wrong. I learned, for example, that wiring was crucial and 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 poor connections). Then, there are environmental factors, such as heat and humidity.

When I advanced to designing entire systems, I found that 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 start off working as planned. You could tune each system for best performance, but when you tie them together, you suddently have a new challenge.

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

What do these stories have to do with electrical contracting? 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 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. Finally, you’ll want to get involved in maintaining the systems to ensure they continue to function as planned.

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

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


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.