In today’s technologically advanced society, nearly every new commercial building has found a way to incorporate the computer revolution into its design. When the first personal computers hit the consumer market in the early 1980s, people were provided with greater access to data than they ever dreamed possible. As a result, telecommunications systems have become an integral component of most building designs.

Along with the information age came new opportunities for electrical contractors, including telecommunications and voice/data/video work. Over the years, the demand for wiring, cabling and networking has presented greater opportunities.

The key to a successful installation involves having the computers communicate successfully with each other in a reliable and secure network infrastructure, using traditional Category 5 wired installations and wireless technologies. Structured cabling can also be used to support other networks such as telephone systems, working alongside a computer network.

If you don’t know what the acronyms ISDN and PBX stand for today, you will probably be passed over for a contractor who can provide installations using fiber optic or copper-based cabling systems. The door has already been opened for electrical contractors to compete with datacom specialists for substantial telecommunications projects, but are you knowledgeable about the latest technology?

Of course, safety and functionality are the two most critical items that must be taken into consideration when electrical contractors begin installing local area networks (LANs). Networks play a vital role in sharing and distributing information within a company. Today’s networks are designed to handle electronic mail, automation and multiple user databases along with a variety of other services. The network’s primary focus is to increase the reliability of data communications while offering multiple user accessibility.

For those seeking greater mobility that handle faster transmission at higher speeds, a LAN can be installed wirelessly. Total network traffic should be considered before installing a wireless system.

The installed networks connect devices over a relatively short distance. For example, a networked office building or institution generally contains a single local area network although often one building may contain several smaller LANs or these could even span a group of adjacent buildings. These networks are typically controlled and managed by a single person or organization and use specific connectivity technologies such as Token Ring or Ethernet, a physical and data link layer technology. Today, the fastest speed available is gigabit Ethernet technology, which extends peak performance up to 1,000 megabits per second.

For commercial applications, LANs can be constructed with a variety of media cables including coaxial, multiconductor, multipair and fiber optic configurations. While data cables are used extensively in tel/data processing systems, process control monitoring, point-of-sale equipment and local area networking, these products are also designed for both new data installations and total system expansion.

In residential applications, a LAN provides a high-speed data connection to all the computers in your home, allowing them to share files, share networked peripherals, (e.g., printers), and even play networked games. Several computers can share high-speed Internet access devices, such as DSL or cable modems, over a home-computer network.

Using a typical floor plan, it is easy to design a layout that optimizes cable routing, taking into consideration the physical properties of the building and the position of the equipment. Most LAN installations include servers, bridges, routers, hubs and cabling using support of a Windows NT Network Operating System or Windows 95 Network Operating System. It is also imperative that each system include network backup systems with digital tape and software configuration. To prevent network failures, operating patches can also be installed. Also, be sure to configure shareable resources along with user accounts and initial security systems. All network cabling systems must be compliant with current standards.

“There is a growing trend of more and more electrical contractors looking to pick up the voltage side as a value add and it makes good sense,” said Steven Elmore, RCDD, applications engineer for CommScope. “There are, however, certain things the contractor must be aware of during these installs. For example, if you’re pulling in wire, there are certain guidelines that must be followed that are not super stringent. If a force is exceeded, cable can become damaged and it will not perform as designed.”

Just how difficult is it to learn these skills?

“A slightly modified skill set is needed to learn how to install local area networks but it is not difficult,” Elmore said. “It’s like a good auto mechanic working on smaller engines. The work becomes a lot more specialized but it’s still the same field. For the electrical contractor, there are different termination techniques and testing of products. Learning how to do these installs is not a skill set that most electricians couldn’t pick up quickly enough.”

CommScope designs and manufactures “last mile” cable and connectivity solutions for communication networks. “Our role is to provide training and bring electrical contractors up to speed on installation techniques and provide solutions,” Elmore said. “We manufacture some of the best cable available in terms of fiber optics and can be a single source provider for entire enterprise network solutions. Right now, we do business with quite a number of electrical contractors and that number keeps growing.”

Renovation and restoration work are frequently regarded as the most arduous work for electrical contractors, requiring them to work around ongoing business in one area of the building or adapt and retrofit wiring behind plaster walls. The most hassle-free form of installation involves new building systems.

With local area networks, extensive wiring is required to meet the ever-increasing growth of computer systems, telephone and data systems, and the requirement for workstation power. Obviously, as demand for these wired smart buildings increases, electrical contractors must quickly learn how to install these systems effectively.

“The trend for electrical contractors to provide installs on their own is one that is only growing and will continue to grow in the coming years,” said Roger Jette, president of Snake Tray. “It is the largest growing area for electrical contractors right now. I think it originally proliferated at a slow pace, but over the next 10 years, we will see more and more contractors providing their own installs. One of the most important benefits is that construction supervisors only have to coordinate one trade on a job site and that creates greater efficiency. In the electrical discipline, there is a need for training in data communications and it is easier for the electrical contractor to install. Newer technology potentially carries more margin than legacy business.”

While the majority of electrical contractors already have experience in power, lighting and control systems, the same contractors are now able to focus on networking systems. As a result of continuous breakthroughs in electronic technology, more opportunities are being created using voice and data products and fiber optic technology.

Because the demand for total system automation has dramatically increased over the past few years, automated offices are jumping so quickly on the scene that the communications wiring departments in most buildings cannot handle the workload. A simple walk through any corporate office displays workstations overflowing with the latest technology—from desktop computers and laptops, storage units, cable modems, high-speed Internet accessibility, printers, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other communications equipment. Because of this, today’s voice and data premise wiring systems are being considered as essential to building functionality as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

“Local area networks require connection of a system via wires and cables that are generally suspended in a ceiling,” said Jordan Handler, president of MonoSystems. “I believe more and more electrical contractors will be doing their own in-house design-build projects because it has proven not only expeditious but cost effective as well. These projects are being left in the hands of the contractor, whose clients are realizing have the resources and materials to complete the job quickly and more efficiently than hiring another contractor.”

In today’s ever-changing, technologically advancing society, electrical contractors must be aware of national standards when providing these installations. Since all networks (commercial and residential) are designed to accomplish the same goals (share applications, files, peripherals, e-mail, messaging and Web access), electrical contractors can now meet the needs of their clients while expanding their client roster to include many types of businesses. EC

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or kkspeed@aol.com.