Founded in 1963, San Diego-based Saturn Electric started out exclusively as a full-service electrical contractor. Ron Dudek purchased the company in 1977, and 20 years later, Ron’s son, Tim, joined the firm. In 2005, Tim became president.

Over the years, boom times and recessions have dictated the size of the business. Currently, the company has about 15 employees. Rather than remain at the mercy of the economy, Saturn Electric decided to branch out into different kinds of work as a way to soften the blows of fiscal changes.

“When regular work dried up, we had to reinvent ourselves,” Tim Dudek said. “We had to open up new avenues of work in order to survive.”

The most significant expansion has been in the area of low-voltage work.

“We expanded into low-voltage work basically because of the recession,” he said.

The expansion was a good decision.

“Right now, low-voltage work is about 40–50 percent of what we do,” he said.

While the company continues to do traditional electrical contracting work along with the newer low-voltage, the company keeps both types of work under the same umbrella; it hasn’t created two separate divisions.

The company is qualified to do almost any kind of low-voltage work, but most projects involve data and audio.

“In the past, though, we have also done some telephone and security work,” Dudek said.

Employed and trained
For Saturn Electric, it is not difficult to find qualified employees for the low-voltage work.

“We are signatory to the union, and the union has done a very good job of training apprentices,” Dudek said. “They come out pretty much ready to go.”

In addition, Saturn Electric teaches its employees about business practices and the specialties on which it concentrates.

“We also allocate time with our equipment vendors to train our employees,” he said.

In fact, one of the company’s selling points when marketing its services is that it has such well-trained, highly qualified employees.

Finding new customers and projects
Saturn Electric doesn’t directly advertise its low-voltage work. Its most effective strategy for building the low-voltage side of its business comes from marketing this expertise to satisfied customers on the traditional electrical contracting side.

Saturn Electric doesn’t just wait for work to come around though. In recent years, it has become very aggressive in capitalizing on government regulations that are changing the landscape of low-voltage electrical work in California. One of these evolutions is modifications to Title 24, the California Code of Regulations.

Title 24 regulations govern the design and construction of buildings, associated facilities and equipment. It is known as the California Building Standards Code, published by the California Building Standards Commission. Part of this regulation involves energy conservation, and requirements have been changing in this area in recent years.

“We are moving forward in exploring new changes to Title 24,” Dudek said. “Basically, the game has changed in California.” For example, to get an occupancy permit, a building must pass a lighting test.

“Any new building or any major remodel in the commercial space must adhere to Title 24 requirements,” he said.

One requirement is that all buildings must have occupancy sensors, so the lights will turn off if someone hasn’t triggered them to stay on within the previous half-hour. Another is that each building must be wired for demand-response and be connected to the building’s local utility; in demand response, if a brownout is going to occur, the utility has the ability to reach in and shut down parts of the building.

“As a contractor, we have been getting our employees certified to be able to perform Title 24 audits, to perform the actual work and to perform the testing,” Dudek said.

In addition, Saturn Electric is getting involved in the California Advanced Lighting Controls Training Program (CALCTP), a statewide initiative designed to increase the use of lighting controls in commercial buildings and industrial facilities. CALCTP is set up to educate, train and certify licensed electrical contractors and state-certified general electricians in the proper programming, testing, installation, commissioning and maintenance of advanced lighting control systems. Saturn Electric is now a CALCTP-certified contractor.

Saturn Electric has been able to maintain its business by continuing to do work for satisfied customers. One of these is the San Diego Unified School District. Over the past four years, Saturn Electric has installed more than a thousand interactive whiteboards, in addition to doing other power and audio work for various schools in the district.

“These boards are mounted on walls and run off the teachers’ computers,” Dudek said. “You can go to the board, touch it with a special pen, run your computer off that board and even save the information to your computer.”

Technology such as this reinforces the belief that, as more technological advances take place in the future, there will always be a need for qualified low-voltage electrical contractors to make them a reality.