Labeling and documentation can be separate tasks, but they go hand in hand and should be completed, at least in part, at the same time.

Some may view labeling/documentation as an afterthought, but it should be a comprehensive thought pattern and organized process that begins at the beginning of the design phase and continues on throughout system installation. The sooner you start to document your system, the better. If not, you will most likely find yourself scrambling around in the end trying to complete this essential part of the project.

In our ever-changing industry, businesses and buildings have become increasingly complex, so this “final phase” task is not something to be taken lightly. Labeling and documentation should be performed on all systems in all buildings, whether residential, commercial or industrial. This allows systems and networks to be easily understood and deciphered for assessment, monitoring or repair.

Labeling/documentation is essential if you as the contractor have installed more than one critical system (electrical, communication or fire).

Long gone are the days when a box of markers was accepted as a sufficient solution. Nowadays it is imperative that problems be located in the shortest amount of time possible. The basis for labeling and documentation is that successful and organized programs help lower discovery time, thus enabling contractors, administrators and/or facility managers to locate the source of system problems so that repairs and/or replacements can be made in order to get things up and running again.

The name game

Sometimes terms are thrown around in rapid succession and things can get quite confusing. This all-too-common habit seems to be exaggerated in this particular instance since the terms labeling, documentation and panel management all seem to be used interchangeably.

Labeling is what contractors refer to as the physical markers that are located at predetermined points within a system, such as at termination points, faceplates, panels and the like. The word itself kind of says it all. Labels serve as immediate, visual references that many rely upon for day-to-day operations and troubleshooting.

Documentation is a little more in depth and can include such things as as-built system drawings, CAD drawings, schematics, blueprints and other similar documents that help illustrate each individual system. This is the piece of the puzzle that guides one to certain locations that have been (or should be) clearly marked via the labeling phase, which explains why these two functions are somewhat dependent on one another.

Panel management can be a vague term at times since it is not always used. When it is, communication systems seem to be mentioned more often than others since patch panels serve as the base point for such networking systems. Panel management is an inclusive term that refers to cable management, labeling and documentation.

The electrical system

Electrical systems themselves have changed throughout the years. Though the concept remains the same, their overall function has changed drastically. For the most part they are designed to control more than just lighting. Electrical systems are the backbone of all buildings since every other system contained within requires power for operation.

Today’s technology has made it even more important for electrical systems to be documented in more structured and comprehensive ways since outages and problems need to be both identified and repaired at lightning speeds in order to avoid interruptions and down time. Consumers no longer consider system downtime acceptable since there are numerous ways to combat the problem. Even when problems cannot be foreseen, repair time is expected to be instantaneous in our 24-hour world.

Electrical system design and installation is bound by fairly strict guidelines that dictate system documentation be a required part of any project. This is why the subject comes as no real surprise to contractors since they have always been well aware of its existence. The only true change has been to the variety of product offerings. There are more options available now than ever before and many contractors can choose depending upon both their budget and personal preferences.

The communication system

When talking about the communication—voice, data and/or video—side of the systems equation, there is a standard that helps to alleviate some of the confusion regarding what is and what is not acceptable.

The TIA/EIA 606-A standard needs to be taken into consideration in almost all instances. This standard was published in May 2002 and is aptly called “Administration Standard for Commercial Telecommunications Infrastructure.” Contained within the standard are four classes of guidelines that are dependent upon the size of both the network and the facility itself. For instance, a small, 100-user network contained within one building would fall under the Class 1 category whereas a campus-like, multiple building setting with numerous users would abide by Class 4 standards.

This standard, which has both color-coded and alphanumeric guidelines for all networking and structured cabling components, is one that has caught on due to its intrinsically parallel qualities to those associated with network administration standards. It is the color-coding that truly sets this standard apart and quite frankly the concept is a logical and sensible solution.

In addition, some cable warranties are dependent upon successful labeling and documentation being turned in directly to the cable manufacturer as proof of system installation. Since cable warranties are a key factor in many buyers’ purchasing decisions, successfully certifying a system by supplying this type of information to the manufacturer is extremely important.

Products abound

As with anything else, there are countless choices available for satisfying the needs of contractors. When you break it down, you pretty much have two choices available, purchase an all-inclusive package or create your own. Sounds simplistic, and it is, especially for contractors who are accustomed to dealing with such things.

One example is the Panduit (www.panduit.com) Easy-Mark Labeling Software system or the AMP Netconnect Labeling System. This package allows one to easily create and manage both electrical and network systems through the creation of labels and databases for such things as wire / cable marking, patch panels, faceplates, 110 blocks, control panels, terminal blocks, fire-stopped locations and circuit boards. This helps to create a uniform and easily accessible solution for both labeling and system documentation. This product is compatible with the TIA / EIA 606-A standard. This option is also popular since network administrators can easily access the database information to use for their own administrative purposes.

The second type of viable solution would be to utilize a basic, readily available database program such as Access or even a Microsoft Works database (the one that pretty much comes standard with all computers) to manage the information and then print out the labels on one of the readily available handheld label makers. Though this option, upon first glance, seems to be quite basic by nature, it does about the same thing. In addition, since most contractors have CAD capabilities in-house they can further add to the documentation stage by incorporating this type of drawing into the equation as well.

One of the newest entrants into this area would have to be the new Brother International (www.brother.com) PT-1600 Model according to Duane Yamashita, Marketing Manager / Commercial Labeling Systems. You guessed right, PT stands for P-touch. The P-touch has been a staple of the handheld labeling market for quite some time now and this newest offering is actually designed for contractors and field personnel. This is a more rugged version that allows users to input data and spacing information and thus locally print out labels for essentially all patch panels and faceplates. Brother also offers another solution, Model PT-9600 that incorporates a notebook size keypad and abilities such as being able to download databases and templates to print off as needed at a job site.

Last but not least

It is important to keep in mind that not only do these solutions and standards help to create a professional looking installation, but they are also required to keep the systems functioning properly. Most contractors have caught on to the benefits of maintenance programs, and many offer such services on a routine basis. The labeling and documenting performed during initial installation is something that can be utilized time and time again should maintenance programs become a common service.

As an electrical contractor, remember that labeling/documentation is required, not optional. You must budget labor and materials to finish this task. Making sure to include labeling and documenting in your scope of work and appropriately adjusting your price can stave off headaches in the long run.

Contractors have found themselves in ever increasing roles as trusted business partners and this subject is just yet another function in the long list of responsibilities incurred. Though at times this part of the job may seem to be tedious and time consuming, it needs to be routinely practiced for its importance to the end-user and the contractor as well. It is you who will most likely end up back in the building should a problem arise. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com