The telecommunications and electrical contracting businesses have mingled in ways no one has ever imagined.

In January of 1984, federal district court Judge Harold H. Green dismembered the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Judge Green, who died in January of 2000, lived to see the "Baby Bells" start to regroup and offer VDV services.

Electrical contractors now install traditional electrical cabling, along with voice/data/video cables. They also use installation, testing, and certification tools that were once exclusively used by telecommunication workers.

"Electrical contractors now are bidding for the same jobs as traditional telecommunication contractors and are buying and using telecommunication tools," says James "Jim" Carefoot, director of engineering for Chesilvale Electronics Incorporated in Bothell, Wash.

To help electrical contractors learn more about cable testing, Microtest, Inc., and other manufacturers and industry providers are building and maintaining educational Web pages.

Many low-voltage tool manufacturers encourage contractor input. "Historically our product introductions and improvements have been directly the result of user feedback," says Robert T. "Bob" Gill, marketing manager at Progressive Electronics in Mesa, Ariz., a division of Textron, Inc., in Rockford, Ill. "Electronically inclined users have made modifications that improved our products."

"Delivering products our customers need now and in the future can't be done [by] working in a vacuum," says Barclay Olson, president of Greenlee Textron, Inc., a Rockford, Ill.-based subsidiary of Textron, Inc. "Most of our best new-product ideas really originate to some degree with our customers, and we continuously seek feedback from the field."

New cable sizes, cable components, and testing and certification tools are in development. "Last November the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Electronic Industry Association (TIA/EIA) ratified Category 5e cable standards," says Colin D. McCance, national product manager at Graybar Electric. "It's at least six months to a year before TIA/EIA Category 6 cable standards will be adopted."

"Cat 6 specifications are still debated and the final Cat 6 form [has] not been established," says Hugo A. Draye, market segment manager for installers and contractors at Fluke Corporation in Everett, Wash. "About 20 percent of all new applications are using proposed Cat 6. Until [Cat] 6 standards are established some venders are promoting Cat 6 products using proprietary connector and connection solutions. Parts are not yet interchangeable between manufacturers. A part acquired today from a vendor may not exist a month from now."

"TIA/EIA committees are writing Cat 6 now," says Lisa M. Schwartz, senior product marketing manager for Datacom Textron, a division of Greenlee Textron. "We know that Category 7 is on the horizon. Cat 5 and 5e are 100 MHz standards; Cat 6 in development will be a 250 MHz standard. Our company and other testing companies are designing products to test up to 350 MHz."

Today selecting the right tool for a job means making sure-before making a major investment-that the tool will work on the older-size cables, components, and standards, as well as on anticipated cables, components, and standards for coaxial, copper twisted pair, and fiber-optic cables.

Older testers generated hundreds of pages of test results, with one test per page. "Typically those thousands of pages of test results were not carefully inspected," says Draye. By contrast, computerized testers store data from hundreds of tests. Some testers designed for use in the field download data to laptops. Others have built-in computers that organize data and identify a cable failure and the nature of the problem in seconds.

"After all the runs are installed, two specially trained electricians will run certification tests and use headsets and voiceover," says Draye.

Copper and fiber cables generally run in air-conditioned interior portions of buildings.

"Cable performance characteristics change with temperature, and over time," says Draye. "The higher the temperature, the higher the amount of lost signal."

Tool acquisition

How low-voltage tools are purchased also is changing. Besides traditional wholesale/retail electrical and telecommunications suppliers, some low-voltage testers now are available from traditional neighborhood hardware stores, including local ACE and TrueValue stores; from the larger national big-box warehouse chains, including Home Depot and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse; and on the World Wide Web.

"To make our tools more available, we and our joint-venture partner, Triplett Corporation [in Bluffton, Ohio] now sell low-voltage testers under our own labels to the mass-market home centers and local hardware stores in small communities that may not have their own wholesale electrical/telecommunications store," says David L. Wiesmann, director of engineering and product development at Gardner Bender, Inc., in Milwaukee, Wis.

Most manufacturers of low-voltage electrical and telecommunications tools now have informational Web sites. (See sidebar.) Since June of 1999, Metersandinstruments.com offers tools from about 200 manufacturers. Customers make purchases with national or corporate credit cards and traditional company purchase orders. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time, live online staff members help customers.

"Page visitation varies from day to day," says Becky Tellier, online customer representative.

"We try to contact every online visitor. We answer questions and help placing orders," adds Neil A. McCaw, general manager, "We hope to be an information provider for the tools we sell."

Textron, Inc.-a dominant force

Last year, tool manufacturer Greenlee Textron acquired two other tool manufacturers: Progressive Electronics in October and RIFOCS Corporation of Camarillo, Calif., in December. RIFOCS is a manufacturer of optical power testers. "We now offer electrical contractors the most comprehensive system of wire and cable installation and testing tools," says Olson.

New equipment from Greenlee divisions includes:

· New low-voltage testing, certifying, and maintenance equipment from Datacom Textron. In November of 1999, Datacom Textron introduced the M.A. Ch. 10/100 LAN Diagnostic-Analyzer. It converts a hand-held personal computer with the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) support, running Windows CE Operating System, into a troubleshooting, maintenance, and management tool.

In January 2000, Datacom Textron added the new Network Test Tablet (NXT) with interchangeable test modules for testing, certification, and troubleshooting copper and fiber-optic cables and network diagnostics and troubleshooting. NXT can receive and send e-mail, and allows LinkTalk voice communication over cable under test conditions. Two of the NXT's modules are the X.A.C.T. for Cat 6 and fiber optic test and the XAMINE for network diagnostic and troubleshooting.

· Two new hand-held, low-voltage tools-the PairMapper 45280 and the Sure Signal 46060-were introduced by Greenlee Textron in the fall of 1999.

The PairMapper is used to identify wiring faults in 10 Base-T and other four-pair, unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cables. "Reversed pairs are indicated by an 'R,'" says Christopher D. "Chris" Vernon, product manager for the data/signal/voice market segment at Greenlee Textron. PairMapper identifies and distinguishes among up to four remote terminators between a telecommunications closet and four outlets in a client's space."

Sure Signal, a twisted-pair troubleshooting tool, identifies common wiring faults that include shorts, opens, and miswires in four-pair data/voice cable links when RJ45-style jacks are used. "The Sure Signal tests each of eight individual wires in twisted-pair cables, as opposed to testing pairs," says Vernon.

In addition, Greenlee Textron will announce and stock a new hand-held butt-in tester this spring.

· Improved versions of two venerable hand-held products from Progressive Electronics - the low-voltage tester AT8K Adapt Toner Modular Break-out Tone Generator Kit and the Model 468 Modular Cable Tester. Since 1972, Progressive Electronics has manufactured testing tools for the Bell companies.

"We have adapted and modified these testing tools for other premise wire contractors who are pulling in wiring or cabling through buildings for alarm and security systems, data communications, and electrical and telecommunications needs," says Gill. "Historically, some of our electronically inclined end-users have brought modifications back to us. Everyone in our company takes technical-support calls.

"The model AT8K kit, one of our core products, allows electrical contractors to tone and test combinations of pairs or conductors in 4, 6, [or] 8 modular jacks and plugs."

The improved Model 468 offers a fast and accurate testing method for the most common modular configurations, including opens, shorts, reversals, and transposed pairs. It was introduced about three years ago, and Gill says "significant running changes" were made to the product in mid-1999.

By the end of 2000, Gill says, Progressive expects to introduce two new products.

Web Sites of Manufacturers and Suppliers of Low-Voltage Testers

3M www.3M.com/telecom;
Agilent Technologies www.agilent.com and www.wirescope.com/;
AMEC Instruments www.aemc.com;
Chauvin Arnoux www.chauvin-arnoux.com;
Chesilvale Electronics www.chesilvale.com;
Datacom Textron www.datacom.textron.com;
Fluke www.fluke.com;
Gardner Bender www.gardnerbender.com;
Graybar www.graybar.com;
Greenlee Textron www.greenlee.textron.com;
Ideal Industries, Inc. www.idealindustries.com;
Metersandinstruments.com www.Metersandinstruments.com;
Microtest Inc. www.cabletesting.com/index.html or
www.cabletesting.com/overview.html;
Noyes Fiber Systems www.noyes-fiber.com;
RIFOCS Corp. www.rifocs.com or www.rifocs.textron.com;
Riser Bond Instruments www.riserbond.com;
Progressive Electronics Inc. www.progressive-inc.com or www. progressive.textron.com;
Tempo Research Corporation www.tempocomm.com;
Textron www.textron.com;
Triplett Corporation www.triplett.com;
Wavetek Wandel Goltermann www.wwgsolutions.com; and
Wicon www.wilcominc.com

LEPOSKY is a freelance writer based in Miami. She can be reached at
releposky@aol.com.