In some ways, electrical contractors are becoming manufacturers. Companies of all sizes are prefabricating and modularizing work before the equipment shows up on the construction site. While some big operators have been doing it for years, small and mid-sized contractors still face a decision: either do it in-house or find someone to do the work for them. As new prefab startups bring electrical services to contractors in most regions of the country, there are more choices than ever.


While prefabrication started with many highly repetitive tasks, contractors today can go as far as constructing whole floors of an office building, data center or factory in the relative comfort of their own shops or warehouses, then installing them later in the nearly finished structures. Prefab lowers labor and material costs and reduces time spent at the job site.


With short project deadlines, crowded job sites, limited staging areas and unpredictable weather, most contractors understand the benefits of prefabrication. However, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.


All about the management


Prefab is a fringe benefit of proper project management, according to George Elles, owner of Electrical Construction Services (ECS), Houston. Transitioning parts of a project to a prefab shop might make project managers nervous, since adroit planning and a well-organized project are imperative for prefab to succeed.


Companies such as ECS offer services to help contractors set up their own prefab operations, no matter their size. Elles typically comes on-site to conduct a facility survey, assess a prefab space’s layout design, perform a cost analysis, and present a proposal that covers what the contractor will need to do and how ECS can move them through that process. Elles helps procure necessary equipment—including items such as benders, cutters, jigs, special printers and programs for labeling, tagging, etc.—and guides the actual buildout. Once the system is in operation, he returns every three months or so for a “tuneup.”


Elles has been doing this since 2000 and has worked with contractors from coast to coast.


For a contractor to get into prefab, there is one condition.


“They have to believe in it,” he said. “To even get into prefab, project managers have to decide this will be their new mindset.”


A well-organized operation will bring foremen and project managers together at the onset of each job to evaluate the work, determine the prefabrication opportunities and build those expectations in the project-planning phase.


This can be done with such software and tools as computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM) to help with drawing and coordination for the installation.


A prefab shop ensures construction work doesn’t entirely shut down when weather conditions interfere.


“Employees can still come in and work,” Elles said. 


It also enables on-the-job training for four-year apprenticeships, so workers can learn on the job while still in the warehouse.


For contractors with long transportation issues, prefab shops are being set up in 18-wheeler units on-site, which may cost extra money initially but will still save money in the long run by keeping equipment fabrication moving.


“You can prefab anything,” Elles said. “Here in Houston, I’ve seen contractors install prefabbed duct banks.”


The duct bank work was done in-house; a crane lifted them from a truck and dropped them directly into the trench. Elles said that a transformer has about 45 parts in it, and that work can be done at the warehouse and sent out to the job site where it can be quickly installed.


Elles said it typically takes his contractor clients about two weeks to get a warehouse area in operation, which is the case for any size contractor. Then, each job must start with preplanning, agreement on what will be prefabbed, and encouragement to the foreman on the job site to work closely with the prefab shop throughout the project.


If something goes wrong in the prefab shop, getting the first pieces out quickly helps identify the problem before it snowballs.


 

A well-organized operation will bring foremen and project managers together at the onset of each job to evaluate the work, determine the prefabrication opportunities and build those expectations in the project-planning phase.

 

Small companies with $5 million in annual revenue can gain, too, with a smaller prefab shop and two electricians on-site rather than a half dozen or more as the larger contractors tend to have. Elles said he’s seen businesses set up a 25-by-25-foot area with a single electrician and still save a significant amount of money on a project.


Anything that’s done in repetition—nine times or more—is a candidate for in-house prefab work, said Bill Heilner, vice president of field operations at Romanoff Electric Co., Toledo, Ohio. The company’s warehouse has a full prefab operation with six or seven electricians on-site working in the modularization of each project’s individual pieces.


Romanoff uses its prefab operation for every project, and about 40–60 percent of the material on each job site has been prefabbed. The company assembles everything from electrical boxes to lighting fixtures and moves the goods on a timed basis to the job site, reducing the amount of staging inventory on-site by making it as needed and transporting it accordingly.


Moving prefab goods can be one of the greater challenges contractors face, and it grows exponentially more difficult if the distance from the prefab shop to the job site is long. Unless the company wants to set up a prefab operation on-site—which most don’t—transportation cost has to be considered, as does moving a variety of uniquely shaped goods in a container or on the back of a truck. Romanoff manufactures its own pallets that are specialized to transport specific items for each job.


“One of the biggest issues as far as shipping is making sure nothing gets damaged,” Heilner said.


The pallets are designed with this in mind, making the items as easy to load and stack as possible. In addition, they have to be easy to unpack. That means including the necessary offloading equipment, such as a forklift, to get the goods off the truck, unpacked and ready for installation.


“We make sure that, once it hits the job site, it will be easy to install,” he said.


The company can also use standard shipping containers for a large percentage of its work.


Even with transportation costs factored in, “we’re still looking at a cost savings,” Heilner said. 


That’s in part because prefabbing the material cuts down on on-site manpower. However, it does not reduce jobs for the company’s electricians. Instead, they secure more projects by using this methodology, increasing staff overall which includes the employees working at the prefab shop.


The transition for electricians has been hardest for veterans who tend to resist change, so adjusting them to a different culture takes some time. Getting communication and documentation to ensure the work is being done properly is another major factor.


“I think, in the beginning, there was a real learning curve to it, but over the last 11/2–2 years it’s been going pretty smooth,” he said.


Other subcontractors, such as sprinkler installers, had been doing prefab work even before electricians got in on the action.


“The biggest thing for us is we can meet an accelerated schedule with less risk of injuries and less congestion on the work site,” he said.


O’Connell Electric, Victor, N.Y., started looking into offering a prefab option to customers a few years ago, said Victor Salerno, CEO. He said O’Connell was dabbling in it even though no customer had specifically asked for prefab services.


Salerno said he saw it as a strategic advantage. Although prefab services are still somewhat new to the area’s construction industry, they are becoming more common.


“We don’t have any choice,” Salerno said. “We have to be as competitive as possible.”


Last year, O’Connell won the Great Meadows Correctional Facility renovation project in Comstock, N.Y. It was the opportunity to put its new prefab operations to the test.

 

The transition for electricians has been hardest for veterans who tend to resist change, so adjusting them to a different culture takes some time.

 

Undertaking construction work in an active, maximum security facility includes tight security checks and clearance requirements for each electrician, making it time-consuming to get workers in and out of the site. By implementing the prefab process and working closely with the client, much of the work can be performed off-site, yet still meet expectations and reduce the need to move many electricians through that security process.


“Two-way communication and an understanding of the entire prefab process from project award to completion is the key,” Salerno said.


As the design and fabrication manager, Dave Wiegand joined O’Connell Electric two years ago to help launch the prefab operation. He already had experience developing and managing prefabrication with another local contractor. His role includes facilitating all facets of design and construction within the prefab process, such as CAD and virtual design, coordination, estimating, materials and man-hour scheduling, and assisting project managers within the team.


Wiegand said the Great Meadows Prison project, which is running on time, consists of upgrading 624 cells by March 2017. The company delivered its first 74 cells in January—prefabbed in-house—and is moving forward from there.


The company is also using the prefab model for a railroad swing bridge project over the Maumee River in Toledo. In this case, the project team spent two days on-site and identified every opportunity to fabricate an assembly in its prefab facility that can be shipped out in containers to the job site for installation.


Prefab suppliers


Prefab companies offer the other alternative to contractors that don’t want to make the investment of space, equipment and time to build their own prefab shop. Thompson Brown Inc. of Murfreesboro, Tenn., typically serves midsized contractors with 60–100 electricians. Owner Michael Brown is a journeyman himself. He was tired of watching contractors buy products of lower quality instead of building their own on-site.


Instead, he pays electricians to build out equipment for clients. Although Thompson Brown only began operations in January 2015, it has enough customers to operate about a half-million dollars’ worth of tooling in a 15,000-square-foot area.


The electricians in the Thompson Brown shop have the experience needed to ensure the products are high quality without a higher cost.


“You can’t build electrical products without having someone with field experience building them,” Brown said.


He was inspired to open the company after seeing that some contractors he worked for were buying shoddy products from prefab suppliers. His aim is to bring high-quality products to contractors and help them be more efficient.


“My goal is to take a 60-man job and turn it into a 40-man job,” Brown said. “That way, the contractor can be competitive enough to get 10 more jobs like it and put 400 men back to work.” 


Thompson Brown is already in negotiations with an electrical products manufacturer to be a direct distributor. His operation is also undertaking other projects focused on building a talent pool, such as bringing high school students into the shop a couple of hours each week to offer some training, filter out the most promising students and help get them in touch with apprenticeship programs.


The company has eight men working on-site regularly, but Brown expects that number to increase.


“We’ve been producing since mid-June [2015],” he said. 


It’s been almost a year since the business got underway, and he’s been very happy with the response.