Technology is bounding forward in the wireless world and almost every electrical contractor carries one of a variety of cell phones or Internet-related phones, pocket PCs or personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Some of this technology is still in its infancy, while some has already become a vital part of on-site work for contractors. But how important are these various gadgets and technical tools to a busy contractor either on the job site or back at the office?

Sorting out the ever-changing options in wireless technology can require a little research and willingness to try something new. In some cases, businesses are using considerable discretion before jumping into cutting-edge technology. But the time put into the research and trial of new products is often more than returned when contractors find the right technology for their company.

One example is the PDA. Contractors with PDAs are finding they have a new freedom from paper, pens and laptops with technology’s latest tool. The good news for electrical contractors is that those in the PDA business are in a constant dialogue with electricians and job site supervisors to find new ways to make their products more useful and user-friendly.

Their goal is to produce the equipment and software that eases the lives of contractors on the job site and their counterparts back at the office.

With the most basic PDA, contractors have their database in the field with them. Instead of writing, they can type pertinent information onto a small keypad and then transfer that information directly to a database. Most PDAs allow collection of data in a light, handheld device.

When the contractor is finished, he or she can place the device in its docking cradle and the data is then synchronized with a desktop PC before being transferred to a central database. Not everyone needs the PDA. Some contractors find they function well without it. But for a large percentage of contractors, these handheld devices can increase productivity and ease the life of accounting people in the office. And once they are used to it, the majority of contractors are looking for even more technology.

McCormick Systems’ Remote Takeoff was introduced at the NECA Show 2002 and won a Showstopper Award from this magazine. With this device, contractors can load their company’s estimating database (including special items and assemblies) onto their PDA. After they have done the take-off at a remote location, they can send the data from the handheld to their office wirelessly, or just download the data from the PDA to their main system back at the office.

This makes life a lot easier for contractors when they want to do estimates for service work, do job walk-throughs or change orders. McCormick offers features such as allowing the contractor to easily count items such as fixtures by tapping a count button while walking through a structure.

Allen Larosh, owner of Albarell Electric, is using a McCormick PDA in test mode. After a month of trial, he was not yet ready to estimate its success. “It’s a nice idea—the concept is nice,” he said.

But he has yet to take it out of trial mode. Larosh said training his employees to use it properly is a process he doesn’t rush, and until he is assured they are using it accurately he will stay in test mode.

Larosh will determine through the trial whether the data collected by him employees is accurate. “All programs on the cutting edge do have idiosyncrasies,” he pointed out. “I’ve been down this road with accounting.” If it works for Larosh, it will make the work of men and women on the job sites more accurate. For one thing, “You’re not depending on someone’s notes.”

One of the problems for Larosh is that not all superintendents and technicians are computer literate. “The problem is if the data is bad, it takes a lot of effort to see where mistake was made,” he said.

Albarell’s employees in accounting, as well as those in the field, need training to make the software work. “You find everybody can’t do it the same way,” Larosh said, which requires some flexibility in training employees to use the PDA. “I don’t care how the data gets there as long as it is correct. I did go through the process of trying to get everyone regimented. Some people fight that. As long as the information is accurate that doesn’t matter. I stopped trying to do that.” Instead, he tries to ensure that they understand “Here’s the basic parameters and here’s the data.” Then he gives them plenty of trial time to learn it.

Brad Matthews, vice president of sales at Dexter+Cheney in Seattle, agrees that training sometimes includes a resistance to change. “I think any time you introduce something like this there will be resistance. In general, nobody likes change.”

With that in mind he advises contractors to allow training time to help technicians adjust. He pointed out, however, that while contractors might not realize it immediately, PDA devices are much more user-friendly than, for example, a home computer. “With a CE device or PDA, you turn off the power then turn it back on and you’re right where you were.” There is no rebooting or pointing and clicking to get where you need to be.

The PDA, which has a much more specific purpose than a computer, can be treated more like a tool. Dexter+Cheney will soon release a PDA product called Forefront Mobile Service that tracks basic on-site functions such as equipment hours, but does it online. This allows contractors to communicate and manipulate data directly rather than uploading it to another database. “Instead of something synchronized, they (electrical contractors) want something more live, more online.

That requires more sophisticated technology,” said Matthews.

In response, Dexter+Cheney is creating this service-oriented, live communication product based on a Microsoft Windows CE platform. If a technician enters data, it will be updated right away.

People in the office can see where the technician is, what he or she is doing, and can move people to different projects throughout the day based on the information appearing on the screen.

Eventually, they could even get signatures of customers or architects on-line and completely eliminate the need for paper. “It’s a matter of real time as opposed to batching,” Matthews said. Once contractors start with PDA technology, they are often hungry for more. Technology is evolving rapidly to meet those desires with pocket PCs that—in addition to data collection—will allow technicians to file reports while on the job site.

Alpine Data Systems in Newark, Del., is making a product for electrical contractors that will eliminate time searching through code books and making calculations. Claus Schmidt, company owner, says Alpine has developed software for the PDA that allows contractors to check the portions of the National Electrical Code that apply to a project. If they have a 110V circuit and a specific number of feet of wire, for example, they can plug those numbers into the palm device and find out what the NEC allows.

The software, known as PalmElectrician.com, has been available for about a year. Alpine makes the product free to download for a trial period of 30 days at which point users have the option to buy or not. “We thought it would be easier that way. Let them play with it.”

“Over the last year, we’ve had requests for additions to it,” Schmidt said. This is leading to gradual upgrades specific to electricians. “The core functionality is there. Now it’s a matter of adding whistles and bells,” he said.

Alpine targeted electrical contractors for its software because most electricians may be more capable with technology that other contractors on the job site.

Smart phones are another technology already heavily used by contractors. With a wireless application protocol (WAP), the cell phones allow users to access Web sites by phone and do Internet searches. While a few years ago this technology was still scattered sparsely over the United States, it is now common and easy to use and the service is more accessible.

Smart phones provide a variety of services. They can organize personal agendas and address books as well as access e-mail and the Internet. Smart phones can download applications and data from a network or a host machine. This technology also allows technicians to access important information quickly, no matter where they are or what time it is.

Many of these programs can be customized and have multiple applications for tasks that include inventory control, time keeping, service calls and work orders. In addition, an increasing number of supply companies are introducing handheld technology for entering supply orders.

Ultimately, they are creating purchasing lists so customers can make wireless product orders without leaving the job site.

Whatever the needs are, most manufacturers are willing to give contractors a trial period to see what technology works best. The growing variety of choices makes it possible for each contractor to find a custom-built support system that works best for his or her needs. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.