Unusual circumstances affected the planning for the new Omaha JATC facility. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 22 and National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Nebraska chapter shared a building and were looking for more space together. They wanted a focus on partnership, something they have maintained for decades. The resulting building, forged on cooperation, creativity and a few alternative ideas, reflects that partnership.

The training program originated 40 years ago, but the apprentices did not have a permanent home until 1974—a home shared with the IBEW.

The training area, a former HVAC contractor’s site, was converted into a 6,500-square-foot space for electrical training, but the facility left much to be desired.

Assistant Training Director Marty Riesberg said the small space required staggered schedules, forcing some apprentices to attend class at late hours, others immediately after work. Dark, old, cold in the winter and hot in the summer, the space was not conducive for learning.

The new building was completed last year and shares little in common with its neighboring predecessor. This hilltop building is designed for multiple uses. The facility houses the IBEW Credit Union, Fringe Benefit Fund Office, NECA offices and classrooms for training apprentice electricians and technicians, as well as continuing education for journeyman electricians, technicians and electrical contractors.

Plans began in 1999, when the Nebraska Electrical Contractors Association and IBEW Local 22 shared their interest for a showcase building that would be a training ground for apprentices and journeymen. The Omaha Joint Electrical Apprentice and Training Committee (OJEATC) needed more space as well as a state of the art facility.

Local IBEW members agreed to donate a dime from each paycheck toward the building fund and NECA matched the contribution. It continued for five years before construction.

The apprenticeship is jointly funded by the IBEW and NECA, and together they created the Labor Management Cooperative Committee (LMCC) that would look for more space for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. Soon the LMCC had identified space to build a new construction facility on the parking lot adjacent to their existing building—with 32,000 square feet, 22,000 for training and the rest for the IBEW.

Committee members were hoping for something unusual in the $4.1 million building.

“The LMCC decided they wanted it to show off what we do,” Riesberg said.

So, instead of hiding what electricians do behind walls and in closets, they wanted the conduits, connections, servers, UPS system, panels and other electrical equipment to be visible.

That was where Morrissey Engineering stepped in. George Morrissey, a former IBEW member who worked his way through his BSEE degree as a journeyman, heads the local engineering firm. He had been through the JATC program in Omaha and knew the training center’s strengths and shortcomings first-hand. Morrissey Engineering would provide mechanical, electrical, plumbing, telecommunications and fire protection. Architect Holland Basham Architects worked with them, offering architectural and interior design services.

This project would be different from the onset.

“This was a different perspective,” Morrissey said. “It was more than just materials and methods and installation, it was more an idea of how a building could respond to the program. That was the concept we developed.”

They wanted a building that could be a part of the curriculum.

All the players worked together to develop an automated, energy efficient building.

“Energy was a big part of it,” Morrissey said.

The new building would have a generator as its focal point. It is highly visible from the road, with overhead lighting illuminating it 24 hours a day. Glass walls surround the generator, allowing visitors to walk around it and see it at work. The generator sends electricity to the local utility company.

The LMCC was interested in showing emerging technologies in action. They put programmable LED lights on the side of the building that slowly change colors. The sequencer can be programmed for one continuous color or to cycle through up to 17,000 different colors.

The NJATC was training its apprentices and journeymen in LonWorks installation and, Riesberg said, he suggested looking into what LonWorks technology could do for the building.

“Instead of buying training boards,” Riesberg said, “I said, ‘What if we let the building be the trainer.’”

If it would cost a penny more, Riesberg said, he was prepared to abandon the idea. In fact, he discovered that LonWorks would have cost about a third of the price they had planned for the proprietary system that previously in the works. With the savings, they bought additional products that would add functionality.

The LonWorks system lights and heats 11 classrooms, each controlled independently. That is a large energy savings, Riesberg said, since the JATC would only need to heat and light the rooms in use.

Riesberg set up the LonWorks system and iLon cogenerator system himself, which required a lot of research and a course at Echelon.

“Once I got to that point, I liked it so much I can’t leave it alone,” Riesberg said. “The neat part is that [with LonWorks training] you can program it yourself. It makes you more of a one-stop shop.”

Riesberg had still more hopes. One was to allow the lighting to talk to the HVAC system. Now someone entering the building can flip a light switch and turn on the fan power box as well.

The next thought was for cogeneration, generating power and selling it back to Omaha Public Power District. To get that launched, the LMCC met with the Nebraska Power Review Board. Once the agreement was made, there was a clear benefit for everyone involved. The 600 kW diesel engine generator could be on display for visiting companies, and when Omaha Public Power needed more power, it could turn on the JATC’s generator remotely.

This can be done through the LonWorks, Lon-based Internet server (iLon 100). The JATC earns $2 per kilowatt, amounting to $1,200 a month from the utility company. The generator provides 100 percent backup to the building along with the ability to export up to 300 kW back to the utility grid. Power company meters include an import meter to record facility power usage and an export meter to record the amount of power the facility generates and sells back to the power company.

In addition, closed transition paralleling controls provide “no blink” power transfers to and from the utility. No power blinks occur in the building as the generator switches on. The controls allow the system to operate in a number of different ways. In the event of a power outage to the building, the generator automatically starts, taking on the entire building load within 10 seconds. If requested by the power company, the generator can also be started and operated in parallel with the utility, supplying electricity to the building and selling back excess power capacity from the generator.

Omaha Public Power gives facility tours to companies planning to build in the area, pointing out advantages of cogenerating power.

For those who helped design the OJATC, the wiring is not just a hidden function of the building, but the heart of it; it’s a matter of pride. The facility houses a 1,600-square-foot telecommunications lab that is used for training in the installation of low-voltage systems including fire alarm, telephone systems, computer networking systems, sound, security, building automation systems and more. The lab was designed in accordance with BICSI standard—a telecommunications association program for the installation of low-voltage telecommunications systems.

Each classroom is equipped with an audio/visual system including multimedia projectors, dimmable lights, overhead speakers with individual amplifiers, feedback eliminators and equalizer controls.

Contractors and apprentices are as excited about the new building as anyone. “The neat part is the quality of training has gone through the roof,” Riesberg said, adding that since the training areas are more comfortable, “Everyone is in a better frame of mind.” They may feel that better frame of mind the most on a 95 degree day, when in the previous building, the air conditioning often broke down.

About 220 apprentices go through the program each year, while the 1,000 journeymen must put in 12 hours of training annually.

Most important for those in Omaha, however, is the continuation of the partnership theme. NECA members in coats and ties share a building with apprentices and journeymen coming from a day’s work in the field. Dan Smith, president of the Electric Co. of Omaha, said he visits the building regularly for meetings as well as to bring prospective clients to see what the electricians can do.

“It’s highly unusual, but it’s a selling tool,” Smith said. “Customers can see our commitment to education.” EC

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