Serious concerns may remain about the U.S. economy and how economies and events in Europe, the Middle East and Asia affect Wall Street and American business. However, electrical and data communications toolmakers seem positively bullish.

The lithium-ion revolution continues to add more cordless tools to a growing list of categories; manufacturers are introducing new manual hand tool designs and improvements; thermal imagers continue to infiltrate the electrical market; and power and datacom testers are doing more while becoming more user-friendly.

Rexel’s take on trends
Major electrical distributor Rexel reported a very good year and, boosted by the acquisition of Platt Electric in July, is on a record growth pace, said Jeff Baker, vice president.

Rexel offered a major electrical distributor’s perspective on this year’s trends in tools. Several Rexel representatives contributed information, which Baker consolidated. Rexel’s observations did not mention brand names or specific models.
According to Baker, the year has brought higher demand for compact, lighter weight cordless power tools and multifunction hand tools, and there has been an expansion in the types of cordless tools with lithium-ion batteries.

Fifty percent of all power tool users report that they would like a smaller, lighter tool that can get the job done, even if the tool may complete the job at a slower pace. In one year, sales of manufacturer cordless power tools under 18 volts (V) jumped more than 1,000 percent.

The new “brushless” tool motor design reverses the windings and magnetic field, increasing motor life by 10 times over conventional motors with brushes and providing more power and longer run times.

Regarding multifunction hand tools, buyers understand that reducing the number of tools they have to carry at any one time lessens the load in tool bags. Multifunction tool examples include 10- and 11-in-1 multifunction screwdrivers, built-in conduit reamers, and wire strippers.

A significant change: manufacturers introduced corded power tools with 15-ampere (A) motors, which capacitor banks made possible. Using a 15A motor plugged into a 15A outlet without a capacitor bank to store power would trip the circuit breaker every time. Previously, 13A motors were the acceptable tradeoff between power and good user experience. Other changes in corded tools are ergonomic.

The market for electrical testers recently has become very crowded with many companies entering and few making significant strides. Demand for laser measuring and layout tools is stable without major recent changes, a status quo category from Rexel’s perspective.

Meanwhile, thermal imaging cameras have become an attractive market for manufacturers. There are few competitors, and municipalities will eventually require thermal imaging on electrical services. The thermal imaging camera fills a dual role. It can be sold as a new item to increase business and customer satisfaction, and it can be presented as a safety item.

Tools used for copper and coaxial voice/data/video (VDV) cabling have made few breakthroughs. Many buyers’ biggest concern has been the cost of tools and needing specific accessories for terminations. Multifunction tools that can be used on a multitude of connectors or terminations are winners here.

Tools for fiber optic installations fall in a heavily preference-guided market.

Installers who get good results with a particular tool tend to stay with that tool. For instance, testers for VDV networks follow changes in equipment—coaxial versus Category 5 or 6, fiber versus Internet protocol.

Customers must comply with industry safety-related standards and, thus, must purchase safety products; therefore, manufacturers are entering or broadening tool lines to include such products. Protective equipment—such as safety vests, hard hats, flame-resistant clothing and gloves, including vibration-resistant and cut-resistant gloves—is in high demand.

There have been suggestions in recent years that the needs of an aging electrical work force are influencing tool designs. As a result, manufacturers continue to promote ergonomic features as a marketing strategy.

Older workers represent a declining market. Aging workers who have been in the industry for 30-plus years have spent that time collecting tools. The bigger market is the 25- to 45-year-old group. They have the money to spend, they want the latest and greatest, and they do not have a lifetime’s worth of collecting tools under their belts. The aging work force does appreciate some of the same features—ergonomic, lightweight, multifunction—just on a smaller scale.

The trend continues for toolmakers to expand tool offerings into areas outside their traditional product lines as manufacturers are attempting to diversify revenue streams, mitigate dips in the economy and gain market share. Through its subsidiaries, Rexel Inc. and Gexpro, Rexel is a large U.S. electrical distributor. Operating from nearly 300 branches across the country, Rexel provides products and services to commercial, industrial and residential markets.

Tools of interest
Rexel’s overview of the 2012 tool market focused on trends, not specific products. Some representative trendy tools are listed here.

Hand tools
Klein Tools introduced a nonconductive fiberglass fish tape with permanent laser-etched markings in 1-foot increments, allowing installers to instantly and accurately measure lengths of cable runs by reading the amount of remaining tape. Added to Klein’s VDV tool line is a combination radial stripper that works with both utility and standard cable sizes and removes the outer jacket and dielectric in one step.

Knipex installation pliers strip, cut, deburr and widen grip and crimp-end sleeves. The design reduces the effort needed to cut through cables, and a locking mechanism protects the cutting edge.

Testers
The Extech MG300 two-in-one insulation tester and multimeter with wireless data logging combo meter includes a digital insulation resistance tester and full--function, true rms digital multimeter, which features useful extras, such as duty-cycle measurements and milliamp readings for analog 4–20-milliamp current loops in industrial analog process controls. The CAT-IV-rated meter’s wireless data streaming enables safer troubleshooting and maintenance on dangerous moving equipment and one-person operation of remote safety switches.

The Fluke Networks OptiFiber Pro optical time-domain reflectometer for enterprise fiber testing has a smartphone interface that supports gesture-based commands and technology enhancements that simplify testing in data center environments. A simplified data center mode and project-management tools record test results and quickly archive and access data.

The Ideal Industries SignalTEK II multifunctional handheld cable and network qualifier is marketed as an alternative to certifiers and is ideal for small to medium-sized local area networks. SignalTEK II will validate that copper or fiber cabling is capable of supporting bandwidth-heavy VDV and IP-based video surveillance applications over 10/100 megabit or gigabit Ethernet. SignalTEK II generates documentation verifying network connectivity and job completion to initiate customer payment.

Thermal imagers
Thermal imagers are a valuable diagnostic tool for electricians to inspect electrical and electromechanical equipment and components.

Flir offers three categories of thermal imagers for the varying requirements of electrical contractors: point-and-shoot entry-level infrared cameras, midlevel professional grade, and high-performance grade.

The Fluke Corp. Ti series contains three thermal imager models that differ by degree of infrared resolution, focal plane, refresh rate and IR fusion capability.

Other models are available for different applications.


GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.