As the total integration of low-voltage systems grows more feasible and technology evolves, contractors must take a two-pronged approach to training and certification to install and integrate disparate systems such as fire alarms, security and wireless data networks. Training providers offer the background technicians need to install fiber and copper and even program and intergrate new systems, while changing standards and technologies are addressed by manufacturers’ own training programs and by industry and standards groups.
The three-year program offered by the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) is based on the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) and other industry standards. It modifies its curriculum every few years but can’t offer new textbooks or courses at the speed at which the industry sometimes changes. For that reason, said Terry Coleman, NJATC director of telecommunications, the program is designed to offer the foundation on which other education or certifications can be built.
Courses in the three-year program include a variety of fiber and copper installations, including the latest copper speeds (e.g., 10 Gbps for Cat 6 cables), Coleman said. An increasing number of specialty courses are offered on subjects such as sound systems, security devices and fire alarms. Every program also covers the basics, including safety, the use of testing equipment and workplace management.
“Our challenge has been staying up with changes,” he said, referring to shifts in both technology and standards. The program has been designed to offer trainees the classroom style baseline understanding and training, while equipment manufacturers can build on that foundation yearly and as technology changes and new standards emerge.
For example, the NJATC program includes training in radio frequency (RF) system design, and although that technology is used in a variety of ways and for increasingly different applications, he said that the science of RF itself hasn’t changed. The RF course provides the basics of radio propagation, using waveforms and harmonics, and frequency within signal waveforms and power distribution.
Many courses, such as the RF coursework, have been created in response to requests from electrical contractors. One inquiry came from Miller Electric, Jacksonville, Fla. The company’s management wanted to expand training to enable staff members to meet the needs of customers looking for RF solutions in stadiums, malls and other large facilities.
To stay as current as possible, the NJATC collaborates with major manufacturers in the voice/data/video industry, including cabling, IT networking and telecom company Fluke Networks, Everett, Wash.; fiber optic and copper cable company Corning Cable Systems, Hickory, N.C.; and The Fiber Optic Association (FOA). However, the NJATC coursework can’t focus only on manufacturer-based information that would provide certification in the installation of a specific product.
Therein lies the problem for many electrical contractors. Low-voltage installations and systems integration work often require multiple certification programs to become an authorized installer. Authorized installers work with specific products and can provide the user with a product warranty.
Some low-voltage companies make the extra effort to gain certification in multiple products, while others are generalists, who provide installation without being certified and then offer their own warranty. This can be a wise choice for contractors who are able to support a warranty. In most cases, warranties cost little, since any system modification tends to void a warranty. For that reason, low-voltage system users rarely claim warranties that can last for decades.
“So much of what we do is changing,” Coleman said, referring to wired or wireless systems installations.
His concern is that many electrical contractors are missing the opportunity to capture market share in installations because they choose to stand back from new technology. They may avoid low-voltage lighting using structured cabling because the traditional raceways are gone. However, he said, low-voltage installations are booming, and added, “If you’re going down the hallway anyway with the cart, you could be running the fiber or installing low-voltage switches and routers.”
For more specialized training, contractors are going to the standards organizations and manufacturers. BICSI presents an information technology system (ITS) cabling installation and certification program. Contractors can take several approaches to attain BICSI certification for telecommunications cabling installations that are vendor-neutral. The Installer 1 and 2 programs are designed for those with little experience, while ITS technician training covers more advanced areas, including codes and standards, BICSI best practices, telecommunications room or equipment room design, and retrofits.
A BICSI spokesperson indicated that individuals who complete the program have all the necessary knowledge to install voice/data/video cabling within the confines of a commercial building structure.
The FOA offers its own training programs for the installation of fiber-based systems, with schools located across the country offering certifications approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Manufacturers also offer training programs to low-voltage companies and electrical contractors. Here are a few examples:
• Honeywell provides a Fire-Lite Academy to train installers on specifying, installing and configuring its systems.
• Johnson Controls also has a building automation institute, which electrical contractors can attend. The Johnson Controls Training Institute partners with engineering schools, technical colleges and experts in the construction industry to provide training at a modest price.
• Leviton has an online certified installer program to teach installation and programming of Leviton systems, including lighting controls, electric vehicle charging stations, energy management and temporary power.
• Lutron’s Lighting Control Institute covers residential, healthcare and commercial building lighting systems of products, such as Radio Powr Savr, GRAFIK Eye QS and Energy Savr Node.
Such programs help contractors ensure their staff members have the certification needed for installing a single system from just one manufacturer or multiple manufacturers of a variety of systems. This knowledge benefits specifiers and installers.
But you may say you don’t have time to go to a school. Well, to make training more readily available to contractors wherever they may be, the NJATC aims to bring its classes to the Internet in the coming year, Coleman said. By sometime in 2014, the program expects to employ a learning management system (LMS) model to bring classes to students with Internet access and provide electronically published text books and workbooks. He pointed out that much of the testing already is being done electronically. The NJATC plans to beta-test such a system in the fall. Ultimately, it could mean an end to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, although when that would happen isn’t yet clear.
“The biggest concern is Internet access,” Coleman said, adding that, thus far, the trial has been with linemen, who traditionally have less Internet access than most, due to the traveling nature of their work. However, they were able to take coursework without significant problems.