Changing the Voltage Game

By Jeff Gavin | Aug 15, 2017
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Wire and fiber. Rigid and flexible raceways. Twisted copper wire and category (Cat) cable. Welcome to a new world where traditional power and low voltage meet. For some electrical contractors, their shops reflect this confluence. For others, it may be on the horizon.

According to the July 2016 Profile of the Electrical Contractor, an increasing number of ECs are involved with low-voltage projects. Of contractors surveyed, 95 percent reported having done low-voltage work. Ten percent said they had dedicated low-voltage divisions, an increase of 7 percent from two years earlier. System commissioning and programming was conducted by 16 percent of contractors. In fact, systems integration was the largest type of low-voltage work for 35 percent of those surveyed.

Today, low-voltage work is often a means for contractors to meet increasing requests for building controls and networked systems driven by information technology (IT). There is certainly a healthy range of EC engagement. If 10 percent have gone all-in creating their own divisions, others tap outside low-voltage contractors when needed.

Pacific Electrical Contractors Inc., based in Medford, Ore., takes a hybrid approach. Joe Myers, vice president, sees low- and high-voltage contracting meshing. 

“At first, a lack of available manpower drove us to train our workforce in low-voltage basics,” Myers said. “We were already installing raceway and creating the pathways for the cable infrastructure. Taking on the low-voltage installation was a seamless next step.”

Looking back at Pacific Electrical Contractors’ beginnings in low voltage 20 years ago doing fire and data cabling installation, Myers said he and others saw this work as a side effort but a value-plus addition. For contractors that stuck with it, low voltage is now woven into full-service electrical contracting.

“Most of our 50 electricians are cross-trained to do data cabling and cable termination,” Myers said. “For us, the advantage of having some low-voltage expertise is the ability to schedule these projects in-house. The more we can do is also more revenue. If we are competitively bidding and the scope for the work is Division 27 [communications systems and related infrastructure] or Division 28 [electronic safety and security systems and infrastructure], we will subcontract with low-voltage firms. With these bigger IT-centric projects, low-voltage-only contractors do the design. Then we step in to do the physical installation.”

In the markets served by Pacific Electrical Contractors, Myers has seen network-based controller configurations technologically evolve in fire alarms and nurse call installations. For example, low voltage has allowed today’s control systems to operate on fewer cables, making installation easier.

“It’s become a plug-and-play world,” he said.

Ten years ago, the company was busy installing data cable throughout medical facilities. It has since been called back to many of these facilities to install networked systems.

“It was a future-proofing effort on the part of these customers,” Myers said. “Now, we are applying today’s technology that takes advantage of a low-energy cabling infrastructure so customers can perform daily processes faster and cheaper; allow remote access. In our industrial sector, a lot of controls are programmable logic controllers connected through Cat cable. Every sensor is hardwired. In the office, and to a degree in industrial settings, we set a wired infrastructure but add a wireless network on top of it.”

Though the residential market isn’t the company’s core business, low voltage has played a big part in it.

“We see low voltage applied as wireless control of the home thermostat, door bells, security and other areas,” Myers said. “With home routers and smartphone apps, it seems the homeowner is probably leading the way with wireless.”

The company’s municipal work also is touched by low voltage, as roadway lighting becomes networked and communicates through overhead controls or underground fiber optics. This has enabled remote troubleshooting and quick traffic management.

The Code takes notice

Myers has seen a transition in how ECs deal with low-voltage work.

“Some 20 years ago, little care was taken with low-voltage installation,” he said. “Due to the sheer volume of this work and its rapid growth, low voltage is now referenced more specifically in the NEC [National Electrical Code]. In-house quality control and outside inspectors have also emerged. In fact, installation inspection is required in many states.”

The 2017 NEC provides new and specific guidance regarding low-voltage cabling. As building controls meet greater demand, more energy runs through low-voltage cable, presenting potential for overheating cable.

“More and lower energy devices have come online,” said Mark W. Earley, P.E., chief electrical engineer, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Mass. “Cables that formerly only carried data signals are now being used to supply power to connected devices including lighting [also known as power over ethernet]. The internet of things [IoT] is serving as a sort of launching pad for more low voltage. This has focused us to go back and take a relook at this growing use of low energy power applications.”

While clarifying amendments are being discussed, the 2017 NEC addresses the issue of heat buildup in low-voltage cables in two ways: the conductor capacity of certain bundled cable must be limited, and bundles must be limited to four pair cable per bundle. Such direction is referenced as transmission of power and data (Article 725) and premises powering of communication equipment over communication cable (Article 840).

“Some jurisdictions have not inspected communications or data circuits because they are not power circuits,” Earley said. “In the past, these circuits have not produced much heat. Now some will and so there is a greater need to inspect them for code compliance.”

Though definitions of low voltage vary, Earley prefers the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) framing of anything 1,000 volts or lower.

“If we are using the 1,000-volts definition, it is the work most contractors are doing now,” he said. “Some will refer to this work as circuits operating at 50 volts and less. The contractor should know the correct terminology to use based on the equipment that they are installing or maintaining.”

Being prepared

Curriculum for low-voltage work has ramped up and expanded through the Electrical Training Alliance (formerly NJATC), the joint curriculum and training development effort by the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) based in Bowie, Md. The growth in training materials reflects the world ECs increasingly face.

Terry C. Coleman, director for the Electrical Training Alliance, helped craft much of the course work found under the Telecommunications Curriculum Development Training Program. The inclusion of low voltage in apprentice and journeyman training, and available to any EC, began in 1992 when Coleman joined the alliance as a training director.

“It started with NECA’s District 9 [California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii and the northern portion of Idaho] wanting a low-voltage apprenticeship program,” Coleman said. “By 1995, Cat 5 cabling emerged which we worked into our apprenticeship training. In 2000, I started work on modernizing our treatment of structured cabling. Today, it expands it into the special systems that were once the sole purview of the traditional low-voltage contractor.”

Coleman called today’s curriculum a form of cross-training. Topics addressed include copper and fiber installations, controls, networks and structured cabling, to name a few. There is a focus on understanding local area networks (LAN) and PoE.

“We just completed a book on LAN covering aspects of IT, surveillance video, security access and control,” Coleman said. “We also touch on industrial controls (process and motors) which have been networked for years. ECs in this sector may not be aware they are already doing the foundational work for low-voltage network control in the industrial setting. Now that many markets are seeing the value of networking installs, that’s where we are heading. It’s a co-mingling of traditional electric work and the IT world.

“LED is, in part, leading us in. It’s a disruptive technology amenable to both high- and low-voltage wiring and wireless technology. Digital lighting is changing the landscape of all of our work and leads to IoT and IIOT [industrial IoT]. If raceway isn’t necessary for your low-voltage installation, adapt and give the customer what they need through Cat 5 or Cat 6. These sorts of installations are coming,” he said.

Myers said he has seen a reduction in the use of raceways, citing manufacturers who provide metal-clad cable that combine power and low-voltage control circuits.

Each local NECA/IBEW Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee decides how much low-voltage training to offer based on their market. 

Manufacturer assistance also remains an important adjunct to low-voltage instruction. For Pacific Electrical Contractors, working with manufacturers is 30 percent of its training.

“Working with the manufacturers, we’ve trained our staff in Honeywell’s Fire-Lite alarms, Commscope/Systimax (copper and fiber structured cabling) often installed by us in healthcare and office settings, Berk-Tek (optical fiber and category cabling for LAN, SAN and data centers), and Leviton lighting controls,” Myers said. “Our certified staff does the design and installation of the cabling systems. Because we are certified, we can provide the manufacturers’ warranties that range up to 25 years.”

Coleman said the emergence of low voltage as a mainstay shouldn’t scare ECs.

“It won’t be less electrical work but different, likely one of less hard-wiring and more modules, sensors, wireless configurations, and multidata cables,” he said. “Structured wiring is now ubiquitous. Will every EC be a networking guy? No, but you could conceivably see a quarter of your workforce trained at one level or another. You may need technicians to install low-voltage systems. Maybe start up, commission and manage them. Why give up any of this work?”

About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].





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