A Low-Voltage Evolution

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What is happening in low-voltage work? And what do contractors expect for the future?

“We are currently experiencing a couple of significant trends,” said Joe Carey, registered communications distribution designer (RCDD) and systems team leader for Zeller Electric, Goodfield, Ill. One is higher bandwidth cabling in the ceilings.

“Wireless access point technology has exceeded the bandwidth of Cat 6 cabling. Many engineering firms and end-users are now requiring Cat 6a cabling, which supports up to 10 gigabits per second, compared to the 1 gigabit speed maximum of Cat 6 cabling. Today’s 802.11 AC standard supports speeds in excess of 6 Gbps,” he said. “Running Cat 6 to the wireless access points effectively limits the devices to the speed of the cabling. Installing 6a cabling is more sensitive and typically requires testing to ensure that the installation is good.”

The other trend Carey has been seeing is more low-voltage lighting controls using Cat 5e or better cabling.

“We expect these trends to accelerate in 2020,” Carey said, adding that this is because many people are unaware that the speed capacity of their devices outpaces the cabling and specifications that have been used for the last 10 years.

“It takes a little while to educate and help people understand that Cat 6, not to mention Cat 5e, is becoming obsolete within the expected window of 10–15 years in the walls and is already inadequate for ceiling [wireless access points] installations,” he said.

With regard to building controls and automation, Carey believes it is difficult to pick up a trade magazine without reading about the increasing usage of building automation and how it is increasingly networked.

Michael McCaugherty, president of Commercial Technology Contractors, Clifton, N.J., has been seeing three trends. One is the move to network-based technology, specifically in audio-visual. A second is the move toward fewer, but better, cables in the workstation area.

“We saw a massive reduction in cable in the workplace and, in some cases, no cable at all,” he said. “The good news is that, where cable is installed, it tended to be 6a.”

The third is what McCaugherty calls “wireless ubiquity.” From presentation to door locks and screen sharing, wireless is here, there and everywhere he said.

McCaugherty definitely sees these trends continuing to grow and evolve.

“I only expect the growth of internet of things to bring more and more devices onto the network, wired or wireless,” he said.

“We have seen tremendous growth in structured cabling and fiber,” said Tasha Barker, general manager for Electric Innovations, the low-voltage arm of Thompson Electric, located in Sioux City, Iowa.

These changes are being driven by the need for greater bandwidth, data capture and the ability to hardware power over ethernet.

“We also see a huge shift in the way that facilities are operating and the information that can be used to create operational efficiencies with real-time data,” she said. “Facilities are crippled if they do not have the cabling infrastructure in place.”

Barker also sees these trends continuing, and they will be able to capture significant returns on the investment for business.

“With cabling and fiber warranties extending for 25–30 years, the investment is worth the operational efficiencies and cost savings that can be capitalized on with the right technology,” she said.

For David Stallings, RCDD and digital strategy officer for Miller Electric Co., Jacksonville, Fla., the major change has been the move away from doing just network cabling projects and being a complete integrator of hardware, software and network for the company’s clients.

“Whether the system is smart building/city, AV, security or distributed antenna system, it really is becoming a need to provide a turnkey system and long-term support for the client,” he said.

“Our fire alarm manufacturer is launching a new panel featuring a capacitive touch display,” said Robbie Danko, marketing manager for LVC Companies, Edina, Minn. “The new software will offer connected services, which allows for more robust network services.”

The low-voltage service providers can remotely program, test and diagnose the system and, in the process, find the company better ways to use its resources.

“With the growing concern for cybersecurity, the importance of securing networks and the devices that reside on them will also become increasingly important,” Danko said. “Owners and contractors will want to know that those providing network-based systems are trained to secure their systems.”

For Mike Delfino, project manager for McClure Electric, San Francisco, the biggest change he has seen in the last year has been turnaround times and schedules beginning really truncated.

“If the economy stays the same, this problem will continue,” he said.

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