In my September 2022 column, I discussed some construction techniques that could enhance productivity. Another area to consider is the type of work done by the installation tech and the gear they use. Just like construction, installation benefits from continual development of techniques and tools, which often requires upgrades to equipment and skills.
Many contractors specializing in premises cabling are looking for new business opportunities. As more employees now work at home, office construction and upgrades are in decline. There is plenty of work in fiber optics, but most of it is outside plant (OSP).
A premises tech often has minimal gear—maybe a few basic fiber tools, a termination kit and a loss test set. The OSP tech will require more tools to deal with the different types of cable and installation techniques used outdoors, a fusion splicer for joining and terminating cables and an optical time domain reflectometer (OTDR) for testing. On a bigger crew, techs might specialize, with some doing the cable installation, splicing and following up with the testing. Every tech needs a set of basic OSP tools and skills for all the processes so they can cover other jobs as needed.
I’ll skip the heavy construction equipment used in OSP construction and only deal with specialized fiber optic tools.
Not many North American contractors have done installations where microcables are blown into microducts, but this is now the preferred construction technique in many parts of the world. The benefits of blown-in cables are speed, low cost and lack of disruptive construction from trenching for underground construction.
A special blowing machine is used to blow the cable in the duct, actually floating the cable on air so it can be pushed into the duct up to a kilometer at a time. Some companies rent blowing machines. However, an investment in your own machine along with training from the manufacturer, perhaps on-site for the first job, is not a big one compared to other OSP fiber equipment such as fusion splicers and OTDRs.
Fusion splicers are one of the must-have pieces of equipment for OSP installation. Fortunately, splicers have always been designed for rugged outdoor use, so it seems as if they last forever. That old unit in the back of your truck is probably doing great work, although it could probably use a tune-up and some new electrodes from the manufacturer’s service center.
But if it’s old and cranky, the newer ones offer faster, more consistent splices, increased automation, longer battery life and can accommodate the highly recommended splice-on connectors. If you prefer a tune-up to buying new, be sure to get your cleaver serviced, too.
Splice-on connectors for fusion splicers are one of the great innovations in recent history. They are much faster than splicing pigtails to the fiber and require much less hardware; there are no individual splices that require a separate splice tray. The splicer manufacturers offer their own splice-on connectors, and some of them are already cleaved, saving even more time on the job.
The other option for fusion splicers is the ribbon or mass-fusion splicer. These machines splice 12 fibers at once and are about six times faster when splicing large numbers of fibers. For many OSP contractors, these machines are a necessity because so many cables today contain large numbers of fibers using ribbon fiber designs. Even regular loose tube cable can be “ribbonized” with a simple tool that converts the 12 fibers in the tube into a ribbon that can be spliced at one time, again with a big savings in splicing time.
Although prices have come down a lot recently, fusion splicing equipment is not cheap, and ribbon splicers cost about three times as much as a single fiber unit. But they have a quick return on investment if you are doing a lot of OSP installation. My advice is to purchase one of the midrange units, not the cheapest. Buy a name brand from a reputable manufacturer with a good warranty and service department.
The major manufacturers generally also offer training, which will help you get the most productivity from the equipment. Always take advantage of this training.