Up to Snuff

New advances in technology. Changes in personnel and new deployment needs of a company’s human resources. The need to improve operations, reduce energy consumption or cut costs to increase profitability. Any one, or combination, of these trends in an existing facility or building means an opportunity for electrical contractors to acquire retrofit moves, adds and changes (MAC) work.

The MAC market

MAC work runs the gamut from providing the required electrical and voice/data/video (VDV) outlets and jacks for moving or adding a single person in an existing office or building, to reconfiguring large swaths of space and moving great numbers of workstations at a time, to running phone service from the communications provider to workstations or other outlets. Known as restacking, such a large redesign of space requires the electrical contractor to move and add a great deal of cabling to accommodate the physical restructuring of personnel environments.

MACs on the traditional electrical side of the business, mostly defined as service work, still involve working in existing spaces and dealing with VDV devices and computer and telecommunication systems. The work primarily entails upgrading and servicing outlets, improving power distribution efficiency, and providing reliable power quality for computer networks and other systems. There are no discrete figures for the MAC market, but the consensus is that it is growing on an ongoing basis.

“Ninety percent of the time, the electrical contractor that performs the initial installation is chosen for the subsequent MAC work because that company is already familiar with the building,” said Pete Archacki, director of structured cable systems for Continental Electrical Construction Co., Skokie, Ill.

Electrical contractors that don’t already have a dedicated division to handle MAC work might want to consider forming one and staffing it with the necessary expertise, so they can be prepared to fulfill the customer’s MAC requirements even before the construction process is complete.

The MAC market in parts of the Mid-Atlantic has grown 50 percent in the last 18 to 30 months, according to Pat Azzole, operations manager of VDV for Mona Electric Group Inc., Clinton, Md.

“A lot of companies are expanding in certain geographical markets like Washington, D.C., and the electrical and teledata markets are experiencing consistent increases in the demand for MACs,” Azzole said.

MAC work represents about 15 percent of Des Moines, Iowa-based Baker Electric Inc.’s business, and the company believes the market will continue to expand.

“The number of groups that have been tasked with finding local contractors to provide MAC support for companies with a national presence have nearly doubled in the area in the last four years,” said Kevin Reynolds, RCDD, service manager of Baker Electric’s voice and data division. Growth is expected to remain steady as companies expand, remodel or adopt new technologies, including wireless, all of which require adaptation of the existing infrastructure to accommodate the changes.

Ron Roberts, president of Schmidt Electric Inc., Ft. Wayne, Ind., agreed that growth in the MAC market, including the traditional electrical side of the business, is great.

“No matter how tight the economy gets in terms of new construction, MAC work is always growing as companies and organizations change size and try to reduce costs and maximize the use of their space,” Roberts said.

MAC vs. new construction

MAC work takes place in an occupied work environment and requires employees who can perform their jobs without disrupting the activities of the end-users.

“New construction is performed in an empty environment, and there is less interaction between field electricians and the customer or end-users,” Archacki said. As opposed to new construction, MAC work doesn’t require waiting for other trades to reach a certain point before the electricians can begin.

“The finished environment of MAC work makes it more complex to perform,” Azzole said. For example, electricians performing MAC work must ensure their activities don’t interrupt or disrupt the business’ operations, which means frequently working at night. In addition, MAC electricians have to work closely with the customer and end-users to schedule tasks and must consistently maintain a professional appearance and clean up after themselves after each task. The fact that the contractor usually is dealing directly with the building owner, rather than with a general contractor, provides more control over negotiating agreements and allows the contractor to build a more personal relationship with the end-user. In addition, much of MAC work requires understanding the electronics involved in the systems being wired.

“MAC electricians and technicians must be able to assist in troubleshooting and in engineering the switchgear that will power the low-voltage systems,” Reynolds said.

That’s not all. MAC work takes fewer people to perform it, the jobs usually are smaller in scope than in new construction and, perhaps most importantly, response time to accommodate a customer’s nonemergency request is only three to five days.

“It can take months, even years, for a new construction project to get up and running,” Reynolds said.

According to Fred Sargent, former CEO of Sargent Electric Co., Pittsburgh, the greatest differentiation between new construction projects and MAC work is that the former has become more of a commodity or assembly item, while the latter requires greater individual skills and craftsmanship.

“MAC work is a great opportunity for electrical contractors to use their high-quality, trained work force to gain a steady income stream and to grow long-term relationships directly with the owner,” Sargent said.

According to Archaki, One of the issues specific to MAC work is dealing with a building’s existing pathways and spaces. Today’s cable diameters are increasing in size, which requires upgrading the existing space’s pathways to accommodate the technology. In addition, Archacki said, when upgrading technology for a customer, the new systems must be implemented so end-users don’t experience a service disruption.

“That kind of work requires running parallel systems as well as extensive coordination between the contractor’s technicians and the customer’s information technology staff,” Archacki said. In addition, it takes a unique ability to envision an area’s new configuration and to rewire it effectively, while retaining and using as much of the existing infrastructure as possible.

New codes adopted by many jurisdictions calling for the removal of abandoned cable before the installation of new cable is another issue specific to MAC work. Customers must be educated on the requirement to destroy the abandoned cable, but fortunately, according to Azzole, building managers now are incorporating demolition clauses into their lease agreements, making the contractor’s job somewhat easier.

Minimizing damage and disruption

In a MAC environment, it is vital that the existing infrastructure and environment not be damaged and to keep disruption of business operations to a minimum. Therefore, it is essential to have the appropriate personnel and equipment at the site. Some of the equipment found on a new construction project has no place in an office building or historical structure, and the electricians chosen to be on the team performing MAC work must have the appropriate technical aptitude and be trained to work in a finished environment.

“Every contractor has its niche specialties and has crews within the organization that have experience working on specific types of projects. You can’t expect high levels of customer satisfaction if you don’t staff MAC work with the right people,” Archacki said.

Environmental damage also can be mitigated if the MAC crew has access to and uses the building’s as-built documents to plan the wire routing with the least number of pathway changes.

“Of course, new pathways occasionally must be made if the existing ones are inappropriate for the new cabling,” Reynolds said. Minimizing damage also requires that the crews are properly trained to understand the importance of not destroying the existing infrastructure and that they have the proper tools, such as especially flexible drill bits for working on walls or other obstructions discovered during the work.

The safety of the MAC electricians is equally important.

“Most MAC work is in commercial or light industrial environments, which can present terrible safety hazards,” Sargent said. MAC electricians, if not properly trained and alert, may be lulled into a false sense of security by working in a finished environment and think the potential risks of construction work don’t apply to them.

The issue of minimizing damage is a paramount concern in historical buildings.

“In a historical environment, the contractor must work closely with the architect and structural engineer to maintain the building’s integrity and still deliver the appropriate upgrade to the customer,” Archacki said.

Working in historical buildings requires a great deal of skill and creativity to engineer the appropriate pathways for the larger cabling required by today’s technology, which do not fit in an older structure’s spaces. The solution frequently is the use of decorative exposed raceway to avoid cutting into a building’s walls or changing the aesthetics of the building.

Another issue in historical building MAC retrofit work is that materials usually need to be custom-made to match the existing architectural style.

“The lead times for these materials can be extensive and requires a great deal of planning,” Azzole said.

Contractors also need to be constantly aware of the value of the existing materials in and of the building and must have the required skills for planning and handling the work. In addition, contractors must have the work force with the expertise and experience to effectively deal with this type of environment.

MAC work is expected to experience continued growth and to offer electrical contractors a wide breadth of opportunities.

“As VDV technology continues to advance and customers require the appropriate upgrades, the electrical needs to power those systems will also change and evolve, providing long-term opportunities,” Roberts said.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.


About the Author

Darlene Bremer

Freelance Writer
Darlene Bremer, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributed frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR until the end of 2015.

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