Grabbing the Controls

When it comes to building controls, don’t be on the outside looking in when you can join the party. It might require a familiarity with codes and standards beyond the National Electrical Code (NEC), some added knowledge of communication protocols, and maybe specifics of voluntary green codes or standards. This education can give you the footing to secure this exciting work.

Some ECs are already de facto intelligent building systems installers. If lighting controls and other energy-saving systems are part of the project, they do it. The work must still be won, but it is earned based on past work prowess, confidence of general contractors, and relationships with product suppliers or others. Sometimes, it’s won through partnerships forged with mechanical contractors responsible for the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) and other elements that tie into a building controls system.

Bradley Weir is the CEO and chairman of Kelso-Burnett Co., based in Rolling Meadows, Ill., west of Chicago. The employee-owned firm bills itself as a full-service electrical contractor. Weir said his company doesn’t specifically run after systems controls work, yet it has done very well as an installer of such systems. In fact, it is part of the EC’s total effort in not just weathering the recession but doing very well in spite of the downturn.

“We find systems work usually comes our way in larger projects,” Weir said. “We don’t seek it out. Instead, we let suppliers like Graybar do energy audits, and then we come in and provide the labor for the system installs. Our retrofit work with Northwestern University’s School of Music is one example. Our recent work with a casino is another.”

Weir said his company’s alliances help bring Kelso-Burnett controls work.

“We also collaborate with mechanical contractors,” Weir said. “They ask us to come out to look at projects they are doing. Maybe they are installing chillers or other big components. We partner with them as the installers of a controls system. Winning work through alliances works much better for us than adding a salesman to run after this work.”

Location, location, location

Weir said his firm’s approach to winning system installs is successful because of the firm’s location.

“In Chicago, there are a lot of engineering firms in town,” Weir said. “So there is less design/build and more design/assist work. If lighting or other building controls are part of the project, we’re there to do the work and earn it based on the relationships we’ve built.

“Our knowledge as it applies to controls grows with each new project we undertake. Sometimes we learn simply by doing. As a result, we’ve become not just an installer but a consultant. We can now advise what dimmer is compatible with what system [and] make sure the right ballast is specified for the right lighting control. That kind of information goes into our bid, as well.”

Knowing the technology

Eric Richman, LC, FIES, is a senior research engineer—Energy Systems Analysis, for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. He leads the lighting subcommittee for ASHRAE 90.1. From a code standpoint, his committee figures out what needs to be controlled and looks to the industry to find a working protocol.

“Certainly, the contractor who has the controls knowledge is the one who can do the work,” Richman said. “There’s no reason ECs can’t be in the game. As long as they can identify compatibility with components—be it between occupancy sensors and daylighting, for example—and can make sure everything speaks to each other, they can become the contractor that makes everything work.”

For Richman, it goes back to the point of developing a knowledge base to become a true adviser.

“Know what lighting control systems are out there, how they work and how they differ,” Richman said. “Don’t take false comfort in manufacturers coming in with an all-in-one package. That may be the answer for one project but not for another. For example, some standards set guidelines for control requirements but can be a problem for some technologies. Occupancy sensors can pose a problem in an egress area where you may not want lights to go all the way off. Dimming or step control with a lighting system might be a solution. That could also be a solution in a parking lot where you may want lights to go down but not entirely off.”

The other shoe: keeping up on codes and standards

Want to know the lay of the land as a buildings system installer? Look at the latest lighting control requirements included in the big three standards and codes: ASHRAE 90.1 2010, IECC 2012 and California’s Title 24 2008 (update coming in early 2014).

Richman suggests that, as you keep up on NEC changes, also keep up on what energy codes, green codes or ASHRAE standards are being addressed in your state and sales territory. It will give you a leg up.

“It’s one of the better ways to be on top of your game when it comes to building controls work,” he said.

An EC needn’t hit the code books every night. However, Richman advises that the EC finds out what affects him or her.

“There may be elements within [the] energy code adopted by your state that affect electrical contracting,” Richman said. “Those trickle down to the municipal level. Sometimes the municipality enacts tougher regulation than the state [home rule]. You need to know what is going on. Also, compliance with an energy standard like ASHRAE 90.1 may be last on a general contractor’s list. It’s smart to be aware at the start. You can be that adviser. Codes and standards do get tougher, and compliance becomes more important. In fact, sometimes you need to know the code to get a building permit.”

The aspiring client

The push for better building performance beyond code can be found in building certification programs and voluntary green codes. For contractors, it’s a little like applying today what the future holds tomorrow. Such efforts generally influence and toughen subsequent versions of mandatory codes and standards. Today, ASHRAE 189.1 and its inclusion in the new International Green Construction Code (IgCC) are examples of driving efficiency beyond legal requirements.

These greener benchmarks serve as a roadmap and a reflection of the added rigor sought in energy savings by both private and public customers including municipalities and state and local governments. Certification programs, such as U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings, spell out some of the latest tactics and highest benchmarks to date in achieving top efficiency.

“You aren’t just guys who pull wire,” Richman said. “Sell yourself as a ingsystems installer who can lower a building’s energy cost beyond regulations.”

Knowing the complexities

In some ways, installing today’s lighting and other building control systems is easier than ever.

“I see more plug-and-play-style systems to a degree where I wonder if this is becoming low-voltage work,” Weir said.

Richman agreed and said manufacturers offer more combined and integrated controls. He said the complexity lies largely in codes.

“Code requirements are getting more complicated in that control requirements are being stacked. For example, where initially only after-hours scheduled lighting shutoff [time clocks] or occupancy sensors might be required in a typical space, now the requirement might be occupancy sensor shutoff plus 50 percent from daylight dimming. If one is up on the latest offerings, it can be straightforward to identify a fairly simple installation that will meet control requirements with multiple control types, in most cases,” Richman said.

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Gavin, LEED Green Associate, is the owner of Gavo Communications, a sustainability-focused marketing services firm serving the energy and construction industries. He can be reached at .

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