Integration Opens Doors

The evolution of intelligent building system technology has triggered shifting roles for contractors and integrators, and the choices they make in their own specializations over the coming years can mean the difference between winning contracts and keeping customers or becoming less relevant. The savviest companies are constantly re-evaluating their services and expertise as the construction environment changes.

Some companies have made a practice of expanding their offerings as integration blurs the lines between the trades. A prime example is Low Voltage Contractors Inc. (LVC), Edina, Minn., which has been moving away from single specialization as low-voltage systems become increasingly integrated. LVC has acquired fire and safety systems company J.N. Johnson of Minneapolis, and it has partnered with Janus Fire Systems in Crown Point, Ind. As a result, LVC now offers fire suppression, alarm, security, access control, video surveillance biometrics, analytics and mobile duress systems. The company has branched beyond electrical construction and into mechanical work. After a decade of growth in these areas, its earnings are more than $30 million annually.

“Ten years ago, everyone specialized,” said Jason Wittenberg, LVC industrial fire protection sales associate. “What we’re seeing today is that you need to be a one-stop shop.”

As a result, a growing number of electrical contractors and integrators are offering multidisciplines and service and maintenance so that customers can take all of their low-voltage needs to one provider.

LVC has been on the front of this wave, leveraging its acquisitions and partnerships to provide all low-voltage services to data centers, residential or office buildings, and industrial facilities, said Brian Andes, industrial division manager. When the company acquired J.N. Johnson, it was able to expand its offerings in fire-extinguisher systems, such as sprinklers, suppression and detection systems, and other related products. By partnering with Janus Fire Systems, Andes said, the company can also offer nonwater extinguishing systems with clean agents that are safe for people, equipment or other items that can’t sustain water, such as servers in data centers and money vaults.

In addition, service is central to healthy growth, Wittenberg said. LVC offers service and maintenance for the systems it installs so that it has collected dedicated customers that provide recurring revenue.

Wireless fire safety

LVC sees value in some wireless systems in limited installations such as temporary locations during remodels or retrofits. When a fire-alarm network needs to keep operating while being remodeled, a wireless system can be a good solution. In other cases, wireless systems can be permanent.

Common wireless technologies include radio frequency (RF), optical and sonic. RF is most commonly employed in fire alarm systems. These RF communications systems use various frequencies and modulation types, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates all of them. On the other hand, fire systems using low-power RF communications operate at levels below the threshold that requires FCC licensing.

In addition, many companies offer spread-spectrum technology for communications in wireless fire alarm systems in part because it can sustain noise and interference and provides for more secure communications. Within spread spectrum, there are variations for frequency-
hopping as well as direct sequencing, time hopping and chirp methodologies, all of which help protect signals from jamming and eavesdropping. Frequency-hopping spread spectrum modulation bounces the carrier signal across the variety of frequency channels in a random sequence known only to the transmitter and receiver. The frequency-hopping spread spectrum RF protocol used by many of the wireless fire alarm system manufacturers is also the selected RF system for NASA and the U.S. military, which requires added security.

Integrators and contractors that install these wireless systems typically perform an RF survey in a facility before they install the devices. These surveys can then place the location of repeaters to accommodate building features and any RF interference to ensure proper pathways can be found for the system to transmit through.

Honeywell’s Notifier wireless fire prevention offering is Smart Wireless Integrated Fire Technology (SWIFT).

“Sometimes building owners don’t want installers to drill holes for cable,” said Ken Gentile, Honeywell Fire Systems product marketing manager. 

The manufacturer, based in Northford, Conn., developed the SWIFT technology and has been marketing it for the past two years. It’s a hybrid system that provides both wired and wireless sensors; users can wire in some sensors and add additional wireless versions and repeaters as needed. The system is often used in retrofits where sensors need to be added to a building that is sensitive aesthetically to in-wall installations (e.g., museums).

The wireless version can support up to 48 sensor devices on one gateway that captures sensor data from all devices and forwards it back to the building’s server. The system can be installed with up to four gateways in an area. The sensors themselves use a mesh network to send data back to the gateways.

“Every device acts as a repeater,” Gentile said, adding that there’s a 50-foot range between the devices.

In the past few years, there has been a huge amount of interest in the wireless technology, he said. Contractors that install the technology get the benefit of spending less time on a single site and moving on to other projects, ultimately getting more installation or service jobs done per day.

Access control and door locks

Integration does not just focus on fire safety but also security and access control. Commercial door company LaForce Inc. supplies and installs intelligent access and supplies doors, frames, hardware, keying systems and fire-door inspections. The company has operated since 1954 and has witnessed how technology has changed installers’ work environments.

The dilemma for electrical contractors in this market is that intelligent access-control technology requires expertise both in low-voltage systems and in the mechanics of the door locks themselves, not to mention the operation of the entire opening, said Rob Russell, security integrations operations manager at LaForce. The equipment is specified as part of the Construction Specification Institute Division 28 standard for electronic safety and security, while contractors familiar with the electrical side of the system are less comfortable with the door mechanics of Division 8 for metal and wood door hardware. 

On the other hand, he said, few door distributors are comfortable or have the expertise with the electrical part of the intelligent access control.

LaForce is one of the few companies that specializes in both—it supplies the products and installs them. In some cases, LaForce contracts the installation to experienced contractors.

“We also partner up with electrical contractors for high-voltage when it is appropriate,” Russell said.

Whoever does the installation can be expected to mount the controllers, provide post-installation testing to ensure the system is working, train the end-users and troubleshoot any low-voltage issues from that point.

The people bidding on the access-control systems are tech-savvy, typically integrators, but very few have knowledge of the mechanical side of door locks and the complete opening.

“Our goal is to continue in the education of electrical contractors to understand the systems better,” he said. “We do what we can to support them to be more successful.”

Russell added that continuing to educate electrical contractors to move beyond the comfort zones of the electrical part of their work is a process that often involves general contractors as well.

LVC has a customer-experience room called Suite 16, showcasing fire panels and other systems.

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