Everyone in electrical contracting will confirm that the industry has evolved immensely over the last several decades in new and nontraditional ways, from controls and low-voltage technologies to wireless systems that make buildings smarter than ever.
In lighting 30 years ago, for example, “the focus for contractors was on getting line voltage power to devices and installing switchgear, and the most complex part of the job was installing a three-way dimmer,” said David Buerer, director of product management at Leviton Manufacturing Co. Inc., Melville, N.Y. “Some rooms, but not many, might have a wall-box occupancy sensor or else an outdoor light might have a photocell to turn the lights on when it got dark.”
Devis Mulunda, global product manager for Vive at Lutron Electronics, Coopersburg, Pa., agreed.
“Years ago, the electrical contractor was hired to install, wire and maintain mainly high-voltage systems,” he said. “Low-voltage was less common and typically reserved for the highly specialized IT sector, and the electrical contractor’s work centered around delivering wiring and installation service for power distribution boards, panels, switches and accessories.”
In terms of lighting schematics, Mulunda said, “each zone of light was determined by how it was wired, and making any change required rewiring and maybe opening walls; contractors had to plan more carefully and build in a buffer for modifications.”
Fast-forward to today, “and we’re seeing more advanced lighting control systems that are fully integrated with other parts of the building,” Buerer said. “The rise in IoT lighting and controls or connected, distributed lighting systems has led to simple, secure and highly scalable lighting solutions that can be designed to meet the needs of staff and occupants in any commercial facility, whether they’re looking to control lighting in a single room or the entire building,” he said. “Overall, wireless systems are seeing greater adoption and many systems are now app-configurable and controllable.”
“Today’s digital dimming technology can make rezoning as easy as pulling out your smartphone,” Mulunda said. “With the advent of wireless technologies, as well as mobile devices that double as commissioning tools, contractors are empowered to do more for their clients. In addition, the ability for today’s systems to be networked and scalable offers the opportunity to expand from a single smart switch or sensor to an integrated lighting system with control that can be truly tailored to each job, and even individualized to each fixture if desired.”
Finally, he noted, “modern end-user demands for better data have provided contractors with new opportunities to deliver more value-added services, such as starting up and programming systems and even making changes on the fly.”
Our experts confirm that in today’s new era of contracting, a range of historically nontraditional jobs have become increasingly standard.
“For example, there are projects that not only call for lighting control in the space, but also occupancy detection and daylight harvesting for maximum comfort and energy savings,” Mulunda said. “If ‘traditional’ is wired, analog and stand-alone, ‘nontraditional’ is wireless, digital and networked. Instead of ‘light this room,’ the expectation is now ‘improve the environment for the occupant’ and ‘personalize control to the task or need.’ Systems are designed to elevate the lighting, which ultimately creates engaging and experiential spaces that support wellness and make people want to be there. Today’s savvy contractors are responding by thinking about dynamic, color-changing lighting, wellness, shading solutions, automation and the enhanced comfort of occupants.”
“Wireless thermostats tied into HVAC systems, power over ethernet (PoE), Li-Fi and other platforms are now more commonplace than ever,” said Martin Mercier, strategic marketing manager for IoT connected systems at Cooper Lighting Solutions, Peachtree City, Ga. “ASHRAE, IECC and Title 24 all have requirements of different extents that affect the dimming and automatic control of lighting as well as the control of thermostats through motion-activated controls, and electric shades are an increasingly popular way to control natural light and heat absorption.”
Dustin Bransford, audio/visual engineer at Rosendin, a century-old electrical contracting firm based in San Jose, Calif., wholeheartedly agrees that electrical contractors have ventured into a range of exciting new and unchartered territories as technology has evolved.
“Historically, we were the ones that just provided the power and infrastructure for technology systems, but now we’re designing and building the complex technology systems we power,” he said. “Providing everything from power to complex low-voltage installations, commissioning and even programming, the electrical contractors of tomorrow are providing complete turnkey technology solutions like no one else has ever been able to do.”
Among the wide array of “nontraditional” electrical work being demanded by the marketplace, contractors are finding themselves increasingly involved with renewable technologies and the installation of PoE and fiber infrastructure to support premises- and cloud-based solutions as well as wireless mesh networks. With the expansion of the internet of things, they’re also integrating solutions that operate on communication infrastructures like passive optical networking/PoE so that one network can both manage and power lighting and lighting controls, phone systems, data, Wi-Fi, premises protection (including access control, intrusion, surveillance and facial recognition), building management systems, audio-visual and life safety (fire alarm/DAS).
“Branching out beyond their traditional scope on a project—such as by getting more involved with design and product selection, as well as commissioning and basic integration—are great new opportunities for electrical contractors,” said Mulunda. He encourages contractors to consider that “the job call-back, which has historically been a profit-shaving nuisance, can be converted into a value-added opportunity. The contractor of the future will most likely own the system startup, basic setup and integration, and will then be positioned to handle system scaling whenever the client is ready.”
According to Mulunda, “contractors will increasingly manage the handover process of systems to the client or facility management team, ensuring that they have the tools at their disposal to receive actionable data from their system and make simple adjustments.”
Buerer noted that integrating low-voltage control and networking into their business are musts for contractors who want to move forward with new building technologies.
“Wireless solutions are becoming more widely adopted and accepted, so understanding the different communication protocols and the basics of lighting control strategies, and embracing app-configurable programming, can also be a huge advantage,” he said.
“Low-voltage lighting and wireless lighting control are the two biggest opportunities electrical contractors should consider when it comes to selling simplicity and cost savings to their customers,” Mercier agreed.
To get started, Mulunda suggests that electrical contractors align themselves with one or more trusted manufacturers committed to service and support every step of the way—from design to installation and service.
In addition, “leverage your local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee chapter as well as manufacturers that support these training centers with curricula, training tools, product donations/installations and technical expertise to expand learning opportunities,” he said. “Local distributors may also host on-demand manufacturer training and demonstrations that meet a contractor’s busy schedule.”
“Enter with an open mind and get as much education as you can,” Mercier said. “The technologies are quite easy once you know the ground rules going in.”