Dangers of the Status Quo Bias: What’s next when lighting is no longer electrical contractors’ work?

Stylized image of a hand holding a lit light bulb | iStock / CSA-Archive
iStock / CSA-Archive

Traditionally oriented electrical contractors and highly trained electricians are in jeopardy of being shut out of future opportunities in what has always been a major part of what they do: the installation, service and maintenance of architectural lighting systems in buildings.

Two trends hint at this threat. The first is the inchoate transition to DC-powered buildings. The second is the steady evolution of architectural lighting.

Proponents of transitioning to DC-powered buildings and next-generation lighting systems pepper their presentations with confident observations that when such change occurs, it will not require significant involvement of “high-priced,” licensed journeyworker electricians. It can be accomplished “without the most expensive electrical trades.” Most of the job can be performed, so they tell us, by lesser-paid technicians.

Allied with that thinking is the lurking possibility that customers’ representatives— who in future years will be responsible for awarding contracts for this kind of work—will not turn to traditionally oriented electrical contractors to price and perform it. Customers may not regard it as “electricians’ work.”

Imagine the installation of a luminous interior surface, composed of a flexible product embedded with LEDs, shipped to its destination in large rolls, attached to the walls or ceiling, and connected to a low-voltage DC power source. Will customers think of this as “electricians’ work?”

Imagine how much more that luminous surface might do than merely light the room. Through the unlimited range of digital imagery it can cast, it can shape and enhance a huge part of the very experience of living and working in that space. Will customers think of this as “electricians’ work?”

Imagine architectural lighting empowered by Li-Fi (light fidelty) wireless communication technology. Will customers think of this as “electricians’ work?”

Before a further look at future trends, let’s take a step back to recall a little history and the takeaways it contains.

With his most famous invention, Thomas Edison did not defeat the darkness on behalf of all good people nearly so much as he began to destroy the dreams of gas company presidents. The incandescent bulb replaced the gas lamp, but not with lightning speed. By 1920, 40 years after Edison’s patent for the incandescent lamp, only about a third of all U.S. households were electrified.

Early on, plenty of folks believed that, despite the disadvantages of gas lighting, it would always be the primary source of illumination. Electrical lighting would continue to play a secondary role merely for decorative purposes—or so they thought.

There’s a great lesson for us in the dangers of the “status quo bias,” the preference for the current situation this kind of thinking exemplified.

Along the way, an analogous resistance to change was aroused each time one major commodity source for artificial lighting began to overtake another—from whale oil to kerosene to fuel gas to electricity. (While adored in every era, candles have never been in the running as a predominant source of lighting for ordinary households.) Transitions from one source to the next typically took many years. But nothing takes that long anymore.

Cliched but nonetheless true, technological change is faster today. It took 75 years for the telephone to reach 50 million users. Some digital products now get that far in about a month.

Since the 1880s, lighting has become the province of electricians. Along the way, progress has been propelled by the relentless introduction of new products. In that vein, emerging technology has the potential to take lighting out of the hands of electricians and consign it to others.

Many electrical contractors have witnessed a metamorphosis in the realms of telephony and computing in the span of their careers that is now worth remembering. Once upon a time, office phones and computer systems were completely separate. It would have been unimaginable for a desk phone—that indestructible device that sat there unchanged for many years—to be connected to a computer. There’s no need to explain what happened, except to point out that the phone succumbed to the computer, not vice versa.

Lighting will almost certainly undergo the same transmutation as did telephony. That progression will make a big difference in an industry with one-quarter of its business activity based on some aspect of lighting.

Qualified electrical contractors and well-trained electricians are faced with a challenge to their hegemony in this realm. There are steps they can take to preserve it. Stay tuned, as future columns will address solutions for the savvy, service-based electrical contractor.

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

SARGENT is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com. MCCOY is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and department head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson...

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