Up for Grabs

Two trends are converging for electrical contractors that offer lucrative opportunities—building owners are increasingly investing in intelligent building technology while, on the other hand, they are contracting out for building maintenance once done by company employees.

That second trend can be an opportunity for electrical contractors. Maintenance commonly includes moves, adds and changes (MACs) as well as regular power-use evaluations. As maintenance contracts become more common and building owners seek to upgrade their electrical systems, electrical contractors stand in position to come into “intelligent buildings” at the ground level and secure years of work.

But, there is still considerable question as to who is qualified for these contracts. As integrated systems and intelligent buildings spring up across the country, the market for installing and maintaining them is still open. That is due, in part, to the way intelligent construction has evolved.

Just what makes one building smarter than another depends on whom you ask. All buildings are already “intelligent” to the degree that their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have thermostats that automatically adjust the temperature to suit the weather. However, an intelligent building must do a lot more than respond to the environment outside.

For some building owners and their maintenance staff, the kind of building automation they think of is extensive telecommunication capabilities, designed to allow rapid reconfiguration of the interior layout depending upon the building’s occupants and their changing needs.

In fact, building automation can include everything that links building systems that are typically controlled separately—including electrical distribution, fire, security, heating and air conditioning, and elevator and escalator systems. The automation system enables one control point to operate all the building’s mechanical and electrical systems.

The transition to this point has come from a multitude of sources with technological improvements intended to make separate systems more energy efficient and easier to operate. LonWorks, a control platform, and BACnet, a standard protocol, have only recently offered a building-wide component to allow the different systems to communicate with each other deploying a mix of hardware and software.

“Building owners have been realizing if the HVAC can talk within itself, why can’t different disciplines talk to each other,” said Tom Braz, Hubbell Building Automation general manager.

Hubbell develops networked lighting systems for a growing number of building owners. Now that communication protocols such as LonWorks, under the umbrella of Echelon, allow peer-to-peer communication, all the systems in a building speak the same language. That language is saving building owners time and money.

Just who installs and maintains these systems is still a matter up for grabs. Building owners who are seeking to automate their system don’t have much luck with architects and consulting engineers who don’t specialize in that kind of work.

Systems integrators have come to the forefront, mostly those with an IT background that can bring mechanical and electrical sides of a building together. In many cases, systems integrators contract-out to electrical contractors for building maintenance and out of these relationships comes the real advantage for many electrical contractors.

“When it comes to pulling wires, the datacom world will pull outside contractors to do the work,” said Braz. “When the datacom thing happened, some electrical contractors jumped in. They’re already in the building.”

To be in the building, electrical contractors need to ensure the installation work, something they can do through systems integrators or directly with the building owner. Once there, maintenance is not much different, whether with an automated building or a more traditional system.

“A lighting control system is still a switch with lighting going to the switch,” Braz said.

However, how you manage and connect all the systems can be where the contractor may need to obtain specialized training. In some cases, systems integrators are electrical contractors. Braz found that 5 to 7 percent of those he meets at conferences to discuss building automation are electrical contractors. But that percentage could still grow.

“If you are a systems integrator you’ve got a great control over your destiny,” Braz said. “You have the service industry.”

For many contractors, now is the time to begin training and experimenting. Numerous organizations, such as LonWorks, offer training opportunities.

“Any savvy electrical contractor should be able to pick this up quickly,” Braz said.

Mike Miclot, director of commercial programs, Rockwell Automation, has seen the growth of building automation that sprang from factories. Factories were the first to delve into automation with assembly equipment. The hybrid version included the building and factory automated together. It was then that many began seeing the need for lighting, HVAC and fire prevention automation solutions. Schools and government buildings have begun to lead the way, since they have been most likely to spend the money up front to save energy costs down the road.

For example, schools spend $6 billion a year on energy. They can reduce that cost by 25 percent with smart buildings. But the impact goes far beyond schools. There are nearly five million commercial buildings in the United States, which together use one-third of all the energy consumed and two-thirds of all electricity.

By the year 2010, another 38 million buildings are expected to be constructed. While not all are being built with automation included, a growing number are. Solutions that allow buildings to measure their use of power, as well as even generate their own power are becoming more common. That popularity first began in emerging nations where energy costs are high and power grids are unreliable.

Homeland security is also forcing many buildings in the United States to automate their functions. Semiconductor manufacturers have different requirements. To maintain clean rooms for their chip fabrication, they need programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

Much of the work is going to systems integrators. Some are electrical contractors, and others subcontract out to electrical contractors for their maintenance work.

“There are a lot of different avenues to the market,” Miclot said.

Maintenance contracts can go to electrical contractors, integrators or to large integration companies such as Johnson Controls.

According to Miclot, a PLC can run up to 30 years and is relatively simple to maintain. A successful maintenance contract, he said, includes a proposal by the contractor to have a preventative maintenance schedule that can be monitored on-site or remotely.

Preventative work can include tasks such as counting the number of card swipes before sending a technician to provide maintenance when it is needed.

In addition, predictive maintenance has become the accepted approach to maintaining a smart building. This approach involves setting up a strategy at the time of installation, which keeps things working optimally.

Building owners and companies have various reasons for wanting to contract-out for building maintenance. It saves money, especially when the company is smaller and has limited staff and resources. By contracting-out electrical maintenance, a company frees up its staff and tools to work on business operation.

Even though the company may pay more to contract-out, the contractor’s skills can ensure the job is done right. This is also a concern for systems integrators who do not have backgrounds in electrical contracting. For that reason, electrical contractors can leverage their expertise in their particular field to improve business operations for the building owner, business or systems integrator.

Contracting-out also frees a company, whether large or small, to focus on its immediate, core activities. With the electrical maintenance in the hands of an outside contractor, the maintenance staff of a company can turn its focus to the core tasks. Many manufacturing facilities, for example, are training maintenance staff members to work with increasingly technical equipment, requiring them to leave the electrical work in the hands of a contractor.

While the revenue on a month-to-month basis may be low for the contractor, he stands to gain in the long run because the maintenance requires fewer man-hours and is predictable. Contractors gain by earning a small but steady income from low-staff work while focusing the bulk of their man-hours on the more profitable installations elsewhere.

Contractors often secure these maintenance positions not just by installing the system in the first place, but also by forming good relationships with building owners and facilities managers. Having the background in automated buildings can make the difference. Most facilities managers are more likely to go to a company they know and have worked with before when signing long-term contracts for the building’s maintenance. This also means eliminating the bidding process, which is another savings for the contractors. A similar good relationship with an established systems integrator can be just as valuable. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.


About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com .

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