As electrical contractors search for new ways to get the most productivity out of their workers in one of the tightest labor markets in years, some contractors are developing prefabricated electrical systems to speed installation. From the contractors' vantage point, the benefits of using prefab electrical systems are obvious, said Russ Crawford, vice president of vendor relations, Integrated Electrical Services (IES), Inc., Dallas. IES is one of the largest electrical contractors in the U.S., with 1998 sales of $1.1 billion.

"Labor is in short supply," Crawford said. "Working with these prefab electrical systems in the field saves labor. And there's more to it than that. It's much more efficient for us to build table assemblies in a factory environment. You'll always have good weather working in the shop, you're working in a comfortable workplace with automatic tools, and you enjoy the repeatability of the process." Tim Cummings, president, Mills Electrical Contractors (an IES company), Dallas, said any contractor can make use of prefab systems, which work for anything where you have a creative mind and can think of the proper application. "In many projects where you have multiple applications and can figure out how to get it done, there's a fit for you," Cummings said.

He added that his company likes to build prefabricated wiring systems for use in interior walls. "There you'll find a real good fit," Cummings said. "With that as a starting point, it's just up to your own creativity as to what will work."

St. Louis-based Sachs Electric Co., one of the largest electrical contractors in the country, performs more prefabrication than most firms. The company has a maintained a prefabrication shop for 15 years, said Larry Plunkett, president of Sachs. The prefab facility employs just one electrician full-time, but the crew can swell up to six electricians, depending on the number of prefab projects in the works. Typically, prefabrication work at Sachs includes assembling lighting fixtures, performing special pipe bends, and pre-wiring receptacles.

"It works great because of controlled environment, easy access to tools, and better worker-productivity," Plunkett said. "It's a great way of controlling crews and production costs. We can prefab outlets by thousands, assemble big controls and cables and tag wires, brackets."

Tony Mann, vice president of E-J Electrical Installation, Long Island City, N.Y., says E-J often takes advantage of the economies of prefabrication. "Most of the time, we set up on site in areas where we have teams prefabbing, "Mann said. He cites E-J's work on the World Trade Center as a prime example. "We installed the entire security system on a design/build basis. We set up a room specifically to prefab and pre-wire all of the turnstiles. We also installed all of the electronics and tested them completely on benches."

As popular as prefab systems may be getting among larger electrical contracting firms, the widespread effect of the use of these systems on electrical manufacturers and electrical distributors is unclear. If the move to prefab is a trend, it's hasn't gotten real big yet, said Jim Dollins, vice president, product development, AFC Cable Systems, Providence, R.I. "If anything, I'd call it a slow trend. It grows maybe a point annually," Dollins said.

AFC has a prefab division, Uni-Fab, Dallas, Texas, which prefabricates branch-circuit and metal assemblies and pre-wired panels.

Mark MacAller, marketing manager for Thomas & Betts' Corp., commercial division, Memphis, Tenn., sees contractors using prefab electrical systems in two ways: where manufacturers do the assembly and sell the package to them; and where contractors complete the assembly themselves."You'll see this in buildings where most of the floors are constructed the same way," he explained.

MacAller agreed that distributors must work closely with contractors to understand how this trend could add to their sales."If someone is working on a 10-story office building, traditionally the contractor gives the bill of materials to the distributor and receives what he needs in one or two shipments," MacAller said. "With prefab construction, service and timing are critical, as they build and drop in one floor at a time. The distributor has to recognize the importance of timing and delivery and provide what the customer needs."

Electrical distributors should find out how many of their customers use prefab systems, so they can have the proper package of products to offer them, said Joe Llewellyn, corporate marketing director, Mayer Electric Supply, Birmingham, Ala. "Typically, the electrical distributor's role is to make sure the contractor is informed on what's available and how these products can help him. Once that's done, the distributor should provide whatever value-add the contractor needs."

AFC's Dollins agrees that to cash in on any move toward prefab, distributors' salespeople must do more than just ask contractors which products they want to buy. "Electrical distributors should find out what projects the contractor is working on, what the specifics of the projects are and what he can do to save the electrical contractor money," Dollins said.