While they toil making electrical connections work for customers and clients, a growing number of electrical industry professionals are making connections of a different kind — to industry-oriented Web sites where online forums and chat rooms serve up chatter about everything electrical, and then some. Lured by the opportunity to learn, educate, and share, thousands of professionals from a broad swath of the electrical industry are taking part in online virtual communities. The common denominator is some connection to the business of efficiently, safely, and profitably delivering electricity.

Sporting names like “The Electrical Contractor Network,” “Code Forum,” and “Electricians' Success International,” the Internet sites are emerging as cyberspace's neighborhood watering hole of sorts for the electrical professional. Offering an opportunity to connect with other professionals, the communities they host blend spirited debate, education on the technical and business aspects of electricity, and a sense of camaraderie.

“The wealth of knowledge that these forums and chat rooms offer is great,” says Les Kuhlthau, owner of Mill Electric, a Milltown, N.J.-based electrical contractor. “They're a useful resource in helping contractors learn how to better run a business because of the ability to talk to others in the same field and the immediacy of the information. The ability to learn how contractors in other parts of the country operate has provided us with some great information.”

Similarly, George Stolz, a journeyman electrician with Gregory Electric, a Loveland, Colo.-based contractor, says the sites he frequents help him stay educated and plugged in to technical issues.

“The nature of the industry and the electrical trade lends itself to a long-term lifestyle of learning,” says Stolz. “These forums are frequented by a lot of very knowledgeable people when it comes to electrical theory, and they're helping advance an industry where continuing education isn't always a requirement for licensing.”

Information for the asking

Through the simple process of give-and-take, these various online communities are allowing answers to vexing questions to percolate to the surface from a deep well of knowledge and experience. Whether stemming from posted questions, comments, or observations on forums, or conversational threads initiated in freewheeling, real-time chat rooms, the industry's collective expertise and experience is only a mouse click away. While active participation in discussions often requires a simple registration that asks for confirmation of professional credentials, some forums' dialogue is freely available to browsers — probably the largest group, who choose to watch and learn from a distance.

The sites, some now with a half-decade or more under their belts, offer visitors a gateway to nearly any electrical-oriented subject matter of a professional nature. Broaching subjects ranging from technical know-how and interpreting electrical codes to the nuances of running an electrical contracting business and satisfying inspectors, the communities reflect the interests and concerns of an array of professionals. Contractors, electricians, inspectors, engineers, and even instructors visit and contribute, giving the communities a broad knowledge and experience base that can make for intelligent and, at times, lively interaction.

Although all of the sites host a broad range of discussions, several have carved out a specific niche.

As its name implies, Mike Holt's Code Forum (www.mikeholt.com), for example, focuses on the National Electrical Code. Holt, a longtime NEC expert and educator, was an early entrant into the online forum space. The forum gives participants an opportunity to hash out the theoretical and practical implications of the Code and its effect on professionals' day-to-day work. One of the more established and widely visited forums, it claims some 33,000 registered members. Another electrical Code- and safety-related site, http://necmeister.proboards104.com/index.cgi, run by Joe Tedesco, EC&M's “Code Violations” guru, sponsors a forum that focuses on documenting NEC violations and how to ensure compliance.

A forum maintained by Los Angeles-based Electricians Success International (ESI) — a business management resource for electricians that maintains two forums, one member-based (www.youresi.com/forum.aspx); the other open to all (www.electriciansboard.com/forum) — is geared slightly more to the nuances of running an electrical contracting business or a one-man service business operated by a licensed electrician. It was conceived as a way to bring more basic business operations knowledge to professionals, but also hosts technical issue-related discussions. ESI has 300 member companies.

Exploring the technical side

Technical issues, though, are perhaps the most frequently debated and can produce more verbal “fireworks” than many others. Owing to the fact that there's often no single way to handle knotty issues that arise in the course of projects, discussions about the best ways to handle routine and not-so-routine technical challenges are common.

“I see a lot of questions related to interpretation of codes, and the existence, or lack thereof, of code requirements pertaining to a specific question,” observes Charlie Beck, a longtime moderator for Holt's Code Forum. “Often it starts with, ‘An inspector failed my installation because of….,’ or ‘The inspector said that the Code requires X but I can't find it in the Code,’ or “My coworkers and I disagree on….,' or ‘What do you think about this installation?’ ”

Beck, who served as chief moderator in 2006 and has logged more than 7,700 posts since joining the forum in 2003, says questions and comments about something as simple as wiring methods can spark lengthy conversations. From what types of junction boxes and conductors are needed for specific jobs to calculating service loads to figuring out why a question was improperly answered on an electrical exam, many posts relate to the basic tasks involved in field work, says Beck. Frequently, photos showing clear Code violations or a particular aspect of a job that's called into question supplement the conversations.

The simple act of debating technical procedures or properly interpreting the intent of the NEC and other codes can yield useful information for seasoned pros as well as novices. Sometimes, properly reasoned debate can open the eyes of professionals to a better understanding of why something is done a particular way or what the Code wording really means. Tom Baker, another moderator on the Holt forum, says online communities offer a great forum for technical debates and explanations for people with a range of expertise.

“Some people who visit the forums are new to the Code and want to learn more about it, while others may simply have questions on products, applications, or specific sections of the Code,” says Baker, owner of Puget Sound Electrical Training, Bremerton, Wash. “One of the values the forum offers is helping eliminate misconceptions about Code issues that are floating around, many of which are wrong, but nevertheless perpetuated. That's one of the problems in the industry: Once you learn about it, you often don't bother to keep learning and stay involved in the process of learning. Instead, it's the approach of ‘it's always been done this way.’ The forums get people with fresh eyes asking questions no one is asking.”

That's exactly the kind of environment Baker and others engaged in teaching the finer points of electricity love to see, and increasingly use to their advantage. For example, Mike Whitt, a 37-year industry veteran who now teaches continuing education classes for inspectors at Randolph Community College, Asheboro, N.C., uses the Holt forum, in particular, as a key instructional tool. Technical threads that delve deeply into Code issues serve as ideal fodder for teaching would-be inspectors about the nuances of the NEC.

“Students log on, pick a thread on some technical issue, read it through, and then, as part of their coursework, substantiate whether a practice jibes with the Code,” he says. “It's a great teaching tool.”

Using the discussions to advance proposals for changes in the NEC, Whitt says he's copied verbatim forum discussions on issues related to code interpretations, which he has forwarded in support of proposed revisions.

Hammering out technical and code-related issues in the forums also has helped contractors become more savvy in their dealings with general contractors and inspectors. Bill Addiss, a Centereach, N.Y., electrical contractor who founded “The Electrical Contractor Network” (www.electrical-contractor.net) forum, says contractors who participate are better informed.

“I think it's helped some contractors work more closely with inspectors, and it's raised the awareness of everyone in the field,” he says. “More inspectors are realizing that there's more they need to know, as well, and that they can't always just say ‘because I said so.’”

Other forum users and administrators note that online forums have helped spark discussions about the need for ensuring and demanding more safety on jobs when it comes to working with electricity. “Contractors are becoming more safety conscious, and more are saying they're not going to work ‘hot’ on some aspects of jobs,” Baker says, noting safety-related discussions are becoming more commonplace.

The business side

Forums and chat rooms are proving equally beneficial to industry professionals looking for guidance on matters of a more general business nature. Sole proprietor electricians and owners and executives of electrical contracting companies are tapping into discussions focused on both general operational issues and those that are unique to the electrical business.

In that respect, the sites have opened up a communications avenue that those in the business have been either reluctant to tap or found challenging to access, says Patrick Kennedy, founder and president of Mister Sparky, an Atlanta-based residential electrical service provider who also is affiliated with ESI.

“Electricians historically haven't talked too much among themselves, but I think they're hungry for knowledge and they're willing to share,” he says. “Most electricians I chat with want to know the business stuff because in many ways today it's harder to be a businessman than an electrician.”

On both ESI forums, Kennedy says, the emphasis is on fundamental business management techniques. Everything from pricing, bidding, and estimating to accounting, human resources management, and reading a profit and loss statement are addressed. The member-only site's participants, as well as visitors to the nonmember site, trade ideas, experiences and tips on how to run a more profitable electrical contracting business.

“I think a lot are becoming better businessmen because of the forums,” he says. “For a long time electricians have been behind other trades like plumbing and HVAC in terms of getting together to discuss business issues.”

Scott Vickrey, the founder of another forum, www.electricalknowledge.com, says one of the benefits of forums like his and others is that they create and foster a unique learning environment. Being able to put situations and problems into words in a conversational format gives participants a way to think their way through issues and learn as discussion threads play out and reach, hopefully, reasoned conclusions. The format is especially useful given that many conversations begin with a top-of-the-mind frustration, gripe, or observation about the day-to-day challenges of the work.

“Venting — it's amazing how common that is among those who visit the forums,” says Vickrey. “People want to be able to share some of their day-to-day frustrations.”

That can run the gamut, Vickrey says, and some of the resulting conversations can develop a humorous edge. One thread, he notes, recently began with a participant, lambasting customers who expect something for nothing, saying he was starting a list of “everyone who will work for free.” Lowball bidders, Vickrey adds, are a common target of wrath. Other frustrations that have been aired and discussed include Yellow Pages advertising, collections troubles, and dealing with difficult general contractors.

“There's a value in getting some solidarity with other people who are in the same boat,” says Vickrey.

Stolz, the Colorado electrician, says he gets a sense that electricians are eager to know what the “other guy” is doing. While the information may not come from direct competitors, it can be highly valuable even if it's from a contractor 3,000 miles away. Effective and accurate pricing and bidding is a topic that draws a lot of interest, but ethics, moonlighting, dealing with apprentices and journeyman electricians, and stances taken with general contractors are common topics as well, he says.

Looking ahead, forum administrators and participants say interest in online communities for the industry is only likely to grow. As the business becomes more challenging and the age of the average industry professional comes down to a point where facility and comfort with Internet technology is commonplace, more pros will be eager to learn, share, and interact with others about the business.

“A community is what this is all about,” says Vickrey. “An online forum format is a great way for people to communicate.”

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee's Summit, Mo.


Sidebar: Novices and Do-It-Yourselfers — Not Welcome

That's the message most electrical industry forums and chat rooms are trying to send, but maybe not in so many words.

Worried that giving technical advice to non-licensed, untrained electricians might give them just enough power to be dangerous — to themselves, others, and possibly electrical professionals — many online communities have a standing policy of keeping amateurs at arm's length.

Nevertheless, there are virtual communities where those who come into contact with electrical issues in the course of their work can tap into an online knowledge base. A notable one is maintained by the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI).

The Boulder, Colo.-based organization has one area of its forum, www.nachi.org/forum, dedicated to a discussion of all things electrical that home inspectors may encounter in the course of their work. But the organization is careful to keep dialogue focused on the task facing inspectors — documenting and assessing electrical issues, not correcting or repairing them. In that respect, the forum has proven a great value to the industry, says Gerry Beaumont, an inspector who serves as national training consultant for the organization.

“Participants can learn about electrical conditions or situations they're unfamiliar with and get advice on how to best explain an electrical problem to a homeowner or potential buyer,” he says. “Most of the people who participate are not electricians, but there are some electricians who participate in the forum and help inspectors get the right answers.”


Sidebar: Ask the Experts

Looking for a little advice on perplexing technical electrical issues? Try getting answers at EC&M's “Ask the Experts” forum at www.ecmweb.com. Offering solutions to some of our readers' toughest questions in specific category areas, this free online resource enables visitors to enter into an interactive dialogue with industry experts from various leading manufacturers. Sponsored by I-Gard, resistance grounding questions are answered by Tony Locker, director of business development at I-Gard. Sponsored by Generac Power Systems, standby power questions are answered by Frank Kiffin-Bruce and Brian Larsen, both applications engineers at Generac Power Systems.