Imagine today's world without electricity. Hard to fathom, isn't it? Just as hard to comprehend is today's electrical industry without the people who built it — the workers who designed the structures, strung the wires, laid the conduit, energized systems, and currently maintain and improve the complex electrical systems we all take for granted.
EC&M sought out industry leaders — Voices of the Industry, we call them — to talk about how the electrical design, construction, and maintenance fields have changed through the years. In the profiles that follow, you'll read about electrical workers who got their start during or after World War II and worked through good times and bad, laying the groundwork for today's electrical industry. They saw major changes and improvements not only in the systems they designed and built, but also in the tools and processes they worked with. Many talked about changes in electrical training, work processes, and the National Electrical Code. Others commented on the way economic conditions affected their workload, and several noted the growth of specific subsets of the industry such as voice-data-video or the emergence of high technology.
Their voices represent all segments of the industry, including electric linemen, designers, journeyman electricians, electrical engineers, plant maintenance personnel, and owners of electrical design or construction shops. All were — and definitely still are — dedicated to making the field of electrical construction and maintenance one of the country's leading industries. None, it would seem, would have chosen anything other than the challenging, exciting, and rewarding careers they have had in this dynamic field.
We also asked our experts to make a few predictions for the future. While none were bold enough to predict what the industry would look like 100 years from now, many had interesting comments about developments to watch over the next five to 10 years.
Whether they're looking back on the great industry they helped build or looking forward to what might be around the next corner, we think you will enjoy hearing what our Voices of the Industry have to say.
Founder, Curator and Volunteer — Ken Mullen
Started in Industry: 1934
Ken Mullen did not come to the U.S. electrical industry via the most traditional route. Born in Germany in 1919, Mullen worked as an electrical apprentice in Hamburg, Germany, from 1934 to 1938. In 1938, Mullen, who is Jewish, fled Nazi Germany and ended up in India, where he found work as an electrician and later as a supervisor in a foundry that made ammunition used against the Germans. After WWII, he moved to San Francisco and found a city bursting at the seams and in dire need of electricians.
“I walked into the local union office, and they said they could use electricians very badly,” Mullen recalls.
Despite not knowing much about U.S. electrical work, he landed his first job doing motor repair in 1947. “In the time since, I have had only five jobs in almost 45 years, all in the electrical field and with some of the finest electrical shops in the San Francisco area,” he says.
Mullen's early jobs were with very large contractors working on what he calls “enormous” factories. “San Francisco was a very industrial place then,” Mullen says. “Everything was motors — motors all over. They needed electricians who could wire them up, and for several years I did only motor work. When work slowed at one place, I could simply go to another, because there was so much work to be had. I could go where I wanted and never had to leave San Francisco or the surrounding area to find work.”
They had very little machinery, so most work was done by hand. “We had to bend pipe over tires with 2×4s,” he says. “It was unbelievable, we had 2- or 3-in. pipe, and it was bent without any mechanical device. We heated it to bend it. It is so much different today, when the computer figures out the bends in the building, and then you get your pipes already bent. When we had to dig a ditch, it was with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. We had no machinery. We had battery-operated things but no way of doing things when the battery was dead.”
Health and safety issues have also changed over the years, Mullen notes. “In India, I had to figure it out myself,” he says of safety and health practices. “The last two years there I got lead poisoning and stopped working in factories. Most of my experience, though, has been in America, and I have never had any bad accidents here. We are much more careful. OSHA is preventing a lot of bad things from happening, and everyone is more oriented to safety. I have gotten two shocks in my life, and they were both 200V. I was very fortunate and have never been in a hospital in my life except for hip replacement.”
That's not exactly true — Mullen did visit hospitals as part of his electrical construction work. In the 1950s, he says the city was teaming with new construction for hospitals, breweries, and apartment buildings. “I worked in many breweries in the 1950s,” he recalls. “Hospitals and apartment buildings were very big, too. We always put in pipe and then pulled wire through. It was much slower but did a very good job of protecting the wires. Air conditioning started coming about then, too. All of a sudden, everybody started putting in furnaces and air conditioning after 1960.”
Mullen says he has always been a strong supporter of electricians' unions, particularly the IBEW. “I was very strong in the union,” he says. “I was never a business representative, as I had too many other things to do, but I found that without the unions, there was no life here in this country. Many said why don't you go into business on your own, but the unions in my opinion offered a great advantage.” In his post-retirement life, Mullen has partnered with IBEW Local 6 in San Francisco to found the Ken Mullen Electrical Museum of San Francisco in 1991, where many of the tools he used in his life's work are on display.
Mullen says he sees good times ahead for the electric industry. “It is still booming, but we still have problems finding people to work,” he says. “There is a lot of work building hotels and high-rise office buildings, not as much industrial any more. We don't know what will happen in the future, but I am one of those persons who does not bother with politics. I am happy to have had a great life doing electrical work.”
Retired Lineman and Electrician
Crown Point, Ind.
Started in Industry: 1946
Glenn Zieseniss got his start in the electrical industry courtesy of a milkman. “I lived on a farm, and the milkman quit his job and went to work for the electric line company,” Zieseniss recalls of his start in electric work. “It was 1946, and I had just come home from World War II, where I met the Russians at the Elbe [River]. [The milkman] told me electric work was good work.” On the milkman's suggestion, Zieseniss tried it and never looked back.
Zieseniss started out as a groundman, or “grunt,” on utility line crews, but says circumstances soon led him to work as a lineman. “We were short of workmen then, and there were several of us that started out as apprentice linemen stringing wires,” he recalls. “I started doing mostly 7.2kV line extensions to homes and/or farms in rural areas, and by 1948 was promoted to journeyman lineman, in part because of the shortage of qualified linemen. For the next four years, I worked on increasingly higher voltage lines, and in 1951 and 1952 I worked in an ordnance plant in Illinois that produced ammunition for the Korean War, where I started in the inside wiring field.” From 1952 to 1989, Zieseniss worked as a journeyman lineman and electrician in the Chicago area.
Zieseniss says he saw major changes in equipment and safety materials. “I would say the biggest changes in line work were the use of bucket trucks and improvements in safety equipment,” he says. “When we worked in the ordnance plants, it was all either rubber gloves or maybe some hot-stick work. I've been bitten by 2300V a couple of times, but never got burned, just got bit heavily.”
From 1947 through 49, Zieseniss did a lot of conversion work in Hammond and smaller cities. For the most part, the work consisted of burying conduit in concrete. He also worked with 17 different contractors on schools, hospitals, and the occasional odd job. “In one case an airplane hit a smokestack and that was a specialty job, reconstructing that,” he says.
Zieseniss also served as an electrical inspector for the city of Crown Point, Ind., from April 1984 to March 1998. “On the inspection side, I saw that many contractors were not really keeping abreast of what the Code says for safety,” Zieseniss says. “They seemed to be fighting that all the way.” He says safety is a big thing today for most contractors and utilities, and he points to the increased use of flash hazards and low-impedance transformers as steps in the right direction.
Zieseniss says today's emphasis on design-build may be an example of electrical work going in the wrong direction. “When I was working in the mills, the working prints were excellent,” Zieseniss recalls. “Now you don't know what is going on. The engineers have been priced out of the job for detail work. They leave it up to the guy in the field to figure things out. The prints are just not complete when I see them. In the early years, they had a detail for every column for all the electrical. Nowadays, you have to fight for your spot on that column or figure out what should go on the column.”
In his long electrical career, Zieseniss always enjoyed the freshness of new challenges. “I was never in the same place for very long,” Zieseniss says. “I never was much of one for the maintenance jobs, and preferred building new things and moving on. I was a free electrician to go wherever I was sent. I never drove more than 50 miles for day-in and day-out work, and could always find plenty of work in the Chicago area.”
Zieseniss, who says he has been a faithful reader of EC&M for decades, says something he read in a 1970 editorial has stuck with him through the years. “It was in a ‘Thoughts From Our Shop’ article on page seven of that issue,” Zieseniss recalls. “It said that the inspector must enforce the letter and spirit of the Code that is written, not as the designer or installer would like to see it written. We need to live by laws or else we will have electrical anarchy.”
C.R. (DICK) PORCARO
Retired Electrical Engineer
Started in Industry: 1948
Dick Porcaro's interest in the electrical trades started as a young boy. “I always had a fascination for electrical things as a kid, starting with radios and crystal sets,” Porcaro says. “I went to a technical high school and had an electrical course there. Then, I was doing part-time electric work and went to City College of New York at night. All that time I was working during the day full-time with engineering and construction companies. I spent some time with Mobil, and then wound up with Bechtel.”
Porcaro says most of his work focused on electrical engineering for chemical and petrochemical plants and notes that one thing he always liked about the electrical industry is that it is constantly changing.
“Code changes were always interesting things to keep on top of,” Porcaro says. “If you look at the way the Code looked in the early ’40s or ’50s, it was a 5×7 brown soft-cover thing a half-inch thick. Now it is a heck of a lot bigger, and the changes are mostly around different materials — how you can use new things without compromising safety.”
Cabling and installation materials, he says, have changed a lot. “Leaded cables used to be popular. They were always interesting in that they required high-caliber mechanical help to make the splices. New methods have come along to simplify the splices, and no one uses lead anymore due to environmental concerns.”
“Lighting has also changed quite a bit,” Porcaro adds. “It seemed that equipment was generally a lot more robust in the old days, while today the tendency has been to make things less expensive and still get an adequate amount of light in the facilities. The robust equipment seems to be gone, and everything has been made simpler and lighter.”
In the engineering offices, the major activity used to be making drawings, Porcaro adds. “You made them as clear and simple as possible and error-free. Some were so darn good you knew exactly what you had to do. In those days, once the drawing left the designer you could be sure it was right. We have more of a challenge with some drawings today. Drawings made by some computer designers are a heck of a lot different. Some still are making them clear, but there is so much pressure to get the work done as quickly as possible today. I think people sometimes lose sight of the fact that you can build something cheaper by spending more time on engineering and not as much on construction.”
Another major change Porcaro saw through the years was the increasing use of trays instead of conduit. “Most installations were wiring conduit. Then, in the 1950s, people were realizing you could get a pretty good installation by installing cable trays and laying cable in the trays rather than pulling conduit,” he says. “That was a major change in terms of wiring technique.”
System grounding changes have also been significant, he says. “Everything used to be either solidly grounded or completely ungrounded,” Porcaro says. “One thing companies learned really early was the damage that could happen if things were not grounded properly. You started seeing more medium- and low-resistance grounding systems, rather than having things solidly grounded.”
Porcaro also has observed changes in the way electricity is used, citing energy conservation as an example. “We never even thought about it much before — the whole idea of energy conservation using adjustable-speed drives,” he says. “That has been a big change, trying to reduce energy requirements.”
Concerning the future of the industry, Porcaro says he sees the U.S. electric industry getting less and less involved with heavy manufacturing and more involved with power generation. “We haven't necessarily created a lot more generating capacity in the last few years,” Porcaro says. “I see a continued emphasis in power plant construction.”
Rosendin Electrical Inc.,
San Jose, Calif.
Started in Industry: 1950
Ray Rosendin calls his entry into the electrical-contracting business a “baptism by fire.” Rosendin's father started Rosendin Electrical in 1919, and by the time Ray was 13 he was already working in his father's shop, running errands in the summers. When Ray graduated from college and came on full-time in 1950, the firm had grown to around 30 employees. “My father brought me up around electrical work, so by that time I had a fair knowledge of what was happening,” Rosendin recalls. “But in 1953 he had a heart attack, so I had to take over the business, ready or not.”
“They did business on the back of an envelope in those days,” Rosendin says. “If someone didn't have integrity, you just didn't do business with them. Then when I got out of school and into the business you saw more paperwork.” Rosendin says in the 1950s schools and residential work made up the bulk of his business, followed a bit later by industrial growth in and around the San Francisco Bay area. “Industry started coming into the Bay Area in the middle 1950s,” Rosendin says. “That was when Lockheed and IBM came here.”
Next, Rosendin says, came the electronics boom of the mid-1960s, spearheaded by companies like Fairchild Industries and Hewlett-Packard. That boom, he says, was nothing like the Silicon Valley explosion that took place a few decades later, but the big electronics companies formed the base from which the area's current “dot-com” economy could mushroom, he says.
Rosendin says one major change in the way the electrical industry has developed is that more contractors are now including designers and engineers on their staffs. “We have a complete engineering department,” he says. “We have seen that evolve into pretty much of a science and seen the inherent benefit in having our own engineers.”
Another way the industry has changed, he says, is that training and staff development is more crucial than ever. “We have always wanted to maintain as strong and knowledgeable a work force as we could,” Rosendin says. “We started attending trade shows in the 1950s. We attend all the new shows, and we demo new tools here whenever we can. We have always had good apprenticeship programs, but in addition to that, contractors now supplement apprenticeship with their own programs to bring additional knowledge to employees. People in the field need to know a lot more now to solve some of the complex problems that come up. We also have our regular meetings with our people to talk about safety and new procedures.”
Rosendin says Silicon Valley itself has changed a great deal over the past 20 years, with computers and the Internet becoming a part of everyday life. “Power requirements are growing exponentially from what we used to know, while people are more concerned than ever about their backup power systems,” he says. This summer in particular should be interesting for California consumers, Rosendin says, as the state tries to work its way through high demand and tight power supplies. As for the future of the industry, Rosendin says he sees strong growth well into the future.
President — NECA, Consultant
Former part owner,
Motor City Electric,
Started in Industry: 1953
Dick Martin started in the electrical industry in Detroit in the early 1950s, and is now in his sixth decade in the electrical trade as the current president of NECA and a consultant and former owner of Motor City Electric. The son of an electrical contractor, Martin started as an apprentice in 1953, became an estimator in 1967, and became part owner of Motor City Electric in 1992.
“The 1950s was kind of a tough period, with a lot of unemployment,” Martin says. “I never got laid off, though, because there were lots of schools and hospitals to be built, plus new auto plants. By the end of the decade, we were also starting to put in a lot of central air conditioning. They were also starting to build a lot of expressways, and so the 1960s were really pretty good times.”
However, as imported Japanese and German cars became more popular in the U.S., the Big Three American automakers suffered sales losses, and business tapered off. Work in and around Detroit became a bit slower, he says, but much of the slack was taken up by hospital and school construction, particularly in the suburbs. Those building booms went on, Martin says, until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when higher interest rates froze construction and the local economy slowed. By the 1990s, electrical workers in the area were busy again, with automakers upgrading plants and factories. Another booming business, he says, was the construction of casinos.
Martin says the tools and technologies of the electric construction trades have changed in several important ways over the years. “Flex wiring made our productivity go up immensely,” he says. “We now use mobile rigs in all our work, and electric scaffolds are a big thing today. All the tools are so much more sophisticated, like for instance one-shot benders. Today, you dial the bend you want, and it's done. All the cordless tools today make a big difference, and the use of PVC conduit became more prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s because it is easier to install and work with. The use of computers in our estimating has been fabulous. Years ago, you did it by hand. An estimate would take you two weeks. Today it's done in three days.”
As befits the current president of NECA, Martin says he and his companies have always been very active with unions and industry associations. He estimates about 65% of Detroit-area contractors belong to NECA, and says unionization is “on the upswing” in Michigan and elsewhere around the country. Among the reasons, he says, is the unions' and union shops' tendency to offer some of the best training. Not only that, electrical workers today understand that comprehensive and ongoing training is critical to their success. Martin has been in his local for 48 years.
Looking toward the future, Martin says a big change in the industry may be a move toward distributed generation, particularly in fuel cells that will sit on-site and produce power for local use. “We will need some training for that,” he says, predicting that fuel cells could “revolutionize our industry.”
President and Owner
Electrical Corp. of America,
Started in Industry: 1961
Jim Lacy is closing in on his 40th anniversary in the electrical contracting industry — all in and around the Kansas City metropolitan area. He started in the industry as part of an electrical apprenticeship program at a junior college in the Kansas City area in 1961. For the first six months, he worked for a contractor doing strictly residential work. In January 1962, Lacy went to work for Great Northern, which focused on petrochemical and refinery work, and he stayed with that company until December 1978, working his way up the ladder from apprentice to journeyman, then foreman, estimator, vice president, and eventually president. Today, he is president and owner of Electrical Corp. of America in Raytown, Mo.
“The work I did back then was heavy industrial work,” Lacy recalls of the 1960s. “The scaffolding was all hand-built on wheels, and we had a man on the ground pushing the scaffold from place to place. There was no such thing as a rotohammer or rotodrills. Drilling was done with a drill or an impact hammer — a mini-jackhammer — and when the rotohammer came out with a drill and hammer all at once we thought that was the end of the world. Most of the anchoring was done with lead anchors, and now so much is done with epoxy. Cable and wire has also changed considerably. The wires you see today are much smaller, and the insulation is much thinner.”
Lacy says the increasing importance of electrical work in the construction industry has been a major change over the last several decades. Electric work, he argues, has grown and changed considerably more than most of the other building industries. “It has become a larger portion of any building or home,” Lacy says. “If you go back to a house built 40 years ago that hadn't been modernized, you will see how much the electric industry has changed — with a lot more outlets and many more things running off electricity. It is no longer a question whether every home will have a refrigerator, television, and a lot of other electrical appliances running all or most of the time.”
Looking toward the future, Lacy says he sees the telecom or voice-data-video (VDV) segment of the business growing larger and larger. “That area is growing more technical, and the people that are in the business are receiving more and better training than ever. We are going to see more and more time out of every employee's year spent in training. If 25 years ago someone went to a three-day seminar that was a big deal, but today my technicians are spending six to nine weeks per year staying up with the changes — that will be a trend hitting every employer in the future.”
Another trend Lacy sees is a move toward private generating facilities. “We are going to see all kinds of energy growth requirements, and people doing private investment rather than generation being done strictly by utilities,” Lacy predicts.
Retired Plant Engineer
Started in industry: 1964
George House is an electric maintenance guru — at least that's what they called him at Amoco in Houston, where he was a plant manager for 22 of his 30 years in the business. His knowledge of the maintenance field was what took him so far, but his entry into the field, he says, was due to one overriding personality trait — curiosity.
“I started, like everyone else, in the engineering department doing projects,” House explains. “It really interested me to figure out what was causing equipment to fail. Outages were a big cost factor. Not only that but when we had outages there were safety concerns like loss of cooling water or loss of power to the safety systems themselves.”
House calls the evolution of equipment during his electrical maintenance career extraordinary. “When I first started, a 23kV switchgear was an open device with long arc shoots, and many were encased in oil,” he says. “Even for 480kV stuff, we were using oil-encased gear. It was big and bulky. That was before the development of metal-enclosed switchgear, which has been a huge improvement. Metal-enclosed gear is easier to keep clean, and in the event that there is a problem, it doesn't migrate and you don't burn the whole switch room down.”
Electrical meters were very different too, House adds. “The meters were all analog,” he says. “The old Simpson 260 was the mainstay, and it was nothing like the digital meters we have today. I don't see the day-to-day fix-it type of tools having changed that much, but the way we go about our work has really changed.
House notes a big change has been trying to figure out how to spend your maintenance money. “So much today is based on signature analysis, while it used to be that you would take a breaker down and put it back together and that was maintenance. Half the time, we didn't put it back together right, so we caused many of our own problems. Today, everyone has some type of advanced, computerized diagnostics to make sure things are functionally adequate. You can figure out what is going to go wrong before it is going wrong, and do something about it before you have a bunch of damage to fix,” he says.
“The reliability of the equipment has improved so much over the years that it does not take as many people to maintain that equipment,” House continues, “so there has been a steady decline in the number of people needed for maintenance. Also, a motor that we might have rewound a few years ago five or six times, now we just buy another one.”
Computers have also changed the electrical maintenance field, House says. “This is certainly true in terms of process control,” he says. “The idea today is to use computerized analysis to wring every bit you can out of the process and make it more efficient. We have also gone away from the individual controller and more to the controllers where we use a computer to turn them on and off. Reliability, though, is more important than efficiency. You can't even afford one failure today.”
House says his fondest memories of working in electrical maintenance are of the people he has worked with. “The things I remember most are the people,” he says. “I hear so many times that people have changed, that the old guys had the work ethic and the young people don't have it. I'd love to think us old dogs were that good, but I think the young people today are pretty good, too — maybe even better than some of us were then.”
Director of Building Facilities
Started in industry: 1976
John Weber is director of building facilities for LEGO Systems in Enfield, Conn., the U.S. headquarters of the Danish toy giant. Before working in plant management, he spent eight years at Allen Bradley Inc., of Milwaukee, now the Industrial Control and Automation Products Division of Rockwell Automation.
Weber says he has seen major advances in electrical industry safety. Terminal strips and terminations, he says, are inherently safer today, with a “dead front” design. He says he remembers working as an electrician's helper in the 1970s with terminations that had exposed or protruding screw heads, leaving little room for mistakes — if a screwdriver made contact with a termination screw, it could arc and destroy equipment. Most, if not all, equipment today features recessed screw heads, he says, reducing that particular safety risk.
Another example, he says, is the development of ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) equipment. “It used to be two-pronged plugs for everything,” Weber says. “You would buy a refrigerator and it was just floating electrically. Now even if there is a leakage of current, it will trip a breaker at 3mA to 5mA.”
Weber also credits OSHA standards for lockout/tagout, fall protection, and cord inspections that contribute to greater on-the-job safety. “When I worked my first electrical job there was not nearly as much safety training,” he says. “Today it is a federal law to make sure I know all the lockout/tagout training.”
A major technological advancement, Weber says, was the introduction and use of electronics for controls and relays. “I remember opening up panels that were as big as a closet, with rows and rows of relays,” he says. “Those were complex control panels and just to get logic you were expending so much energy. They also threw off enough heat that the control rooms needed huge air conditioners.” Today, he says, companies can take advantage of compact electronic programmable logic controllers that offer dense packaging and a lot more input/output in a small space.
Weber notes, though, “Electronics had a slow acceptance by the field. Electricians resisted it, because they did not like the fact that they could not see what was happening within a circuit. The industry wanted to promote the high-tech aspect, but it fell on deaf ears on the part of the electricians, until they finally had to accept it as the way things were going to go anyway.”
Another important change, Weber says, comes in the form of increased power-metering capabilities. “I can remember standing in front of the old electro-mechanical, very maintenance-prone equipment,” Weber says. “At the end of the month, someone had to replace the paper. If you forgot to do that, the pen ended up writing through the paper and onto the metal drum. The pens would also run out of ink or get stuck. They were a nightmare to clean or maintain. Today we have electronic meters that collect information and send it back to where I am sitting now. I can do archiving and look at very complex electrical measurements that weren't available before. Metering can be integrated into the IT functions of the building, and you can translate that information into other systems.”
Weber is optimistic about the future of the electrical industry and the promise inherent in new technologies. “If we can produce power somewhere else and transport it with no line loss, maybe the future isn't as bleak as we anticipate,” he says. “Maybe everything will not be as bleak as California's power situation is today. We shouldn't base all our expectations for the future on what is out there today. Technology can change things in ways we really cannot anticipate.”