Head down, palm up. That’s how we’re choosing to engage with information technology nowadays, our eyes fixed — transfixed some would say — on smartphones and other mobile digital devices not just for fun and diversion, but for productive reasons, too.

Electrical professionals are joining the wireless mobile fray, e-mailing, texting, navigating the web, and using the ubiquitous apps that deliver quick answers, manage and customize information consumption, and hasten communication. Now, with information at their fingertips, electrical pros at all levels are armed with ever more powerful on-demand IT capabilities. Tasks that used to demand laborious hand calculations or time-consuming diversions to consult hefty code books — and the conveyance of information via face-to-face meetings, phone conversations, and e-mails that are becoming the equivalent of smoke signals as expeditious means of communication — are being sped up and simplified.

EC&M recently conducted a non-scientific online poll that showed 68 of 126 respondents indicating that they use mobile device apps daily or weekly to complete electrical tasks more efficiently. Yet 44 said they never did. There’s a lot of room for more adoption, but clearly many are using mobile IT — from electricians and contractors to plant/utility personnel to engineers and designers. The uses vary, but all are seeing benefits.

Toolbox time-savers

Electrical service providers to residential and commercial markets are sending more workers into the field and arming more project designers with mobile devices that amount to another tool in the toolbox. While the degree of reliance on apps that perform calculations and facilitate communications varies, more electricians and contractors are at least assessing apps and mobile device functions that in the right hands can produce more efficiencies.

Apps that deliver quick answers to questions on sizing, design, product selection, critical values, Code requirements, simulations, and other key variables are finding favor with electricians like Brandon Birdsell. A journeyman commercial electrician with Bosley Electrical Co., Sacramento, Calif., Birdsell has found himself relying more on apps that allow him to sidestep plodding manual calculations.

From iBend Pipe used to figure conduit bends to Elec Ref that calculates values for typical variables like conduit fill, feeder size, ground sizing, voltage drop to Electrical Calc that serves as a comprehensive resource needed for complex jobs, the apps Birdsell uses are helping him navigate jobs more quickly and confidently. Rather than having to consult the NEC and make calculations, he can quickly activate a pertinent app, plug in values, or consult tables and have at least the shape of an answer needed to move ahead.

“These apps provide a much quicker and more efficient reference in the field,” he says. “iBend Pipe, for instance, helps me figure out tough bends like rolled offsets or parallel bends. I come out looking like a professional pipe bender without spending time racking my brain figuring out the math. Apps like this allow us to get started more quickly or get estimates to customers in a much more efficient time frame.”

Some electricians and contractors are starting their foray into calculation apps by looking for those that meet a niche need. Bill Hillebrand, partner and general manager at Romanoff Electric, Louisville, Ky., has begun sifting through the growing library of apps available, searching for those with the most relevance to his type of work. With the company heavy into the residential construction market, Hillebrand rates some, such as Electrical Pro, as good supplemental tools.

“The multi-family load calculator on that app is very helpful, allowing me to plug in square-footage information that quickly produces a figure that can verify my own rough calculations,” he says. “And with single-family, when a builder is adding HVAC systems or changing from gas to electric, you can show them in the field the effect it will have on the electrical service.”

Service providers also are tinkering with more general-purpose apps that enhance and expedite the important information-sharing and communications aspects of their businesses. Apps that create, capture, massage, and deliver documents, data, and visuals more quickly are being adapted for use in the field and other work stages.

Hillebrand uses apps like CamScanner, which converts digital images of handwritten paperwork to PDF documents, and Documents To Go, which enables smartphone viewing of Excel and Word files. Their value, he says, lies in helping speed up the process of data sharing so central to today’s accelerated pace of business. These, combined with a smartphone digital camera, enable quick relay of information from the field.

“These days, everything is [available] to you right away, and things are expected back right away,” he says. “There are times you wish that wasn’t the case, but this mobile technology has helped in that regard.”

Birdsell has grown fond of JotNot Scanner Pro, a document conversion app he uses to transform sketches, paper notes, and diagrams to jpeg, pdf, or Word files that can be more readily shared. Simply capturing a digital image of the handwritten product via the app eliminates the additional step of translating that information into an e-mail, he says.

Design aids

Though their work environments are different, engineers designing and building electrical equipment and installations are using mobile IT for many of the same reasons as contractors and electricians. But their interests may skew more toward apps that aid component selection, consulting code requirements, and even providing remote control and monitoring of client installations.

Chuck Arthur, vice president of Arthur Engineering, Inc., an Elk Grove, Calif.-based designer of power
distribution, lighting, and control systems for industrial facilities, has been on a self-described app “binge” since replacing his Blackberry with an iPhone. Among those he likes are NEC Changes, an NFPA app that logs recent code updates; an NEC Quick Reference app that produces frequently used tables; and calculator apps like Conduit Fill Calculator, Voltage Drop Calculator, and Arc Blast Calculator that provide ready answers to respective queries. An emerging favorite are those that streamline product selection and deliver product data specs.

“Apps created by electrical equipment manufacturers and distributors help specify components and pull up data sheets and manuals,” he says. “One manufacturer has one where you scan the bar code on a piece of automation equipment or enter its part number, and specifications and manuals are pulled up. It’s a major time-saver in the field.”

In his design engineering role, Arthur likes the timesaving attributes of apps that enable quick referencing and calculations, and is eager to expand their use. One intriguing prospect is an app tied to the company’s billing software that could enable logging of project hours via a Smartphone. But a functionality gap he sees with some favored apps is the inability to produce a log of activity.

“There may be times you want to record calculations made with an app, but many don’t come with the ability to email them to yourself or put them into a project file as explanatory information for design drawings,” he says.

Apps and mobile handhelds won’t handle the nitty gritty of design anytime soon, but Rich Bender, an electrical engineer with Girtz Industries/Z-Power, a Monticello, Ind., provider of turnkey power packaging solutions, finds apps like Conduit Fill, Partial Reel, and Voltage Drop handy for quick calculations. He also likes an app associated with AutoCAD WS, which is handy for ready viewing of project schematics, though the best format for that is a larger-screen tablet device rather than a phone. Whether he’s in the estimating, planning, or installing phase, Bender finds select apps beneficial when virtually every project is one-of-a-kind and time-sensitive.

“You can make decisions on the fly on an installation,” he says. “We had a discrepancy on a wire size on a recent project, and we used an app to settle the confusion. Everyone may know what wire size is needed for a 400A service, for instance, but there are often oddball sizes where you may have had to guess. Now the answer can be at the tip of your fingers.”

Being engineers, both Bender and Arthur are also intrigued by exploring an expanding frontier of mobile device and app functionality: remote control. Arthur’s company is evaluating apps from home automation companies that could be used to enable iPhone or iPad-based remote environmental control for a high-end winery client’s visitor center. Arthur also is monitoring progress by companies to develop mobile app versions of database-driven, web-accessible control and monitoring systems for industrial environments. Such a dashboard-style app could redefine the concept of total control, he says.

With Girtz’s containerized power products outfitted with sophisticated touch screen control panels, Bender is closely watching remote control developments on the mobile app front. Apps like C-more Remote HMI that provide a range of monitoring and control capabilities from an iPhone or iPad would offer another affordable layer of flexibility and protection for critical, high-value power systems.

“An app like that is cheap, but the equipment it’s operating is expensive,” Bender says. “I think apps that give you touch-screen control like this are going to become very popular.”

Covering more ground

In power environments where a unique challenge is monitoring and maintaining a multitude of dispersed assets, mobile IT conveys some distinct advantages that electrical professionals are starting to appreciate.

Joseph Wolfe, a senior electrician at Northern Virginia Community College Medical Campus, in Springfield, Va., has found mobile technology useful for both routine maintenance and calculating the precise impact of upgrade projects.

To help sell his idea of installing “greener” LED lighting around campus that would generate energy savings without impacting the need for light still powerful and bright enough to provide security and safety, Wolfe used the Electrical Calc Elite iPhone app to calculate the impact on lumens and wattage load. He recently used that same app, along with an infrared camera and data logger, to verify the need to replace a drives-controlled rooftop HVAC unit.

That app, used in tandem with specialized conduit bending and sizing apps, has proven to be a powerful resource as he traverses the campus to maintain, repair, and assess electrical systems. It has proven especially helpful as a quick electrical math resource in the course of performing preventive maintenance on electric motors, lighting systems, and other assets.

“Input your numbers, hit ‘enter,’ and it tells me wire sizes, ampacity, load, what you can and can’t do with containing devices, lighting factors, and lumens; it’s the major math app I use when I come across new projects or make sure that what’s installed is working properly,” says Wolfe.

In Riverside, Calif., the city-owned electric utility has been exploring new ways to leverage IT for keeping tabs on its infrastructure and improving the efficiency of its service and maintenance crews, says David Miller, utility electric superintendent for Riverside Public Utilities (RPU). Built around apps that enable quicker identification of the condition and location of utility assets and more rapid response to problems, RPU initiatives are examples of how thinking creatively about IT’s potential can open the door to new uses.

The one that’s closest to being rolled out is a customer-targeted streetlight app that will produce an automatic streetlight-outage alert to utility repair crews. The process starts with an RPU app utility customers can download to their smartphones. A customer noting an outage takes a digital picture of a dead streetlight and GIS coordinates in the phone relay the precise location to the utility’s 3-1-1 call center. Asset management software then forwards that information to utility service crews equipped with tablet computers loaded with the utility’s app that provides a full map of the city’s streetlights.

With quicker alerts and detailed outage information, RPU is hoping to improve service crew productivity to the tune of $80,000 annually, Miller says, and shave five days off the time it takes between notice of an outage and a repair. Such tech-enabled improvements, playing largely off the expanding mobile theme, are destined to become a bigger part of RPU’s drive to shoulder its responsibilities with more foresight and certainty.

“This app was an example of us taking an app our IT department developed and making it apply to our business,” Miller says, noting an app that will help crews better track and maintain condition of transformers is in development. “If we can predict the outcome, we can program it — and everything that’s predictable we can automate with an app.”

But not all electrical industry adaptations of IT tools are the result of such well-laid plans. Sometimes serendipity comes into play, as the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga’s quality control manager discovered. After getting a point of view camera as a gift from his son, he had the idea to mount it on an extendable hot stick and use it to inspect hard-to-see spots at the tops of electrical poles. Now, instead of relying on the naked eye or binoculars, he’s able to more confidently spot wood rot and evaluate the condition of connectors and insulators. In a municipal utility that’s already well ahead of the curve on using mobile IT resources and automation, Phillips’ innovative idea is an example of the synergy that’s achievable with the form-and-function play that personal digital, mobile IT resources deliver.

Across the electrical construction, design and maintenance spectrum, wireless mobile devices seem poised to play a more important day-to-day role. They won’t substitute for knowledge and expertise grounded in education and real-world experience, but with communication, speed, and efficiency becoming more paramount on the business side, the mobile IT platform is clearly a jumping-off point for improving processes and outcomes.  

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee’s Summit, Mo. He can be reached at tomzind@att.net.