What every electrical contractor should know about
advanced telecommunications system warranties
Whether the project is new construction or a retrofit job, there is usually some level of telecommunications or other low-voltage system that requires design and installation. These systems typically include: faceplates; connectors; copper or fiber-optic cabling; rack-, frame-, or cabinet-mounted terminations; and pathways to route the cables from one point to another. Although there are certainly instances where building owners, along with their own IT department (or preferred IT vendor), may insist on managing and installing these low-voltage systems independently of the construction project, most of the time they ultimately fall under the scope of the general or electrical contractor. As a result, it's important to be aware of any advanced telecommunications system warranty that may be required by the project or owner.
The warranty. On a typical commercial construction project, per standard American Institute of Architects (AIA) contracts, the general contractor must guarantee the building for one year after substantial completion. For the telecommunications components, as well as other materials and equipment installed throughout the building, most manufacturers offer a basic product warranty for a short length of time. This type of warranty typically lasts for one, two, or three years but only covers physical defects.
Beyond these basic project and product warranties, most telecommunications manufacturers offer a system warranty, guaranteeing their products for a term of 15 yr to 25 yr — with some offering up to a lifetime warranty, which includes both material defects over time as well as product performance. Performance of a given system is governed by standards from the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). In terms of copper telecommunications cabling, TIA defines different performance parameters in different category cables.
The predominant category cables are Cat. 3, Cat. 5e, Cat. 6, and Cat. 6A, each of which performs to minimum bandwidth requirements. As the bandwidth increases, more information can be transmitted per second over each cable. The current highest ratified standard is for Augmented Cat. 6 (Cat. 6A), which has a bandwidth up to 500 MHz and can transmit up to 10 Gigabits per second (i.e., 10 Gig or 10GBASE-T).
As building owners and end-users start to increase the amount of information they transmit electronically, a higher bandwidth system that does not slow down or degrade over time becomes even more valuable. Manufacturers have responded to this need by not only offering higher bandwidth systems, but also guaranteeing these speeds and any applications that become ratified by the standards organizations for the specific cable type for extended periods of time with a system warranty.
As a rule, most manufacturers rely on industry standards and guidelines to dictate how the cabling systems are designed and installed. However, some augment these with their own requirements, which can be more restrictive. One example might be where, by industry standard, different category cables may share a common pathway. In certain situations, a manufacturer may limit or simply not allow the use of these common pathways. If you are responsible for the installation of these pathways, this is an important component to be aware of.
You may be wondering if these advanced telecommunications warranties really mean anything. Although this discussion is outside the scope of this article, the authors can say with a high degree of certainty, based on years of experience, that they do matter — for at least two reasons. First, building owners feel they are important and like to dictate which manufacturer's product is used on a project. When the warranty drives which product is to be installed, it becomes even more critical that the warranty can be achieved. Second, when a warranty cannot be offered due to some installation issue, the cost to correct the issue can be costly and time consuming.
Who offers a warranty? Given the way that the telecommunications industry has evolved, there are three types of manufacturers offering these advanced system warranties:
Connectivity manufacturers that make the termination and support hardware, such as patch panels, faceplates, and modules.
Cabling manufacturers that make the category or fiber cable.
Manufacturers that make both the cable and connectivity components.
Connectivity manufacturers that produce their own cabling usually only offer a system warranty if their cable is used. For independent cabling manufacturers, some are willing to provide the system warranty themselves. However, most have partnered with connectivity companies. Therefore, it's usually the connectivity manufacturer that offers and holds the warranty. These connectivity manufacturers partner with a few cable vendors and usually offer the same system warranty across them all. Others have “preferred” cable partners and offer a longer system warranty than with other cable vendors with whom they partner. The average system warranty is 20 yr, but some are starting to offer 25-yr or even lifetime warranties.
How is a warranty obtained? A telecommunications system warranty is obtained through the installation of the system by a certified contractor. This contractor is certified by the manufacturer as having the training and expertise to install the system correctly in order for it to perform for the length of the warranty. It's important to note that the manufacturer holds and honors this warranty, not the certified contractor.
Different manufacturers have different requirements for becoming a certified contractor, and most offer those contractors specific training before becoming one. In lieu of training through a manufacturer, training and certification through the telecommunications organization BICSI may be sufficient to become a certified contractor. Most manufacturers, but not all, also require the contractor to have at least one registered communications distribution designer (RCDD) on staff.
When determining which contractors to certify, manufacturers also take into account other factors. Some require an exclusivity agreement — if you are going to become a certified contractor with Manufacturer X, then you cannot be a certified contractor with Manufacturer Y. Another requirement may be that the contractor is a certain size, such as “at least $1 million in revenue each year.” Presumably, both of these requirements would be in place to help guarantee the manufacturer a satisfactory amount of sales each year. This makes sense as the vetting process and subsequent training to make a contractor certified can be a significant investment to the manufacturer.
Another requirement includes limiting certified contractors to a particular geographic radius. There are two ways to look at this. The first is limiting the number of certified contractors in a given city. The other is to limit warranty-requiring work in a given city to certified contractors in that city (or up to a certain distance away). This helps guarantee certified contractors a certain amount of work each year.
As far as the process for securing a system warranty for an individual project, manufacturers have varying requirements. The most obvious requirement is the completion of a warranty application. This may need to be filled out prior to construction commencing, and ultimately the warranty certificate is to be delivered to the owner. The other universal requirement is the necessity to include test results for each installed cable, indicating certain physical and electrical characteristics have been met.
Each manufacturer will most likely include a different assortment of testing parameters. For example, one manufacturer might require only a length and wire map test. (A Cat. 5e, Cat. 6, or Cat. 6A cable should not exceed 295 ft. A wire map test ensures that the cable pairs have been terminated correctly.) Other common tests could include impedance, propagation delay, insertion loss, return loss, and attenuation to crosstalk ratio, among others, which all have pre-defined limits according to the corresponding category cable standard.
The manufacturer might also require record drawings (either with or without the stamp of the RCDD of record), a bill of materials, and a walk-through of the site by a manufacturer's representative. Certain manufacturers also mandate that all moves, adds, and changes (MACs) to the system be registered with them.
Construction issues that may void the warranty. One of the most overlooked issues for obtaining a telecommunications system warranty is if the desired manufacturer has a solution for a wet location. As defined in Art. 100 of the NEC, any installation in concrete slabs in direct contact with the earth is deemed a wet location. A typical floor box in concrete, which is slab-on-grade, qualifies as a wet location. As such, it requires a cable rated for wet locations.
Not all cable manufacturers have a wet-rated outside plant (OSP) category cable. Furthermore, those that do have OSP cables may not have one for the category cable required for the project. As of this publication, no manufacturer was known to have a wet-rated Cat. 6A cable. If 10 Gig speed is required by the owner even in wet locations, the standard for enhanced Cat. 6 cable allows for 10 Gig performance up to 37 m, as there are manufacturers with a wet-rated enhanced Cat. 6 cable.
As RCDDs, the authors have approached several manufacturers about this need for 10 Gig performance in wet locations for distances over 37 m, and they have expressed interest in offering a warranty guaranteeing that performance and the required length that is above and beyond what the standard dictates as a minimum. This is typically handled on a per-project basis and is coordinated during the design of the system.
Another common construction issue that may void the warranty is paint or over-spray of the cable. For the purpose of this article, painting of the cable shall be defined as covered in paint for a length greater than 10 ft. This most likely violates the requirements of NEC Sec. 800.179, as the communications cable is to be marked with the type (i.e., plenum, riser, general purpose, etc.). The painting of a 10 ft or greater length of cable would cover this required marking.
An over-spray of the cable (less than 10 ft) may not be a Code issue, but the water content of the paint may affect the performance of the cable. When asked for an official stance on over-spray paint on a cable, most cable manufacturers said it was not allowed. One connectivity manufacturer deflected the allowance of over-spray to the cable manufacturer, while another allowed it for latex-based paint only. Only one manufacturer (of the eight contacted for this article) allowed over-spray, provided that it passed the initial certification test.
Another cause of concern is the use of lubricant on an inside plant (ISP) cable when pulling through conduit. Again, the concern here is that the water content or other component of the lubricant may affect the performance of the cable both initially and over time. Of the eight connectivity manufacturers contacted, there were seven different positions, including: not allowing it, allowing it, not recommending it, using OSP cables only, allowing it if it passes test results, putting the burden of proof on the lubrication manufacturer, and one had no official position.
The manufacturers, for their part, have identified the added value of these advanced telecommunications system warranties and made them available through their certified contractors to the building owners. Lasting 20 yr or longer, they constitute a significant portion of the building's life cycle. Owners can do a great service by requiring a system warranty, as appropriate, for all of their projects.
Peterworth works in the Information Technology Services - Networking & Telecommunications department at The University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas, and Hancock is a senior technology specialist with Henderson Engineers, Inc. in Overland Park, Kan. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Brian.Hancock@hei-eng.com.