The VDV market is maturing and customers are becoming more technically savvy. If you want to be a low-voltage service/systems contractor, you’ll need a host of new skills

Demand for premise wiring will continue to grow as companies seek connectivity for wireless, security, distance learning, and other services maintained through high-bandwidth networks. Coupled with the fact that some in the industry see a manufacturing turnaround, news like that hints at potential growth in the voice data video (VDV) market. “It's an exciting time for manufacturing, as we continue to witness the convergence of electrical telecommunications and networking technologies on the factory floor,” says Charles Udell, senior vice president of electrical business for St. Louis-based distributor Graybar. The enterprising contractor can get a head start by learning to recognize some of the indicators of growth in the cabling market.

Industry leads the way.

Computer giant IBM envisions a day when computing power will be dished out just as electricity is supplied to customers who pay only for what they use. The procedure would use a computer grid, consisting of a number of computers that would work simultaneously on a problem to speed up procedural tasks for various industries like research and development. The company also has software that monitors many network servers simultaneously, and distributes work to them based on spare capacity, thus reducing costs.

Verizon Communications, Inc., the largest of the Bell phone companies, is undertaking the most dramatic network upgrade in its history. Faced with growing competition from cable TV companies and other service providers, the company plans to link every customer in its local-phone region to a high-speed connection. As the copper loops are replaced by fiber optic technology, speeds of 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps will be possible. That's fast enough to provide voice, video, and digital TV signals on a single link to the user. Fueled by a 2003 budget that could reach $13.5 billion, the company's plan could provide the platform for the innovation of products and services, like digital entertainment and inexpensive video calls.

A new standard ANSI/TIA/EIA-862, Building Automation Cabling Standard for Commercial Buildings, makes it possible for a facility's building automation systems (BAS) to run on a single structured cabling system. Effectively, both riser and horizontal wiring could be shared by environmental management (HVAC), lighting/power control, security and access control, audio and video systems, and possibly fire and life safety.

Additionally, look for industry-recognized, standards-based protocols, such as BACnet, LonWorks, and Ethernet, to control most of the services in tomorrow's buildings. Even in the past two years, the price decline of 32-bit controllers, networking chips, and software has allowed the TCP/IP network protocol to become cost-effective down at the controller level.

The Internet is becoming the major driver to interoperability and information flow at all levels. Consider also that HTML, the language of the Web, is ideal for keeping track of a building's mechanical and maintenance operations. Offering many features, HTML allows graphics and pictures as well as text information to be presented on a single Web page. Hypertext links between files are easy to set up.

Surveillance systems no longer depend on a number of analog cameras with dedicated fiber optic wiring and banks of monitors connected to video recorders. Today, so-called network cameras (with an Ethernet port) capture digital images, which can be easily stored and manipulated on a computer server and monitored from remote locations via the Internet. Two PC servers can now maintain all the images that used to require 100 VCRs.

All of these events point to an increasing need for Information Age cabling, offering electrical contractors the opportunity to add low-voltage work to their resumes and become a one-stop shop for industrial customers.

What to expect.

Before rushing out to take over a jobsite, you'll need to consider a number of factors that can affect how much success you have in the low-voltage market. First, your potential customers are more knowledgeable than they were a decade ago. Today, many of these people understand standard office networking terminology and the EIA/TIA 568 Commercial Building Wiring Standard, which is usually referenced in the bid documents. They also usually know something about developments in the industry, such as the continuing activities of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and IEEE regarding standards and technologies like Cat. 6 cable, Gigabit Ethernet, and voice over IP. Given this new availability of information, be prepared to spend more time finding and developing your customers, and get ready for a more technical sell and presentation.

Also recognize that, today, a standards-based network takes longer to install than a similar job of a decade ago. Many Cat. 5 cabling systems installed over the past few years won't perform at the 100 Mbps levels customers have come to expect. What makes these installations more difficult is the need to understand why specific practices and methods must be used in the handling, placement, and termination of the cable, hardware, and other components.

You must also recognize that, similar to electrical power work, a VDV project involves both the design and installation of the system. You may choose to provide both.

Going back to school.

Since a VDV contractor needs a higher level of skills and knowledge today than was needed in the past, where should you go for this education?

Many organizations provide education in the telecom industry today. For example, BICSI — a telecommunications association — offers training on the design, installation, and testing procedures defined by the industry standards and code-making bodies. The association has courses for installers and technicians at three levels of competence. And on the design side, courses that lead to a certification as a registered communications distribution designer (RCDD) are the foundation of this association. Courses in areas like wireless LAN, CATV, distribution design, and outside cable plant design are also available. Achieving certification isn't enough, though. Just as the equipment you're installing becomes obsolete almost as soon as you install it, so does your certification. You'll need to take continuing education courses and attend industry meetings to earn the credits necessary to maintain your certification.

NECA contracting firms can rely on the training provided by the IBEW through the NJATC, which started offering courses more than 20 years ago. Local 164 in Jersey City, N.J., developed a program that became progressively more comprehensive in the late '90s and early 21st century. Now it has one of the most advanced installations of data communications and integrated building systems of any IBEW local. IBEW construction department director Mark Ayers says the NJATC is now providing training for systems integrators. Already highly sought after, systems integrators configure systems and install and initialize appropriate software.

Additional sources of training can be found through the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA), Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA), and numerous for-profit training companies.

You can also expect more courses to be offered on the Web and on CD-ROM or DVD, media that allow students to study at times convenient to them so they can work at their own pace.

Manufacturers offer vendor specific training that covers wiring and splicing processes, test equipment procedures, and analysis pertaining to specific products. The resulting certification of installers allows the manufacturers to provide warranties.

Bidding and winning the job.

The major areas to consider in your efforts to win a job are bid analysis, site survey, estimating, contingency, labor/material takeoff, and scope of work review. Each of these areas poses concerns often quite different from what an electrical contractor usually encounters in traditional electrical power work.

In the telecom field, you may be asked to submit a request for proposal (RFP), a request for quote (RFQ), or a request for information (RFI).

With an RFP you'll usually receive the general details of the project and a description of what type of performance is required before you're asked to provide a complete design, schedule of materials, and price. In most cases, completing the RFP is very similar to generating a design/build proposal.

Be careful how you prepare your design/build proposal and especially how and what you submit in your proposal package. It's useful to submit the equivalent of an overview without disclosing all of your design details. You should focus on cost or cost-per-station.

With an RFQ, you'll usually receive a comprehensive plan set, prepared by a qualified designer or engineer, that allows you to calculate material and labor costs based on drawings, to which you can add a profit margin before submitting a bid.

When preparing a bid from plans or drawings, make sure they're accurate. Many changes take place during the development of the project, so verify that the drawings given to you are the latest revision, corresponding to what the other trades are using.

RFIs simply call for a submission of information relating to a project.

If you're going to bid on work in an existing facility, it's important to make a site survey before preparing a labor estimate. The estimator or project manager should walk through the facility to check ceiling height, obstructions, coring, or any other construction issues. Obstructions, such as ductwork, utility or pipe shafts, and equipment, can add significant lengths to horizontal and vertical cabling runs. By carefully recording special circumstances, your labor units per work area outlet (WAO) will be more accurate. Many companies have a policy that requires a signed and dated walk-through sheet before pricing a job.

In walking through an existing facility, you might also develop a “degree of difficulty” matrix with various descriptors. For example, in your matrix the easiest type of location to work at would be Level 1, which could include unoccupied areas, conventional construction, work during normal business hours, and access to a parking lot. The upper range of difficulty might be Level 4, which could cover things like enforcement of NEC/NFPA firestopping and life safety codes at a health-care facility, with limited access during normal business hours. The labor hours would be adjusted accordingly.

By recording the speed of your own crew or crews on a typical wiring project, you can achieve accuracy in defining an average time to complete typical installations like a WAO. Today, estimating software makes it easy to assemble the material and labor costs on a project, thereby automating many of the procedures.

A number of time-consuming and costly tasks on a project to consider include the following:

Firestopping.

Making and sealing penetrations through fire-rated walls and floors is a project that can require careful review. Electrical inspectors may now cite penetrations that haven't been firestopped or haven't been firestopped properly, something that was often overlooked in the past. You should also know the economical application of every type of firestopping product. For example, a through penetration enters one side of an assembly and exits the other, while a membrane penetration only enters one side of the assembly without exiting the other side. In addition, become familiar with all of the firestopping materials, which include pliable putties, caulks, foams, fireblocks, pillows, and cementious mixtures.

Documentation.

The time and manpower required to document, record, label, test the cabling, and complete the necessary paperwork must be included in a bid document. Learn precisely what your responsibilities are.

Testing.

As network speeds increase on high-performance copper cabling systems like Cat. 6, the necessary test procedures become more sophisticated and the cost of the equipment increases. Consider that Cat. 5 cable specifications for 10/100 Base-T Ethernet are based on signals running on two-pairs of the four-pair twisted pair cable. However, Gigabit Ethernet, or 1000Base-T, introduces completely new transmission characteristics into the 4-pair cabling. The Gigabit Ethernet protocol uses all four pairs of the cable; each pair of conductors transmits and receives simultaneously.

Recognize also that LAN signaling requirements have evolved from distinguishing between only two signal levels (10Base-T), to three signal levels (100Base-T), to five signal levels, in the case of 1000Base-T.

Fiber testing is evolving, especially with the growth in various types of optical fiber constructions to complement the use of vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs) in view of higher transmission speeds.

Because many testers offer a multitude of complex and precise functions — especially in automated operations — they can be very expensive. And since standards are continually evolving, manufacturers constantly refine their products.

Additional system-verification procedures are also cropping up in the structured cabling industry. As datacom and telecom systems become an integral part of a building's operation, measuring the actual performance, or throughput, may become just as important as measuring electrical performance characteristics. Essentially, sending data over the network tests and verifies error-free transmission. The market is also seeing the emergence of what are called infrastructure technologies service companies that conduct site audits and similar review. They provide independent field verification and third-party testing of the customer's copper and fiber cabling systems, services that an electrical contractor could provide.

This discussion has concentrated on the commercial, institutional, and industrial markets, but the residential market also offers some opportunities. The TIA/EIA-570A Residential and Light Commercial Telecommunications Wiring Standard should be of interest to contractors involved in residential construction. With the growth of the Internet and other communications systems and services, the revised standard is aimed at ensuring that the home's low-voltage wiring will provide minimum performance for interconnecting computers and support future multimedia applications.