Strange Bedfellows: Low-voltage and Electrical Contractors

Ever since the dawn of IP cameras being attached to the data network, combined with the capability to add power over the same infrastructure through Power over Ethernet (PoE), the role of the low-voltage contractor has changed.

And, as more and more previously disparate building systems, including A/V, lighting, HVAC controls, and fire safety are now integrating through the IP network infrastructure, their responsibilities have expanded to include system designer, integrator, installer, and application troubleshooter.

Converged systems create intelligent buildings, which result in lower capital and operating expenses while providing a more reliable and cost-effective management system for all the integrated systems. As the applications merge, so do the professional resources. Integrating intelligent building systems works best when there is a collaboration between all services – architects, building owners, facilities, IT contractors, designers, and installers. This shift brings to light the importance for electrical contractors to understand the impact on their business and the value to partner with low-voltage installers.

Old World vs. New World

We think of electricity as being around much longer than low-voltage telecommunications cabling, but their paths have run in parallel. Electricity is thought to have come into existence with Thomas Edison’s discovery of the light bulb in 1879, but two years earlier, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Around the same time, an unknown Connecticut mill worker, Thomas Doolittle, devised a way to make the first hard-drawn copper wire strong enough for use by the telegraphy industry, in place of iron wire. In 1881, Lucien Gaulard of France and John Gibbs of England arranged the first successful alternating-current electrical demonstration in London.

It took another 100 years for the first unshielded twisted pair (Category 1) to be manufactured. It consisted of two insulated copper wires twisted around each other to eliminate crosstalk and was used for telephone wire. Category 3 in the early 1990s was the first of the four-pair twisted pair cable with simultaneous transmission with a data rate of 10 Mb/s. Category cables evolved (up to today’s Category 8) to meet demanding high-bandwidth applications and increasing data speeds.

Electricians banded together early as organized unions to protect the workforce. In 1891 IBEW was formed and 10 years later, NECA emerged. IEC (Independent Electrotechnical Commission) was formed in 1904 to secure the cooperation of technical societies to consider the standardization and ratings of electrical machinery. This is not to be confused with Independent Electrical Contractors (also IEC), founded in 1957 with the goal to promote activities that enable the electrical industry to be conducted with the greatest economy and efficiency. IEC works closely with the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI), the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), and the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) to develop the NEC and reviews standards created by Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL). For electrical wiring, it’s understood that the National Electrical Code (NEC) is the basis for licensing of electricians. And the NEC code is enforceable by law because it is written for the safety of people and equipment.

Because low voltage includes low-wattage power, which is defined not to exceed 90W, its installers observe a different set of rules. Collectively, cabling standards, which are best practices, are created by many associations to assure that errorless data is transmitted, and low-voltage cabling does not incur signal interruption or excessive voltage drop.

Low-voltage cabling standard bodies include IEEE, ANSI, EIA, TIA and BICSI – each with a different function. IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards) provides documents that established technical criteria for electrical and transmission performance. EIA (Electronic Industries Alliance), formed in 1957, was an American trade organization for electronics’ manufacturers that developed standards to ensure the equipment between them was compatible and interchangeable. They merged with TIA (Telecommunications Industry Association), which consisted of 60 contributing organizations including manufacturers, end users, and consultants. In 1991 the first published standard, TIA/EIA-568, defined structured cabling system for commercial buildings and between buildings in campus environments. Since then, several revisions have been created to keep up with cabling types, performance characteristics, cable installation requirements, and methods of testing the installed cable. Today, EIA no longer exists, and these standards are updated under TIA’s working group, TR-42. BICSI standards are also written by manufacturers, end users, and consultants to provide guidelines for the design and installation of cabling systems by Information and Communication Technology (ICT) professionals. BICSI standards are focused on all manners of industry verticals such as healthcare, data centers, and intelligent buildings. ANSI (American National Standard Institute) provides a framework for standards’ development and quality conformity assessment systems for many different industries. Both TIA and BICSI standards are accredited by ANSI.

With the merging of data and power over IP cabling for building systems, a merger of professions and cooperation between low-voltage and electricians needs to take place as each brings benefits to the reliability of the systems. Unlike licensed electricians who follow the written codes under NEC, low-voltage licensing varies from state to state and can even be different within states from county to county and city to city. Each contractor must check the state and the specific locality where projects are being designed and installed.

Handle with Care

Besides the physical differences of electrical and low-voltage cabling, there are some major differences between installation means and methods. One of the biggest differences between structured cabling and electrical wiring is the fragility of twisted-pair copper and fiber optic cabling. It’s easy to destroy or degrade the performance of the cable if it is not handled properly or if best installation practices are not followed. Some of these include the maximum pull tension, bending the cable too tightly (fiber will break), and kinking the cable. Poor installation practices can result in the data and power not being transmitted, and ultimately, system failure.

Also, there is much caution to be taken for over bundling the cable in pathways, especially when both data and PoE are running through the same cable as higher wattage (heat) can degrade the performance, especially with smaller cable gauge sizes. Best installation practices for pathways include adhering to fill ratios for the different pathway and cable types.

Distance is also an important factor since standards recommend not to exceed 100 meters for copper cabling, but there are exceptions (check the manufacturers’ specification sheets for installation and operating temperatures and check out our GameChanger™ that exceeds performance and distances for Category 6).

There are also rules of separation between telecommunications and electrical cables as higher voltage on electrical cables can create unwanted signal interference that affect data cables. Lastly, when terminating a four-pair cable, an untrained technician does not know that the different color scheme of the insulation over the copper conductors must match the scheme on the connector. An improperly terminated cable will fail a wiremap test which may also result in system failures.

The Main Squeeze

There are degrees of competency between professions. As disciplines continue to converge, electrical contractors with structured cabling installation experience and education will have a strong edge over their competitors without low-voltage knowledge. With the intelligent building evolution, electrical contractors can benefit themselves and their customers by getting an education in ICT and partnering with low-voltage contractors. Proper training and accreditations are available through trade associations, such as BICSI, and training from manufacturers, who can provide specific system warranties.

The ICT profession has grown from cabling system design and installation to encompass project management, system testing, and commissioning. Since technology is constantly evolving, savvy low-voltage contractors keep ahead of their competition by consistently taking courses to gain new insight and to expand their offerings. Low-voltage contractors realize the importance of staying relevant, and in doing so find the proper training and certification programs available to them. Available resources in the market include hands-on design and installation classes, certification training, technical conferences, virtual training, and webinars.

For electrical contractors to get into the low-voltage trade, a fundamental mind shift is required to become more of a customer service company, spending more time with the client, and learning the technology. As the degree of separation closes in, future opportunities are for the taking for both electrical and low-voltage contractors who cannot become complacent over old world technology, but instead, take advantage of cutting-edge training and education outside of their niche.

Carol Everett Oliver, RCDD, DCDC, ESS, is the principle for CEO Communications, an ICT (Information Communications Technology) consulting and marketing firm. She has authored over 100 technical articles and case studies for the industry, as well as presented at numerous regional and national conferences. She is the chair of the BICSI Intelligent Building Standards Subcommittee and is currently the presidenteElect on the BICSI Board of Directors (2020-2022) and will become president (2022-2024). She has also served as BICSI’s Northeast Region director and secretary.

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