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Monday, December 5, 2011

Cheaper Lighting

Compact fluorescent lamps come in a wide variety of shapes and wattages. Everyone knows that switching from incandescent to CFL's will save on your electric bill. Here is another plus you might not have thought about. Most light fixtures have a maximum wattage listed on the lampholder, usually 60W or 75W, however you can install a 26W CFL (which equals a 100W incandescent) without any problems. The wattage restrictions are based on heat output and the CFL's run much cooler. Therefore you get more light with less heat and lower power consumption. CFL's come in the twisty style or they have a cover that looks like a conventional incandescent, larger floodlight or smaller candelabra . They have different K ratings to give you warm white or cool white or other colors. There is still one drawback though, the CFL's take a moment or two to come on and get to full brightness.

LED's are making huge leaps in the lighting market. These lamps are more expensive than the CFL's but they have a much longer lifespan and use less electricity for the same lumen output. If you compare cost per lumen per total hours, these are actually quite comparable. You spend more up front but you won't need to replace them too often.

Another bonus of the CFL's and the LED's is their resistance to vibrations. A typical incandescent lamp can be damaged by a door slamming and sending vibrations through the structure to the filament. CFL's and LED's do not have filaments. This makes certain applications more attractive, i.e. garage door openers, exterior lighting, etc.

There are still applications where incandescent lamps are better. Some display lighting or where you need a greater range of dimming capabilities. Sometimes you just need the ambience of the incandescent.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


With today's hard economy, jobs are scarce. It is important to make yourself more appealing to employers.  One way to do this is to learn more skills. Knowing how to bend conduit proficiently, pulling wire properly, terminating neatly, or trimming out professionally is not enough. This is where versatility comes in. Learning new skills will improve your stock with employers.

Low voltage work may seem intimidating but it follows the same principles as electrical work. Ohm's law still applies. You may have to purchase some specialty tools and study a little more, but the rewards are worth it. Fire alarm systems, security systems, control systems, voice/data, CCTV, and energy management systems are a viable source of revenue in a down economy.

Customers are looking for ways to save money and cutting their electric bill can be very effective. Lighting retrofits reduce energy consumption and when coupled with proper control systems savings can double or triple. Learning how to install these systems will help you stand out from the crowd. HVAC systems are a large percentage of energy consumption for any facility. Installing new control systems on existing equipment will trim these costs. Utilizing VFDs, electronic temperature sensors, or upgrading to a completely new control system reaps great rewards for customers, while providing a profitable revenue stream for employers. Learning these systems is just another feather in your cap.

How many times have you been on a project that required a few phone lines and your company has subcontracted this work out? Pulling and terminating phone and data lines is not as difficult as many electricians perceive it. Learning to install racks, patch panels, etc. will cut the amount of work that needs to be subcontracted, making your company more profitable.

Being an electrician shouldn't be just a job, it should be a career. Continually learning new skills and techniques will keep you ahead of the pack and will also help you maintain a positive interest in your career. Anything you can do to improve the bottom line makes you more valuable to your employer. Remember, if your company doesn't make a profit, it won't survive, then you'll be out looking for another job.  

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Proper Wiring Methods

A few years back I received a call from a long time client, she was getting shocked whenever she touched the sink and stove at the same time.

I started my troubleshooting by interviewing my customer. When did the problem first start? What other events took place during that time? Is it an intermittent problem or does it occur every time?

Armed with useful information I proceeded. I verified that there was indeed a difference of potential between the metal frame of the stove and the stainless steel sink. There was approximately 90V. I then checked the metal frame of the refrigerator to the sink and once again had a 90V reading. I checked between stove and refrigerator and found 0V. Now knowing the voltage source was the sink, the possible causes was narrowed down. I went to the storage room to check on the water heater. I found the green, bond wire disconnected from the water heater. It was sticking straight up in the air with no contact what-so-ever to the water heater. There was also a small leak in the top of the water heater which was running down over one of the thermostats. This caused the casing to become energized, which in turn energized the water pipes. I turned off the power and water to the water heater and had the customer call a plumber to either repair or replace the water heater. I installed a ground wire from the cold water pipe to the grounding electrode and when the water heater was replaced, I returned to make the electrical connections to it.

Had this woman taken a shower before making the call to me, I might not have ever gotten the call.

Another time I had a friend that was building a custom home. It required 2 well pumps, one for house use and the other for irrigation. I wired both pumps to individual 220V circuits.

The irrigation company came in to install a Rainbird sprinkler system. The control panel had a small transformer to provide 24V for the remote valves. The problem was, the primary side of this transformer was 120V. The irrigation crew decided to tap off the pressure switch for the pump circuit to provide this 120V. They attached the hot wire to the line side of the switch and to get a neutral, they attached to the grounding terminal.

I returned to start the wiring for the 30' X 60' workshop and noticed the new sprinkler control panel. I decided to check it out. As soon as I opened the front cover and read the transformer I knew they had violated code. I opened the pressure switch and found what I described earlier. I disconnected their wiring and called the irrigation company to explain to them how their improper wiring methods could kill someone. I suggested they find a 220V → 24V transformer because the homeowner would not allow them to reconnect the 120V transformer.

Simple errors in wiring can become life threatening incidents later. Proper training and installations save lives.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Finding and Keeping Good Employees

In today's economy, it isn't too difficult to find people to come work for you, but finding quality help is still a challenge. Top notch electricians don't tend to change jobs very often. They get settled in with a company they like, one that treats them well and offers them the things they need.

Some of these things are good pay, health benefits, retirement benefits, paid holidays, paid vacations, advanced training and opportunities for advancement.

All these cost the employer money. The employer has to match the social security contributions made by the employee as well as the Medicare contributions. Worker's Compensation is based on a percentage of total payroll. Therefore it is in the company's best interest to keep payroll costs down. The lower the costs to do business, the easier it is to win jobs and winning jobs in a down economy is a cut-throat business.

Good electricians are the last ones to be let-go when companies are downsizing. The dead-wood is always first to go (unless they have a special relationship with the owners). Attracting the cream-of-the-crop isn't easy. You may have to offer substantially higher wages, a company vehicle, a company gas card, or other enticements. But once you have these people, profits should go up. The elite electricians work harder and smarter than the average Joes. They inspire their coworkers to work a little harder or smarter too.

Elite electricians strive to be at the top. They deserve a little extra. They are better teachers for our young apprentices. They are also better role models for proper work ethic.

On the other hand, it's bad for morale when companies keep deadwood during times of lay-offs simply because they are friends with someone higher up. When good employees get cut and slackers stay, the remaining employees lose their drive and willingness to do a good job. They lose that sense of fairness. If Average Joe can keep his job when he sits around all day hiding out, then what incentive is there for Elite Joe to continue to strive to make the company better?

Building a strong team environment is tricky. Getting personalities that get along and work together instead of a few "friends" that cause friction amongst the entire group. Remember, a business needs to make a profit in order to survive. Attracting top talent and keeping them is key.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Conduit Bending

Conduit bending is one of the first skills learned by new apprentices in a commercial or industrial shop. They learn to use multipliers for 15°, 30° and 45° for offset bends. Most settle in on the 30° bend since the multiplier is 2. It makes the math very easy. However it makes for less than aesthetic appearance if the offset is less than 6". However 15° bends can stretch out the offset too far when making 3" or larger offsets.

As an apprentice, I learned how to bend offsets using a triangulation method. It did not require any math at all nor did you need to worry what degree you were bending. It made it easier to copy existing work, all you needed to know was the distance between centers on the two bends. A simple method, just make the first bend to any degree you want, lay the conduit flat on the floor, place bender handle along the section of pipe that was just bent, measure from bender handle (90° to bender handle) to the conduit the amount of offset needed, then make the second bend. We still learned the math methods. As a matter of fact we had small charts that had the multiplier for every angle and the multiplier for shrinkage. We used these when bending with Chicago benders or hydraulic benders. We could cut and thread rigid pipe before we bent it and it would come out perfect.

Bending conduit had become an art form. There was real artistry in making a quality job. Then price became the driving force in construction. Cheaper methods had to be sought. MC cable use skyrocketed. Fewer and fewer apprentices are bending enough conduit to develop a real style. The craftsmanship has been lost in favor of the bottom line. Even on jobs requiring conduit, it is still about productivity. Electricians can't take their time to do a nice, neat job. When was the last time any of you installed a large rack of conduits and used concentric bends? In todays marketplace you can purchase pre-fabbed 90° bends of 1/2" EMT. It might actually be cheaper to buy these factory bends and couple the conduit together than break out the hand bender.

It would be nice if we could turn back the clock just a little, to a time when  electricians took more pride in what they did, when you wanted to take pictures of the work you had done.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Career Progression

It seems there is a natural progression to everyone's career and the electrical field is no different. We all start out as helpers and work our way up. Hopefully we pass the journeyman's exam, then on to the master's. Some will choose management in an established company while others will attempt a shot at ownership. But there are those who are quite content to be mechanics. These guys wear their tools everyday building America.  They continue on into their sixties twisting joints and bending pipe. Is it the satisfaction of doing a day's work for a day's pay or the fear they can't handle management responsibilities or fear their co-workers will no longer be friends with them that keeps them stalled out? Maybe they don't want to wear business attire or cut their hair in a more appropriate style. 

Are these the workers that companies want? They can't keep up with the younger guys, their break time and lunch time seem to stretch out more and more. However they do offer an enormous amount of knowledge they can pass along. How do they affect the bottom line? 

It's my opinion they become a drain on the company. Good electricians know 90% of what they are going to learn in the first 15 years, after that they will pick up a few things here and there to stay up with code or current with technology. These younger veterans are quite capable of passing along this information to the helpers. Most guys in their 50's and 60's are just too slow to be profitable. Their "don't hurry" attitude is infectious too. Everyone starts to get into the relaxed flow and production drops off. 

Construction is a hard life and ranks in the top ten most dangerous professions. If we don't set goals and achieve them, then we become a burden. Continue to learn the latest changes to tools, materials, methods and code. Strive to become a leader. Those with ambition tend to be better electricians and therefore more valuable to the company. Remember, in the rat race of life it is survival of the fittest.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Homeowners and Electrical Work

Why is it we have all these rules and regulations for electrical work? We require licensing for electricians and contractors, yet any homeowner can do the wiring on their homes.

It is argued that the work will be inspected by an AHJ, so it should be up to code. If this is a valid point, then why do we require licensing at all? Isn't all electrical work supposed to be inspected and shown to meet code?

Electrical work is dangerous to install, to maintain, to use. If it is installed improperly it can cause property damage or loss of life. If we allow unqualified individuals to perform electrical work and something slips by the inspector there could be dire consequences. It may not happen right away either, it could be after the house is sold.

I have an example I'd like to pass along. I was wiring a house for a friend of mine (I am a licensed contractor by the way) and when I returned to wire his stand alone garage, I noticed the sprinkler company had been there. Both pumps that were installed during original construction were wired 220V. The sprinkler company installed a Rainbird system that required 120V supply to a step down transformer with 24V output. They decided to tap off the wiring on the pump pressure switch. They connected the live wire to one of the hot wires and tied the neutral and ground both to the ground lug. This is a very dangerous arrangement. There is now current flowing on the pump casing. If the pump were to leak water all over the floor and a barefoot person walked in, they could potentially be electrocuted.

We have all seen poorly installed electrical work. We wonder how someone could even do such stuff.

What if the do-it-yourself centers no longer sold electrical supplies to homeowners? It would surely limit the number of untrained people trying to wire an addition to a house, or connect a new hot tub, etc. Sure there are books out there that give the basics to residential wiring but how many really buy and read these books? We definitely have enough crackpot electricians working for legitimate companies that we don't need homeowners helping out.