There’s no denying that high-voltage electricity is the foundation on which so much of the custom integration market is built. It powers the TVs you install, the lights your systems control, the touch-panel remotes that your customers are constantly running to recharge. And yet, so few integrators these days have a full-time electrician on staff, preferring instead to rely on subcontractors. Far too many in our channel view the electrical market much the same way automakers (at least for now) see the petroleum market: a distinctly separate but necessary industry.

But at a time when Big Oil is slowly but surely being wedged out as a factor in the auto world, high voltage is becoming less a mere prerequisite and more of an integral part of any fully featured custom installation. And as more and more products come to market with a crucial high-voltage component, adding a full-time electrician to your staff could be the smartest business move you could make in our rapidly changing industry, not only for the sake of profitability, but also in terms of maintaining complete control of your installations and future-proofing your business.

Power Protection

Without a doubt, the most obvious area of overlap between the integration and electrical markets is power protection. But while most of us tend to think of rack-mounted solutions when it comes to conditioning and surge protection, the NEMA line from SurgeX is designed to provide surge elimination for multiple circuits, right from the breaker box.

Its XN120 protects up to four 120-volt circuits, whereas the XN240 is the only solution on the market to offer complete surge protection and power conditioning for 240-volt components like Runco’s high-end projectors and massive 103-inch PlasmaWall displays. And while any certified electrician can install either the XN120 or XN240, subbing out the work to a contractor who doesn’t understand the unique electrical concerns of AV can create a whole host of problems.

Rick Komendera, vice president of sales for SurgeX, explains: “Electricians wire houses by rooms, and if you look at your breaker box in your house, you’ve got two sets of breakers: one on the left side and one on the right side, each connected to one leg, or one phase, of the electricity. The den may be on one side, the home theater on the other, so all of a sudden, you’ve got televisions and AV components throughout the home that are wired 120 degrees out of phase. And when you start hitting that with a distributed video signal, you get a lot of ground loops and hum bars.

“If you have an electrician on staff to start with, they’re going to understand phasing and grounding better, and it will actually save them a lot of time in debugging installs, trying to track down ground loops, because that’s a maddening process that can consume hours very quickly.”

Lighting Control

Having an electrician on-staff can also be a major boon when it comes to lighting—especially in new construction, where the wiring for new lighting control systems is handled completely differently from the traditional switch-based approach most electricians are accustomed to. For Sean Weiner, president of Starr Systems, an award-winning custom installation firm based in Baltimore, the decision to bring an electrician on-staff resulted from a few problematic lighting control system installations.

“We were having a lot of problems with electrical contractors—not because they were bad electricians, because that wasn’t the case—they just had a hard time understanding what this lighting control system was supposed to do and how it was supposed to be installed,” he says.

“There were a lot of mistakes, and because we were the one specifying the solution, we were ultimately on the hook to fix all of those mistakes. There was one project in particular that was just a debacle. The electrical contractor did not read our documentation, because he thought he knew what he was doing. We showed up on move-in day with the processor, flipped everything on, and it didn’t work. We had to scramble to make things work, and it not only cost us a good bit of money; our reputation took a hit on that one, too. So we brought somebody onboard to help us with lighting control systems, and that’s actually evolved over the last seven years into a full-blown electrical contracting portion of our company.”

Retrofit Installs

Even in retrofit installations, an on-staff electrician can speed up your work and increase your profitability. “Because of what’s happening in the new construction market, retrofitting really is going to be where our market is going to concentrate on,” says James Shapiro, co-founder of Audio-Video Intelligence in N. Easton, Mass., “and because we have our own electrician, it’s easy for us to replace and swap out existing light switches and thermostats for Control4 systems. We can swap out a complete home’s worth of lighting and take control of it in just a couple of days, and if we had to coordinate that with other companies, there’s no way we could do it so quickly or easily. So the jobs move a lot faster; we’re making more money per hour, because we’re billing the electrician properly; and we’re a one-stop appointment for the client. The customer doesn’t have to schedule multiple tradesmen.”

Having an electrician on staff can also help your company keep on top of the labyrinthine ins and outs of local laws and ordinances pertaining to electrical work. “When it comes to retrofit installations,” says Bryan Jefferson, co-founder of the SOHO Shop in St. Charles, Missouri, “a lot of installers don’t realize that in many communities, you need a permit even for something as simple as extending an electrical outlet on the wall. It’s a huge help to have our electrician do that, because in retrofit installations in newer homes—even though you’re going in after the fact—if it’s not a licensed electrician doing the work, you’re voiding the home’s electrical warranty.”

But the biggest benefit of having an electrician in house, Jefferson says, is in educating other contractors, making sure they understand the intricacies of the Control4 lighting and HVAC systems he and his crew install, for example. And even in out-of-state installations where the SOHO Shop’s electricians aren’t licensed to do the electrical work themselves, they’re still invaluable as mediators—ambassadors, if you will—helping to ameliorate some of the antagonism that can unfortunately arise between primary electrical contractors and custom integrators.

Energy Management/
Home Automation

So it’s obvious that having a certified electrician as an integral part of your team is certainly helpful now; in the future, though, high voltage becomes more and more not just the thing that powers your installations, but the very thing that your installations control, it’s going to become even more crucial. Energy management at the circuit level allow homeowners to monitor energy consumption, schedule power-hungry activities at off-peak times, opt-in for price incentives, and in general exert a new level of control over the energy coming into the home.

Paul Nagel, vice president for Control4, agrees that in coming years energy management is going to open up the home automation market to a new demographic: “Right now there are solutions we can implement while we’re waiting for the smart grid to mature, so you don’t have to have to have a smart meter on a house. But you need an electrician to hook up what are called current transformers, which are measurement pickup devices that can report to a control system, giving you access to total electrical consumption. You can also break out different circuits of your home and see what those different circuits may be using, which delivers a lot of value to the customer with a Control4 system.”

So whether you’re merely looking to boost your company’s income in a financially shaky market, ensure that your installations are done right, or secure your place in an ever-changing integration industry, there’s no doubt that bringing your own electrician on-staff is a smart move. Not only does it widen the palette of products you can successfully sell and install now, but as the market continues to evolve, without your own electrician your company may well be left in the dark. CR