Posted in: May/June 2013
The cover of IEC member KenMor Electric's hurricane preparedness brochure features wispy clouds floating above a sparkling ocean and the words "The Calm Before the Storm." That phrase might apply to weather patterns, but for electrical contractors, it's a misnomer. As Hurricane Ike barreled toward the Gulf Coast in 2008, the Houston-based company's field crew was working frantically to protect its customers' homes and businesses by securing large signs, disconnecting feeder power lines, and walking properties to point out items at risk.
In the days before the storm struck, it wasn’t just the service trucks kicking into high gear. KenMor also has a Galveston, Texas, office, and president John Quebe, a Galveston native, asked the county judge for a permit allowing his electricians to get back on the island once the hurricane passed. “We showed it to the highway patrol, and our armada of trucks was on the island within about two hours after Ike went through,” says executive vice president Joe Martin. One urgent task was to restore power at Moody Gardens, an amusement park that includes a 10-story aquarium. “We had guys working around the clock and sleeping on cots on the patio,” he says.
Storms have been frequent and intense lately, and electrical contractors have a proactive role to play in minimizing both property damage and the human misery that follows. Ever since Superstorm Sandy scrubbed low-lying swaths of metropolitan New York last fall, Kevin Breen, president of Breen Electrical Contractors in Brooklyn, has been busy working in Belle Harbor, in the Rockaway section of Queens, moving electrical panels to higher elevations and installing generators in anticipation of the next weather emergency.
“On the residential side, we’re installing electrical panels on the first floor rather than the basement and have engaged a steel contractor to make brackets so generators can be hung on the side of the house,” says Breen, who is still repairing his own flooded home while his family stays in an apartment. He’s also advising customers to mount a generator transfer switch on the first or second floor and install a separate emergency panel to avoid back-feeding the utility grid when the generator is activated, which puts line workers at risk.
Corbin Electrical Services in New Jersey, another area hard-hit by Sandy, has geared up to offer storm protection services in recent years. The Manalapan-based company, with about 35 employees, has a full-time division of 15 dedicated to the growth of generator sales. Before and after Sandy, Corbin Electric received thousands of requests for generators, and four months after the storm it was still working through a backlog of installation requests.
Corbin Electric advertises its services statewide, and always has roughly 80 generators on hand, which gives priority access to supplies in an emergency. It offers five packages ranging from the purchase, installation, and maintenance of an eight-kilowatt generator, which runs the basics such as a refrigerator, sump pump, and furnace, to a 20-kilowatt unit that powers a business or a whole house.
Sales manager John Ruggiano says generator sales have been increasing steadily. “We think it will be the appliance of the future. Because we are so dependent on electricity now, people want to make sure they have a standby generator with a transfer switch. Even without storms, the grid isn’t always able to handle the demand. It’s common in New Jersey to have brownouts because of everyone turning on their air conditioners at the same time.”
But in severe-weather-prone areas, battening the hatches can be a solid income stream. Martin says KenMor Electric’s generator and pre-hurricane protection business has tripled in the last few years. Its signature outreach piece is the annually published hurricane brochure, which includes not only its services and rates, “so customers can be sure they’re not getting gouged,” but also company contact names and phone numbers, pre-season forecasts, and a description of the five hurricane categories.
Contractors who respond professionally in times of panic often earn long-term trust. “A few days after the storm, we can help that customer reconnect their power lines or put new gear on the wall if it’s been damaged by saltwater,” Martin says. At that point, “We’ve developed a customer who calls us for other things.”
Extreme weather generates a gush of work — more than individual electrical companies can possibly respond to. But even small shops can clone themselves by tapping into the IEC’s chapter network, notes John Masarick, IEC vice president of codes and standards. “Like the utilities, be prepared to bring in people who may not be busy to get things installed and running, knowing those members will be trained and safety-conscious,” he says. For electricians organized around preparedness, a storm is a temporary windfall with potentially long-term business consequences.
Cheryl Weber writes on behalf of The Home Depot. An IEC National Platinum Industry Partner, The Home Depot is the world's largest home improvement specialty retailer, with 2,252 retail stores in all 50 states. The Home Depot works to provide great benefits to the work electrical contractors do, through advanced order pulling, discounts on large pro orders, sourcing un-stocked electrical products, and more through the Pro Desk in every store.