Chapter Corner

Wireless Technology Friend or Foe?

Posted in: Features, March 2014

A wise man once said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Flip it around to today and aim it at our industry, and he could very well be talking about the explosion in wireless technology. Because those electrical contractors who hesitate in embracing the surge in wireless advancements may very well be facing lost business.

Whenever I discuss wireless with my customers, not necessarily advocating it but merely mentioning it as something that exists, an immediate wall goes up, built on a foundation that electricians make money by pulling wires. No wires, no income. But that argument will not hold as our industry moves into the future.

Wires aren’t going away simply because wireless technology has taken over the world. It might be a convenience that a homeowner can dim a ceiling light with a wireless remote. But that ceiling light needs a power source, and the power source needs wires, and wires need an electrician to install them.

Low-Voltage Contractors

Let’s look at the low-voltage and building controls industry, the people who put in alarm systems, closed-circuit television, thermostats, building control systems, and other similar devices or systems. While many licensed electricians cannot identify with low-voltage contractors due to the different power and license limitations they face, these installers, alarm in particular, have seen their industries go through the very change that we are discussing. The alarm, low-voltage, and communications industries had long been a hard wire heaven. Wire management was developed in those industries to avoid the “rats nest” of wire confusion.

Not that long ago those industries were forced into and began the wireless transition, essentially eliminating the need to wire any devices. What did they do? They adapted, adopted, and adjusted; now many of the products they use regularly are wireless.

Putting the End User First

Our industry has seen a “race to the socket” in the lighting field with all sorts of energy-efficient lighting products being installed. The negative impact of long- lasting LED lamps and fixtures on the electrical maintenance market do not seem to concern the electrical tradesman as the mention of wireless technologies does. The utilities, tax codes, or markets may seem to be blindly pushing LED technologies but it is more about the industry addressing our end users’ needs and concerns. A typical sales technique when an electrical contractor is selling an energy-efficient lighting job is to express the savings the customer will enjoy in maintenance costs. This is money taken directly out of the industry without a thought because that is what is best for the end user.

The new wireless technologies may spark a new race to the switch or control point. There are other players in this area that the end user can turn to that have been dealing with wireless devices and technologies for the past 10 years, putting them ahead of the curve. In many instances these competitors share your customer base. They are the security company with the burglar alarm panel in the building; the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning contractor that maintains the thermostats or building control systems; or even the phone or cable companies that provide their services to the facility. Because of wireless technologies, all of these competitors are in a position to offer your customer a service that was traditionally owed by our industry, controlling the light switches.

In many cases if you are the one that presents the best option to your customer, you are awarded the job. Let’s use a hotel for an example. No hotel owner wants to shut down a room for two or three days and lose money on that room so a system can be wired. If you are aware of and present a wireless alternative where you do not interrupt their business flow, the hotel will usually pay a premium to get the job done that way. The same can be said on the residential front. Wireless devices are more expensive but that should not be seen as a deterrent. The end user will generally consider new technologies and pay a premium if these options are presented at the time they are performing upgrades anyway. The wireless switch may allow you to finish a job quicker and more profitably as well as introduce your customer to a technology they may want to expand on, creating more work. You may also make more profits on materials: 20 percent markup on a traditional $2 switch or 20 percent on a $20 wireless switch. A switch that controls a light fixture or device you still need to wire power to.

In historic buildings and centuries-old churches, I have seen contractors propose wireless technologies for fire alarm systems and lighting control as the best option for the customer, allowing them to maintain the integrity of the structure, minimize damage and down time, and maintain the aesthetics of the buildings. Needless to say, the end user was ecstatic and was willing to pay a premium for this option. The hidden gem in the scenario for the electrical contractor was he was able to avoid liability issues from having employees work with ladders, drills, and tools near priceless pieces of furniture, fixtures, and artwork. In many cases, the wireless devices were installed in a few minutes. The contractor increased their profits over a hard-wired system by a considerable amount, finished it ahead of schedule, and gained a long-term customer.

A Proven Option

Another argument I hear in opposition of embracing wireless is the perception that the wireless signal can be interfered with, as if the strength level were on par with baby monitors. Advancements in the wireless signal have been tremendous. In many cases, wireless systems utilize FHSS (Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum) technology, the same signaling frequency used by NASA and the military. As one wireless company executive described it, “This isn’t your basic radio frequency application, garage door opener signaling. It’s the same four-frequency technology used by the military when a drone thousands of feet in the air is communicating to a transmitter buried in a bunker two miles underground.” This being said, there are many applications where a clearly defined point-to-point piece of wire is the best approach for the customer but do not be concerned that wireless is not a proven option.

This is not an argument one way or the other on whether wireless is better than traditional hard-wired solutions. There are obvious cases to be made for each. But it is a word of advice to our industry that more and more applications will become available and the technologically savvy younger generation will become the decision makers. If they want to start using their smartphone to turn on the outdoor patio lights or turn on the heat at their office from 30 miles away, we need to at least understand what is going on and what product and technologies are available. Others already do. I don’t believe wires are going away but I do believe there will be fewer. Understand the wireless world and accept there are applications for it. It will mean something to your bottom line and the future stability of our industry.

This is not an argument one way or the other on whether wireless is better than traditional hard-wired solutions. There are obvious cases to be made for each. But it is a word of advice to our industry that more and more applications will become available and the technologically savvy younger generation will become the decision makers. If they want to start using their smartphone to turn on the outdoor patio lights or turn on the heat at their office from 30 miles away, we need to at least understand what is going on and what product and technologies are available. Others already do. I don’t believe wires are going away but I do believe there will be fewer. Understand the wireless world and accept there are applications for it. It will mean something to your bottom line and the future stability of our industry.

William F. Donahue, IV, is President of Crown Supply Co., Inc, an award-winning distributor of electrical and fire alarm products with locations in Providence, Rhode Island, and Milford, Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.crownsupply.com.