Industry Viewpoint

Wireless Technology: Friend or Foe?

A man far wiser than I once said many years ago, "He who hesitates is lost." Flip this statement around to today, aim it at our industry, and he could very well have been talking about the explosion in wireless technology. Electrical contractors who hesitate in embracing the surge in wireless advancements may very well be doomed to 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. The problem is, this argument will not hold as our industry moves forward.

Let's face it. 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. That power source needs wires, and those wires need an electrician to install them.

So where is the real fear coming from? Possibly from the low-voltage and building controls industry — the people who install alarm, CCTV, and building "control" systems, and other similar devices. While many licensed electricians have spent years viewing low-voltage work as the stepsisters of our industry (due to the power and license limitations they face), these installers (alarm, in particular) have seen their industries go through the very change we are discussing.

The alarm and low-voltage and communications industries had long been in a hard wire heaven. Who could fish a wire better? That edge would normally go to the experienced low-voltage technician. Wire management was developed in those industries to avoid the "rats nest" of 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.

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 does not seem to concern the electrical tradesman like the mention of wireless technologies does. The utilities, tax codes, or markets may seem to be blindly pushing LED technologies, but I think 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 race to the switch or control point. In this race to the switch, the electrical industry does not enjoy the same "high-voltage" license protections that are enjoyed in the race to the socket. So why the concern about wireless technologies if they are the best answers for the industry's customer (i.e., the end-user)?

I know there are no wires, but there are other players our end-user can use for simple control 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 HVAC 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 owned by our industry, controlling their light switches!

In many cases, if you are the one presenting the best option to your customer, you are awarded the job. Let's take a hotel as 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 present a wireless alternative that prevents an interruption to their business flow, they will usually pay a premium to get the job done. The same can be said on the residential front.

Yes, wireless devices are more expensive, but that shouldn't 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 he may want to expand on, thus creating more work. You may also make more profits on materials: 20% markup on a traditional $2 switch vs. 20% on a $20 wireless switch — a switch that controls a light fixture or device you still need to wire power to.

In historic buildings, I have seen contractors propose wireless technologies for fire alarm systems and lighting control as the best option for customers, allowing them to maintain the integrity of the structure, minimize damage and downtime, and maintain the aesthetics of the buildings. Needless to say, the end-user was ecstatic and 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, such as having his employees working with ladders, drills, and tools in proximity to priceless pieces of furniture, fixtures, and artwork. In many cases, the wireless devices were installed in just a few minutes. The contractor increased his profits over a hard-wired system by a considerable amount, finished it ahead of schedule, and gained a long-term customer.

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 in your house, for example. Truth be told, the advancements in the wireless signal have been tremendous. In many cases, wireless systems use frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology, the same signaling frequency used by NASA and the military. As one wireless company executive described it, "This isn't your basic RF application (e.g., 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." That being said, there are many applications where a clearly defined point-to-point piece of wire is the best approach for our customer.

To be clear, this isn't an argument one way or another on whether wireless is better than traditional hard-wired solutions. There are obvious cases to be made for each. This is simply a word of advice to our industry as well as a wake-up call. As more and more applications become available and/or our younger tech-savvy kids become the decision makers, I see them wanting to use their smartphone to turn on the outdoor patio lights or turn on the heat at their office when they are 30 miles away. We need to at least understand what is going on and what products/technologies are available. I don't believe wires are going away, but I do believe there will be fewer in the future. Even if you don't want to embrace the wireless world, at least learn, understand it, and accept that there are applications for it. If you do, I believe it will mean something to your bottom line and the future stability of your business.

Ostriches bury their head in the sand so they won’t be seen. If the electrical industry chooses to do the same when it comes to understanding wireless technologies and their applications, then there's a good chance that when the end-user makes a decision on whom to hire on that next big project, the electrical contractor won’t be seen.

William F. Donahue is president of Crown Supply Co., Inc, a distributor of electrical and fire alarm products with locations in Providence, R.I., and Milford, Mass.

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