Gallant said he was at the right place at the right time. Five years ago, he was doing some electrical work for general contractor Tom Silva, which led to his first appearance on ‘This Old House.’
Silva told him about a “good-sized job” in Milton, Mass., and asked him if he could handle it. As a small electrical contractor, Gallant was unsure if he and his company could take on such a big challenge, but after looking at the house and talking to his wife, he decided to give it a try.
“My wife said, ‘It would be kind of cool to see you on TV,’” Gallant said. “I said, ‘Alright, then I'll do it.’”
Since then, he has worked on four projects and is now starting on his fifth one. While the show doesn't have a regular electrician, Gallant is as close as they come. He said he watched “This Old House” for two years before he appeared on the show, and he still tunes in every week.
“I would see Tom on the job all the time and started watching the show because those guys were on it,” he said. “Most tradesmen don't watch shows like that because that's what we do for a living. I only watched it so I could give those guys a hard time.”
Silva coordinates all the different trades on the “This Old House” projects. Gallant described him as “the big enchilada behind it all.”
“Whatever he wants, we do, as simple as that,” he said. “If he says, ‘Jump,’ we all say to ourselves, ‘How high?’ Luckily, he's not a very demanding person. He just asks you to do what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it. If you do a good job, you'll never have a problem with him.”
Silva, who is often booked two years in advance for a project, teams up with some of the finest tradespeople in New England.
“The best part of working on the show is that you are working with the best of the best when it comes to the contractors,” Gallant said. “Any job that Tommy Silva is involved in, it's the best of the best. I'm talking killer, good subs.”
All the tradespeople work on a very tight schedule and put in a lot of 10- or 11-hour days at the end of a project, Gallant said. To help the job move along more quickly, Gallant brings an apprentice along on the job, and if he's running behind, he'll recruit a few more electricians.
Despite the amount of talent and manpower on the “This Old House” projects, the schedule still gets hectic in the final days. On one job, Gallant said the crew was hanging light fixtures the night before the “wrap party,” which is when the “This Old House” crew and contractors celebrate the end of the project.
“We do everything at the last minute,” he said. “You wouldn't believe the amount of work that we do in a short amount of time. It's a miracle.”
Unlike a normal construction project, the electricians can't just work at their own pace. Some of the electrical work that they may be doing one week may need to be shown on TV the next week.
“We work for the camera and the TV show,” Gallant said. “That way they can show the natural progress of a project.”
Gallant, who was voted the class clown of his 1985 class, said he enjoys talking in front of the camera.
“I'm a big talker and a big mouth,” Gallant said. “I can go and go and go like the Energizer Bunny.”
Russ Morash, the director, helped Gallant get through the first time, when he admits he was very nervous.
“The guy is unbelievable,” he said. “He has won a million awards for a reason. He knows what he's doing. He told me to just be myself, try not to act to the camera and just pretend that it's a regular job.”
He said it's difficult to get used to having a cameraman film your every move.
“It's a whole different world,” he said. “Typically, they're no more than 10 or 15 ft away. Sometimes you're performing a task, and they want to get really close to you.”
Normally, filming a segment is no problem for Gallant, but like real-life actors, he can always have an “off” day.
“I did a show the other day and it was like I was clueless,” he said. “I had a bad day filming. Sometimes you don't pay attention and you start when you're not supposed to start.”
He said his first experience with “This Old House” was a house in Milton Mass., which he described as “very old and very hard.” The house had many different designers, which posed a problem.
“You get seven or eight different opinions,” he said. “Even though they had only one room, things could change drastically from room to room as far as requirements for lighting and plugs.”
The designers also came up with a landscape design after Gallant Electric had already put the service in place. Gallant and his team had to then move the meter socket.
“That was kind of a pain in the neck,” Gallant said. “They wanted the patio area to be free from mechanical obstructions. I've probably only moved a service three times in 12 years of business, but things like that can happen on a job site.”
Although the project was a challenge, Gallant dubbed it his favorite.
“The house was extremely old and was built in the early 1800s,” Gallant said. “It was a small house, and we put a small addition on.”
Gallant Electric completely rewired the house and a detached workshop/barn garage. Abram, the master carpenter, designed the workshop for the power requirements.
“He would tell us where the equipment was going to go and then we in turn would put the power that was needed for that equipment that was used,” he said.
For the next project, Gallant traveled to Watertown, Mass., to rewire a three-story, early 1900s home. That was the first time Gallant had ever worked with a product called Monorail.
“You see Monorail in fu-fu chi-chi places,” Gallant said. “It's the track that hangs over the ceiling. We did that over the kitchen. We bent it to match the curve in the island in the kitchen. That was interesting and different for me. It's not just light, it's art. It creates an artsy look.”
Gallant said one fiber-optic bulb can produce multiple lights. He installed a fan-cooled box, fitted with a 100W bulb, then attached a bundle of six fiber-optic cables to the box in a third-floor closet. He snaked the cables above the staircase leading to the second floor, being careful not to kink them.
“That would keep the light from flowing through,” he said. “The cable ends need to be cut at a perfect 90-deg angle below so that light flows straight out rather than being scattered — and lost — through uneven edges. “For that, you need a special cable cutter — no jury-rigging allowed.”
Gallant's next project made history. It was the first time in the show's 23-year-run that the show took on a new construction project. Gallant said the team rebuilt a home for Dick Silva, Tom Silva's older brother, shortly after his house caught fire and burned to the ground.
“‘This Old House,’ for the first time ever, decided to show people what's involved with a new house,” Gallant said. “It's a totally different process to remodel compared to a new home. There are fewer restrictions on what you can do.”
Gallant said since he did a lot of electrical work on Dick Silva's house, he was concerned about the cause of the fire.
“When they said it was an electrical fire, I thought the worst,” he said. “Luckily, it wasn't me, it was the motor. They think they have it narrowed down to a problem with the heating system, which has nothing to do with me. Thank the good Lord, because I did a lot of work on that house.”
During the construction of the new home, Dick, his wife and his two daughters were living in a 50 ft trailer right on the job site. Gallant said the homeowners were dealing with a lot of different emotions because of the house fire.
“They were really sad,” he said. “They have a beautiful house now, but they had a beautiful house beforehand.”
The house was antiques galore, Gallant said.
“If you're an antiques person, you'd go ga-ga in this house,” he said. “He collected Coca-Cola and Hershey antiques, and they lost everything in the fire. It's amazing. You think they would be able to stop a fire eventually, but they didn't stop this one. It burnt right straight down to the ground.”
In addition to rewiring the new house, Gallant also installed an automatic standby generator. The homeowner previously had a manual generator to deal with the several power outages in his area. Gallant sat down with Dick Silva and looked at the budget and the cost of the generator. Because the generator was donated, the homeowner only had to cover the cost of labor and installation.
Along with the generator, Gallant also worked with the homeowner to design the lighting. He walked from room to room with Silva and his wife to finalize the lighting plan.
“They like antique lighting and don't care for recessed lights or fluorescents,” Gallant said. “He had a really good eye for antiques and putting rooms together.”
Gallant said the lighting designers rarely sit down with the homeowners, spend time with them and learn about their likes and dislikes.
“Some people like Yugo, some people like Mercedes,” he said. “They do the same exact thing, but one's flashier than the other. Lighting can be almost the same exact way. There's practical and functional lighting and then there's decorative.”
The next project took Gallant and his team to Charlestown, Mass., to work with a young couple who had bought a three-story, two-family house. Because the house was in the heart of the city, the contractors struggled to find a place to park every morning. Gallant, who describes himself as “a suburban guy” and not a “big-city, guy,” said parking became a major problem.
“Of all the other projects we had done, parking had never really been an issue like it was there,” he said. “If you're looking for a parking spot for a half hour in the morning, it really chews into job costs.”
Gallant said he and his crew brought their supplies with them to the city because getting deliveries was nearly impossible.
“If you wanted to get deliveries, you'd have to have a crane,” Gallant said. “Tommy had to get police detail and shut down half a street when he got supplies delivered. It was a nightmare.”
Neighbors became disgruntled with all the traffic outside their homes.
“If you live in the city, and you have 15 trucks through a small neighborhood, you know what that does,” he said. “We did what they asked us to do, tried to respect their privacy as much as possible and got the job done.”
Gallant said the house was 150 years old and needed extensive rewiring. After he completed the project, some of the viewers asked him why it was necessary for him to rewire the entire house.
“The name of the program is ‘This Old House,’ so the infrastructure — the plumbing, the heating and the electrical — is typically very old,” he said.
Gallant said his involvement with “This Old House” has helped him build credibility with homeowners in New England.
“People who call me because they saw me on the show are already assuming that I'm going to do a good job because they've seen me more than once on the show,” Gallant said. “In our industry, you're only as good as your work. If your work is not good, it doesn't take long for people to figure that you aren't going to do what you say you're going to do.”
Q&A WITH ALLEN GALLANT, MASTER ELECTRICIAN ON “THIS OLD HOUSE”
Allen Gallant, who has starred on four shows of “This Old House,” discusses how his company has thrived over the past 11 years, and how other electricians can set up a successful contracting business of their own.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THE ELECTRICAL INDUSTRY?
“I started my business in 1991. Mark, the first electrician I ever hired, is still with me going on 10 years. At the beginning, it was just me and Mark and a truck. Then we got busy, I bought another truck, Mark became licensed and we turned around and hired an apprentice. Now we have eight guys in the field — four licensed guys and four apprentices.”
HOW DO YOU TRAIN YOUR ELECTRICIANS?
“Every licensed electrician in the company has apprenticed under me. I try to train them through me first so I know what type of people they are. I am very concerned about my employees being nice people. You don't just want good electricians, you want good people. Electricians have to be trustworthy because customers have a lot of trust in us. They give us their home keys and their security number.”
HOW DO YOU RETAIN YOUR EMPLOYEES?
“I've had customers who have been with me since the beginning. They can't believe that they get the same electrician every time. I tell them, ‘He hasn't left because I pay him well, he has good benefits and you pay your bills so I can pay him.’”
WHAT ARE YOUR COMPANY'S SPECIALTIES?
“We have carved out a good little niche in this area. About 70% of our work is high-end residential, but we also have regular blue-collar customers. Anybody who calls me for anything gets a call back within a day. I have the best secretary in the world who forces me to do it.”
WHAT'S YOUR ADVICE TO OTHER ELECTRICIANS WHO ARE THINKING OF STARTING THEIR OWN COMPANY?
“It's not hard. I'm 36, and I talk to guys in the supply house who are 23 or 25. I say, ‘Do you want some really good business advice?’ It's real simple. I didn't always do it, but I learned over the years. Call people back, do the job the day you say you're going to do it or call them a day in advance to let them know. If you do what you say you're going to do and do a good job, you can make a good living.”