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An App for That

An App for That

How electrical contractors use smartphone technology and applications on construction job sites

Before he even gets to the location where his electrical maintenance services are required, Paul Marchman, service technician for the Kansas City, Mo.-based division of Black & McDonald, an integrated, multi-trade contractor providing electrical, mechanical, utility, and maintenance services to government, industrial, commercial, and institutional markets, has his own personal smartphone powered up and working for him. Using the GPS technology on his phone, he more easily navigates his way to job sites, where previously he would have had to call the customer to get directions or drive back to his shop to print out a map by using an online program, such as MapQuest, which would often steer him in the wrong direction. “It was pretty inconvenient sometimes,” Marchman explains. “Now all customers have to do is send me the address, and I can get to it.”

Once on the job, Marchman finds other ways to use the features on his phone. With an app that works in conjunction with the camera, Marchman digitizes the paperwork out in the field and emails it to his office. He simply takes a picture of any paper documents, such as receipts and weekly paperwork for billing and time sheets, and the app can auto-crop the image, enhance image quality, and create an industry-standard PDF file. “It turns it into a PDF by just pressing a button, and you can email it,” explains Marchman. “So it’s great for when you’re in the field.”

In particular, Marchman finds the app most useful for parts sheets, saving him from having to return to the office and eliminating confusion over part numbers. “You don’t have to say an impossibly long part number over the phone, which could get mixed up,” he says. “It makes a lot of problems go away.”

In addition to these general business operation-type apps, Marchman also uses some of the technical apps made specifically for electrical workers (see SIDEBAR: NFPA Launches App for 2011 NEC Updates below). He often uses the calculator accessory, but also sometimes applies a program that contains electrical formulas and calculations to his work. “It basically has a whole bunch of reference material in it — formulas, calculations, and things like that,” he says. “It’s useful.”

Generational technology gap

In early adoption of smartphone use on the job, Marchman may be an exception that proves the rule. As a group, electricians are in some ways anti-technology types, according to Gary Reiman, principal instructor in the Electrical Department at Dunwoody College of Technology, Minneapolis. “Generally, the electrical industry tends to be slow to adopt the use of technology,” says Reiman, who worked as a master electrician for several years for the State of Minnesota before he began teaching. “The old argument is that, as an electrician, you are not likely to have that much technology in your pocket that you can use on the job.”

The apprenticeship model of training for electricians may be to blame for the industry’s technology shyness. “There’s this technology gap between older generations and younger generations, who are native computer users,” says Reiman. “A lot of people entering college now are native computer users, meaning they’ve used them since they were infants. They learned how to use a mouse as early as they learned how to use a spoon. So when you have people like that, they expect to have computer technology handy and be able to use it, which isn’t always the way the training goes.”

According to Reiman, the “old methods” still form the backbone of the electrical courses that prepare students to become apprentices and installers. Yet, for the last two years, Reiman has noticed his students bringing smartphones into the classroom.“I have had many conversations about the old-school ways of doing things without technology assists,” Reiman explains. “As an educator, I regularly walk the line between teaching the old-fashioned understanding of how to do basic electrical calculations and the appropriate usage of technology to a generation of students who expect to always have a smartphone or tablet handy when working in the field. I strive to teach both the old-school ways of figuring while integrating new technology that enhances productivity.”

In the classroom, Reiman has encountered students who, using the technology, think they have a good grasp of the concepts, yet when they perform the calculations they can’t figure out why they didn’t come up with the correct answers. “They won’t understand order of operation and how to use parentheses in equations,” says Reiman, who believes that an understanding of how the calculations work is vital to performing electrical work. “It starts right away with Ohm’s law. There are variables that if you don’t have a good fundamental grasp on them, you can never understand electricity very well. You have to get that understanding across.”

In addition, there is the issue of academic honesty and testing. “Depending on how you view it, it can be considered dishonest if the expectation is you’re not going to learn how to work the equations and do these things by hand,” says Reiman, who argues that this attitude is reflected by the U.S. Department of Labor and Industry Bureau of Licensing, which actually offers the licensing test to become an apprentice or a master electrician. According to Reiman, programmable calculators are not allowed during testing. “They only let you use the most basic of calculator functions,” he says. “For that reason, the way they test, that’s why we want people to learn it the old-fashioned way.”

However, Reiman understands the other side of the argument, acknowledging the issue of productivity in the field. “Why waste time looking up things in NEC tables and computing by hand when there are easy electronic references?”

When his students enter the workforce, they will be pressured to work at a rapid pace. “When you’re out in the industry, everything is based on how long it takes you to do things and how long you spend researching and looking in the Code book,” he explains. “Clearly, it’s more beneficial in terms of contractors making money if they just say, ‘Look it up. We don’t have time to teach you the fundamentals. Here’s how you do it,’ so to speak.”

Recently, Reiman visited an online app store and was encouraged by the variety of specific electrical items. “Really, there are a lot of them, but it didn’t used to be that way,” he says. “It wasn’t very long ago where you didn’t find much. In a lot of ways, electrical education and the electrical field are sort of coming of age in the computer area, because there’s more and more information out there.”

Some electrical contractors have even found ways of marketing their services to a smartphone-savvy audience (see SIDEBAR: Smart Marketing below).

Apps in the office

In its second program in the Electrical Department — oriented more toward management and design — Dunwoody encourages a more liberal use of technology. “Here, it’s more of an expectation of what you will do in the office,” Reiman says.

Therefore, electrical engineers may have more use for electrical apps now. As project manager for large solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, Ayanna Brandon, project engineer and electrical engineer for Sisener Engineering NA Corp., Phoenix, has been using her smartphone on the job for about four months. She initially chose her device for its ability to play videos during periods of downtime, but has found many of the apps extremely useful on the job as well. “I knew there were apps for engineering, so I started downloading a few just to see if they’d be beneficial at work, and most of them have been so far,” she says.

With her parent company located in Spain, Brandon most often uses a measurement converter app. “I have to convert from meters to the U.S. measurements,” she explains. “I use that app a lot, as well as some simple calculations. I’ve also used an app a few times for the Pythagorean theorem.”

In addition, Brandon thinks that apps for calculations for distance as well as for more in-depth applications, such as resistance, Ohm’s law, and power, will be handy for her to have in the field. However, she’d like to see more apps dealing with solar PV. “I’d like to be able to calculate the amount of hours needed for generation on a particular day, and maybe a grounding system — a quick calculation to make sure I’m using the correct conductor for grounding,” she says. “Actually, there is one app I was thinking about downloading that does do the calculations for conductors — for the voltage drop.”

Brandon admits she’d also like an app that would allow her not only to view AutoCad drawings in the field, but also one that would store pictures in the file and make small modifications. “I have on my laptop a TrueViewer where I’m able to view AutoCad files,” she says. “I’d like something for the phone where it doesn’t have to be an AutoCad PDF, but something similar where I can do different drawings or take notes by hand while I’m out in the field.”

To some, the idea of being restricted to a small screen, smartphone, or tablet may seem too confining. Many engineers and installers prefer to review plans and change-orders on a larger area. This doesn’t deter Brandon. “Being a younger engineer around older engineers, I know that some tend to not go toward the new technology regarding smartphones,” she explains. “But it’s something I see myself using more often. Instead of having to carry around a bigger laptop or a tablet, I can just pull out my phone.”

One device to rule them all

Still, hand-held devices marketed to electricians, such as calculators specifically for electrical formulas, have been available for quite some time. In addition, electricians have traditionally used push-button walkie talkies to communicate with each other. “We still have the walkie talkies,” says Marchman. “They work in some places, but other than that, they’re fairly useless.”

Another option has been the regular cell phone, but their use is limited to calls and the camera. “I never even carry my company phone around” says Marchman. “But if it’s a real bad spot or dirty place, I’ll bring it inside. It just depends on the situation.”

In addition, despite cases designed to protect phones from the wear and tear in industrial settings, Marchman won’t answer any phone when he’s in a precarious position that could put him or the phone in danger. “I’m not going to answer it when I’m in a lift, where it could get dropped 20 ft or 30 ft and die. If you’re stupid enough to call me, anyway, why not just send an email? I don’t know why people call each other anymore.”

Reiman agrees. These days, he doesn’t go anywhere without his smartphone or tablet. “There’s an awful lot I can do with it.” he says. “I have reservations about carrying another hand-held device when I can probably use my smartphone for the same purpose.” Currently, his device is loaded with an Ohm’s law calculator. In addition, he uses it to text with his students.

“As more and more people have smartphones out in the field and are familiar with how they work with smart apps, you’re going to see them progress out into even the installation side of things,” Reiman predicts. “More and more, the world is going toward mobile devices.”


SIDEBAR: NFPA Launches App for 2011 NEC Updates

In January 2011, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) launched a new smartphone application, NEC Changes, which highlights changes between the 2008 NEC and the 2011 NEC. The application provides more than 500 updates and modifications, all accessible through smartphones free of charge.

“This new app is an innovative, handy tool for practitioners in the field who would like to verify a Code change, and we’re confident it will serve them well,” said Mark Earley, chief electrical engineer, NFPA’s engineering division, in a press release at the time of the app’s launch.

To download the NEC Changes app, visit from your


SIDEBAR: Smart Marketing

Some electrical contractors are making the most of their customers’ addictions to their portable devices. They’re adding a QR Code, a matrix, or two-dimensional, barcode readable by mobile phone with cameras and smartphones. The information encoded can include marketing text, your company’s website address, or other information. The code can be added to your website or even put on the side of your service vans.

Recently, United Kingdom-based electrical contractor William Dyer Electrical revealed a new fleet of 14 vehicles, each labeled with a QR code, which gives people with smartphones the ability to scan and access the company’s full services portfolio and contact details.

“I believe this type of investment can communicate our confident brand and will set us apart from our competitors by demonstrating that we are a forward-thinking company, indicating our strength in the U.K. electrical contracting industry,” said William Dyer, managing director.

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