The most successful installers are learning to master multiple aspects of the cabling spectrum, from design and installation to troubleshooting and certification.
July 1, 2013
e old adage “what goes around comes around” is something that could be applied to the world of cabling installation.
At least that is what Alex Smith, president of Connectivitywerx in Markham, Ont. believes. “In a way the cabling installation industry is coming full circle. In the 1970s and 1980s it was highly specialized with very few people in the field.”
As he explains, things became more simplified with the advent of UTP cabling in the late 1980s, at which point a number of players got into the cabling business. However, with the moves to convergence, wireless, IP-enabled devices, and gigabit Ethernet, the industry is once again on the hunt for highly specialized expertise.
It seems that the most successful installers are learning to master multiple aspects of the cabling spectrum, from design and installation to troubleshooting and certification. Depending on the industry, a full service cabling, design and installation company must have special training, tools and skills, Smith says. “The ramifications of poor installation practices today mean a company just cannot operate. The sophistication today is extraordinary compared to what it used to be. And the complexities are only going to increase.”
The new tipping point is Gigabit Ethernet, Smith believes. “We are seeing older systems falling down at that point. Once you get into 10 GbE, systems are less forgiving when it comes to product quality and design.
“It is not as simple as running a cable from A to B anymore. Cable installers need to be up to date on the latest standards and technologies or they will get left behind.”
So what does that really mean for installers these days? Below are what some industry experts had to say about the present and future of cabling installation.
IP and more
With the proliferation of IP-enabled devices from telephony and building automation to access and security systems, there is more pressure for installers to get things right the first time, since the fallout of a poor infrastructure is greater than ever. It is in an installer’s best interest to at least have a working knowledge of how things connect and be up to speed on the latest product and installation practices.
“The biggest driver is the changing of the edge devices,” contends Stephen Foster, managing director of ICT for EllisDon Corp. in Toronto. “For structured cabling installers the last 25 years have been all about voice and data. That world has drastically changed. Now they have to be conversant in everything — lighting, security, electronic door locks, metering and blinds systems, a/v and digital signage.”
In the construction world, a key to a successful migration is the knowledge transfer from electrician and controls contractor and vice versa, Foster says. “There has to be a groundswell of collaborating and sharing information at the scope of the work changes. Trades for their part need to learn from cablers. It has to come together and be organic.”
When it comes to understanding the inner workings of cabling, Valerie Maguire, director of standards and technology at The Siemon Company, says she is intrigued by the awareness required on the part of installers. “It is not just that copper is more sensitive and optical fiber is more complex. It is more about the fact that there are more opportunities to install things incorrectly because of all the additional parameters.”
With the increased demands on all things cabling, quality of installation is more critical than ever, says Rob Stevenson, project manager with Guild Electric Ltd. in Toronto. “The main things in terms of installing and terminating and testing are similar to what they have always been. But there is a lot more importance attached to making sure things are being done properly and manufacturers’ recommendations are followed in order to maintain the headroom required to handle the systems people want. Attention to detail is important.”
There was a time when installers could get away with a lot more “shoddy” practices, he adds, “but today if you are not watching your bend radiuses, untwisting conductors, etc. you can run into problems you do not see on slower speed systems.”
The major growth in data centres is bringing additional challenges. For example, people are having to split off fiber signals to replicate or assess quality of data, Stevenson explains. “This introduces a lot more complexity into the system and burden on cable performance. If you have installers that do not understand what that technology is doing, it will be difficult for them to troubleshoot and understand those problems.”
Henry Franc, premises specialist (data centres) with Belden and chair of the TIA TR42.3 engineering subcommittee, believes there are two levels of convergence posing challenges to installers today. The first is operational convergence in which cablers must take into account the proper integration of power, density, cooling and cable management. “You do not want to install perfect fiber into the core switch without talking air flow. It is not just about bits and bytes anymore.”
There is also convergence on the systems side, which is an issue that reared its head in the early days of voice and data where some tough lessons were learned. “Every day there are more and more IP-addressable devices on networks, from plumbing and lighting to controls and security. Video sound security guys have been putting on coax connectors for 20 years. Now they are being asked to translate those to fiber optic or RJ45 connectors. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know; and all of these new system types, can fall prey to sub-par techniques.”
Whereas the lowest price was once the driver behind customers’ cabling services decisions, they are much more educated today on related issues such as reducing footprint, heating and electrical ramifications and green technologies, says Rick Boyd, general manager for Marcomm (Toronto) Inc. in Concord, Ont. “In the data centre space for example, technology is extremely concentrated, making it so much more important to have proper pathways, to ensure cables are dressed in properly and to minimize the space being used. That means more training and foresight in data centre installation planning.”
The wireless conundrum
When presenting at conferences, Tony Fortunato, senior network performance specialist with The Technology Firm based in Georgetown, Ont., says cabling installers are asking a lot of questions these days about Wi-Fi. “It is becoming something new for them. Typically they provided wire to plug in and off they go. But a lot of cabling guys are not familiar with wireless technology and the issues around it. Sometimes they are blamed for poor performance when it has nothing to do with them. In some cases they are having to learn how to do things all over again.”
To that end, it makes sense to learn the ways wireless does not work well and how to find it. “There are a whole lot of new things involved they didn’t have to do with wire, like channel planning.”
At the same time, cabling contractors can view this new direction as an opportunity to actively promote their services and create more credibility with customers. “When pulling wire, it would be easy to ask the customer if they would like you add access points,” Fortunato says. “You want to be a plug and play kind of person. The good news is, it is a relatively short learning curve.
With the proliferation of complexities, keeping up with specs is becoming an increasingly challenging task. For the most part there continues to be a lot of confusion around testing and certification, Fortunato believes. “This is a huge issue for installers. A lot do not know the difference and think test tools are certifying cabling, but that is rarely the case. That is becoming an even bigger concern now. If you start overlaying power over Ethernet or higher speed networks, a test tool might tell you that Cat6 cabling is good enough. If you run a certification test, it could fail.”
Being aware of what is going on around you is essential, Boyd says. “You can’t plug into any plug. There is a lot more potential liability and downside that can happen. And you can no longer get away with testing only 10% of cables. Now every single one must be tested and certified to meet manufacturer product quality guarantees. At least there are tools that are more efficient and can test cables in two to three seconds.”
As part of the growing pressure to keep installations up to speed based on manufacturers’ guidelines, it is especially important for installers to cycle through courses every two years to keep up with certification requirements, he adds.
So what is a cabling professional to make of all this? Anyone wanting to survive and compete in the industry will need to be vigilant in pursuing education and certification training opportunities, even in areas they may not have considered before.
A combined knowledge will mean opportunities for increased revenues, since education level requirements will demand higher salaries, Foster says. “Cablers value will raise as they work to become communication workers. They should be challenging themselves to learn about these systems, because it is coming.”
Maguire also recommends training on “sub-levels” of expertise, such as administration (labeling patch panels, organization and record keeping), grounding and bonding for equipment protection, data centre topologies and fabrics, or finishing off cabling in conduits and air handling spaces (firestopping). “There are always ways to supplement your skills and differentiate yourself professionally. That knowledge can be a competitive differentiator.”
This also holds true for IP adoption, power over Ethernet and intelligent building concepts, Stevenson says. “Installers have to understand the big picture and how other things are being brought into the sphere of cabling systems. Right now, people are trying to understand how to make that knowledge sharing happen. But the onus is on installers to find it.”
Franc contends that the profession needs to be treated seriously. “In the good old days anyone with a screwdriver could screw down a terminal jack and have things work,” he says.
“Today’s technician has to be a skilled craftsman. The successful ones are those who keep on top of things. If they do not, natural selection will take care of the problem. We all need to learn more and do better.” CNS
Denise Deveau is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.