A longtime electrical contractor discusses the snafus that often derail lighting projects and the measures distributors and manufacturers could take to help avoid them.
Product delays, incompatible components, incorrect specifications, and project overruns – it’s all in a day’s work for firms like B&Z Electrical Contractors, a full-service electrical contracting firm based in Woodstock, Illinois that’s been serving southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois for over 30 years. With a dozen electricians in the field and another five behind the scenes, B&Z Electrical Contractors, which specializes in customized build-outs of high-end residential, hospitality, and other applications, has seen its share of costly and time-consuming surprises and snafus when it comes to installing lighting products. Following, B&Z president John Barger – who recently presented at the 2018 NAED National Conference in Chicago, May 19-22, on the pain points he and his team encounter during lighting jobs – shares some of the typical (and avoidable) issues that end up costing all parties time and money on lighting projects as well as ways that distributors and manufacturers could help streamline the process.
lightED: From your experience, where do issues often start on lighting projects?
Barger: We find that the architects, engineers, and lighting designers specifying lighting products often do the job incorrectly due to lack of knowledge. They know the effect they want but don’t always know how to achieve that using the right combination of fixtures and components. When we see incompatibility issues on specs, we try to head them off by doing counter-research and going back to the manufacturer to identify the proper combination of parts, which then becomes like a big wheel because we ultimately have to return to the architect/engineer/lighting designer for final approval. They’re generally grateful when we catch issues for them, but the process wastes so much time, which we never get compensated for. We’re working with longtime customers and always want to help them and move things along, but we know that if we bid the job based on the spec, it’s going to cost us money down the road and it’s always harder to get the money back at that point.
lightED: What issues typically arise next in the process?
Barger: Once we’ve identified the correct combination of lighting fixtures and components, we typically run into lead time issues — it often takes 6-8 weeks to get the product. We need manufacturers to get the product to us sooner. They often attribute the delay to that fact that they’re awaiting a component from an offshore vendor, but one little part truly holds up the whole process. As electrical contractors, we’re the last ones in before the walls are closed up on a project, so our schedules are pretty tight to begin with and delays in our process can only further compress our already-tight schedule.
lightED: You’ve also noted that a lack of standardization across lighting products further exacerbates the problem.
Barger: It’s true – based on our experience, there’s a lack of uniformity among LED fixtures when it comes to CRI and color temperature. For example, we may use one manufacturer for downlighting and another for cove lighting and even though they’re both rated as 90 CRI, 3000K products, we find that their colors don’t necessarily match when we put everything together. On top of that, the world of LED dimming is like the ‘wild west’ today and dimming ranges in the same zone are often different and products don’t dim at the same level. When we install products, the lack of uniformity in color and dimming ends up causing a lot of finger-pointing and it usually falls back in our lap to figure out how to fix it.
lightED: How have you had to adjust your way of working to account for these types of issues?
Barger: When we’re bidding, we often build in some extra to cover the additional research and problem-solving time we incur while still trying to stay competitive, but we don’t always get covered for our overages. We recently did a large lighting job in Chicago where the lighting designer made a change to the lamp on the original spec but didn’t properly modify the driver. When we commissioned the system, the downlights didn’t work and we needed to remove and replace 300 drivers. The manufacturer agreed to provide the correct drivers at no charge, but no one compensated us for the 80 hours of labor we incurred to remove and replace them. The lighting designer ultimately agreed to cover half of our time, but if they’d done their homework and specified the correct products up front, it would have saved all that time, money, and aggravation. By changing one small component, everything downstream needs to be checked for compatibility. From our experience, I have yet to see a lighting plan go down exactly as planned and you’re always eating some cost, though we’ve worked hard to try and minimize that. Still, the additional resources spent on things like this take time away from other projects we should be working on.
lightED: What could distributors be doing to help streamline the process for electrical contractors?
Barger: Distributors often have lighting people who are very good, but they need to take the time to really learn the product and components they’re bidding on so that they can get it right the first time. Lighting bids are often multi-page documents, so it also wastes a lot of the distributor’s time to have to redo them. It’s about knowing the right questions to ask and asking them. I also wish that distributors could talk to lighting manufacturers and help organize training for us. Distributors are the middlemen between the contractor and manufacturer, so they’re ideally positioned to do this on our behalf, which would further help solidify relationships between the contractor and distributor. It would be great if manufacturers could help us understand what we need and perhaps even create software that would explain how to put their fixtures together properly and not let you make a mistake.
lightED: What final thoughts would you like to share with manufacturers and distributors?
Barger: For manufacturers, I wish there was a NEMA standard on fixture CRI, color temperature, and dimming that manufacturers would hold to so that everything doesn’t have to be proprietary. As for distributors, they’re often caught in the middle too, but we’d love them to be as knowledgeable as they can on the compatibility of the fixtures and components they’re quoting and to help organize programs with manufacturers that can support all of us, themselves included.Tagged with best practices, contractors, supply chain