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Shocking Development

I am writing about the Carol Fey column in PM ("Learn About Electricity And Con-trols,"January 2003). I question Ms. Fey's ability to paint all electricians with one brush, particularly since she wrote the article with the input of only one electrician.

Her statement that electricians have no more training about controls and control wiring than plumbers do is a very false one and shows a lack of research on her part. If Ms. Fey had gone to her nearest union hall and asked about its training program, she would have seen a different picture.

In my years working with the other mechanical trades, I found 80 percent to 90 percent of them do not care about controls and have no interest in control wiring.

Control wiring is covered in the electrical codes and required to be done by electricians and licensed contractors in most states. In construction work, the electrical drawings are never completely laid out. As a result, that is left to the electricians. Electricians do wire a wide range of controls, such as fire alarm systems, security systems and life safety systems, and have to interconnect to controls and line voltage motor starters.

In the future, please leave electrical wiring to qualified electricians who are properly trained.

Anthony Foti
Electrical Union Local 494
Milwaukee, Wis.

I give Ms. Fey due credit for her academic accomplishments, but have serious disagreements with some of her conclusions regarding electricians in general.

I have been an electrician since age 15, about 58 years, licensed since 1988, and a licensed plumber since 1990. I am neither an engineer nor an "expert," but I have been properly trained in both fields to the extent in which I am active and interested. I also have two years of experience as a teacher in practical electronics, so I know something of electrons, atoms and molecules, both copper and water. My comments are as follows:

  • Electricity books are difficult; compare the size of the NEC manual to that of the UPC, and you will get the idea.

  • There is nothing "stupid" at all about the analogy of water and electricity. The behavior of water in a pipe is parallel to that of electrons in a conductor, and follows all the physical laws appropriate to either. As an added plus, water in a pipe is a visible analogy, which is something we have yet to accomplish with electrons in any practical fashion.

  • Electricians do think in terms of circuits; otherwise, nothing would ever work after wiring.

  • Don't make light of the code. If it weren't for that, plumbers could put everything ABS in the ground in 2-inch size, plumb the water with half-inch pipe of their choice (garden hose?). And while we're at it, let's do away with those pesky vents. Then electricians could wire everything with 14-ga. wire to one breaker. You just couldn't use the dishwasher and toaster at the same time.

  • I have never used Kirchoff's Laws since I graduated school and have no need to do so.

  • Electricity does go through wires, not on them, except for RF.
I don't see what the big deal about controls is all about. They seem simple enough for me.

Dwight Walker
Dwight Walker Electric & Plumbing
Cathedral City, Calif.

I had the pleasure of reading Carol Fey's column. In all my years of being in business, I had never found anyone who broached this subject, especially in print.

When I finished college in the early 1970s, I was a certified secondary English teacher. At the time, there was a glut in the teaching profession so job possibilities in our locale were almost nil. Faced with a need to eat, I fell back on my actual first love. I was bequeathed by my dear, departed dad a penchant for things mechanical.

When I began my career in the building trades, I had a rather unique combination of skills. Because of family background, I had had an opportunity to use the tools of the plumbing and heating trade at a very early age. I had a lot of on-the-job experience, but little or no book learning to go along with it.

On the other hand, electricity was the thing that really piqued my curiosity. I completed an electrical correspondence course (that was all I had available to me at that time) but I had very little on-the-job experience to go along with it.

My ego took some pretty severe hits because of my lack of experience in those early years. As a result, I made it my mission to apply my electrical background to electrical equipment I was installing as a plumbing and heating contractor. The space between the two trades is a large gray area that's filled with V8043 valves, L8124 triple aquastats, RA89 relays, RA832 gas relays, RA845 relays, 8184 primary controls, modutrol motors, etc., etc., etc.

No one in either trade can tell you conclusively both how and what they do and how to wire them to make them do it. It took some doing, but I learned to crawl and run at the same time. I am the personification of what Ms. Fey speaks about, and I don't think there are too many others out there.

I agree with Ms. Fey. I wired all my own jobs. I wouldn't have thought of hiring someone to wire my control packages -- and some got pretty involved.

I think the education of plumbers to wire controls is great to a point. I do believe that "water people" can benefit immensely from being given a no-frills course in control wiring. It will enable them to confidently wire controls by being shown how. Let's be careful, however, to not let it appear that we are trying to create bona-fide electricians by so doing.

Robert J. Lagana
Robert J. Lagana Electric
Hazleton, Pa.

Carol Fey Responds

Our industry has tried to leave the wiring to the electricians, but that isn't working. We can't find many electricians who are willing to learn to do the work. There's the misconception that if a guy can do line voltage, then low voltage must be a piece of cake. But low-voltage wiring isn't just house-wiring without the kick. It's a completely different way of thinking.

The interest and ability among people who are electricians and people in the heating business vary tremendously. In the column I was speaking primarily to the heating guy who assumes that "electrician" means "knows and likes all wiring." Perhaps I should have said, don't assume that all electricians know controls -- find out before you hire 'em.

The perspective of the column didn't come from talking to just one electrician. True, I hired only one to sit and talk to me. But I've had many years of plumbers bringing me burned controls and saying, "The electrician says this control's a piece of garbage because it fried while he was working on it!"

I would very much like to work with the electrician's union. I offered low-voltage wiring training to two local unions in Denver. The IBEW there told me they're not interested in that kind of work. The pipefitter's local, on the other hand, was excited to have the training. So I trained the pipefitters. I do realize that different union locals vary.

Something More

Frank Blau expressed thoughts that are truly real in today's mechanical field ("The Four Legs Of Financial Security,"January 2003).

I recently left a mechanical contractor, where I had been a project manager for four years. The most vivid thing that would stand out in my mind on a daily basis was the fact that there was no retirement plan, no profit sharing, no bonuses -- nothing but salary. Granted, however, they did foot the bill each month for my entire family's medical insurance. But I needed more. Not just for me, but for my family.

Being the entrepreneur at heart that I am, I recently began my own company. This company is primarily a piping company with a focus in the commercial and industrial fields. We are pushing very hard to sink into the pharmaceutical and micro-electronic markets. Our other targets are the many HVAC contractors out there who are left out of a lot of bid opportunities due to the fact that they have no piping crews or resources.

I believe that employees need something to look forward to and not just a raise. They need to be able to see an end to "the tunnel of employment." I plan to give my employees just that. Furthermore, I plan on giving myself a nest egg for my future.

Duane Potter
Trinity Piping Solutions Inc.
Kinston, N.C.