Even the title of this article sounds a little crazy. We’re low-voltage AV experts — why on earth would we start messing around with high voltage? That stuff can kill you, right? Maybe. As the technologies continue to converge, the lines between high and low voltage are blurring more than ever. Even if you don’t have electrical services under your umbrella, chances are you have a steady relationship with an electrical contractor. Is now the time to bring that in-house?
If electrical contractors had figured out AV in the 1990s during the infancy of custom installation, integrators as we know them may not be around today. Put another way, integrators exist to a degree because of electricians’ unwillingness to take on low-voltage installations. Here are a few common categories where these high- and low-voltage boundaries continue to converge, along with the pros and cons of bringing each in-house.
If you’ve been offering home technology systems for any amount of time, you’ve either decided to offer lighting control by partnering with an electrician or decided to stay out of it. These systems can range from extremely simple perimeter lighting or kitchen takeovers to whole-home masterpieces where every light load is scheduled and remotely controlled via touch or voice. Either way, those switches or panelized modules need to be installed by a licensed electrician. That means you’ve been subcontracting this work or referring it out for years. You see what the electricians charge and understand your labor rates. Don’t tell me it’s never crossed your mind that your own installers could easily handle some of this work with the right training.
Pros: With an in-house electrician, your sales team is even more confident in its ability to design and install more complex solutions than in the past.
Cons: You’ll need more than lighting control jobs to keep a full-time electrician busy. Bringing electrical in-house may push you outside your comfort zone into products and services that prove to be a distraction in the long run.
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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2019, it’s probably no surprise that lighting manufacturers like DMF, WAC, American Lighting, Lutron, and others think the custom installation industry should be specifying, designing, and installing lighting fixtures. Even after making that cognitive shift — guess what? — you can’t install them yourself! There’s some wisdom out there suggesting that integrators should wholesale these fixtures to the electrician and everybody’s happy. It might also be worth weighing the benefits of becoming a single “wringable neck” for your builder or general contractor client.
Pros: Everything under one roof means tighter project management and client satisfaction.
Cons: Now you’re in the lighting business. How many things can you be good at before spreading yourself too thin? Are you ready for service calls because of light quality issues, flickering, and tuning color temperatures?
This category is technically low-voltage for the most part but someone still has to install the power supplies for all those twinkling lights.
Pros: With a master electrician in-house, more outdoor lighting options become available, including solutions beyond modular connections that need burial splicing and higher-voltage floods or wash lighting.
Cons: Some larger outdoor lighting applications need expertise you may not have in-house, so discovering the right sweet spot for these projects may be a challenge.
Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Stations
Here’s a category that’s going straight to the moon. Who does Tesla want to refer to its clients — you or Mr. Sparky? The next three-to-five years will see a surge in home EV charger installations mostly by upper-middle class income clientele.
Pros: Where do people buying $100,000 cars live? There’s sure to be a ton of additional business radiating off the main hub of EV charging stations. Think of all the other upgrades just sitting there waiting for someone to say, “Did you know we also offer energy efficient lighting?”
Cons: Some of this work will become commoditized over time so it’s probably an early adopter play.
We need receptacles constantly for rack installations and flat-panel TV hangs. Without an in-house electrician, we’re at the mercy of another vendor’s schedule. How important can we be to a busy electrical contractor?
Pros: Receptacles are an easy upsell. With in-house talent, your service and salespeople will more readily recommend them as they walk through the job.
Cons: This can be commoditized work, so there’s probably not enough work to keep a full-time electrician busy nor be financially profitable. You’ll need to offer additional high-voltage services to see a healthy bottom line.
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We’re always working around electricians and generators. Bad installations or manufacturer choices can wreak havoc on sensitive electronics gear when they cut over during an outage. Why not take control of the conversation by referring in your own expert?
Pros: Gone are the days of being downstream from the generator buying decision. You’ll have a chance to influence the size and type of generator being installed. This is also a golden opportunity to discuss energy storage solutions like Tesla’s Powerwall and other battery-based offerings.
Cons: There’s only so much time to do a walkthrough with a client, so strongly consider how you’ll position the generator/battery backup conversation. Partnering with your in-house expert vs. trying to be the know-it-all may pay dividends here while avoiding client burnout.
The Whole Megillah
Imagine telling a builder you can handle the entire project. Any piece of wire or cabling in the house is your responsibility. The buck stops with you. General contractors love that. No finger pointing, and now the entire job is being done with the same care and attention to detail they’ve come to expect from their custom installation vendor.
Pros: You’re the single point of contact and there’s no more need to fight over where receptacles and rack gear will be located or coordinated.
Cons: You’re now squarely in competition with companies who used to refer business to you. Do you want to cut off a steady revenue stream in the name of offering high- and low-voltage services under one roof? Consider the margins as well. High-voltage work doesn’t typically command the same 40-plus point margins as custom installation. This means that any attempt at bringing electrical in-house will need to be with a steady, experienced, hand at the tiller. There’s not a lot of wiggle room for running that side of the business poorly.
Whether you choose to buy or rent your electrician moving forward, make no mistake that the worlds of high and low voltage will continue to collide. Ignore this trend at your own peril. Consider adding this idea to your next strategic planning session, and never let it be said you didn’t at least consider it.