As low voltage becomes a progressively larger portion of most projects, contractors are revisiting the way they manage their work. The three current phases in the field – Rough-in, Trim and Final – don’t account for one of the most important activities in any project – the “Layout” phase.
The traditional approach to low-voltage prewiring includes mounting boxes, brackets, and/or mud rings similar to the methods historically used by electricians for their “boxout” phase for switches, light fixtures and electrical outlets.
But the same tools used for an electrical boxout can be imprecise and may not consider the evolution taking place in the industry toward smaller and smaller low-voltage devices and situations in specific device models can change between the prewire and device installation. All of this demands a new approach to the problem.
The new “Layout” phase, as we see it, is an expansion of what electricians have traditionally referred to as “Boxout,” where the boxes for switches, light fixtures, and electrical outlets are mounted before any wire or conduit is pulled.
Today’s technology requires a lot of low voltage, usually category wire, coax, or control wires. Contractors often think these wires don’t have a precise endpoint, but they should.
The industry is moving beyond simply painting location outlines on the floor. Many devices do not have traditional backboxes and aren’t even cut in until trim or later; long after sheetrock and flooring are done.
Further, for the builder, client, project manager and architect, seeing the exact location in the wall or ceiling makes it easier to sign off on the layout, and prevents potential issues before they occur.
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The best part of this new Layout phase is that it allows everyone involved to visualize the technology endpoints for balance and symmetry, avoiding the time and cost of moving wiring locations later.
At the Trim phase, the ease of finding endpoints becomes even more important. Time can be the enemy when trying to remember where something was placed in a prewire.
Blank wall plates are not endpoints – they’re placeholders – and in addition to being unsightly, they are rarely in the best location; often somewhat close to where something should go, but simply not at the endpoint of choice.
Leaving wires coiled up in the wall or ceiling or zig-zagging your wires makes it more difficult to later find and pull-out wires. Additionally, without proper layout, the prewire location rarely ends up in a location that aligns with other devices to achieve the desired balance and symmetry expected from a professional installation.
Integrators like Boston Automations in North Easton, Mass. use devices like Xspot to place the precise locations of devices before drywall goes up.
When is the best time to establish endpoints? The current method for some devices is after the sheetrock is up.
The problem with this approach is when the Trim starts, contractors struggle to find their wires, locate framing, other impediments like high voltage wiring, plumbing, HVAC venting or anything else that could force you to punch multiple holes. Consider the average amount of time it takes your most experienced tech to solve this puzzle, then multiply that by the number of issues, and finally by their hourly wage.
Add to that the time needed to clean up and communicate with the builder, client, and other trades. We’ve all been there… few of us have taken the time to calculate these preventable costs. Even if the client or builder agrees to pay to do the repair work, you have lost goodwill by having created the problem in the first place.
Layout Phase Identifies Precise Endpoints
Let’s rethink the process – beginning with determining precisely where we want to see our speakers, touchscreens, LED lighting, security, and control wires during the Layout phase – maybe you’ll need to place a device in the middle of a stud bay or avoid framing that interferes with the balance or symmetry with other devices.
What you need is an endpoint to define your exact location.
With endpoints, when the Trim crew comes back, they know we have followed the standards that define the height and alignment of the devices to be mounted, and that we have also determined the precise endpoint locations in the Layout phase. Standards set the general area; Endpoints set the precise location. It’s better to address endpoint considerations before any wires are pulled.
During your new “Layout” phase, when everything is exposed and the walls are open, your best tool is a tape measure. In place of spray paint, you could use something like the Xspot prewire device. Josh.ai uses this as a default prewire tool.
This type of endpoint allows you to establish non-traditional endpoints in the Layout Phase, establishing an exact location for each device, before pulling any wires.
These endpoint locations stay out of sight behind the walls or ceiling, without the need for blank wall plates. Endpoints can later be Trimmed out in minutes, using the tools to find device locations to within ¼ inch, then removing and re-using the location devices. This takes the place of some proprietary boxes or brackets.
So, what is the result of changing your approach?
By including a Layout Phase to establish precise endpoints, you avoided wasting time, guessing at your endpoint locations, settling for locating all devices at the nearest stud or joist, and the costs to move or repair unnecessary holes. Further, using blank wall plates leaves your finished project with a lot of unsightly wall plates and creates a roadmap for your competition to pick up what should have been your equipment sale.
Tri-Star Electric in Malibu, Calif., is among the integrators who sees a benefit to the Layout phase that reduces time at the Trim phase.
Low voltage systems have become more important, more complex, and much more common, they are now taking their rightful place in the construction process. Now, with the new Layout phase, the low voltage contractor takes part in all aspects of the construction process, establishing endpoints and placing devices precisely in their intended locations.
Efficient commercial contractors challenge all processes in terms of both utility and cost. If a better approach saves money and results in an improved occupant experience, they use it!
Once calculated, your return on investment (ROI), for the time spent in the Layout phase versus trial and error at Trim will be a real eye-opener. Unplanned labor costs are where most companies see a loss in profit, and equipment can only make up for so much before you are working for free.