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Energy Retrofits Spark Work for Electrical Contractors

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The flurry of developments across the Mahoning and Shenango valleys has proven a boon for electrical contractors in the area.

In Ohio, work has begun on the first of two gas-fired power plants in Lordstown, a power plant in Wellsville is in development and another one in Carrollton nears completion. Across the state line, the Shell ethane cracker plant in Monaca is in the midst of site preparation.

“The contracts there are already spoken for, as far as the bulk of the main ones,” says Eric Carlson, vice president of Joe Dickey Electric, of the four projects. “There could be other packages coming as it continues to develop. We have started seeing some bidding opportunities for support companies or things ancillary to these bids, which is positive to see.”

Smaller projects are also underway. Dickey is doing work on the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Youngstown, the expansion of the FedEx center in North Jackson and at FreshMark in Salem.

New Castle-based Bruce and Merrilees Electric Co. has finished projects at FirstEnergy’s Bruce Mansfield plant in Monaca, Pa., and UPMC Jameson.

At Santon Electric, current projects include the University Edge complex and Barnes & Noble at Youngstown State University.

At all three companies, electricians cite similar reasons for the uptick in work. For local businesses, the economic recovery has encouraged expansions and on residential projects, homeowners once again have the confidence and funds to improve or expand their homes. With the flurry of companies moving into the region, Bruce and Merrilees Vice President Justin Bruce points to the infrastructure in the area as a driving factor as well as the low cost of power.

“It’s kept us competitive on a national level of attracting new businesses,” Bruce says, noting that also means more potential work for electricians.

Business outside the area is also picking up. Bruce and Merrilees has worked on projects across Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Santon tends to stick within a 90-minute drive, says assistant project manager Joseph Cervone.

At Dickey, Carlson estimates a 90/10 split for business within 100 miles and business outside that range.

“It’s definitely more specialized projects we’re doing outside the area. We’re following customers who are usually the end-user, architect, engineer or contractor,” Carlson says.

Last year, Dickey worked in South Carolina because a company it works with in the Mahoning Valley couldn’t find a contractor outside the area who could finish the work on time.

It’s a similar situation at Santon.

“It’s for outside customers and contractors that we work with a lot that may not feel comfortable getting a bid from a guy they don’t have a history with,” Cervone says. “They know we’ll get in and a get a job done for them.”

As far as what’s in the buildings, increasingly energy-efficient technologies are being used, Cervone says, as clients see the potential to save on energy and maintenance costs.

“Everything in your home that requires electricity is becoming more energy efficient. We’re not consuming as much power and it’s causing your energy bill to no longer be $500,” he says. “It’s coming down. The more people see that, they expand more, whether it’s an addition on the house or an expansion of the business.”

Common installations include occupancy sensors and “scene controls,” that is, switches that allow for a multitude of lighting configurations based on what’s needed for each task.

To make way for these systems, Carlson says, retrofitting jobs are seeing a boom similar to what happened when LED lighting first arrived.

“The big boom that happened five years ago when people were able to get energy-saving credits and the initiatives to switch to fluorescent lighting – we’re starting to see similar change outs,” he says.

Bruce does note, however, that many businesses, when they decide to pursue energy efficiencies, often weigh the costs before committing. Only rarely does the contractor decide what to install.

“Some owners are very cognizant of the use of the power. And for some, it’s also the maintenance. And LED light takes a tremendous amount of less maintenance over its life,” he says. “But the fixture also costs more. So you have to find that balance.”

He adds that’s because of the low cost of energy in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys.

Over the years, projects for Bruce and Merrilees have shifted away from drawing plans during the initial phases of a project. Instead, the company is brought in during work to play its role.

“Owners don’t want to spend all of the money up front to get the engineering complete,” he says. “Now, they say, ‘Let’s get part way,’ and it turns to design-build or design-assist. In projects in our scope, they rarely spend the engineering time for pricing.”

As for what’s next, they agree that the addition of power plants and the cracker plant will draw considerable downstream businesses that will need the services of electrical contractors.

But as for the technologies that those jobs will require, no one’s sure quite yet because what’s available, and how efficient it is, changes quickly.

“Everything is advancing so fast. The big trend in lighting right now is LED, but what’s next? What type of lighting comes out after that?” asks Cervone. “There could be changes in power generation and renewable energies. There are so many possibilities that everyone should be looking forward to.”

For Carlson and Dickey Electric, one of the biggest concerns is manpower.

He says his company will have enough to handle these large projects should it win the contract, but his concern falls to existing customers.

“They’ll be out there for some time,” he says. “It’s just making sure we can meet our people’s needs. There’s definitely enough to do the work, but you may need people to come in from outside the area to help with the workload.”

Pictured: With new energy efficient products, retrofitting is seeing a boom, observes Santon Electric assistant project manager Joseph Cervone.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.