Times are tough but the dangers of cost-cutting in electrical installations far outweigh the short-term financial benefits. We look at the implications of saving money by specifying and installing low-cost wiring devices

There can be very little argument that the state of the economy is having an impact on us all, but for those whose livelihoods are linked to the building industry, this impact is certainly being felt more keenly than in many other sectors. With a decreasing number of new projects coming on line and many existing projects being mothballed until the worst is over, the competition for those still going ahead is exceptionally high.

As a result, contractors are looking for ways of reducing costs to give their tender the best chance of being selected. This, of course, is perfectly understandable. Business needs to be won and in these recessionary times, cost plays a more important role than ever.

The problem is that cost-cutting doesn’t work across the board, and in certain areas it can prove detrimental to a building’s infrastructure. Electrical installations are a prime example of the damage that can be done by ill-advised cost-cutting, and one area in particular can suffer – wiring devices.

Today there is a huge choice of wiring devices of differing quality, from top-of-the-range, smart products to cheap imports.

“While specifying from the bottom end will save money, this certainly will not be the case when the full ‘install and life cycle’ cost is totalled,” claims Alastair Ramsay of wiring devices manufacturer Legrand. “The products may look similar and claim to perform to a similar standard, but in the long run every pound saved initially will end up being spent many times over on call-out charges to electricians to fix faulty installations.

“And the building owner certainly won’t be thankful when the true cost of such a specification becomes apparent.”

Avoiding such a scenario is imperative for any contractor as reputations in this industry are heavily reliant on quality of work, and the quality of the materials used plays a significant factor in delivering quality work.

All the leading electrical component manufacturers have built strong reputations on the back of delivering products of a high quality that meet installation needs, end-user requirements and have the kind of lifespan that building owners demand. It is this trusted quality factor, whether it comes through the manufacturer name, products carrying the BS mark or both, that is all important when it comes to specifying wiring devices.

“In both housing and commercial installations the wiring device is very much a ‘fit and forget’ product,” explains Ramsay. “Its role in the aesthetics of an installation is now far more important than it was back in the day of the chunky, white plastic product, and its importance in terms of smart technology is highly significant, but at the end of the day people do not spend time thinking about wiring devices. They want them to be there, easy to operate, long-lasting and fault-free.”

Of course, electrical installations cannot simply be judged on cost and reliability. Today any contractor worth their salt needs to take into account safety, flexibility, functionality and future-proofing when costing up an installation, and it’s a fair assumption that cheap, bottom-of-the-market wiring devices will fail to deliver in all these areas.

“From a safety point of view, the best wiring devices provide installer and end-user protection,” says Ramsay. “Contractors should look for safety features such as fuse carriers retained by a locking mechanism, three-point safety shutters on sockets, triple-pole isolator switches with a built-in locking feature, ease of terminal access and clear markings. All of these point to a product that has been designed with safety firmly in mind.”

Today any contractor worth their salt needs to take into account safety, flexibility, functionality and future-proofing when costing up an installation, and it’s a fair assumption that cheap, bottom-of-the- market wiring devices will fail to deliver in all these areas

Meanwhile, assessing the cost of an installation should not simply take in the initial expense but should also take in running the building over a number of years.

“Technologies develop, building uses and users change, so demands on the electrical infrastructure will not remain constant,” says Ramsay. “And an economic range with a short list of functions will neither cater for such changes nor have any real flexibility.

“Instead, the option will be standard sockets and switches, which once installed will have no scope for additional functions unless replaced. For this kind of flexibility one has to look at ranges that offer full grid and module functions that include power, control and voice-and-data facilities.”

Future-proofing has been talked about for years, but it really is only now, with intelligent controls and systems becoming more commonplace, that it is becoming a necessity – especially for contractors who are aiming to keep building running costs to a minimum.

“Key to the operation of these systems is the wiring device, and again the contractor needs to turn to the trusted brands for smart solutions and solutions that have the capacity to be upgraded at a later date,” says Ramsay.

One final factor is environmental impact. If anything, this has replaced future-proofing as the industry buzz word, especially as a growing number of developers, both in the public and private sectors, now want the products they use to have green credentials.

“The green approach does create a grey area in that as yet there are no definitive criteria on which an electrical manufacturer’s products and systems can be judged,” says Ramsay. “The contractor is left to trust the claims made by the company they are dealing with, a situation that opens the door for the unscrupulous to make unqualified claims.

“Again, the advice is simple. Trust the known brands. In some cases they may already be members of groups such as FTSE For Good, which guarantees ethical practice and social responsibility. If not, you can still specify in the knowledge that known brands wouldn’t risk a reputation, built over many years, on one unjustifiable claim.”

All this points to one thing. Cut costs where you can, but when it comes to electrical installations the best option will rarely be the cheapest. A cheap initial purchase price may appear tempting, but ultimately it means potential higher costs during the life of an installation – which will have an adverse effect on the reputation of the installation contractor.

Originally published in EMC May 09 issue as: When cheap is not cheerful