Time to accessorise
As workplaces have become increasingly computerised and automated our working lives have become increasingly dependent on a vast array of electrical and electronic gadgets, gizmos and appliances. All of which has led to a much greater reliance on the distribution of power and data around buildings and a demand for more ways of accessing this power and data.
As a result, wiring accessories for power, switching and IT are now used in much greater quantities in virtually all buildings. They are more visible and they are used more extensively – giving them a much higher profile with end users than they would have had a few years ago. Increasingly, these aesthetic considerations are something the specifier needs to take into account – perhaps in liaison directly with the end client and other members of the design team.
In this respect, there are essentially two trains of thought. Some people will try to make them as unobtrusive as possible so that the rest of the décor makes the principal visual statement; while others will seek to make the accessories an integral part of the finished space. In the latter case, the accessories need to have a contemporary style that adds to the final effect, rather than just being part of it.
There is also a move away from the ‘white with everything’ to distinctive coloured accessories that are selected to complement the other design features and make a bolder statement. So there’s something for everyone, as long as they are given the choice – and that’s where the specifier’s knowledge of the market comes in.
It’s important to take account of the ‘usability’ factor, such as whether plugs fit smoothly into a 13A socket. It’s not that awkward sockets don’t do the job or comply with regulations, but low quality manufacture makes them decidedly user-unfriendly.
User-friendliness also extends to the greater awareness of how lighting interacts with everything else going on in the space. Part L of the Building Regulations has tightened up on the level of control available for lighting and this will often lead to wider use of dimming.
There may also be a need to help the customer comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, ensuring that switches in particular are easy to use for partially-sighted people. In our experience, an anthracite grey finish on accessories provides good contrast against the high reflective decors used in many modern buildings. Use of lighter coloured rockers against the grey finish is also an aid to visibility.
While style is important, however, it’s nowhere near as important as safety; which is why the UK has such stringent safety standards for its wiring accessories. This means that whatever style of power outlet is chosen, for instance, it needs to incorporate the safety features that are inherent in BS 1363, such as double pole switching, metal pin insulation on 13A plugs and safety shutters in socket outlets.
This is another area where specifiers can put their expertise to good use, in guiding end users to products that don’t just meet the minimum standards but go that extra step further to provide even greater safety. This isn’t likely to appeal to someone who wants to keep the project as cheap as possible, such as in a speculative development, but there are plenty of occasions where the decision maker is also the user of the products and has to live with those decisions.
These are the people who are more likely to listen to the ‘added value’ arguments, because they will benefit directly from opting for higher quality products. And, of course, if something does go wrong they are able to demonstrate that they went beyond minimum requirements to try to achieve the safest installation possible.
In industrial applications such as factories and warehouses, this attention to safety has become second nature as there are so many potential dangers. In these areas it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, necessary to sell the concept of safety; it’s a matter of ensuring that the products you supply and install are up to the job and won’t disappoint.
For example metal clad accessories will certainly provide greater impact resistance than a plastic fitting but if they haven’t also got a powder coated finish they will very quickly show the results of any knocks.
Similarly, where water and dust are prevalent, it’s vital to safety that the ingress protection provided is to the specification claimed by the product. Taking a chance on a cheaper product that may not have undergone the necessary levels of rigorous testing just isn’t worth the risk.
The true cost
Of course, in most traditionally procured projects, the cost is going to be particularly important to the contractor, so it makes sense to take this into account when specifying and get the contractor on board. Higher quality products tend to offer features that will make life easier for the contractor and save them money on installation time, such as providing plenty of space for making connections and captive screws that won’t fall out in the middle of the wiring. These additional features require a higher investment in design and, perhaps, additional components to achieve ease of use, so there may be a small price differential. But the time savings that can result, particularly in a larger installation, will more than make up for a few pence on the price of the fitting.
Another time-saving feature that is becoming increasingly popular is the increased use of modular components and mini grids. There are now many more modular designs for switches and all types of sockets on the market and these are gradually being extended to alarms and heating controls, as well as smoke, fire and gas detectors.
The same is true of other control devices such as switches with scene setting controls and photocells that will dim the lighting in response to natural daylight levels. As a result, we can expect to see such controls taking on a more modular format, in line with the increased trend towards modular accessories mentioned earlier, so that more sophisticated switching, driven by Part L, also meets the aesthetic needs of end users and designers.
Another issue that is becoming more important is the environmental impact of the products themselves – in their manufacture and at the end of their life. Increasingly, environmentally-conscious organisations are evaluating products by their ‘embedded carbon’, representing environmental impact through the life of the product. In addition, European legislation is driving higher levels of recycling.
Undoubtedly this will lead to more searching questions about the products and the companies that supplied them. So it’s important to be aware of these issues and which manufacturers are taking the trouble to ensure that their manufacturing and distribution activities are designed to minimise environmental impact.
Because of all of these issues, there’s little doubt that specifying wiring accessories is already more complex than it was a few years ago, and set to become even more involved. The key is to be aware of how the products differ and which address all of the principal factors.