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Is Winter Weather Wreaking Havoc on Contractors and Distributors?

By Jim Williams

As much of the country is under the grip of an unusually early arctic blast, we focus this edition of Contractor’s Corner on the impact of winter weather.

The calendar says it is still fall, but the temperature isn’t cooperating. So, we approached Grant Shmelzer, Executive Director, IEC Chesapeake and IEC Chesapeake Apprentice and Training, Inc., to talk about the impact of the weather.

tED: Last year’s harsh winter forced many contractors to pack a year’s worth of projects into eight or nine months. Do you see that happening again this year?

Grant: In terms of getting product, most of my guys have accounts with three or four different distributors so getting products isn’t that big of an issue from a distributor standpoint.

One of the challenges that could put a spin on it is the uniqueness of our area. We run our apprenticeship schools in seven different sites. The weather could be fine in one area, but you go 65 miles in another direction, because of the mountains, that could cause problems for our guys depending on where they are located and where their workforce is, so that may have ramifications on the delivery chain.

I use the schools as an example because I can relate to that – it could be our school site out by Dulles Airport, versus our site out by BWI. Even though it’s only 49 miles between the two airports, the weather is completely different. You could get 12 inches of snow out at Dulles, and you can literally get just a dusting out at BWI. The weather does have an impact because of the mountains, and we’re by the water, so that does affect certain jobs because one job site could be getting hammered with a snowstorm versus another having no snow on the ground at all.

So, that would be the extent as I see it because I would have to make arrangements because I may have to shut down one of the school locations for our apprentice program.

tED: Does the same rule apply to distributors?

Grant: I believe so. They may have challenges getting product out to those job sites. So it does create some challenges from a distribution standpoint.

One way to combat that challenge is to order your products online. More and more of my contractors are starting to do that. We are seeing a lot of activity around BIM (Building Information Modeling). And BIM is going to help generate that material list based upon the design of the job – so all of that integrating is starting to save time and cutting back on some of the mis-ordering that happens on occasion.

Also, we are seeing fewer trips to the distributors because, thanks to BIM, they are getting it right the first time. So we are seeing technology being used significantly more here.

As they continue to integrate BIM it is going to minimize that extra layer and the time consuming nature of it all. One of the challenges is training the workforce to utilize BIM. The technology is here, but there are two issues with it; number one it is extremely expensive; and second, is training the electrical contractors workforce to utilize it more. And I would guess that eventually the distributors won’t see a lot of it, but I’m sure the plans are going to have to become more familiar with it as they are scoping out the projects.

tED: Interesting, so technology is helping you place orders so you know what products will be needed regardless of the weather. What about manpower? Do you take into account taking days off, or not being able to get to a jobsite?

Grant: Yes, the employers do. It significantly delays things. We’ve had some major construction projects going on, the Silver Line, from Tyson’s Corner out to Dulles – Phase Two for example. They are pushing it. The project was delayed to begin with, now they are really starting to ramp up and get all of that work done – all of the digging they need to do, because everybody is concerned about the bad weather.  But it definitely impacts our contractors. Last winter they all had to modify their schedules to work Saturdays. Some cases even Sundays. Some of it is because we have so many government projects here, that there is a delivery date that has an impact for our guys.

Again, they are pre-ordering the stuff. It’s not like all of a sudden we get this job. That’s the one thing I would say here, is that because we have so much work going on they do a very good job of ordering and working with distribution.

More and more distributors are pushing the partnership arraignment, which we agree with as an association, that’s the difference between a traditional distributor and say going and getting something on Amazon, or Home Depot – is that partnership arrangement and that value added. That face-to-face, as well as the sophistication that distributor brings – I’ll say the experts – whether it be on switchgear, or wiring, or value engineering…It’s about that personal relationship.

You go get a panel, and you don’t realize it’s a specialty panel and Home Depot offers it for $20 cheaper, but you don’t have anybody who works there that can explain it for you. They don’t have a switchgear department like our distributors have, where they have an expert who is looking at it with you.

We have so many distributors here. If somebody doesn’t have your consumables, you’re going to go to your other distributors. My guys price that out, they price that commodity stuff out before ordering. They also spread the wealth. My guys definitely take a viewpoint of supporting those distributors that are active in supporting the industry, or the association. Our members actually value that when making a purchasing decision.

About Grant and the IEC Chesapeake
The IEC Chesapeake is the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC). They have offices in Maryland and Virginia. The IEC Chesapeake helps electrical, low voltage and renewable energy contracting companies and students in the Region gain an advantage.

Grant Shmelzer is the Executive Director. He is responsible for working with the Board of Directors to run the IEC Chesapeake and IEC Chesapeake Apprenticeship and Training, Inc.

To find out more about the IEC Chesapeake, please visit their website: http://www.iecchesapeake.com/.

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