Paying attention to how electricity is delivered to your
jobs can save money — and maybe your life
I remember a particular temporary electrical service I
installed on a commercial job site. The builder hadn’t
given me a site plan, and didn’t show up to tell me where
he wanted the service, so I put it where it was convenient for
the power company. Turns out it was in the parking lot. When
the paving contractor came along, he moved the temporary
service out of his way. Luckily, no one got hurt, but had there
been any damage or injury, the lawsuits could have put us all
out of business.
Builders have been jerry-rigging job-site power for years,
but insurers, inspectors, and code officials have begun to take
notice — and they don’t like it. In fact, the
industry as a whole is finally getting serious about electrical
safety. Even builders who make it a policy of leaving
electrical work to the electrician are liable for electrical
mishaps on their jobs, so it behooves you to show some interest
in how power is used on site. That means making an effort to
communicate with your electrician, and making sure your
employees and subs understand what they can and can’t do.
Besides helping prevent injury, thinking through the process of
how power is used on your jobs will also save you time and
question you should ask is whether the job even needs temporary
power. In many places, you can skip the temporary setup and put
in the regular service at the beginning of the job. This
usually means installing a pedestal — a permanent post to
which the electric meter is mounted (see Figure 1).
1. You may be able to install permanent power at the
beginning of a job using a pedestal. The meter and main
disconnect are installed on a short permanent post, while the
power cable runs underground to the house service panel. If the
panel is planned for the basement, you can install it
immediately after the foundation forms are stripped. A pedestal
is more expensive than overhead service, but you save the
temporary hookup charge.
The power cable then runs underground to the service panel.
If the plans call for the panel to be in the basement and if
the foundation is poured, you can make the permanent hookup. If
the panel is planned for the first floor, you can install a
temporary panel near the house, then move it inside after the
framing goes up. In either case, of course, the panel will have
to be protected from the weather during construction. A
pedestal will cost more than a conventional overhead power
setup, but the cost will be offset by the fact that you
don’t have to pay for a temporary service.
Utilities have strict rules about pedestals, including where
to place them. The pedestal becomes a permanent feature of the
landscape, so make sure your clients can live with the
placement. The utility will also have specs for the equipment
it wants you to use. Be careful, because these rules can be
tricky. One utility I worked with specced "a weatherproof
weather socket with disconnect" on an underground service, so I
got one that was listed for both overhead and underground use.
The utility refused to hook it up, because they wanted one that
was listed for underground use only. Correcting the "mistake"
cost more than $1,000.
Cooking With Gas
builders forego a temporary setup in favor of a gas-powered
generator (Figure 2).
2. Generators save the temporary service charge, but
they’re noisy and you’ll lose time gassing up and
starting the engine on cold mornings. Depending on the size and
number of power tools you use, you may also need a gas
compressor, since a generator may not be able to supply enough
amperage for an electric compressor.
With power companies charging up to $350 for a temporary
hookup, it only takes a few jobs to pay for a generator. And
there are times when a generator is the only real option, such
as in some remote areas where the electric utility has yet to
run power poles.
A generator will, however, take a toll on efficiency. On the
few jobs I’ve done with a generator, I lost at least a
half-hour every day stopping for gas in the morning and tanking
up the generator during the day. On cold days, just starting
the thing was a major chore. And if the combined amperage of
the tools you’re running exceeds the generator’s
output — which can easily happen if you have a compressor
and a few saws — you can burn up the electric motors on
your tools. To add insult to inefficiency, most generators are
much too noisy; even the quieter ones make an irritating
The bottom line? If a job requires a generator, I raise my