Selecting the right contractor

Even the best equipment is compromised if it's installed improperly.

By Clyde Zimmerman and Elizabeth Goldsmith

You've made the commitment to install an all-fiber LAN, bringing speed, reliability, and upgradability into the horizontal portion of your network. You've looked into the network cabling infrastructure components that are available today and you've chosen the manufacture(s) from whom you'd like to buy. Now you need to do your due diligence to make sure you choose the best contractor in your area to do the installation. After all, you might have the best components, but if it's not installed correctly you may not be getting the performance from your network that you expected.

Keep in mind that your choice of contractor is closely linked with the manufacturer you select for your network cabling equipment. Only contractors who are authorized by your preferred manufacturer can respond to your RFP. Typically, manufacturers will have several certified contractors in your area. Knowing what to look for up front can help save you time and money and will ensure that your installation-and any follow-up work-is done efficiently and properly.

Some of your research is fairly straightforward-you should check on legal issues such as the contractor's insurance, bonding, safety record, and workers' compensation EMR rating for safety experience. However, a significant element is your comfort factor-and that should be based on the contractor's experience, references, and communications skills as well as the overall cost of the installation.

Don't be a guinea pig. Make sure that the contractor you select has at least five years of experience and a documented, successful track record of satisfied clients. Some firms may do a good job in contract administration and project management but have limited experience in the installation of fiber-optic cabling systems. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how good the front-office management team is if the field technicians are only just learning or do not have many years of experience.

Check their credentials. Credentials are a very important way to ensure that the contractor's staff has been educated and exposed to the equipment and systems being installed today. At a minimum, you should ask for the following certificates and specify that they are submitted with the contractor's bid, not after the fact. You also should make sure that the people who hold these certificates are on the contractor's staff rather than operate as contract employees and that they will work on your project:

  • BICSI Registered Communications Designer (RCDD) certification or certification from another recognized training source.
  • Contractor-authorization certificate from the manufacturer of the network cabling system.
  • Resumes of the project manager/team leader and the field superintendent responsible for the project site on a daily basis. Full confidence in these people is key-especially if you are working in an occupied building and are concerned about daily cleanup or the cooperation of the technicians.
  • A certified LAN specialist, if there are any network electronics on the project.
  • Individual certificates from the manufacturer of the network electronics (if any) for all the project engineers responsible for installation and configuration of the equipment.

Make sure the contractor has full design and CADD design capabilities in house. Many design engineering firms today create only conceptual documents. Therefore, it is important that your contractor have the capabilities to create full working construction documents so you can be sure your network accurately reflects your goals before installation begins. When your contractor submits detailed drawings, you have the chance to review the exact configuration of each telecom closet and backboard layout, the exact location of outlets, the configuration of faceplates, and discussion of the numbering/identification schemes used. Using the drawings as a basis for discussion helps minimize any confusion that can occur when translating conceptual drawings to actual spaces and also helps keep your job on schedule and within budget.

Having accurate "as-built" archival documents will also vastly simplify ongoing network management and future upgrades. These records, which should be submitted both as hard copies and on CD-ROM, provide detailed information about the installed infrastructure.

Select a contractor with real-life experience. After the selection of the contractor, you may ask for input on the final design for the network on issues such as:

  • The number of drops for a typical station outlet.
  • What types of fiber to run.
  • What is the logical migration path from the existing copper-network connections (in a rebuild) to the new horizontal fiber infrastructure in regards to network electronics.
  • What type, length, and quantity of fiber patch cords should be specified.

Cutover sequence and management-plan preparation. Having a step-by-step action plan for taking your network live is of critical importance to a smooth transition. The plan should be prepared by the contractor, reviewed and amended by the building owner and/or occupant, and closely monitored by the project manager and the field supervisor. It should include:

  • Detailed descriptions of each step of the process and estimates for how long each item should take.
  • Backup, or alternative plans, in case the cutover does not go as planned.
  • If the building is occupied, a complete communications plan to notify users about the cutover process.
  • Scheduling and completion of all testing and certification before the transition process begins.

Project close-out documentation. Within 30 days of the project's completion, you should receive complete documentation for your installation from the contractor both as hard copy, in three-ring tabbed binders, and in soft copy on archive CD-ROMs. Documentation should include:

  • Test-results manuals.
  • Original submittal documents with the designer's approval stamp and comments.
  • Each and every document that the manufacturer shipped with its products related to installation, maintenance, or other data.
  • All full-size, "to-scale" plotted drawings that show exact "as-built" conditions.
  • All support and warranty documents.

Strong collaboration skills. Installing a LAN is a complex and involved process. When you are evaluating contractors, look for someone who has excellent communications skills, high responsiveness, and supporting infrastructure in place. Make sure that all personnel on your project have e-mail accounts so they can be kept in the loop with all correspondence. Also, ask if the firm has a password-protected extranet site to allow team members to share information. Finally, make sure you feel comfortable with the team that's being assembled.

Installing a fiber-optic network, even all the way to the desktop, is no more complex than any other network installation. With so many people entering the industry with so many different levels of experience, asking a few questions up front can help you obtain accurate bids from contractors who can deliver as promised.

Clyde Zimmerman, RCDD/LAN specialist, is president of Eastern Technology Group Inc. in Woodbury, PA (www.etgcompanies.com). He co-authored this article with Elizabeth Goldsmith on behalf of the TIA Fiber Optics LAN Section (FOLS). Member companies include 3M/Volition, Allied Telesyn International, AMP Netconnect, Aura Networks, Belden Wire & Cable, Berk-Tek, CommScope, Corning, Corning Cabling Systems, Leviton Voice and Data Div., Lucent Technologies, Micro Linear, Ortronics, Panduit, the Siemon Co., Sumitomo Electric Lightwave, Sun Conversion Technologies, and Transition Networks. Visit the FOLS Website at www.fols.org.

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