When we refer to, “electricians,” we’re talking about tradespeople that install and repair wiring found in buildings and the various electrical systems found within them, including HVAC, security, lighting and computer network systems.
Today’s electricians can be divided into four main categories:
Residential Electricians – These electricians work in home dwellings that can range from single-family houses to large apartment complexes.
Commercial Electricians – Work sites can include office buildings, retail outlets, schools, hospitals, and industrial facilities that do not involve high-voltage. These electricians install and repair electrical systems found in existing commercial buildings, new construction, and renovation projects.
Industrial Electricians – These electricians perform maintenance and installation of electrical components and machinery found in industrial settings. This may include working with high-voltage electricity at industrial manufacturing locations.
Low Voltage Electricians – As their name implies, these electricians are involved with low-voltage systems that primarily include voice, data, and video (VDV) networks and systems. Inside the industry you may hear these professionals referred to as VDV electricians or Voice-Data-Video electricians. Their work typically focuses on phone lines and fiber optic cable repair and installation in any setting where these materials are used.
You will find that some states combine some of these classifications. For example, some states may combine residential and low voltage into one category. Others may combine commercial and industrial electricians into one category.
In addition to classifying electricians by role, they can be further subdivided into three additional categories based on experience and training:
- Apprentice – These electricians-in-training work under the supervision of an experienced professional for a number of years before they reach the journeyman level
- Journeyman – This status is awarded once an electrician completes their apprenticeship and is judged by a state-approved authority as being competent in their trade
- Master – Master electricians are defined as those with years of experience as journeymen who have demonstrated high-level competence through a state-approved exam
As you might have guessed, each state’s electrician licensing regulatory agency defines the parameters and scope of duties for each of these levels.
Common Tasks and Job Duties Electricians Perform
At the end of the day, specific job duties are what really define what it means to be an electrician. Take wiring a house, for example. As electricians perform large-scale residential wiring projects, they follow the sequence shown here while adhering to specific rules that pertain to code, functionality, safety, and even aesthetics:
- Main electrical service connection to the residence – overhead or underground connection
- Lighting – light fixtures, light switches, closet lighting, and outside lighting
- Electricity for ventilation, air conditioning, and ceiling fans
- Power outlets – some state codes require tamper-resistant receptacles (TRRs) that help to prevent children from inserting objects such as paperclips
- Ground connections on power outlets
- GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupters, often shortened to GFI) on outlets/breakers in places where water is common like bathrooms, garages, and outside
- Circuit for a hot water heater
- Circuit for heating and air conditioner units
- Outside lighting/power
- Washer, dryer, and stove, which require independent 220 volt circuits
- Breaker box/panel and circuit breakers
- Low voltage wiring for voice, data, and cable/video
Electricians install materials associated with each type of wiring system in accordance with their knowledge of the electrical theory that underlies them. This includes concepts like:
A Historical Perspective on Electricians
Even though man didn’t master electricity until the 1880s – the time that saw the first central power stations – we’ve certainly understood its brute force since prehistoric times. In fact, many of the most important gods of mythology were those with the power to wield electricity in the form of lightning:
- Zeus for the Greeks
- Tlaloc for the Aztecs
- Indra for the Hindus
- Thor for Norse mythology
- Raijin for the Shinto in Japan (immortalized as Raiden in the Mortal Kombat video game franchise)
While there may have been some close calls along the road to discovering how to make electricity work for humankind, it wasn’t until around 1600 that significant steps towards understanding electromagnetism were made. It was then that the English astronomer William Gilbert made the first recorded in-depth study of static electricity. At that time he found the best way of creating static electricity was by rubbing a cloth against amber, introducing the word “electro” to the English language, which is Greek for amber.
Finally, during a thunderstorm in 1752, Benjamin Franklin did his key-on-the-kite experiment that we all learned about in grade school, and with several other important figures of the day, major inroads were made towards mastering electricity. By 1875, the first electricians installed the first municipal street lighting system in Los Angeles, followed by Paris three years later. Even then those electricians still had somewhat of a divine nature.
Also of interest to note, up until about 1884 there was vigorous competition between the widespread adoption of alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). Had it not been for the invention of the first transformer that year perhaps all of our houses today would be powered by direct current.
Fast-forward to the present and you find that most people take electricity for granted. However that doesn’t diminish the importance of electricians one iota.
The Big Picture: Staying Current in an Evolving Industry
As long as we use electricity we’re going to need electricians. That being said, the electrician job duties themselves are always changing. In the short-term there are always code revisions to stay on top of. For example Portland, Oregon revised its electrical code to require all houses built after 2008 to have childproof electrical wall sockets that resist the insertion of single-pointed objects like paperclips.
In addition to the yearly modifications made to code requirements, the industry is always evolving too. Today solar energy is becoming increasingly popular, and electricians may find themselves called upon to install or inspect a solar panel array on someone’s roof. Technology like fiber optic and LAN cables is relatively new and requires fresh training to understand.
Electricians use their education and training to adapt to new situations and working environments, finding creative solutions to a challenging array of obstacles.
Your state’s regulatory agency is a good source of information about the latest requirements and regulations. Electricians must be aware of changes related to:
- Local code regulations
- Building regulations
- Wiring regulations
- National electrical code regulations