Electrical contractors are required to test a wide variety of products and systems, and therefore need to invest in the correct equipment to perform these important tasks. Mike Cullom, sales manager UK & Ireland at IDEAL Industries, looks at some of the latest developments in test equipment design and explains why it pays to do some research before making a purchase.


A level of business confidence that has been conspicuous by its absence over the last couple of years has returned and an increasing number of electrical contractors are now looking to upgrade their test equipment. It’s a sector that’s seeing significant growth and recent analysis from Future Market Insights suggests that the global electrical testing equipment market is anticipated to be valued at $5bn by the end of 2022.


Selection procedure


This, however, is against an ever increasing skills shortage – as the older generation retires there simply aren't enough young skilled people taking their place. A study by ERF found that half of the UK has a shortfall of more than 50 electrical contractors, and the industry needs an additional 15,000 fully qualified electricians over the next five years in order to ensure that demand is met.


To compound the issue, the rising cost of construction materials is having a knock-on effect and both issues are driving a greater need for increased productivity in order to secure decent profit margins. As a result, manufacturers are using all their research and development know-how to introduce test equipment that meets this objective. Although functionality is crucial, ease of use, build quality, safety and technical support all have to be balanced against what is often the dominating factor – cost. 


While manufacturers offer products that can accommodate all budgets, the onus is upon electrical contractors to be realistic about their requirements and make an investment to match. It makes sense to investigate what’s on offer in order to make sure that any return on investment is fully maximised. 


Feature packed


The most common design trends include smaller instruments that have greater versatility, better displays, intuitive interfaces and, of course, enhanced safety features. As an example, backlit displays that are easy to read under any conditions are now commonplace. 


Although the internal technology that goes into a piece of test equipment is vital in making sure that results are provided quickly and accurately, productivity can also be optimised by the use of lightweight devices that have clearly marked buttons, are ergonomic and made of non-slip materials. For example, market leading testers come with ingress protection (IP) ratings to provide dust and water protection, and drop protection of up to 2m. 


It might seem obvious but devices that have easy to spot colourways, such as yellow and black, can prevent jobsite losses and enhance safety awareness. Facilitating instant familiarity when upgrading is also a major advantage for electrical contractors, so testers and meters that boast common feature and function location across a range make it easy to transition between devices. Ease of use is particularly important for the new generation of electrical contractors, while they are still learning how to use these tools.


When designing test equipment IDEAL Industries uses focus groups to make sure that customer requirements are understood and this has led to small but effective measures such as putting probe holders on the back of testers, enabling two handed testing. Similarly, a built in torch function can be invaluable when working in poorly lit locations and the inclusion of a personal protective equipment (PPE) level warning indicator alerts the user that 30V has been exceeded. This vital health and safety feature provides notification that properly rated PPE equipment may be required to safely perform the necessary task(s).


Proof positive


With multimeters, a common mistake is to attempt to measure voltage with the leads in the incorrect terminals. Some devices now have specific terminals for different amperages to avoid this happening – if the leads are not in the correctly corresponding terminals, ‘lead’ appears on the screen and the meter beeps loudly to get the user’s attention. Furthermore, inadvertently measuring current from live to neutral results in a dead short, where hundreds of amps immediately flow through the meter and the fuse will blow. If this happens ‘fuse’ will appear in the display indicating that the fuse has been blown.


Warranties and technical support must also be considered in case something goes wrong or operational advice is required. A two year warranty period ensures the investment is protected and technical support is invaluable because although most testers are designed to be as intuitive as possible, users might still require assistance when it comes to using a device. 


Word to the wise


Test equipment manufacturers will continue to develop technology that allows electrical contractors to enhance their productivity. Given that they are totally dependent on their test instruments, manufacturers that offer the reliability, availability, technical support and service should be at the top of the shopping list.