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5 Differences Between a Residential and Commercial Electrical Contractor

Nov. 24, 2020

differences residential commercial electrical contractor

Any electrician can power up a building given enough time and equipment. That’s what they say, anyway, until you give them the blueprints to a multi-story mall or office building.

Both residential and commercial electricians are noble professions. Each is complex and massively important in its own way, and there’s a lot of overlap between the two. While commercial contractors often have to deal with larger scale projects, it’s important they have a thorough understanding of residential needs as well, because many commercial electricians take on residential projects.

Because of all the nuances in the electrical field, specialization is a key part of the job, which is why there are so many types of electricians.

Types of Electricians

There are more than 20 types of electricians based on their area of specialization, training, and experience. Here are five of the most common ones.

  • Residential electrician/contractor
  • Commercial electrician/contractor
  • Industrial electrician/contractor
  • Low voltage/electrical communication specialists
  • Automotive electricians

Not every electrician becomes a contractor, but most residential and commercial electricians do. This enables them to take on projects individually or as a part of a contractor company. As promised, here are the five major differences between residential and commercial electrical contractors.


The Major Differences

1. Services Offered by Residential vs. Commercial Electrical Contractors

Residential electrical contractors are responsible for the safety, compliance, and proper finishing of residential electrical installation. That’s why they’re also called domestic electricians.

Other responsibilities of residential electricians include:

  • Interpreting technical blueprints
  • Maintaining and servicing electrical appliances and fixtures 
  • Diagnosis and repair of electrical faults
  • Residential electrical systems inspection and rewiring

Commercial electrical contractors do many of the same duties on a larger, more complex scale. That includes installing wiring systems, machines, and control panels in accordance with the official blueprints. You are most likely to find them in commercial buildings, business locations, public buildings, factory complexes, among other places. Typically, they’ll handle electrical permitting which is often required in major cities.

2. Equipment & Supplies Used

One important difference between residential and commercial power supply lies in the type of power supply used. Residential electricians typically deal with single-phase systems ranging between 120V-240V. 

Commercial electricity is three-phase, where the conductors used carry anywhere from 120V to 480V due to the high power requirements of commercial and industrial electrical loads.

This difference in power means that the equipment and supplies used also differ. Residential electrical systems generally require thin gauge cabling with less sheathing and insulation. Depending on whether the equipment used operates on 120V or 240V, different types of wiring, breakers, and other electrical supplies are used.

Commercial electrical systems usually require cables with more insulation and sheathing to handle demanding commercial applications. These can include higher voltage and current flow which are expected to perform almost continuously.

Apart from the load and safety demands, commercial electrical systems are designed to be more accessible in case of failure. They tend to fail more often and require more maintenance, which is why most are installed in easily accessible places with access panels for troubleshooting.

This increased maintenance frequency is why commercial electrical contractors benefit big-time from having preventative maintenance contracts in place.

3. Technical Skills Required

Both residential and commercial electrical technicians start from the same place in terms of education and training. They might have trained as apprentices, in trade schools, or even have undergraduate degrees, but the basic foundation of all electricians is the same.

However, commercial electrical contractors are required to have a much higher skill level and experience due to the factors of complexity, safety, and reliability they deal with. 

It’s common knowledge that three-phase systems require more knowledge to set up and install. Between phase and voltage balancing, phase diagrams, and a dash of control systems, commercial contractors typically require higher qualifications (Master Electrician and above) and more than 4,000 hours of on-the-job experience.

Various states have different competency and certification levels for various electricians. Some states even allow DIY electrical wiring for homeowners! 

4. Project Size: Residential vs. Commercial Electrical Projects

Commercial electrical projects are much larger than residential projects. From office buildings to malls, and various complexes, these are projects that take a lot of manpower, time, and skill to complete. Of course, that’s a larger paycheck as well!

However, commercial contractors don’t need to just stick with large commercial properties, in fact, many of them make exceptions for large residential projects, such as massive homes/estates, or apartment buildings, which can very easily have as complicated systems as a commercial project.

Think of it this way: a commercial electrical contractor can typically take up any project that a residential contractor can, but the opposite isn’t necessarily true. This means that they have a much wider job market, which serves them well even in these unusual times for contractors due to the pandemic.

5. Standards, Compliance, & Regulations

Electrical compliance standards for contractors are quite robust. Even in residential electrical installations, they dictate everything from the type of technicians allowed to do the job to the cables, insulation, and fittings that can be used. 

Commercial contractors have to deal with even more stringent standards and regulations. These include safety standards regulating the type of electrical equipment they can use, safety standards they need to adhere to, and the level of insurance taken against possible disasters caused by electrical faults.

Electrical contractors are usually licensed at the state or municipality level, and the type of certifications vary widely. However, almost all states only issue Electrical Contractor licenses to those with a minimum qualification of Master Electrician or businesses that hire a Master Electrician.


How a Residential Electrician Can Become a Commercial Electrician

A qualified and certified residential electrician can become a commercial electrician by fulfilling the requirements of its certification. If you’re already certified as a residential electrician, these possibly include:

  • 10% of commercial electricians obtain a bachelor’s degree for specialized applications, and though it’s not necessary, it will definitely increase your job prospects.
  • Practice under a Master Electrician for about 4 years with 2000 hours of work covered. Some of this time is offset by the time spent at school, about 144 hours a year. Be sure to check local regulations.
  • Pass the relevant Master Electrician certification exam.
  • Take one (or all) of the National Certifications, which will allow you to take on more industrial projects.

Most jurisdictions follow the apprentice-journeyman-master electrician progression model, issuing separate licenses at each phase, and considering them unique roles. In some states, such as Oregon, to become a commercial contractor you need 8,000 hours of on-the-job training as a residential journeyman, so it can take some time to get to the commercial level.

Commercial contractors need the school training to take on technical skills such as blueprint reading, electrical theory, electrical regulations, first-aid, and safety measures. Many trade unions and organizations such as ELECTRI (which BuildOps joined earlier this year) also offer a lot of advancement opportunities.

Regardless of their differences, both commercial and residential electrical contractors face a lot of the same problems. BuildOps solves some of the biggest ones: organization, reporting, dispatch, quoting, invoicing, and even asset management. Get your personalized demo here to learn how BuildOps can help make your team more efficient.

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