How do I choose an electrician or an electrical contractor?

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First, understand the difference between an electrical contractor and an electrician.

An electrical contractor is a person or company that performs specialized construction work related to the design, installation and maintenance of electrical systems. According to the National Electrical Contractors Association, or NECA, electrical contractors are usually classified by the type of electrical work they do:

  • Outside, or line, contractors work on high-voltage power transmission and distribution lines that bring electricity generated at a power plant to facilities, buildings or homes.

  • Inside electrical contractors provide electricity to any structure within a property’s boundary lines, including outdoor lighting. They can serve as the main contractors for all electrical and cabling design, installation and maintenance for residential buildings as well as commercial and institutional ones.

  • Integrated building systems (IBS) or Voice/Data/Video (VDV) electrical contractors work primarily with low-voltage installations, such as back-up power, climate controls, wireless networks, energy-efficient lighting, telecommunications, fiber optics and security systems.

An electrician is trained and, in most states, licensed to perform electrical work. An electrician may be employed by an electrical contractor or be self-employed as an electrical contractor. Other electrician classifications are apprentice—those enrolled in an apprenticeship training program; journeyperson—those who've completed an apprenticeship program; and master electrician, a journeyperson who's completed additional training and testing.

In most states, there are separate licensing requirements for electricians and electrical contractors.

NECA members are electrical contractors who work in all aspects of electrical construction, and most of them are small businesses. The NECA suggests these steps for evaluating electrical contractors:

1. Evaluate Technical Proficiency & Reliability

The two most important considerations for any electrical installation are electrical safety and electrical system reliability. The electricians who directly perform the work and the contractors who employ them should follow recognized standards of safety and quality. These include both the National Electrical Code and the applicable National Electrical Installation Standards for any electrical work performed.

The National Electrical Code is the nationally recognized electrical safety standard and has been adopted by the wide majority of building inspection authorities at state and local levels. Your contractor should specify that all his or her work will be done in accordance with the most current NEC.

Your electrical contractor and the contractor’s employees should be licensed in the jurisdiction where your project is located. This means that the contractor fully understands and complies with the NEC and that the work will be inspected under the standard, resulting in a safe installation.

Reliability assures that the installed electrical systems will perform over a long period of time. The key to this is hiring people who are adequately trained to ensure safety and reliability.

2. Get Proof Of Warranty & Insurance

Any licensed electrical contractors you choose should be able to provide proof of their insurance and a warranty for the work performed. Insist on a written estimate and a copy of the contractor’s insurance certificate. The contractor should guarantee that the work will be installed to meet code and that he or she will correct any work that doesn't meet these standards.

3. Investigate Reputation & Financial Stability

Your electrical contractor should be financially stable and have a good reputation in your community—with customers, suppliers, fellow contractors and employees. Ask for references and talk to a few of the contractor's customers, preferably ones whose work was similar to your project.

4. Be Sure Your Needs Are Understood

A good flow of information between you and your contractors will help keep your job on schedule and on budget. A skilled contractor is also a business owner and should be able to manage the materials and labor needed to stick with the estimate for your project.

Final Checklist: 3 Crucial Steps

Insist on a written estimate.

Make sure that the contract specifies that the work will comply with the National Electrical Code and applicable National Electrical Installation Standards and meet any applicable building codes.

Verify the contractor’s warranty and insurance, and get a copy of the contractor’s insurance certificate and warranty in writing.

The dramatic changes an electrical contractor can make extend outdoors to your pool and patio. Photo by Hinkley Lighting, courtesy of the American Lighting Association.