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Electricians’ skills are going high-tech

Nowadays, being an electrician also means mastering computers, highly complex networks

Project manager Adam Palmer and electrician Tony Rosa checked the cooling tower valves at the Watermark Building in Cambridge.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Project manager Adam Palmer and electrician Tony Rosa checked the cooling tower valves at the Watermark Building in Cambridge.

Adam Palmer oversees the installation of large electrical systems in buildings, working shoulder-to-shoulder with electricians in tool belts, many of them union guys with family roots in the building trades.

Palmer took a different route. He has a university degree in electromechanical engineering — and he doesn’t feel the least bit overqualified for this line of work.

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“I think people don’t realize how much science and technology can go into controlling a building,” said Palmer, a project manager with J.M. Electrical Co. “You don’t just turn on a thermostat and get hot or cold air. There’s a lot more to it.

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Always among the more technical of tradesmen, the electrician today has ­become a high-tech worker. Buildings are increasingly run by complex systems that use computer processors, sophisticated controls, fiber optics, and other networking gear. That means the electricians who install those systems, and the maintenance workers who monitor them, have to be almost as savvy as the people who designed the equipment.

For example, union apprentices enrolling in the training program at the IBEW Local 103 will need their own laptops when classes begin in September.

“Where 20 years ago, it was mostly hands-on, learn on the job, today you have to have good computer skills,” said Jim O’Connell, the director of the union’s training center in Dorchester.

In addition to workshops full of giant spools of cables, massive splicers, and circuit diagrams, the union’s training center also houses three computer labs that wouldn’t be out of place on a college campus.

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Some electrical contractors are even creating training facilities to further educate workers about the high-tech aspects of the job. J.M. Electrical has opened a facility in Saugus to teach its workers the finer points of working with building automation systems, which combine disparate functions such as lights, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and fire and security alarms into one complex network run by a main control post.

“It’s very complicated, and we need technical people to do the installation,” said Paul Guarracino, president of J.M. Electrical, which is in Lynnfield.

At the IBEW training center, students use computers to operate local area networks and the software that controls the complex systems, which are connected to fiber-optic meters.

“Most of the controls in the systems are electromagnetic, and fiber optics measure changes in humidity, temperature, and air flow,” explained O’Connell, the IBEW trainer.

The advanced training is required not only for the installers of those modern systems but for those who maintain them on a daily basis; workers once known as janitors are now referred to as “energy management technicians.”

The need is particularly strong in the Boston area, where the many hospitals, laboratories, universities, and biotech companies have huge, complex electrical systems powering machines and devices that require faultless service.

A hospital or other medical facility, for example, requires that its electrical service be carefully calibrated. “A shock to you in a regular room means, ‘Oops,’” said O’Connell. “But a shock to a patient in the ICU could be a death sentence,” he said.

Moreover, the Boston real estate community has increasingly gone green, as both new construction and existing buildings are fitted with controls and other devices to use energy more efficiently. During the recession, when few commercial buildings were built, the construction industry turned to energy retrofits of existing properties as a steady source of business.

“We’ve flourished,” Guarracino said of the retrofit work during the downturn.

The boomlet was spurred by federal and state incentives and the bottom-line calculation that they would generate long-term savings on utility bills. A study by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2012 found that investing as much as $279 billion to make buildings in the United States more efficient would yield up to $1 trillion in energy savings over 10 years.

The IBEW Dorchester facility is already out front in the trend toward clean energy and green buildings. The facility features a wind turbine, an area landmark, and it has a solar array on the roof and a charging station for electric cars. It’s now expanding its training facility into an adjacent building, which will include another computer lab and a demonstration hospital room.

All of this has meant that guys like Adam Palmer, college graduates with backgrounds in science and engineering, are becoming increasingly common both at the union training facility and the worksite.

Palmer said it’s been satisfying to work hands-on with the concepts that fascinated him in the classroom, while serving a larger social good.

“Back in the day, maybe a janitor would turn off the lights at night and check the boilers,” Palmer said. “Now he can sit in one room and control the building. That leads to better comfort, to better efficiency, to savings, and ultimately, it leads to a better environment.”

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