Every construction project, solar installation, and utility job requires planning, but some aspects are more important than others.

Take wire and cable, for example.

Wiring is a critical component of any project, but it’s generally a lower-cost line item buried under more expensive and visible materials. It’s also one of the last steps in most projects, so it makes sense that it wouldn’t be top of mind during planning.

But wiring, or lack thereof, has the potential to make or break projects. Waiting until the last minute to buy copper wire or cable can lead to delays, overinflated costs, and even possible derailments due to out-of-this-world lead times. You also run the risk of negative customer reactions and the possibility of liquidated damages.

Buying wire on price alone could leave you high and dry when you least expect it. Rather, it’s a blend of skill and trust, relying on dozens of factors to help you find what you need.

The Six Disciplines of Buying Copper Wire and Cable

As basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Let’s take the average residential solar panel installation job. When we break down project costs, nearly half are associated with operational costs like permits, taxes, and labor. Another 25% is typically allocated to the solar panels and another 10% to the inverter.

Meanwhile, wire is lumped into the balance of system (BOS) cost, which includes mounts, switches, and other electrical components – combining for 10% of the total.

It’s a small cost, but without PV wire or micro inverter cable connecting the panels to the inverter boxes, you are not generating anything.

Buying wire is as much an art as it is a science. With help from your distribution channel and manufacturer, it’s possible to achieve value through price, availability, quality, and service. Isn’t that the name of the game?

Know Enough to Understand the Specs. Help your suppliers help you.

It’s easy to cut corners to get the job done faster and within budget by substituting one wire for another, but it can also create complications.

That’s why we ALWAYS advise against doing things like:

  • Burying THHN wire when installing underground utilities
  • Using 600V PV wire for a 2kV solar installation
  • Running tray cable outside of conduit when it isn’t -ER rated

There’s a saying that goes, “know enough to be dangerous.” In this case, you should know enough to be an efficient customer and install the best performing and safest system possible.

Understanding a wire’s specs can help you avoid potentially dangerous situations and reduce the risk of ordering the wrong wire. It only takes a few minutes to find and download the specs, and you’ll have less trouble, fewer delays, and get more value from the wire you’re buying.

If you still have questions, ask your manufacturer representative what specs are most important to help you get what you need.

Approximate Your Needs

One of the worst things you can do is go through all the necessary steps for a job only to realize you didn’t order enough wire.

Underordering materials like copper wire can create time delays that throw installations off track and eat up the budget. Copper prices constantly change, too, so you could pay even more for additional material than you would have previously.

Shorting yourself and trying to make do with what you have on hand isn’t a better solution, though. Cutting corners could lead to unsafe connections that put workers and others at risk.

Although underordering is a bad idea, minimizing waste is sometimes an underrated way to save money. Also consider performing “take offs” – a way of measuring individual runs of wire and cable, then adding them together to determine how much material you’ll need. This process helps you figure out how much wire you need and what spool length the wire can fit on.

On the other hand, ordering more than you need has its own set of drawbacks. You’ll have enough wire to get the job done safely, but you spent more than you needed to, creating a sunk cost in the budget.

You can’t return unused wire, so it has to be used in other ways or scrapped. Scrapping helps you get a portion of your money back, but it’s only a fraction of the total cost. There is also a drastic price difference between recycling bare copper wire versus insulated copper wire. Choose manufactures that spool product onto quality reels, like break resistant HDPE plastic.

It might seem small, but plastic reels are a lightweight and stackable solution that can be recycled and reused. Being choosy could help you use your leftovers on the next job.

Don’t Overengineer or Under-Engineer It

There are costs associated with every job, and sometimes wire is one of them.

Spending too much money planning for what-if situations can bloat any budget. Planning for the future is fine, but perfect the current plan first. For example, if you’re planning a 600V residential solar install, but you know the project will eventually expand to 2kV, use a 2kV solar inverter cable to avoid double spending on the wire.

If your manufacturer or distributor partner offers product training sessions, take them up on them! They’re typically free to attend and you’ll likely learn something that could save you money in the long run. It also gives you a chance to ask experts questions and see products firsthand.

Don’t Chase the Market

Don’t use price as your only determining factor when buying wire.

Lower prices don’t always mean lower quality, but it may come at the expense of something you’re not thinking about. Making decisions solely on price could cost you more in replacements and repairs than if you had invested in a higher-quality product early on. Instead of trying to time the market, create a budget that allows for some price fluctuations.

It’s also a good idea to order wire ahead of time. Don’t wait until the last minute because then you ARE tied to the market, putting you in a position to pay a premium to get what you need.

Your manufacturing and distributor partners are also conscious of constantly fluctuating costs. Find a partner you trust, check with them periodically, and let go – chances are you have more important things to do.

Understand Price vs. Value

Warren Buffett once said, “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.”

Though price and value have similar elements, they mean different things.

Price is the amount you pay for something; it’s a short-term number put on a product or service based on variables like supply, demand, seasonality, and availability.

Value is the perceived usefulness of a product over the long term. At its base, value focuses on the lifetime benefit of something beyond its price. For example, a baseball card might have a low price because the player is a rookie, but its value could rise if they end up in the Hall of Fame.

Think of it this way; a less expensive solar panel may not hurt your wallet as much but could have less value due to its shorter lifespan and lower quality. Value is also determined by usage. High-quality products installed correctly are way more valuable than cheaper ones installed carelessly.

Move at “The Speed of Trust”

The best relationships are built on trust. To that end, create vibrant ecosystems where manufacturers, vendors, and customers benefit and thrive.

Find vendor partners who have experience working in your field and can help you get the best results possible. These partners can suggest materials to enhance your installations, quickly troubleshoot issues, ensure on-time delivery, anticipate needs, and correct mistakes if they occur.

And let’s face it – no one is perfect. However, what makes a partnership unique is that both sides are eager to fix problems, minimize trouble, learn from missteps and apply those lessons to future interactions.

Good partnerships also have depth. Installers develop trusted relationships with their distributors, who, in turn, have good relationships with manufacturers. This level of understanding takes time but is rewarding once the relationships mature.

Every Product, Every Job, Every Time

We get it – buying wire isn’t sexy. But don’t let a lack of planning result in a mad dash for 5,000 feet of PV wire when you suddenly need it.

Remember, buying wire and cable is as much an art as a science! Choose partners in the industry who are committed to your industry and invested in your success, then lean on them when you need to.

A little bit of planning can also go a long way, especially when mistakes often mean thousands of lost dollars and weeks of lost time. Slow down and take the time to determine how, where, and when you’ll use the wire, then make the proper plans to ensure everything is available when you need it most.

Partnerships are about balance, and a deal is only good if everyone walks away happy. Respect is mutual, and when the relationship works for everyone, the value and service will thrive!

And, with that, your masterpiece is complete.

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