You’re at the beginning of your working life and you know you want to be an electrician. You’ve made an excellent choice; electricians have almost endless options for the types of work they can do. You’ll also have good prospects for growth in the field, and one of the best salary ranges of all the trades.
Now you just need to decide which path you want to pursue: Commercial vs residential electrician, or maybe even something alternative. Electricians have many options for career advancement and specialization.
What Is the Difference Between Commercial and Residential Electrical Work?
Most electricians start out working on residential projects, learning to install and maintain wiring in houses and on construction sites for private homes. Some then choose to become commercial or industrial electricians or to specialize in a particular industry.
There are some significant differences in salary, work opportunities, and skill levels for residential vs commercial electrician careers.
Work Environment and Schedule for a Residential vs Commercial Electrician
The first major difference between these types of electrical occupations is the environment in which you’ll be working. As the names suggest, residential electricians work in private homes and commercial electricians work in buildings that contain business entities.
As a residential electrician, you will generally be installing and/or maintaining wiring in private residences, with lower voltage needs. If you enjoy interacting with people, residential work might be a terrific fit for you, because you will often find yourself dealing directly with the homeowners.
Some residential electricians work for contractors building new homes, in which case you would be more likely to work with people you see daily on the construction site, but not the eventual residents of the building you’re wiring.
Residential electricians are commonly called to handle emergency repairs in private homes, which means being on call for nights and weekends. If you are part of a construction crew, emergency calls are less likely, although you will often be required to travel some distance to various construction sites.
Residential electricians generally put in long hours, above and beyond the standard work week. You may find yourself working in cramped or dirty locations such as basements or crawl spaces.
The commercial electrician will generally have little contact with the building owner. You will often be part of a regular construction crew on one large project at a time, although in some cases, you will work for a company that subcontracts for various builders. In this case, you might be moved to different job sites, simultaneously working with multiple construction crews.
Commercial electricians usually work with open walls and fewer tight spaces. However, the job site can be very loud and dusty and you’ll sometimes be working at higher elevations, such as the upper floors of a high-rise.
As a commercial electrician, you will usually work regular full-time hours. You have nights and weekends to yourself, as you are not generally going to be on call for emergencies. Projects in buildings that are already occupied are the exception; if people are using the building during work hours, commercial electricians will often work off hours to complete the job.
You may or may not be required to travel. Generally, you’ll be working at one location at a time. It takes longer to construct an office building than a family home, so your work location is more stable.
Salary and Work Opportunities for Commercial vs Residential Electrical Contractor
As an electrician, you can expect to be paid well for your expertise. The more you learn and the more specialized you become, generally, the more you will earn. Electricians are at the top of the pay scale for the trades, regardless of whether they work in commercial or residential settings.
Salaries for Commercial vs Residential Electrician
You will commonly earn more as a residential vs commercial electrician, but you’ll make a good salary either way. According to the Board of Labor and Statistics, the average salary for all types of electricians is just over $60,000 annually.
Glassdoor gives an annual median income of about $63,000 for residential electricians and $56,500 for commercial electricians. Both salary estimates include bonuses, profit sharing, and overtime. Commercial electricians tend to work less overtime than residential electricians.
There are other careers that you might pursue as an electrician as well, including industrial electrician, lineman, wireman, or renewable energy system installer, for a few examples. Unsurprisingly, the highest pay ranges for electricians apply to electrical engineering positions, which require the most education and specialization.
Work Opportunities for Commercial vs Residential Electrician
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, electricians are in demand and are expected to remain so for the next decade. One reason for this excellent outlook is the growth of renewable energy systems. Solar and wind installations require electricians and are forecast to become a significant source of employment opportunities in the field.
Traditional electrical work still abounds, however, and both residential and commercial electricians have excellent work prospects as well. As you would guess from the current salary averages, there is plenty of opportunity for electricians of every kind.
Educational Requirements for Commercial vs Residential Electrician
It takes an average of 4-5 years to become a licensed electrician; the specifics depend on where you live. Most of this time is spent as an apprentice, working under a master electrician. While you are on the job, you are being paid to work as you learn.
Attaining Your License
Licensing requirements vary by state and municipality. Most states require a high school diploma, and an apprenticeship of several years, plus some classwork. In some circumstances, you can count classwork towards the hours accumulated as an apprentice; in other places, you are required to complete a minimum number of hours of both school and hands-on experience.
If you study at a trade school or community college before you become an apprentice, you will usually have better options for where you will work while learning the trade, and you may start at a higher hourly wage.
Choosing Your Path
Many electricians begin with an apprenticeship and opt to take classes at night. It can take longer to complete your coursework this way, but it is an affordable way to work toward attaining your license. After completing the required on-the-job hours and any other requirements for your specific state, you can take your journeyman’s licensing exam.
The difference between commercial vs residential electrician career paths at this stage is what type of apprenticeship you pursue. If you want to do residential work, you would work under a licensed residential electrician; if you aspire to be a commercial electrician, you would study in a commercial setting to learn the skills for handling larger and more complex systems.
If you want to make the most money and you are comfortable with some travel and occasional odd hours, residential work is probably a good path for you. You will deal with some of your customers personally as you work in their homes, so you’ll want to be adept at direct communication if you opt to become a residential electrician.
On the other hand, if you are comfortable working with large, complex systems and high voltage but you want your weekends and evenings to be with your family, you might do better as a commercial electrician. You’ll work fewer overtime hours and make a little less money because of that, but you will rarely, if ever, have to talk to customers.
As a commercial electrician, you will also have the option to easily switch to residential work if you choose, while the reverse is not generally true.
What Does a Residential Electrician Do?
A residential electrician works specifically in housing. You handle all the systems inside a home that require electricity, including pumps, heating and cooling units, security systems, and of course, lighting and standard household appliances.
You may work on the construction of new homes, or perform additions, maintenance, or repair in occupied residences. Many residential electricians do both.
What Does a Commercial Electrician Do?
A commercial electrician handles large electrical systems in commercial buildings. They work with higher voltage, heavier cables and conduits, and more complex systems than residential electricians.
The services performed by a commercial electrician share many common elements with those of a residential electrician. However, commercial applications, like commercial buildings, tend to be larger and more complicated.
In a commercial building, you will install and maintain lighting, communications, and security lines as well as heating and cooling infrastructure, and electrical components of plumbing systems. In many settings such as medical facilities or grocery stores, you will also be working with backup power sources such as generators.
Can a Commercial Electrician Do Residential Work?
If you are a commercial electrician, you can adapt your skills with little trouble and switch gears to perform residential work. The systems are smaller and usually less complex. Also, the voltage you’re dealing with is lower. The general skills, however, are basically the same. This allows you some job flexibility if work opportunities slow down in the commercial sector in your area.
It’s a little more difficult to do the reverse; if you are a residential electrician, you may have a steeper learning curve switching to commercial work. In many states, you are required to hold a master electrician’s license and may need to have specific safety training to perform commercial projects.
The systems are more complex in commercial buildings than those found in residential settings, and the voltage required to power large, multi-story structures is higher than in homes. Insurance policies are generally more expensive for commercial electrical contractors, simply because the scale of damages can be dramatic should something go wrong in a commercial building.
What Are the Insurance Requirements for Residential vs Commercial Electrician?
When you are starting out and working as an apprentice under a licensed master electrician, you will not need liability insurance or surety bonds of your own. As a licensed contractor, however, you will need to maintain these insurance policies. If you have employees, you will also be required to pay for workman’s compensation insurance.
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General Liability vs Surety Bonds
Liability insurance protects you, the contractor, in the case that a customer or client sues you for an accident or a breach of contract. A surety bond protects the client and guarantees payment on a loan or an investment in the case that something goes wrong on a project. You will want liability insurance to protect your interests and most customers will want you to be bonded in order to protect theirs.
A residential electrician can acquire coverage for $1,000,000 per occurrence for $45 per month and coverage for stolen or damaged tools and equipment for another $40 per month on average. Generally, this would cover just about any property damage likely to occur in a private home.
Commercial electricians will probably need higher coverage due to the size and complexity of the buildings in which they are working. The cost of coverage will vary based on the value of the property, but will almost certainly exceed the insurance needs of a residential electrician.
Surety bonds vary widely as well. Costs are based on the worksite, size of the project, and of course, your track record.
Workman’s compensation is based on the type of work the employee performs, and how likely it is that they would be injured on the job. The likelihood of danger determines the underlying rate. How many hours the employee works is taken into consideration as well; the more time on the job, the more likely there will be an on-the-job injury.
Commercial vs Residential Electrician: Which Career Suits You?
When you consider all the similarities and differences between commercial vs. residential electrical contractor, do you feel that one is a clear choice for you? Is there one aspect that draws you to one or the other?
If so, great. If not, you can always begin with a residential apprenticeship and expand and specialize as you gain experience in the field. Start by visiting General Contractor License Guide to learn what education and licensing are required in your state, then pick a path that works for you.