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By Bill Addiss,
CEE News, Aug 1, 2001

Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

The key to a successful business is supposedly discovering a niche — “Find something that you're good at and stick with it.”

It sounds like good advice, and I don't doubt its value as a business plan, but the problem is that a niche and a rut can often look pretty much the same.

Contractors can add a new dimension to their repertoire by exploring new markets and opportunities, such as fiber optics. The more options you have, the better your chances of being happy and prosperous.

Just imagine looking forward to your work and its challenges. If you're a sole proprietor, can you picture yourself doing the same things 10 or 20 years from now? It might be in your best interest to look into something that would require less physical effort.

The expression about not being able to teach old dogs new tricks is somewhat of a fallacy. The real problem is that the “old dogs” are too tired and don't want to learn any “new tricks.” There's a big difference between “can't learn” and “won't learn.”

We've all got it within ourselves to achieve many different things, but we have to want to do it. How to get the initiative or inspiration to get started, or where to get it, is left up to you. I can tell you that once you do manage to jump in and get started, you'll find it easier than you thought it would be.

I found myself in a position that many find themselves, having done several different types of work over the years and having found none particularly satisfying or stimulating for very long. Being out of school for almost 30 years made the thought of structured schooling or training seem like, for lack of a better word, a “scary” thing. I decided to look into fiber optics due to the growing demand for this technology.

I've been thinking about fiber optics for some time. This interest may have started as part of my daughter's elementary school science project on light and refraction (rainbows). I recently looked up some history on fiber optics in an encyclopedia and dug up some information on the Internet.

Last year at the Electric 2000 trade show in New York City I met the founder of Fotec, Jim Hayes, who has been in the business of fiber optics for more than 20 years. His company manufactures test equipment for fiber optics. They offer some basic online training as well as concentrated basic and advanced courses at their facility in Medford, Mass. (aka Fiber U).

Their approach toward training is to provide the installer or user with basic knowledge of theory and technology and then concentrate on the practical aspects of designing, installing, testing and troubleshooting fiber-optic systems. Fotec, which provides non-vendor specific training, also offers installers access to certification (by exam) through the Fiber Optics Association.


I made arrangements to go up to Fotec (Fiber U) in Medford, Mass., for training. I'd travel across on the ferry from Long Island, N.Y., to Bridgeport, Conn., and drive the rest of the way up. The basic course would last two days and then I'd stay for the advanced course for a total of four days. One odd coincidence was that on the same day I was leaving to start my return to schooling, I attended the high school graduation of my eldest daughter, Elizabeth, the same one with the science project that may have first sparked my interest in fiber optics years ago.

The first day I started off a little apprehensive, not sure what to expect and a few minutes late because of unexpected traffic (and Boston's noticeable lack of street signs). I had a few last-minute jitters about what I was doing. The instructor at Fiber U, Elias Awad, had started his introductory remarks and I took a seat right in the front. That may not have been my first choice if I had more chance to think about it, (or more seating options) but I was glad I did. I found the introduction intriguing and his informal teaching style refreshing. I was immediately put at ease. This was going to be okay after all.


As I looked around the room I saw that it was a class of about 10, which is great for personalized attention. After some basic theory and background, we paired up for some hands-on practice stripping fiber and making our first terminations. Our instructor kept a watchful eye on us as we worked, sometimes offering suggestions, but basically allowing us to learn by doing. The chief focus for the first day was on safety. I learned that these little pieces of glass (about the diameter of a human hair) can really cause problems if they find their way into eyes or mouths.

During breaks and our catered lunch, I found out (not surprisingly) that some of the attendees were local contractors looking to expand into fiber and some others were from out of state. I was surprised to learn that at least one person was from outside the U.S., which might have been a direct result of the reach of the Internet.

I think that we all broke fibers the first day but still managed to make up our connectors and polish them. We were also shown simple ways of testing our connectors for relative signal loss. By the end of the day I thought that I had become pretty good at feeling when the strippers cut through the buffer and managing to pull it off the hair-thin fiber without breaking it. It was a challenge to guide the fiber into the tiny hole in the connectors, not unlike the difficulty in threading a needle, but nothing that couldn't be improved upon with the proper amount of light and wearing of one's glasses. (My mom has a pair of glasses that she wears for reading with a slight magnification that would probably be great for something like this).

One thing I discovered was that the fiber itself can be surprisingly strong and flexible in some ways and not nearly as delicate as one might imagine. After the first day's class, any misgivings I had about not being able to understand or work with this technology were all but gone.

The second day started off with more basic information and theory. We then moved on to refining our termination skills. The instructor emphasized the importance of following more deliberate and proper procedures. The best terminations or splices are those that cause the least signal degradation (loss).


We were shown how much better our terminations could be just by doing something as simple as keeping everything clean. Cleaving the fiber (cutting it square) and polishing may require a lighter touch than electricians are used to, but I found it easy to adjust. We were shown that there are definite steps that can be followed to greatly increase the quality and integrity of the terminations.

Days three and four were spent learning more different termination and splicing methods and advanced methods of testing. We learned how to work with a number of different types and brands of connectors. The fusion splicer was one of my favorite things to work on. It's an impressive piece of equipment that, in effect, melts or fuses two pieces of fiber together with little or no loss.

The other interesting thing that we got to use was the Optical Time Domain Reflectometer (OTDR), a piece of test equipment that can help diagnose problems and losses in fiber systems and a show them as a graphical display. One useful feature of this equipment is that it only has to be connected to one end of the fiber.

To sum it all up, I have to say again that it was a very rewarding and enlightening experience. I'd have no reservations about recommending fiber optics to anyone that enjoys doing precision-type work and likes to take pride in workmanship. Of course, advanced-system design may require more study, but the knowledge and skills needed for basic-system design and installation of fiber optics are easily attainable and within the reach of almost anyone with the desire to learn. I'm very pleased to have gotten this knowledge and training. Where will it take me? I'm not so sure, but I'll keep you posted…

Bill Addiss
Electrical Contractor Network

Reprinted with permission from CEE News, August 2001. Copyright 2001

July Articles  "If you Build it.."  and  "It Pays to Speak your Mind"

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