When Joey Hanson needed a skilled electrician to do wiring work at his home in southeastern South Dakota, he turned to a surprising source: his electric cooperative.

“I never really thought about them wiring your house, but when I heard that they were offering the service, I jumped at the chance to use them,” says Hanson, a member of Union County Electric Cooperative. “It’s become challenging to find a reliable electrician around here, and there’s a real trust factor when it comes to the cooperative. I know almost everybody who works there; some of them are friends. I feel comfortable letting them in the house when nobody’s home. And they’ve done a great job.”

That trust—and an unmet need for electricians in a county of less than 16,000 people—has created a whole new side business for Union County EC in the last few years. With about 1,200 members, it is one of the smallest co-ops in the nation to provide wiring services.

“We kept hearing more and more from members having trouble just getting a light switch or a breaker fixed,” says General Manager Matt Klein. “A lot of our local electricians have retired, and it was tough getting a licensed electrician to come out from Sioux City, Iowa, for a small job at a farm. They either didn’t want to come, or they charged mileage, which was very expensive.”

Klein presented the problem to the co-op’s board of directors in 2018, which agreed that Union County EC should begin offering wiring services. Co-op electrician Tony Kronaizl took on the work, which has grown so much that Klein this year hired a second electrician, Todd Helling, to serve as Kronaizl’s apprentice.

“We would rather do it at a reasonable cost and know that it’s done right than have somebody try to do it themselves and cause a fire or other problems,” Klein says. “We’re trying to avoid those situations where somebody gets in over their heads and creates a hazard.”

In addition to serving its own members, the co-op offers its wiring services to non-members who get their electricity from investor-owned or municipal utilities. The co-op also has entered into a partnership with Generac Power Systems to sell and service standby generators for both members and non-members.

“We’ve got non-members that are helping our members by paying us to do wiring work,” Klein says.

Union County EC doesn’t want to undercut local electricians, Klein says.

“We’re not trying to steal business from another electrician,” he says. “We bill at competitive, fair rates. We’re not always going to be the cheapest bid.”

The co-op got most of its business just from hanging a large sign advertising the service at its Elk Point headquarters, right across from the town’s post office.

“We bought some $25 Facebook ads, but that sign probably generated more jobs than anything,” Klein says.

Co-ops that want to start their own wiring business should be patient, he says.

“The first year, 2018, was probably negative in terms of revenue,” Klein says. “Last year, we broke even. This year, we’re projecting that we will be positive. It’s been a slow process.

“Our board has been great,” he adds. “They said that as long as we were heading in the right direction, it was worth the effort to provide a service to our members. If we make a little bit of money by selling outside our territory, that’s the cherry on top.”

If he could go back to the beginning, Klein says he would have spent more time getting inventory and paperwork together in preparation for launching the wiring business.

“It’s been a little bit of a struggle—definitely a learning curve for us,” he says. “It’s important to have realistic expectations about what you can do.”

For a short time, the co-op became a victim of its own success.

“The wiring work really took off, especially last year with people working from home because of COVID,” Klein says. “It became too much for one electrician, especially since he still needed to get his other work done at the co-op. That was tough when the phone was ringing off the hook. That’s when we decided we needed an apprentice. There have been growing pains but, overall, it’s been worth it.”