The Installation Exorcists

How three system designers fixed three demonic projects.

Working in challenging environments is nothing new for Shimek's Audio, a business more than 60 years old, with outposts in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. "We do installations in climates of–50 degrees Fahrenheit," says Jon Sandberg, manager at the Fairbanks location. "We have plasma installs that have survived 7.9-scale earthquakes." But, if you want to know what a really daunting environment is, try 183 unlabeled wires, many of which led to nowhere—a situation in a theater install gone wrong that Sandberg's team stepped into.

He explains: "We had a house with literally miles of wire in it—none of it labeled! We had a head end in a mechanical room that had been moved twice, so no one even knew what wires had been where. It was horrible. We spent four days just toning out wires [a process using a tone generator that helps installers find wire in walls—Ed]. Along the way, we found damaged wires and other mistakes. We found out that some rooms had as many as six speakers daisy-chained to each other, instead of just having the wire run directly back to an amp, which is the proper procedure. Of course, the house was already constructed, so there was no way for us to correct that, except to get really creative with impedance-matching to make the speakers even usable.

"We had touchpanels on walls—but without the proper wire going to their locations, so we had to do some creative fishing to get cable into the places we needed it. There was an absolutely amazing lack of foresight.

"To tell the truth, it was a miracle we pulled it off. To walk into a job like that one and still be able to turn it into something functional is something I'm proud of my guys for—they were constantly thinking on the fly. There was lots of trial and error and lots of creative problem solving to make the system work with the infrastructure that was installed."

Changing Out in Charleston
Move from the frozen tundra of Fairbanks to the Southern charm of Charleston, South Carolina, and the scenario of a horrific installation doesn't change as dramatically as the climate.

Just ask Russ Pritchard, president of Charleston's 21-year-old retail/custom business, The Audio Warehouse. He recommends that those seeking well-done installations not shop by price alone. "We have the reputation of being one of the most expensive installers in town—which sometimes makes us the last resort, ironically, when someone has trouble with another installer's work. But along with the reputation of expensive comes the reputation of quality," he says.

His horror story with a happy ending is, in fact, the result of a job where the homeowner had hired the wrong installer while trying to save money. "We had a client who was referred by a builder," says Pritchard. "When we worked on the installation, a comment he made stuck with me: 'If you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.' He was hard to please—a perfectionist—but the project came out fine, and everyone was happy.

"Several years later, he sold the home and built another. But he decided that we were too expensive to hire again, so he used his electrician, who he felt could design his system for less money. They bought a few pieces from us and asked us problem-solving questions along the way, which we were gracious about answering. The client moved in, and, within 90 days, we started getting phone calls about things not working right. That's when they hired us to come in and clean up."

"He had several systems, none of which was hooked up correctly. The image quality was different on every TV in the house. The wiring was a spaghetti factory; nothing was labeled. Wires were terminated incorrectly—there were bad crimps. In some cases, components were not even hooked up at all.

"I gave him an equipment proposal for what was needed to complete it properly, and, in five days, we straightened the system out, and he was ecstatic. We got a big check, a bottle of wine—and a commission for his son-in-law's upcoming project!

"You end up spending more money on the installation by having someone come in and fix it when it's not done properly the first time. Or, you just end up living with what you have, along with the regrets of a bad experience."

Makeover in Maui
Moving along on our journey of horror highlights to the sun-baked shores of Maui, we heard from Phil Mulligan, president of 14-year-old Pacific Audio & Communications in Maui, Hawaii, to learn how he rectified an installation gone awry in a very short time frame.

"The problem existed in a two-bedroom condo unit that had been outfitted for part-time occupancy," says Mulligan. "We got a call from a contractor who had recently taken over a condo remodel job in the final stages. The original contractor had left the island, and the owner was scheduled to move in in three weeks. The unit was pre-wired for volume controls and speakers in the two bedrooms and for a surround setup in the living room. No speaker brackets were installed, and no drawing showing speaker locations was available, so this created our first challenge: finding the speaker wires.

"With this being a second-floor unit with units above, we had no attic space to look in, so we had to tone out all wiring and cut drywall to find the speaker wire. The living room was set up for a wall-mounted Sony XBR plasma TV with the equipment to be remotely located in a cabinet across the room. We were told that there was a conduit run between the two locations along with the special Sony plasma cable for the media box. We conducted a site inspection, and the Sony cable was, indeed run. We could even see some conduit in the wall but found that it went nowhere—it ran up the wall and stopped.

"No additional wiring was run between these locations, and this created the following problem: The Sony plasma control eye is on the TV and sends signals to the media box via the special Sony cable that was run. But there was no other way to get a signal to run the other surround equipment (receiver, DVD player, and cable box) that was located across the room. We looked at several ways to solve this, and we found a way to get it to work with Crestron products.

"We used a Crestron controller with Ethernet on it located at the equipment cabinet, then connected the Ethernet to a wireless Linksys gateway in order to send the signal to the plasma. At the plasma location, we used another wireless gateway with a Crestron room controller to receive that signal. The Crestron remote control sends an RF signal to the processors, which sends IR or RS-232 signals to all the equipment in the cabinet. The remote then sends control signals via the wireless Ethernet to the room controller located at the plasma location, and turns that wireless signal to IR so you can control the plasma wirelessly between the plasma and the equipment."

The solution, while it sounds almost Rube Goldberg–esque, was minimally invasive, clean, and could only have been achieved by well-seasoned professionals—which is the whole point behind using installers with long histories, long resumes, and long lists of references.

Avoid Installation Horrors: Hire a Pro
• Look for Diversity and Expertise. We're in an industry where there are a lot of people leaving their existing jobs in the computer or phone businesses, which are similar trades, and coming into the custom business. It's very easy to set up shop. These are the folks who pound the streets for business—they look for clients. Our clients find us.

Where some installers get into trouble is when they move outside their realm of expertise—say structured wiring or security. Typically, these installers are good at what they know, and they don't usually go into an unknown area on their own. The clients take them there. Not wanting to disappoint or lose a client, they set themselves up for failure by taking on duties beyond their realm of knowledge.

You need to look at the company's time in business. Look at the quantity and diversity of their staff, and look at references. Look for a company that has more than five years in the business and more than five employees in the field. Depth is also important. Look for a staff that specializes in various disciplines, which will ensure they can give you a complete turnkey solution to your needs. —Russ Pritchard

• Find Someone With Experience. You have to look for someone who's been in the business a long time. Because the equipment changes so rapidly, new people don't know what works and what doesn't. They don't have the experience. There's always bleeding-edge technology that needs to be tested. We test all our gear to make sure a component does what it says it will do. With one such component, we Beta-tested it for two months before we would consider using it in an installation.—Phil Mulligan

• Ask for References. Before you hire an installer, ask for references. Demand a list of clients who you can talk to that they have worked with. And, if the installer can't provide a list of satisfied customers, run away! There are a lot of people out there who can talk a good game, so it's hard to know if a slick salesman is selling you snake oil or not. The only way to know for sure is to get references, as if you were hiring an employee. In addition, ask for a portfolio of work. Ask to see pictures. —Jon Sandberg