DIY Project # 10 - Planning for a Custom Installation by a Professional Installer, Part I - February, 1999


Colin Miller



(If you would like to have your DIY project published in Secrets, please E-Mail Ralph Calabria at [email protected].)


Looking to put together a home theater beyond the basic equipment rack feeding five speakers on stands with a sub in the corner- cables strewn across the carpet? Welcome to Custom!

I recently became embroiled with just such a topic, though not as a matter of necessity in terms of my A/V needs, but as a way to make a living. Oh, sure, freelance work is fine and fun, but with a family and bills, I eventually sold my soul to the man and took a position with a small local company, moving on to a less local, larger company. I started doing pretty much what I did for myself all along, and eventually far more than I ever considered necessary, let alone reasonable and sane. In this field, the means to spend money usually bottlenecks with the customer's ability to earn it, the imagination of the system designer, or the persuasiveness of the salesman.

New technology always raises the bar, and forthcoming widgets sit poised for realization. But, even with only the presently available gadgets, what we audiophiles consider state-of-the-art only scrapes the rind of the big fat wheel of cheese that some cats will pounce on in the quest to make their homes nifty.

I'm talking about home automation and its incorporation of the sacred, enlightening, secure, and mundane. Since many components, devices, and system controllers, including those involved with audio/video purposes, speak a variety of common tongues (IR, RF, RS-232 serial, dry contact, 5V/12V trigger relay triggers, etc.), a device networked to other devices via those languages can potentially control and monitor such. A networked computer built for this purpose forms a hub so that users can fully exploit their leisure time. Imagine doing everything without doing anything, while impressing your friends to boot!

Options include not only home theater and multi-room audio/video systems, but lighting, windows, doors, HVAC, security systems, pool heating/filtration, or almost anything that plugs in. The programmer can set sequences or scenes that trigger conditionally, or unconditionally to the tune of motion sensors, keypads, touch screens, voice recognition, chronological events, sunrise, sunset, or if so inclined, a fiddler on the roof, all tied to a spiffed up P.C. When the possibilities mix the "wouldn't it be cool if's", the idea becomes tempting. The reality becomes expensive.

If you've yet to make your ridiculously huge fortune, spending $65,000+ on a pair of monoaural amps could seem lewd. Consider spending half a million on your home theater, multi-room music system, lighting, and HVAC alone. It makes me wince. Sure, it's not typical, but neither does it deviate from the regular. For less elaborate demands, a person might get away from the table under $30,000 with a similar but more modest setup, but don't bank on it.

And if, after all the "wouldn't it be cool ifs", someone just wanted a clean-looking, decent sounding home theater and perhaps a few tweaks to an existing cable system and maybe DSS installation, the custom installer can still oblige. Just such a job recently required trouble-shooting and correcting a shoddy cable installation, complete DSS setup for multiple rooms, and retrofitting rear speakers to appear wireless (running cables under the house and up sheet rocked, insulated walls with existing AC), as well as calibrating the whole shebang for maximum performance. The bill came to over $1,300 in labor alone.

To me that seems expensive, but not really unreasonable. Typical rates for labor in the SF Bay Area range from $60 - $80/hr./person, depending on the company, sometimes with a volume discount for crews of two or more, which in terms of pulling cable, proves vastly more efficient anyway. Installers with reasonable prior experience and proper tools can finish the job in less time with fewer complications. Taking into account the value of the customer's own time, even at those rates, an honest, competent installer can yield a good return on the investment.

One might shop around for lower rates. Some installers without specialized skills and/or equipment may work much cheaper. For simple home theater, that might work out well, but beware. Highly skilled people, as a rule, don't work cheap very long. Installation of high-end complete home systems requires not only basic audio/video, contracting, and electrical knowledge, but computer networking and communications knowledge, as well as a general ability to approach inevitable problems analytically and just plain make things work. As any system becomes more complex, the difficulty of leaving it bug-free increases exponentially.

Most retail establishments will have some kind of installation service, ranging from simple delivery on up. Many installers don't have any formal connections to retail, and operate primarily through referrals. I think that a referral provides the best method of finding a good installer. There's no fast-talking salesman to push the budget up, and the referring party can give important information such as if service was provided on schedule, if the equipment performed as promised, the project stayed on budget, and most importantly, if they'd use the installer again.

Unfortunately, not everybody knows someone who recently worked with a custom installer. Then the only recourse to take is to ask for references. Every installer should have references within a day or so of request. Granted, they can pick from their most satisfied clients in order to paint the most optimistic picture, but at least that means that they have some satisfied clients, or at least relatives who feel sorry enough for them to forge a letter.

Purchasing Equipment / System Design

It may seem obvious, but most consumers would deem it safer to buy from somebody they can trust. A lot of people spend a lot of money because a salesman wanted to turn a quick profit. Likewise, sometimes equipment gets piled together not due to the needs of the customer, but how the salesman perceives the opportunity to make the maximum profit. Like automobiles and stocks, there are quite a few overpriced, over-hyped A/V disasters out there, often even endorsed by third party "experts." Furthermore, many implementations of good equipment have made me hang my head at the waist due to lack of setup knowledge on the part of the customer, salesman, and yes, even installers. Unfortunately, I've found no guaranteed method of side-stepping that pitfall, except for knowing the topic, which takes time, trials, and errors.

Granted, expensive, screwed up systems, especially home theaters and music systems, aren't always the fault of the salesman or installer. Most people I've met who spend $15,000 on 8 zones for multi-room music operate on the pretense of high performance, but really care more about buying well-built, nice-looking, prestigious knickknacks. The issue of seriously compromised performance never arises since they have no concept or interest in the potential of something truly better. In that case, they get what they want, and in my opinion, what they deserve. Also, the customer may not want to (GASP) see something as ghastly as veneered speakers on stands, or even speakers mounted to the walls, so they opt for cheesy in-walls for decorative reasons. We just won't worry about those people. If you're married to one, you have our condolences.

If a customer does seriously care about performance foremost, let the installer or system designer know it, ask for their suggestions, and let your decorator work with, or better yet, around them. Since the majority of people care more about how things look than how they perform, most installers work with that assumption, unless otherwise informed. Don't be afraid to discuss your individual requirements. Remember, they work for you. Besides, many installers enjoy talking shop with anyone willing to listen.

The nice thing about buying gear from the same people who hook it up is that you can hold those people responsible for making it work. That doesn't necessarily include an operation where a salesman sells a system and then turns it over to the installation department to follow through with. Depending on the structure of the company and communication chain, salesmen and installers may have very different views of what can reasonably happen given the equipment spec'd for a job, and the target environment.

Unfortunately, although a few conscientious, remarkably dedicated salesmen do systematically acquire, retain, and apply relevant product knowledge, the majority tend to work on merely presenting that image by expelling buzzwords to close a deal without knowing their head from their behind, which often seems to occupy the same space. Chances are, you'll have personal contact with the people who do the work after the sale, whereas the salesman may take up the option to be "busy in a meeting" or "on the other line with a customer." I've had to work for a couple of these clowns, and their clients have my sympathy, perhaps even pity.

On Labor and Extraneous Costs

Most installers prefer to work on the basis of time and materials. Regardless of the unforseen circumstances, they make their money, and there's nothing wrong with that for small jobs where the risk remains proportionally so. For larger projects, however, the costs can spiral to far exceed the original plans, and delay other contractors. To avoid this, put serious effort into deciding exactly what you want, how you want it, and when you want it done from the beginning, and get the installer to agree to a price cap and finishing date, which relates to scheduling as well.

On Scheduling

Get everybody who's going to participate in your project together from the get go. Don't farm out their responsibilities to each other because you think you might save a few bucks between contractors. It usually ends up costing two to three times as much after the eventual corrections have been made. After deciding exactly what needs to be done, nail down a schedule complete with financial rewards and penalties, that all parties agree to. Installers, as well as any other contractors, can work most efficiently when kept in the loop of the project. If drywall goes up before the wiring is completed, either the drywall comes down, or the labor on the wiring quadruples, or more. Likewise, if the painters finish before the installer is done checking the wires, and the project requires additional retro, the painters will be back, and not for free.

And keep in mind

Installers are people who make a living by helping others enjoy their own homes. If somebody starts pinching pennies on items like the price of phone cable, telling them how to do their job, or otherwise acts unpleasantly, those installers will have less of an incentive to participate with followup work after the fact. Since they're likely the only ones who have a complete working knowledge of the specifics of the system, barring exceptional documentation, it pays to be nice. I'm not advocating turning the other cheek to the few who would take advantage of the courtesy, but to simply be fair and respectful of other people, a good rule in general. Most likely they'll return the favor, perhaps even with some genuine interest in your project, which might just prove invaluable.

I will be discussing more details of how to get a great custom installation in future articles.

Colin Miller

© Copyright 1999 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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