A home theater, in-wall surround sound speakers, flat-panel HDTV screens, and high-quality audio and video distributed to and accessible from every room in the house — what might be a dream home to potential buyers could become a nightmare to electrical contractors if they don't learn to communicate with the growing number of audio and video (AV) systems integrators installing these technologies in high-end homes.

“Coordination is the biggest thing — if everyone is on the same page. Sometimes they're not even in the same book,” says Bruce McPherson, owner of McPherson Electric in Concord, N.H. “The home theater thing is pretty new. I'm not sure that all the electrical contractors understand the importance of how Cat. 5 is run and audio and video signals.”

For example, if an electrical contractor decides to make changes without consulting with the AV installer about how that might affect his system, there could be trouble. That's because the signal quality in residential AV systems — which typically includes home theater and/or whole-house audio/video — can suffer if electrical wires are installed too closely to AV wires. Conversely, a larger-than-planned plasma screen hung on a wall could block access to an electrical wall socket.

If you think your electrical contracting firm won't have to deal with these issues, think again. According to the latest figures released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), an Arlington, Va.-based trade organization working to grow the consumer electronics industry, the percentage of builders offering home theaters increased by 11% between 2004 and 2005, up to 69%. Multi-room audio is now offered by 74% of builders, a 9% increase over the previous year. For the most part, these AV systems are designed and installed by AV systems integrators.

For an electrical contractor, this basically means one more individual to coordinate with on the job site. At face value, an AV systems integrator won't cut into an electrical contractor's business, but he probably won't significantly add to it either. Nevertheless, electrical contractors who choose to foster cooperative relationships with AV systems integrators may find that these skilled professionals can be valuable business partners in coherently integrating the electrical, structured, and AV wiring in the home.

Giving teamwork a try. How can electrical contractors more effectively work with their AV counterparts? A residential AV systems integrator ideally begins a job by meeting with the builder, customer, and subcontractors, including the electrical contractor.

“There really should be a pre-construction meeting so that there can be more communication between the electrical contractor and the home theater people, to know what their requirements are and what they need from us. I think right now, that's kind of lacking,” says McPherson.

This first step gives systems integrator a chance to explain their approach to the electrical contractor and vice versa. That way, if any plans conflict, they can be modified before installation. In addition, the AV installer may also have special requests for the location of outlets to help meet the electrical needs of their system.

“At that stage of the game, we're saying, ‘I need a duplex outlet on this wall, because we're putting a plasma here, and we're going to run our wires from there to here, and the rack is going to be there, so I need a dedicated 20A circuit over there,’” says AV systems integrator Mike Bonetti, owner of Merrmack, N.H.-based Home Theater and Beyond.

Integrators generally install their wires — which include Cat.5e, RG-6, and standard speaker wires — once all of the electrical and structured wires are in place. Then, once the sheetrock is up, they install the speakers and wall plates and terminate the necessary wires for equipment that will go in later. This work is being done while the electrical contractor installs switches and receptacles.

“At that point, we're working on the jobsite with his guys and building a relationship,” Bonetti says. “If there's an issue, we have the ability to deal with it then.”

Finally, the AV systems integrators come back, sometimes even as furniture is being moved in, to hang plasma screens and install/program the AV equipment.

Even though AV and electrical contractors can avoid mishaps by cooperating during the construction process, similarities in what they do may cause them to view each other as competitors rather than partners.

Competitor or companion? For electrical contractors who install structured wiring systems, it's easy to see AV installers as competitors. They are, after all, running the same types of cable. The big question is, will homebuilders begin to turn to them for structured cabling installation as well?

While it's true that homebuilders are increasingly using custom installers for home technology systems and equipment, this doesn't mean they're using electrical contractors any less. According to research from CEA, 51% of builders in 2005 said they used custom installers to install their home technology systems — a 17% increase over the previous year. At the same time, the percentage of homebuilders using electrical contractors to install home technology systems increased slightly to 67% in 2005, up from 65% in 2004. This data seems to indicate that builders are opting to use both custom installers and electrical contractors for different aspects of their home technology needs.

For contractors contemplating the extent of possible competition, it's important to understand that the residential AV system is distinctly separate from the home's traditional structured wiring system. Though both use Cat. 5e and RG-6 cables, each system's cables are configured in a home-run arrangement from separate control hubs often placed in two different locations. While structured wiring bundles are used for communication and data transfer, AV wiring bundles are used for audio, video, and control. Structured wiring systems typically require one connection jack per room, whereas multiple AV wires may need to be pulled to an individual room, each running directly into a particular speaker, TV, or control device.

Bonetti tells the electrical contractors he works with up-front that he's not trying to encroach on their territory. “I tell them, ‘I'm not here to take money out of your pocket’” he says. “If you want to pull [the structured cabling], all that I ask is that you pull it where we need it to be.”

In fact, he says it is often better for his bottom line to have the electrical contractor pull traditional structured wiring. “We do AV — that's what I want to do in control systems,” he says. “So if I lose that [structured wiring] business, have at it, because that means my expensive guys aren't pulling cable and phone.”

Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for CEA, agrees that AV systems integrators are unlikely to take business away from electrical contractors. “Builders are still going to use an electrical contractor for installing low-voltage wiring, Ethernet cabling, all of that basic infrastructure,” he says. “At the same time, there's a need for more of a specialist to come in and figure out how to best integrate technology in the home at a much broader level.”

On the other hand, should electrical contractors tread into AV territory?

Mixing EC and AV? AV systems integrators are required to integrate audio and video into the home's aesthetics in a way that creates the best audible and visual experience in any given room. This takes knowledge and experience in the areas of design, acoustics, and multi-media electronics — concepts that can't be picked up at a weekend seminar.

So for an electrical contracting firm interested in branching into AV systems integration, it may be easier to hire someone already trained in this field to serve on its staff than to actually train employees in this niche.

“If the electricians are going to get into it, then they need to have people who are specialized and certified in that, and licensed in that area, and have some guys that do strictly residential wiring and some guys that do residential AV on the same team,” McPherson says.

For builders, McPherson says hiring one firm to handle the electrical, structured, and AV wiring and installation could make the process go more smoothly. But CEA's Wargo notes, “You can argue at that point that they've really graduated beyond just being an electrical contractor. We would probably call them a custom residential electronic specialist, because they're really not just about wiring any more — they're about full in-home integration technology.”

Sidebar

Behind the AV Boost. The direct cause of the dramatic increase in homebuilders offering AV systems appears to be competition. “There seems to be a little bit of data that suggests a greater percentage of homes are being built in the move-up and luxury category than in the past,” says Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association, based in Arlington, Va. “So as part of that, you're going to see more advanced technology in those homes, as builders try to be competitive in those particular markets.”

Another reason the residential AV systems market may be gearing up is the popularity of digital music libraries. “It's made it a lot easier for companies to roll out solutions that essentially take advantage of both the home network infrastructure and the digital library,” Wargo says. “Sending sound throughout the home has been around for quite awhile. It's just that now you can do it in a digital world in a lot more efficient manner and allow for consumers to manage their content from a central repository and play different music in each room and control the volume settings in those rooms independently.”

Still, an overwhelming demand for AV installers may be a few years down the road. Though many homebuilders are now offering whole-house AV systems, the percentage of new homes actually outfitted with this feature last year hovered in the low to middle teens. Wargo says this will change as competition increases, prices continue to drop, and the public becomes more educated about the options they have.

Sidebar

Tips for Coordinating with AV Installers

Plan together. Know exactly what the AV systems integrator is planning to do, and make sure your plans don't interfere. Find out if there are any additional services you can provide to help him out — this could be a great way to earn some extra money on a job. Either way, the AV systems integrator will appreciate your willingness to work with him, and may even refer you for other jobs in the future.

Location, location, location. Understand how much space is needed for each element of the AV system. Your wires must be at least two inches away from the AV wires. Also, you don't want to find out after the fact that one of your light switches is in the way of that big-screen plasma TV.

Avoid shortcuts. Do not pull your electrical wires through holes made for the AV system wires. This and other shortcuts can degrade the audio and video signal and are very difficult to pinpoint once the sheetrock is up.

Keep in touch. If your plans change during the building process, be sure to notify the AV systems integrator, even if you don't think the changes will affect him. It's a simple courtesy that can prevent major complications down the road.

Sidebar

AV Systems 101. While every whole-house AV system is unique, AV systems integrator Mike Bonetti, owner of Merrmack, N.H.-based Home Theater and Beyond, shared a look at how a typical AV system is set up.

The AV system usually begins with a master controller, centrally located in a rack within a closet. This central location is typically the home theater room. The controller distributes audio and video to different “zones” or rooms in the home.

Speaker wire, such as 16/2, 16/4, and 14/2, are typically used along with RG-6 and Cat. 5e cable, which is used for control. Each cable used runs directly from the master controller to its respective device.

Each room or zone has a wall plate, keypad, or LCD touchscreen connected to the master controller that allows the user to access and control audio or video content. All wires are located behind the wall, and speakers are often installed into the walls or ceiling, flush with the surface.