The Elusive System Check Out

By Steven J. Thorburn On October 17, 2011

Increasingly, in both our home and work environments, we live in a world of automation. And, accordingly, our demands have risen just beyond the limits of reasonable expectation. Is it any wonder, then, that we frequently hear "What do you mean I have to adjust it? Isn't it digital?"

With Digital Signal Processing ubiquitous, it seems more systems are going in that haven't been adjusted and fine-tuned. Furthermore, we as an industry have to ask what is an appropriate level of adjustment, and how can we specify and measure that? This isn't just an audio issue, it's a system commissioning issue. Ultimately, how do we know that the owner received what they paid for?

As a consulting firm, we can only rely on what is written down or shown on the drawings. Words fly away but paper is forever. InfoComm is working on standards that we will eventually be able to reference, but how do we address this today and with current projects? I have two examples just in the last month that highlight this challenge and the issues behind it.

In the first project, the owner was looking to duplicate a room that was already functioning in another building. Their IT staff handled the RFP, bidding, and hiring of the AV contractor. We were called in at the end to help with the final coordination of items, acting as sort of an owner's representative. We didn't have performance specifications to work off of, only a life-size working "model" of what was expected and a list of equipment. It became clear that there was no definition of what the AV contractor's final responsibility was to the owner. Were they to provide:

• Boxes?
• Boxes and installation?
• Boxes, installation, and verification of sound and image?
• Boxes, installation, sound and image, and system optimization?

In this instance, the contractor felt they were required to only provide boxes and installation, leaving everything else to the owner's control system programmer. Suddenly the control system programmer became the systems commissioner too! In the old days this would have been unacceptable and unfeasible to expect that from the owner's staff. But now anyone with a computer on site can do the adjustments. Is this something we as an industry think is appropriate?

The second example was a much larger project, based on existing functioning systems that were to be moved and expanded. During the moving process, the functioning system stopped working. All of a sudden it became a design issue. When we asked for the project paperwork, we never got it, though we finally sourced some from the AV contractor. Apparently, the DSPs were way out of whack. Items that were not meant to be touched were turned on in one room and off in another. Levels for cloned room pairs would have input levels cranked in one room and the output turned way down while the other room was just the opposite. It became clear that the AV contractor team had no respect for the process and the role they play for the owner. It really became a game of providing the minimal required work to finish the project.

The problem comes down to different levels of expectations. We all have personal expectations for service, company expectations, and an industry expectation. Hopefully the first two are reasonably close. But we still have a disparity in the industry level of service. When I get a system that has been commissioned by an AV contractor, the installation and adjustment is rarely done until we ask for it in a project meeting before the check out. In a sense, it seems like a cat and mouse game: See if you can find what I did not do just so I can cut corners.

Do I hold the bar too high? I don't think so. When I see firms whose whole business model is based on third-party commissioning of systems, there clearly is a need and business reason for it.

Steven J. Thorburn, PE, LEED AP, CTS-I, CTS-D, ( is the design principal for Thorburn Associates, an acoustical consulting, technology engineering and lighting design firm. He is InfoComm's Educator of the Year for 2010-2011.

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