Setting The Standards

Mention "Standards and Practices" to anyone who has worked in broadcasting, and the thought turns to an interesting definition of the phrase. In the world of networks and television or radio stations, Standards and Practices are the rules, some legal, some very formal and written, and others a bit more subjective and unspoken that govern what you can and, perhaps more importantly, can't, say, or do on the air. Put another way, Standards and Practices is often code for what the late-night comedians call "the uptight person sitting in a stiff suit (no matter if the suit is occupied by a man or woman) behind the glass, ready to push 'the button' at a moment's notice if something untoward is said or done." More directly, in this post-"wardrobe malfunction" world, it's the person with their finger on the 7-second delay button.

As systems designers and installers we don't usually have to worry about what is done with the products and networks we install once we walk away from the job, but nevertheless, standards, practices, rules and regulations, and codes do form an important part of our business lives. Much like the comedian who deals up a slightly off-color remark and hopes that the "Standards and Practices Police" (or, even worse, a "watchdog" group or the FCC) won't notice, anyone in our world who doesn't know the lay of the land with regards to these various rules might not get caught, but then again, why risk it? Sooner or later, you'll end up on the wrong side of, in some cases literally, the law, and that isn't a good place to be.

For that reason, a brief refresher this month on the world of "standards and practices" as they impact our world.

Taking the phrase literally, standards and practices may conjure up another meaning to those in the technical side of broadcasting: the Standards set by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) that eventually become formal ANSI standards, and their "Recommended Practices." Like many industry standards, SMPTE/ANSI standards are put together so that a common framework is agreed to by an independent body. Compliance is not regulated, and there is no testing required.

Here, the process allows a standard to be created without the problems of anti-trust regulation that might occur if manufacturers agreed to the standard among themselves, without the intermediary provided by the standards process. You have no assurance that a particular piece of equipment is compliant, but at least its existence prevents the Tower of Babel that would otherwise occur in things from the tape formats of days gone by to today's digital video and data interchange standards. As with most ANSI standards, these are for manufacturers to use as a blueprint and system designers to be aware of to have any prayer of compatibility between like devices. Many of the products you deal with on a daily basis are built to standards along this model.

SMPTE "RPs," on the other hand, are more a means of putting a specific way of doing things down in print so that disparate exercises of a similar task in different places can produce a similar result. Things such as viewing room setup and even program labels fall into this category. It provides a good way for you to figure out how to do something by letting others test out alternatives and setting down a single way for all to do it, if they so desire.

While SMPTE standards and practices are noncommercial, others fall into the same category, but are commercially driven. THX standards, for example, set forth a particular way for manufacturers to build equipment or for designers to install it to a set recipe and results in a home or commercial theater environment. In this model there is a fee to manufacturers to join in, and products are tested for compliance. Some might say it raises the price, but others counter that the price is needed to raise the performance bar. If you like it or feel it differentiates your products or services, go for it. If not, don't.

A middle model of the standards world is where the standard is set through an independent committee, usually associated with a trade association such as the CEA or an engineering society such as the IEEE, that sets the standard through a committee process and formalizes it. Things could end there, and manufacturers are free to purchase copies of the standard and build products that conform to it. However, just because a product is said to be built to a standard, there is not always the comfort level needed to design a system with components that will work properly together.

A group will occasionally fill the void by providing testing to a standard, perhaps with some of their own "special sauce" mixed in to assure interoperability. A good example here is the WiFi Alliance, whose mark is applied to a product not just because the manufacturer says a product was built to a known standard, but also because it has been tested for that compliance.

Where it exists, this is a good deal, as anyone who has seen different versions of the various compression standards work their way into products that are built on the basic platform, but with a proprietary twist or two that makes one version of a supposedly standardized product not talk to another seemingly similar product, can attest. Particularly when standards-based codecs are in use, when communications protocols are used, or when pre-recorded media need to be interchanged, this is a very good thing. The availability of a recognizable "Seal of Approval" gives you and your clients a comfort factor that may avoid complaints somewhere down the line.

In some cases, a standard is set not by an independent organization, but by a commercial entity that usually sets a standard because, in one way or another, this organization owns patents or other underlying intellectual property rights to the standardized technology. Things such as HDMI fall into this category, but here there is a different pitfall to watch for. HDMI products are required to pass a certification process, but even with that you still need to make certain that the product, though compliant, is configured for the environment it is used in. Ask any of your friends in the residential world who have tried to run certain HD cable set-tops through an audio/video receiver to an HDMI-compliant display and you'll get an earful. Here, standard and compliant gear is not enough; it's up to you to read the specs carefully, or at the very least do a dry run in the shop before installation to make certain every piece of gear is sent data that lives harmoniously with everything else in the system.

Going back to our initial premise this month, some of the standards we need to comply with are the law, in the form of local building codes or things such as FCC regulations. In the case of the former, codes may be national, state or local, and it is always up to you to know what is applicable in the jurisdiction of any specific job. That may seem obvious to the old-timers here, but it is always worth a reminder that in some cases a document such as the NEC is adopted "as is" for local code, but in other areas it is amended or perhaps even made stricter. You can't say it too many times, particularly when you are working with an apprentice: "LOCAL LAW ALWAYS GOVERNS."

In the case of devices that use radio spectrum, local law might set stricter than national code guidelines for things such as exposure limits in high-radiation areas, but the laws that govern RF transmissions themselves are set by the FCC. Here, again perhaps a bit repetitive for veterans, but sometimes confusing to newcomers, is the "Type A" and "Type B" designation that is attached to devices that radiate RF, whether intended, or incidental or unintended as a by-product of the clocking and processing required for their operation. The Part 15 of the FCC Regulations (47 U.S.C) designates that "a digital device that is marketed for use in a commercial, industrial or business environment" meet the Class A Digital Device specifications, while those intended for use " a residential environment..." meet stricter rules as a Class B Digital Device.

You may not build the devices, and while it is unlikely that the FCC will knock on the door of a residential job to check for compliant devices, the reason for the distinction in the rules is to provide greater freedom from RF interference in residential applications. Virtually any device that emits RF above set limits, regardless of whether or not any other license is required for the spectrum where the emission takes place, is required to be tested, and to have a label on the device acknowledging that it has been tested and to which class.

This could become relevant in two ways. First, even the FCC rules acknowledge that manufacturers are encouraged to test products used in commercial applications to the Class B standard. Not needed, but in an increasingly congested RF environment, the use of Class B devices, when possible, may provide a little extra breathing room to prevent interference. On the flip side, sometimes you may be called upon to install products in a residential application that are not Class B, often because a suitable alternative with Class B certification may not be available. Do so at your own risk, and understand that it is akin to driving over the speed limit. You may not have any problems, but there is always the potential for a speed trap, or worse.

Underwriters Laboratories
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood areas of the standards world is in the area of safety compliance. Virtually everyone is familiar with the "UL" mark that is granted to products after testing to a specific standard by Underwriters Laboratories, as well as similar marks from other testing labs. Having been around for over 100 years and thanks to wide consumer acceptance, many people think that UL is part of the government, which it is not. Further, many people think that UL listing is required on electrical products. There the answer is a definite, not always, not often, but depending on the product and where you are using it, perhaps.

As with other situations in the standards world, the onus is not on you to submit the product for certification, but rather that you have the background on what the process is all about so that you can use it as intended to the benefit of your business and clients. Among the many things done by UL (and others), one is to create standards for a variety of products, the majority of which are electrical, but not all of which are. Once the standard is created for a particular product category or use, the product is tested for compliance to the standard, with the desired result to assure product, and by extension, public safety.

A great idea, and for that reason you will find that some jurisdictions require that products in certain uses be certified for listing to a particular UL (or other) standard. By having the product tested to a set of standards designed to assure safe installation and operation there is a reduction in fire, shock hazard, or mechanical failure that could result in injuries or property damage. Even when there is no law requiring safety agency certification, choosing products that have a mark asserting certification for the application can be a great help in the event that, despite the precautions, things go wrong. Indeed, much of the original push behind safety certifications came not from governmental agencies, but from insurance companies who saw the use of standards as a means to reduce claims.

So why the confusion? It can arise from a number of areas. First, while UL may sometimes set standards, it is not the only group that can test to those standards. While UL (and in Canada, CSA) have the greatest consumer visibility, any testing lab that, itself has been tested and certified as a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory, or NRTL, can apply its certification mark to products in its field of expertise. Thus, while UL once dominated the field in the U.S., Canada's CSA is an NRTL, and thus you see products with a "U.S." next to the CSA mark much as UL now tests to Canadian standard, giving rise to the "C" next to a UL mark. ETL and TUV are NRTLs that test products in the audio/video/data world. While their brands might not have the recognition that UL or CSA does, if you see them on a product you're good to go and can put any concerns from your client, their insurance company or your liability insurance company to rest.

The use of lesser well-known labs for valid certification is one issue, but sometimes a manufacturer may try to skirt the issue by answering questions about product safety compliance by opening the product and showing off all the UL Recognized, or "UR" components and saying that it is the same as having UL approval. It isn't. Saying a product is "designed to UL standards" may be nice, but that's just like saying a deli is "kosher-style" when it serves food that may be prepared according to those religious practices, but has not actually been certified for compliance.

The use of a "UR" mark is fine, but its purpose is not to certify a product, but rather to simplify the compliance process. When a product is tested, all of its parts must comply with the relevant standard, and using UR components such as transformers, line cords, passive components, and PCB material means that no further testing is needed on that part. However, to receive full certification, not only must compliant parts be used, but the total product must be tested as a complete system. Inspectors even visit the manufacturing plant to make sure that proper records are kept to assure that the certified components are used and that non-certified parts have not been substituted. Having managed the production of UL- and ETL-certified products, I can relate from first-hand experience that this is for real. Even when the parts are compliant, if you don't have the paperwork in order when the inspector makes their surprise visit the manufacturer is at risk of losing their certification. That is not a pretty sight.

The bottom line on safety certification? Make sure that you know when safety testing is required, and to which standard, as the job type may require different standards in health care facilities, places where hazardous materials or difficult environmental situations exist. Make sure it has a label from an NRTL even though you may have to occasionally explain that ETL, CSA, TUV or another mark is just as valid as the familiar UL mark. Make sure that you don't let the presence of UR components on a non-certified product lure you into complacency.

This only scratches the surface of the topic of standards, practices, codes, regulations, testing, certification, and the companies and bodies that are involved in the process. However, we hope that this at least breaks the ice (safely, of course!) on the topic. Send us your questions on certification and compliance, and we'll return to the subject in the future.