The Best-Laid Plans
Once you've selected an installer, the first thing he'll likely want to do is go over your blueprints with you. Depending on where you are in your construction schedule, he might suggest changes to the building to create a better system. These can include adding equipment storage areas, changing door or window locations, and relocating fireplaces. Even a suggestion as minor as changing the way a door opens can make a big difference.
The designer will then probably want to tour the house. With existing homes, this is critical to determining what options are open. Blueprints are great, but there's no substitute for walking through the actual space and taking real measurements.
The installer will then come up with a proposal. Designing a system can be very time-consuming, and some firms charge for this time. If there is a charge, find out what it includes (CAD drawings, blueprints) and if it will be applied to the purchase price of the system.
The proposal can be a simple spreadsheet or a multipage affair detailing every aspect of the project. Most installers divide the proposal into logical sections that make it easy for them to explain. One common method breaks the project into phases, such as Prewire, Trim Out, and Final Install. Another splits the job into rooms or areas, or into projects, such as Theater, Housewide Audio, and Lighting.
Some firms will give the price for each item, while others give prices for the phase, area, or whole project. The proposal will also include labor costs, which will be priced by the hour or by the job. Some firms will give you an estimate while others will give a fixed rate. Most installers charge between $40 and $80 an hour for labor.
You'll find that any firm will be glad to comply with changes that need to be made midstream, but you should realize that a change order will mean paying more money. Something that seems as simple as adding speakers to a room not included in the proposal could push the system beyond the original design, since this can also mean having to add an extra amplifier or some other component. Also, there might be restocking charges for changed equipment.
Whatever method the firm uses, be certain that you understand exactly what the proposal covers and that you see the bottom-line price.
Because practically any system you decide to go with will need wiring, and often lots of it, you should keep four things in mind:
Plan on having Cat-5 wire pulled to every telephone location, four-conductor speaker wire and Cat-5 pulled to every volume control (plus RG-6 and two-conductor speaker wire if you plan to upgrade to a touchpanel), and two runs of RG-6 and Cat-5 pulled to every TV location. If you think you'll want to add X-10 automation (see "Beyond Audio/Video," October), instruct your electrician to pull a neutral wire to each wall switch to ensure compatibility.
Your wiring has to meet both Underwriter Laboratories (UL) ratings and local building codes. Residential applications usually require a CL2 rating fom UL, though your project might need wire rated for CL3, Plenum, or Direct Burial. Wiring to these standards will ensure that your home is ready to take advantage of any new technologies over the horizon.
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