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Home Networking: Like the Drummer in AV Band

Like any good band, AV needs a drummer to keep the beat. You always know the lead singer, but you rarely know the drummer. Yet, without him, the band will fall apart. Same goes for the network. Clients often don’t care about the gear installed in the networking rack, as long as it “just works.”

Like any good band, AV needs a drummer to keep the beat and let the individual pieces work as a whole. You always know the lead singer by name and often by sight, but you don’t ever know who the drummer is. Yet, without him, the band will fall apart. Same goes for the network. Clients don’t know and often don’t care about the gear installed in the networking rack, as long as it “just works.”

Last week I got a call from a client whose lighting system stopped responding to the control system. All lights were controllable only via the dimmers and switches on the wall. All touchpanels, iOS devices, and other control interfaces were useless for lighting. The client called and, while not upset, was concerned, as was I. Because we now insist that we do all networking work on our projects and we only do managed switches, I was able to VPN in and solve the problem. I was happy I didn’t have to roll a truck, and the client was happy everything was fixed quickly and they didn’t have to wait at home for someone to come. We couldn’t have had such a great outcome had we not managed the network and installed managed switches. I, as well as almost everyone else in the industry, strongly recommend that all integrators become well-versed in networking and become their client’s go-to for this service.

Two years ago we did not have the necessary networking skills. Like many integrators, I relied on the ISP’s router, put in Apple Airport Extremes to act as WAPs, and left it at that. Now, as a Crestron dealer, networking was not just an option, but a necessity. So again, I turned my own home into a beta site—you never want a client to be a guinea pig! I reached out to my friend Jason Gibson at Pakedge, gave him some background on my home and Crestron system, talked about which streaming services we would be using, discussed networking needs and wants, and provided a floorplan of the home to give some scope for required indoor and outdoor access points and ensure smooth handoffs. I knew I wanted to do it all at once, just as I would on a client’s home. As with any install project, it is more cost effective to do everything all at once instead of piecemeal, and that is the way I will be doing it in the real world in a client’s home. Based on information I’ve gotten from colleagues in the industry whom I know and trust, I learned the rule of thumb that the network will cost approximately half as much as the control system (i.e., if the control system is $100,000, the network will be $50,000), which includes all hardware, labor, and programming.

With all of this information and knowledge in hand, Jason and I designed my home network. We went with an N36 Bakpak network controller, which manages all switches, WAPs, and the router and allows for remote access and control of the network. For a router we used the R60 with double WAN, multiple VLANS, firewall capability, and added customizations. Switches are two 24AV16s, which each have twenty-four managed ports (16 POE)—one for the Crestron system and one for the rest of the AV devices and network. We allocated POE ports for the Crestron media server, video matrix switch, and accompanying room controllers (aka HDMI extenders), touchpanels, and infinEX gateways. WAPs consist of two WX7s (one in the basement and one in the attic) and one outdoor WX7 for the backyard. For additional control and troubleshooting, I also installed three Panamax BlueBOLT M4315-PRO IP power conditioners.

Now the heavy lifting begins with learning all of the networking terminology and programming. I won’t bore you all with everything, but the key protocols I set up and continue to set up for clients, are multiple VLANS (virtual LANs), QoS (quality of service), VPN (virtual private networks, so I can log in remotely and troubleshoot) and port forwarding. Learning all of this will takes weeks of viewing webinars; practicing (and making mistakes) on your own system, on your own time and your own dollar; reading manuals and online forums; and attending in-person trainings if possible. Critical to your success will be partnering with a networking product manufacturer that is knowledgeable about the AV industry and provides efficient customer service and support. I was fortunate to work with Vince Lin at Pakedge to help me through my initial growing pains.

When all was said and done in my home, with this configuration of product, if something goes wrong, I can power cycle individual, non-networked or non-POE components via BlueBOLT, solving many problems that arise from frozen cable boxes, AppleTVs, and AVRs. For components that are accessible via POE, I can now not only reboot them but can also look into their logs and diagnose the issue before power cycling them. This has proven invaluable with frozen room controllers or audio zones; I can power cycle just one room controller instead of the entire matrix switch, reducing interruption for the rest of the family as well as reducing my risk that power cycling the entire matrix switch will cause other rooms to then malfunction. Finally, with BlueBOLT, if one of the network switches is down or will not respond, I can reboot the entire switch to try to get it back online.

While networking is critical to growing your business in this industry and providing better, more cost-effective customer service and additional revenue streams from service contracts, it is not something to enter into lightly. I ran the network in my home, constantly tweaking it and learning—for at least six months—before implementing networking solutions into customers’ homes.

Back to the client whose lighting system stopped responding… It turned out that an update for iOS 8 had created conflicts in some of the programming. By remotely logging in, I was able to push firmware updates to each processor in the system and quickly resolve all errors. The tagline for CEDIA EXPO 2013 couldn’t have been more true: “Own The Network, Own the Home.”

+Todd Anthony Puma
is president of The Source Home Theater Installation, Powered by Fregosa Design, in New York City.