It takes a lot of effort to make an AV installation a success without letting the client see you sweat. It’s like the analogy of a swan gliding across a still pond; all an observer sees is the stately calm of the swan, but under the water, two little flippers are gyrating at high speed to create that graceful motion.
For electronic systems contractors, those flippers translate to specialized tools that make a job much easier, and in some cases, make jobs possible at all. Having specialized gear makes an ESC’s life a lot easier, and more importantly, allows him to finish a job more neatly and more efficiently.
At every step of the installation, from the prewire to trim out and dressing an equipment rack, to finishing the audio and video calibrations, there are a number of tools that ESCs rely upon. Some are essential, without which you’re doomed, but many others can be considered “useful luxuries” that just make your life easier if you have them on hand.
From left: Arlington Industries’ Wire Grabber, Atlona’s AT-HD800 portable HDMI signal generator, Milwaukee Tools’ fiber optic scope, Platinum Tools’ 4Mapper coax tester.
Saving on Labor
Labor Saving Devices is a company that specializes in AV installation tools. Its most popular product is the Creep-Zit, made of flexible, interlocking fiberglass rods for pulling cable behind walls. Available in two configurations, screw-on or cliptogether models, an unlimited number of rods can be joined to pull wire from Point A to Point B. Labor Saving Devices offers a number of attachment heads to secure lines to the end of a Creep-Zit, but most installers still go with black electrical tape.
The Base Boar-Zit from the same manufacturer is a right-angle adaptor for a cordless drill that allows ESCs to route out wall material from beneath the line of the molding near the floor.
The company’s HC series hole cutter enables ESCs to cut various-sized holes with speed, efficiency, and minimal clean up. Attached to a cordless drill, it’s perfect for cutting multiple speaker or recessed lighting holes.
Dymo’s Rhino 6000 label maker
Finally, Labor Saving Devices’ Wet Noodle is a magnetic in-wall retrieval system that comprises three components: a 24-inch flexible insulated retriever with an ultra-strong earth magnet attached at one end; 10 feet of lightweight ball chain with a stop-ring; and an 18-inch telescoping pocket retriever. From an entry point in the wall, it allows installers to pull wire in-wall blindly by finding the path of least resistance around obstacles.
Another crafty company, Milwaukee Tools, makes a fiber optic scope for looking behind walls. Operating on 12-volt cordless power, it comprises a small LCD screen in the unit, a three-foot probe, and can accept an additional three-foot extension. Similar to what SWAT teams use to peep into rooms in a hostage situation, it enables installers to see deep into wall cavities.
Testing and validating all the lines in a project is a necessary step at several phases of custom channel installs from after they’re run to troubleshooting later on. A lot of testing, from checking voltage to testing the impedance of speaker lines, can be accomplished with an off-the-shelf multimeter. In some cases, however, more specialized tools are necessary.
Coax testers are still important, especially for retrofit installations where the installers may be making use of an existing RG-6 network in the home. Platinum Tools’ new 4Mapper coax tester offers quick validation, troubleshooting, and identifying multiple coax cables, tracking up to four connections at a time from the main cable box.
Network cabling requires thorough testing too. Ethernet cables, with their multiple conductors, are the most likely to be incorrectly terminated, leading to all kinds of trouble if not properly diagnosed. And the need to have coax and network testers can mean having to search in your toolbox for two or three different devices. Ideal Industries has released a device that combines them together in one unit. The ergonomic and lightweight VDV MultiMedia Cable Tester is a handheld cable tester with integrated RJ11/12 (voice), RJ45 (data) and coax F-Connector (video) interfaces, allowing the user to quickly attach and test every common wiring type found throughout residential and commercial buildings– including telephone wiring, data network cabling, and video/security alarm wiring–to verify wiring integrity and assure proper terminations without having to change boxes.
Labor Saving Devices’ Creep-Zit
In addition to the built-in flexibility of the main unit, the VDV MultiMedia Cable Tester has a detachable remote with RJ11/12, RJ45 and coax F-connector interfaces that stores securely in the main unit’s base for ready availability and easy cable testing. The unit has the capacity to support up to eight remotes to serve larger installations, making it even easier to track down multiple lines in existing structures.
For installers looking for more data, the VDV PRO is a multi-connection tester that supports RJ-11/12, RJ- 45, coax F, BNC, and RCA connectors. In addition to pass/ fail, it displays wire errors that include open, short, misfire, and split pair, and it can also report on the cable’s length.
Platinum Tools’ new VDV MapMaster is a voice, data, and video tester that combines continuity testing, mapping, and tonegenerator functions into a single unit capable of identifying and mapping 19 locations simultaneously. It tests Cat-6, Cat5e, Cat-5, Cat-4, Cat-3, and coax cables, as well as shielded cables. Other features include a seven-segment LCD screen with large icons, a tone generator with selectable tone cadence, and selectable pins carrying tone, and the ability to indicate pins with shorts, opens, reversals, miswires, and split pairs.
With the proliferation of HDMI in the field, and its reputation for being finicky to install, testing and validating HDMI lines has become important. Atlona Technologies has a family of testing kits that are designed to diagnose most digital connectivity issues quickly. The AT-KIT-HD1, AT-KITPROHD2, and AT-KIT-PROHD3 kits combine an HDMI signal generator and seven-inch HDMI monitor in a Pelican case, while the AT-KITPROHD3 also features the AT-Sync HDMI EDID emulator and AT-BAT-DIS7PRO monitor battery. The kits include the Atlona AT-HD800 portable HDMI signal generator, which allows users to diagnose specific resolution, video timing, EDID, and color space issues in any DVI or HDMI video system. It features 13 test patterns, including 3D tests for side-by-side, top and bottom, and frame packing, a format that is mandatory for all HDMI 1.4 devices.
The AT-KIT-HD1 includes the AT-DIS7- HD, a seven-inch testing monitor that recognizes any HDMI or DVI source at resolutions up to 1080p, and allows users to observe both audio and video signals in real time. The display allows users to view signal information such as high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) compliance, resolution, frequency, digital format, and audio information.
Ideal Industries’ VDV MutliMedia Cable Tester
In addition to the AT-BAT-DIS7PRO fivehour monitor battery, the AT-KIT-PROHD3 kit includes the AT-HDSync HDMI EDID emulator, which is intended to diagnose EDID, hot plug, and sync issues. The AT-HDSync stores the EDID information and recalls a default EDID setting in non-volatile memory that supports HDCP handshaking. The device can also generate a missing hot plug and will stay in line to maintain the hot plug at all times.
Video calibration is another essential service when completing projects. The Datacolor Spyder is a popular software-based video calibration system. A USB-connected probe sits on the screen of a flat panel and plugs into the installer’s laptop. The latest iteration of the popular Spyder is the Datacolor Spyder3TV, which delivers an easy-to-use solution for optimizing all the TVs in your client’s house, so they can see movies as the director intended. Datacolor claims that calibration can save on a display’s energy consumption and extends TV life, by precisely calculating the correct adjustments to brightness, contrast, color, tint, and temperature.
Platinum Tools’ VDV MapMaster tester
Datacolor also offers the ColorFacts Professional 7.5 toolkit. Intended as a professional calibration system for all video systems, including projectors, RPTVs, direct-view TVs, DLPs, LCDs, and plasma TVs, it empowers installers with an easyto- use professional color calibration system and an intuitive, configurable, full-color user interface. ColorFacts Professional 7.5 reduces the time required to accurately calibrate almost any display. Calibration with the kit produces high-quality images, lifelike colors, more detail, and promises an overall better viewing experience.
Not all useful installation tools or accessories are showstoppers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be important. Wire Grabber from Arlington Industries is an accessory that offers secure hanging support for static loads requiring drop wire support, such as fixtures, boxes, or cable trays. Usable in dry or wet locations, Wire Grabber can hold onto 0.080 inches (2mm) galvanized braided wire and is unaffected by oil or grease. Rated for static loads up to 100 pounds, it offers easy length adjustment and no kinking of the wire.
Another unsung but crucial device for installers is a reliable label maker. Properly used, they can save more time than using a Sharpie to make notations on wire during the pre-wire phase. Dymo’s Rhino family of label makers is popular with installers. The new 5200 is the direct replacement and upgrade to the old 5000 series. It features integrated bumpers that don’t have to be removed to change a label roll, and a lithium ion rechargeable battery. New features most relevant to ESCs include hotkeys for the most common label shapes used, such as RJ45 ports and tags on wire. Also, 100 custom label formats that the installer prefers can be saved to memory, as well as a custom library of the most commonly printed names or designations. The up-sell model, the 6000, features USB and a software interface to label programming on your computer.
As they say, “the devil is in the details.” From the prewire phase all the way through to the finishing and calibration of your client’s systems, the tools you select for every operation will have a direct effect on the detail and quality of your jobs, not to mention the time required to execute them. Choosing the right tools will pay big dividends in client satisfaction and profitable projects.