Commercial AV Pitfalls

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Why residential escs should think twice before ‘going pro’

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A high school basketball area installation of Electro-Voice speakers like this one is not a job to be ventured into lightly by a residential ESC.

Most, if not all electronic systems contractors, have been looking for ways to increase business in these economically depressed times. One of the themes that I keep seeing in a variety of industry publications and online columns is the recommendation that ESCs consider taking on commercial work as a way of diversifying their businesses. While this idea has an obvious attraction and is certainly worth consideration, I would argue that there are also a number of potentially serious challenges and hidden pitfalls for ESCs considering it.

On most residential projects that ESCs undertake, we are the system designers. This is often not the case with commercial projects. Commercial clients are typically business entities themselves, and generally not the actual end-user/operator. They, therefore, approach these projects in a more formal and structured fashion by hiring a professional “specifier” or “consultant” to design and document the system. This design is then issued to a number of potential AV contractors who all provide a price to do the work as specified.

They often have their own design preferences, which the AV contractor may or may not agree with, but that is unimportant because they have been hired to design the system and your job is to build it that way. In fact, most ESCs will not currently offer (or potentially have even heard of) many of the product lines that they specify for these commercial projects. While the AV contractor can offer alternatives, in my experience most specifiers are not very open to changing their design once it has been issued for pricing.

Often, the business entity responsible for paying for the commercial AV system is much less focused on the actual operation of the system on a day-to-day basis and more intent on obtaining the best price for the delivery of the system as specified. This means that you may have little or no opportunity to convey any concerns about system design or functionality, much less have them acted upon, because most changes (even if they are improvements) will be considered deviations from the specified system and will likely add cost.

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Richard Millson (richard. is president of Vancouver-based Millson Multimedia.

Unless you are thinking of limiting your involvement to hanging TVs and doing simple background audio in restaurants and clothing stores, you should be aware that, in general, commercial projects are often much larger than residential projects.

Commercial projects can require many more bodies for a shorter period of time and often in very large physical spaces. The scale of this work requires a different on-site skill set in terms of project management and logistics. This often involves securing, storing, and handling delivered materials, processing site safety reports, etc. You may also require experience with different tools, such as large scaffolding (many floors high), training and certification on safety harnesses, and the requirements of pulling cable and fiber runs over thousands of feet (without damage).

There are also a number of other issues related to increased insurance, performance bonding, licensing and documentation, and project occupancy dates that do not change, even if you are delayed by others through no fault of your own.

I am certainly not saying that capable and ambitious ESCs should not attempt these types of commercial projects, only that you should be very clear that there are significant differences from the residential projects you may be used to, even the very large ones.