Extreme Weather Creates New Challenges for Outdoor Home Technology Products

Is there a correlation between Superstorm Sandy and HDMI? There is if you live in one of the cold-weather regions where volatile weather is increasing and where a trend toward warmer winters in recent years is extending the outdoor home theater season deeper into winter.
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Is there a correlation between Superstorm Sandy and HDMI? There is if you live in one of the cold-weather regions where volatile weather is increasing and where a trend toward warmer winters in recent years is extending the outdoor home theater season deeper into winter.

Regardless of ones’ ideological outlook, the fact is that it’s staying warmer longer, and that’s encouraging more cold-weather outdoor media munching.

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Crescendo Designs installed the Sonance Extreme in-ceiling speakers flanking the TV in the wood ceiling. In the fall, the TV is removed (although it could still stay outside) and put in the basement on a secondary mount. The exposed cables are wrapped, and the TV is then re-installed the next spring.
“I have a client on the south shore of Long Island who just called about a corroded HDMI connection,” stated Michael Brody, vice president of Crescendo Designs Ltd., which has an office in Manhattan and a showroom in trendy Southampton, referring to an increasingly common service-call complaint. Brody said that proximity to the ocean is already a problem during the conventional outdoor movie-watching months, with salt pervasive and relentlessly corrosive. That effect is further compounded by being in a region with a widely variable climate like Long Island and coastal New England, where temperatures can vary over a range of more than 100 degrees Farenheit during the year. Then, add in events like Sandy in early November–a time of year when even the hurricane veterans of South Florida are already taking down the storm shutters and putting up Christmas and Hanukkah decorations–and you’ve got the perfect storm. Literally.

Brody said the weeks after the hurricane that shut down his shops for over a week were mostly spent responding to client calls to fix uprooted backyard and dockside AV. It’s a kind of windfall (pun intended) but not one he’d wish for; he’s donating a portion of all hurricane-related repair calls to the Red Cross. Instead, he hopes it encourages more clients to sign up for regular seasonal checkups and tune-ups, visits that he can use to strengthen their outdoor AV infrastructure to better withstand more unpredictable weather and longer use of sound and video into the winter months.

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Sonance Landscape Speakers used in this outdoor installation were installed by Crescendo Designs Ltd. for year-round use.Brad Smith, president of Audio Video Design in Boston, which has plenty of cold weather to go around, as well as salt, said he has developed a regimen for his cold-weather installations and maintenance. “Cover everything as much as possible [and] enclose where feasible,” he said, as his mantra. “Protect the connections with strain relief and silicon. Also, look at the operating temperature of all of the equipment you’re installing. That’s something that people just don’t usually do. If the ambient air temperature will be less than the [recommended] operating temperature, add some kind of heating device. This could be something as simple as a 60-watt incandescent light bulb.”

Both Smith and Brody emphasized choosing AV components that are designed for full-time outdoor use. “What we had been doing was coming around twice a year, taking the outdoor speakers inside for the winter and then coming back in the spring to reinstall them,” Smith said. “Lately, more clients want the option of being able to use their systems year-round, so we strongly recommend weatherproof products.” Brody concurred, noting that there are more of those to choose from. For instance, Séura’s release of its Storm TV system last March effectively doubled the number of options available, complementing offerings from longtime market leader SunBrite TV. The Storm TV touts several features that make it cold-weather friendly, including a temperature rating of -30 F to 140 F, as well as a Precision O-Ring sealing system inside of an aircraft-grade metal housing to resist moisture, a fan-driven cooling approach that prevents hot air from condensing, and an enclosed media connection compartment.

“That’s what we’ve been using since it became available,” said Brody, referring to Storm TV. “You don’t want to hang a Sharp or a Sony outside on the wall on Long Island.” He added that one could take the attitude that LCDs are cheap, and you can replace them when they fail, but, he argued, “You never know when they’re going to fail when they’re used outdoors. You want reliability, especially in extreme weather.”

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This NYC installation features an outdoor projector used for video art was installed by Crescendo Designs. The projector is enclosed in a Baby Blizzard Outdoor Projector Case to keep the projector safe from the elements year round.

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Smith said that getting customers to sign on to service agreements for outdoor AV maintenance saves them and their integrator hassle. In the case of agreements that call for more frequent visits than semi-annual–he has one on Nantucket island that he visits once every six weeks in the winter–he said he will stop by and brush snow and ice away from components and wiring, checking all connections for signs of corrosion, and replacing those that are affected. Even with these accelerated schedules, Smith also suggests to his clients that they wipe down cable and components periodically on their own. “You cannot keep AV too dry in the winter,” he stated.

Many of Smith’s AV customers also use his security systems services, so he’ll also check all of the wiring and connections on those systems, as well as making sure moving parts like gates and remote-controlled PTZ cameras aren’t frozen in place. Anything with a lens, from cameras to biometric access scanners, gets a cleaning. “Even if you’re not right on the beach, the winds in a place like New England can carry salt and other grunge from the ocean pretty far inland,” he said.

Cold temperatures are hard on electrical components. The lack of humidity in the winter dries out materials like silicon and rubber, making them brittle and creating cracks that damaging moisture can seep into. But the wide range of temperatures in the northern tier of states is its own problem for AV, constantly exposing components to expansion and contraction. To counter that, Smith said that he will immerse connections in an overcoat of silicon and often then apply a marinegrade shrink-wrap kit. Brody likes to use conduit and burial-rated cabling for year-round outdoor wiring, and he’ll use outdoor-rated Wi-Fi access points, such as those from Ruckus or Pakedge, for wireless control systems. He stressed that customers should be willing to pay more for truly weatherproof components, like the Leon Boundary outdoor speakers he often specifies, and the Tempest Baby Blizzard, an internally heated housing for outdoor projectors. However, Mother Nature will eventually exact her price and clients should understand that, too. Smith said, “If you get five years out of a set of outdoor speakers, you’re doing very good.”

Michael Brody, vice president of Crescendo Designs Ltd., which has an office in Manhattan and a showroom in trendy Southampton.The Hardy Tablet

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While climate change may be making the outdoors more receptive to winter AV, AV technology is making itself more adaptive to extreme climates. David Kepke, owner of MultiMedia Resource Group, an integrator in Chappaqua NY, said that wall-mounted touchscreen controllers designed to control AV systems used to have to be positioned as close as possible to AV components while still staying indoors, constraining their usefulness. Now, however, the indoor touchscreen controller becomes the backup to the tablet or smartphone controller running the appropriate control apps for the equipment.

“You could use the remote controls for equipment like televisions and music systems, but they were limited in terms of what you could actually control with them–volume mostly,” he said. “Instead, you can have all of the control on an iPad or iPhone. You don’t need to have a fixed user interface anymore.”

A lot of cold-weather content is also on tap: late-season NFL games are routinely played in low temperatures and watching them outside brings viewers that much closer to the action with all the replays, better sound and none of the traffic of being at the game; and ESPN’s Winter X Games has become the crown jewels of the extreme sports world, also enjoyable when you’re watching it in the cold but without the cost of a plane ticket to Aspen.

“When you think about it, there are outdoor speakers working all winter long on the ski slopes,” said David Kepke. “With the right equipment and installed correctly as part of a solid design that takes into account temperatures, wind, and salt, the AV systems will last longer outside than you might.”

Dan Daley is a freelance writer in Nashville, TN.

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