The Custom Installer: To Err Is Human

Like most people planning on "popping the question," I wanted everything to be perfect the night I asked my wife to marry me. We started the evening with coffee at the café in San Francisco where we met, followed by dinner where we had our first date, then Phantom of the Opera, and finally dessert at a restaurant overlooking the city. Following that, I took Dana back to my apartment, where I had dozens of roses laid out and candles everywhere. It was very romantic. (And successful - we'll be celebrating our 10th anniversary as you read this!) But the following day, I saw that the candles had melted everywhere - including all over my TV and stereo, and into my speaker grilles.

I'm telling you this story because no matter how much care you take in designing and installing your system, sometimes it can have a problem. It might be electrical damage from a storm or a power surge, or it could be a malfunction caused by a manufacturing defect. But often the problem arises from simple human error. Typically this happens because someone pushed the wrong button. The Tape Monitor and Multichannel Input buttons on many receivers can be like kryptonite to your system, rendering it blank and silent.

Other times, your home theater might be "broken" because of dead batteries in the remote control. Another common fault arises from stacking CDs or DVDs on top of each other in a single-disc player. But not all human errors are this mundane, and over the years our company has responded to its share of unusual service calls.

One of my customers called in a panic one afternoon because his college team was playing that weekend and he couldn't get his TV to work. I tried walking him through a fix over the phone, but when I couldn't resolve it, I drove the half hour to his home. My evaluation: the TV wasn't plugged in!

Another time, I answered the phone to the seven words no installer ever wants to hear: "There's water pouring out of the Runco!" Totally freaked, the customer said we needed to come over right away. The "Runco" in this case was a $17,000 ceiling-mounted, three-tube projector. We rushed down and, sure enough, water was streaming from the ceiling. The icemaker on the floor above had broken, and water had been leaking for a while until it finally found an exit. Shockingly, the projector was fine. As precisely as a column of ants detouring around obstacles, the water followed the valance surrounding the projector and rolled off its plastic case. Talk about luck ...

Given all the plasma TVs that have been installed over fireplaces, I'm sure a lot of them have overheated or even melted. Since we're careful not to install a plasma TV without sufficient space and a mantle to act as a firebreak, we've never had one suffer this fate. But we have had two succumb at the hands of their owners. One went to that great silicon factory in the sky when the owner overwatered some plants hanging above it. Water dripped down, draining into the TV and shorting it out. The other was done in by candles - that scourge of A/V gear - placed directly beneath the panel. Their heat warped the screen, ruining it.

Anyone who owns a TiVo video recorder knows that the initial setup should take about 45 minutes. One customer grew exasperated when his TiVo repeatedly failed during initialization. He sat up through the night with it, watching as the modem dialed up TiVo again and again, only to fail about 80% of the way through. The next morning, he'd had enough, so he took the recorder outside and put it out of its misery with his shotgun.

You might think subwoofers would be immune to this sort of problem. With controls usually limited to volume and crossover knobs, what could go wrong? One customer brought in a sub that he said had stopped working, so we hooked it up in the store and confirmed that this was true. While waiting for replacement parts, we noticed a foul smell in the sub's vicinity. Curious, we took the sub apart and found a very dead - and very stiff - rodent wedged inside. Turns out the family hamster had crawled into the sub and shorted out the amplifier's low and high power boards, electrocuting itself. Chet, a technician at the sub's manufacturer, took on the unenviable task of removing the pet and replacing the sub's amp - he even managed to get the smell out.

Modern-day A/V systems are finely tuned and complicated - vulnerable enough to damage without us making the situation worse. So keep that in mind before you place any candles near your gear or start indiscriminately pressing buttons. I'll close with a Martha Stewart tip for anyone else who's had to deal with candle wax on speakers: laying an iron on low heat on a brown grocery bag over the grille cloth draws the wax out, virtually returning it to new!

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