The Custom Installer: A Custom Life

People have been making New Year's resolutions since calendars were first invented. "I'm going to alphabetize my CD collection." "I'll use the Soloflex as more than a clothes hanger." And the biggie - "I'm going to get a job that I really enjoy."

I've received lots of letters from readers asking how they can start a career in custom installation. It's easy to see why people are interested in this industry. You get to meet tons of fascinating people, nearly every project is different, and you're constantly working with the newest technologies and coolest gadgets.

But it isn't all just sitting around hooking up amazing systems. Some days can be physically grueling, spent running wires through attics in the height of summer or dead of winter, or worming your way from one side of a crawl space to another on your hands and knees. Stress can also run very high. Builders call to let you know that sheetrock is being installed ... tomorrow. The piece you desperately need to complete a major project doesn't show up. Your client calls to inform you that he's having a Super Bowl party and the bulb on his DLP projector just went out.

In addition, while you can certainly make a decent living as a custom installer, I liken myself to a Ferrari salesman. I know all about the coolest toys, I get to play with them on a daily basis, but I'll probably never have a Ferrari of my own.

If that hasn't scared you off, great! This is a terrific industry, and I actually enjoy going to work. But before pursuing a career, you should decide what part of custom installation interests you most. The main facets include designing (working with clients and coming up with system ideas), project management (scheduling and overseeing jobs, working with builders and subcontractors), installing (running wire, cutting in speakers, trimming out systems), and programming (keypads, touch panels, automation controllers). Smaller companies usually combine these roles, while larger ones often break them up even further.

Chances are you already have some skills that would make you desirable to an installation firm. The biggest key to success is enjoying and being familiar with the technology you'll be working with. One of the questions we ask potential employees is, "Do you have a home theater system?" Anyone serious about being in this business will say, "Yes!" Reading all of the industry publications is another great way to stay on top of the latest trends.

Custom-install companies are very service oriented. My previous job as a golf pro at a country club prepared me for working with demanding clientele and handling problems in a diplomatic fashion.

Don't worry if you're not comfortable connecting electronics or programming remote controls - a large percentage of this business has nothing to do with these things. For instance, our lead installer has a strong construction background. This made him far more valuable to us than his ability to program a touch panel.

If you're in school, or looking to get some education that could help you become an installer, a knowledge of computer networking and working with Internet protocols would be helpful.

One of the great things about the custom-install industry is its dedication to providing ongoing training. Manufacturers are eager for you to learn all about their product lines. Runco, for example, won't allow a company to sell its products until one of its employees has attended a four-day training course.

But the education leader is definitely CEDIA, the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association ( At its annual Expo, hundreds of classes are held on all aspects of the industry. Topics include "Design/Build a High-End Home Theater," "Room Acoustics," and "Running Whole-House Control Systems Using Internet Protocols."

A terrific place to start your education is with CEDIA's three-day Boot Camp (, which can bring any new installer up to speed. Beyond that, the Professional Certification Program offers three levels of training, including Installer Level I, Installer Level II, and Designer.

If you make this your career, you might have to relocate. I moved from California's Bay Area to South Carolina, and I found the company I work for through CEDIA's Web site. Search for member companies in areas that you'd consider moving to, then contact the companies and ask if they're hiring, which positions are available, and what they look for in an employee.

This industry has opened up many opportunities for me, and there's always room for another eager set of hands. If you decide to switch to a career in custom installation, drop me an e-mail and let me know how it's working out. Or, better yet, come say "hello" at the 2004 CEDIA Expo.

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