This is a five part series that will walk you through the steps of preparing for and completing procedures that will systematically and methodically take you through a sequence of tasks that form a complete systems checkout and integration process. Each series of tasks are unique. Each one establishes the criterion necessary for each successive one.

* Part 1: Necessities of Proper Planning
* Part 2: Cable Test and Verification
* Part 3: Equipment Setup and Functional Testing
* Part 4: Systems Integration
* Part 5: Performance Evaluation and Certification

Part 1: Necessities of Proper Planning

Historical Perspective

From the smallest system in someone’s home to the largest convention center project, audio and video systems are much more complex and highly integrated than every before. Just like the Apollo Mission Simulator of the late 60’s that trained astronauts to fly the Apollo command module to the moon and back, most commercial audio, video and electromechanical systems are digital in nature and computer controlled. Who would have thought then that this very technology developed for sophisticated and complex systems like a spacecraft flight simulator would wind up years later in a company’s board room of corporate America or a home-theater system in someone’s home? Today we find that these technologies and equipment have coalesced into new products we see today and the typical lines of distinction between audio, video and computer systems have slowly faded.

As a result, a whole new breed of engineers, designers and technicians has become necessary to design, program and integrate these systems. Each person must exhibit a collective multi-discipline expertise to perform their task. There is something else, though. Systems testing and checkout procedures have generally not caught up with these technical trends. As a result, the farther down the project schedule one finds themselves, the more difficult it is becoming to have the systems working correctly when the facilities must open their front door to a new business or the homeowner is ready to set in their new home and watch a movie or control their lights from a color touch-screen. It’s not long until “crunch time” panic evolves as technicians, programmers and systems integrators scurry around the job site checking code and finding an unusual number of wiring errors and equipment dysfunction. Often times this occurs in full view of the client. This causes you to look unprofessional or that your company really does not know what they are doing, regardless of the circumstances, and perception is important. You need to prevent this or minimize it as much as possible with a well developed plan of installation procedures and planning is a key factor.

Planning Is Key

The lack of a well planned, disciplined and executed systems checkout and integration procedures can often times be a clue to those difficulties. Towards the end of a project, when time constraints are at the maximum, there is usually a visible degree of chaos, frustration and at times even contentious behavior. The majority of this is entirely preventable if you have done the proper work and planning before the projects installation begins and during the execution of it.

Even if you have a good team of people who have the collective expertise that match the systems you are installing, the biggest culprit is usually the procedures, or lack thereof. The outdated procedures of the past are often still being used and they no longer work effectively. Highly integrated and computer controlled systems require a different approach and a host of entirely new issues to mitigate. Many are complicated by an array of other issues that need to be resolved first. These articles are a guide to forming your own customized process plan for systems checkout and integration procedures. It does not matter if it is the Space Station in orbit or the Great Room in your home, the principles are the same, but a precise set of procedures need to be conscientiously developed to address your specific industry and it application.

This article will set the baseline for establishing set of procedures referred to as the System Test and Integration Procedures, or STIP. They are presented here as baselines to establishing procedures for your company and specific industry you serve. They are divided into four categories presented later that are design to be applied in sequential order throughout you project. However, it is important to consider several that are important before you reach the place in the project where you start any testing procedures.

The Case for Documentation

Documentation is one marker that sets apart those who are professional and those who pretend to be.

There are a number of issues that are often times neglected but nonetheless are critical to an efficient and quality outcome of any systems check and integration procedures plan. The first and most important of them all is proper documentation and this needs to be formulated and complete before any installation effort begins on a project.

The first item of documentation you start with is a BOM (Bill of Materials). The BOM is usually created when you price and quote the project. It can be in the form of a spreadsheet that many firms use or it may be in the form of a database used for project costing and quoting. Most firms today use the later since a database is much quicker in establishing the BOM plus it can be used to generate requisitions, Purchase Orders or both, making the entire process much more efficient and controllable. But there are other reasons a BOM is important in this context.

The quality of your company’s project management is an important element to systems test and integration because they are inseparably linked together and no one element of installation in an isolated event. For project management to be effective for your projects, you need to know for each project in process at any time in the project the status of each item in BOM. Status means to know which items have been ordered and which items have been received. In database, you an easily and quickly run an outstanding orders report that tells which items that have been ordered have not been received. So make sure your company can do this well or your going to be executing a project with a big disadvantage that will cause you to focus on issues rather than the process and hamper your efforts to conduct a quality systems checkout procedure.

Last but not least, the BOM is used to product the documentation you need to install the system.

The installation documentation you develop for each project should be characterized as appropriate, accurate and complete. Appropriate means it is the proper type or kind of documentation. A hand-drawn sketch of the system on an envelope or a 2×4 at a house under construction is not considered appropriate. Accurate speaks for itself. Complete means that the installers and systems integrators have every bit of information they need to correctly install, wire, program, test and integrate the system. Lacking something in the documentation for the project will inevitably lead to inefficiencies, problems and unnecessary delays that may critically impact your schedule and the ability to complete the project on-time with minimal intrusion.

Installation documentation represents the instrument of communications from the sales and engineering staff to the installers as to what to install, where to install it, how to connect it together and how to program it. Verbal or informally transmitted information is a poor way to communicate, especially with regard to technically oriented systems where every detail must be done precisely as prescribed.

Line drawings (commonly referred to as block diagrams) are usually developed from the BOM to account for all major pieces of equipment and miscellaneous equipment that my be necessary to complete the system, such as a power supply or mounting bracket.

Block diagrams are basically just that, where each block represents individual equipment and identified by manufacture, model and name. All wiring connections are illustrated as point-to-point line drawings that have one end of the line connected to a source and the other end connected to a destination, thus it gets its name as point-to-point. It is not detailed (i.e. pin-out designations for a multi-conductor cable) where a single line is all it takes to indicate a cable, regardless of the number of conductors, and sometimes a single line can represent a stereo pair (left and right channels) of an audio system or component video (RGB, YPbPr, etc.). The details of multi-conductor wiring are usually supplied in the form of a wiring schedule that has the required pin-out data or in a detailed diagram supplied as part of supplemental documentation. Sometimes wiring detail is drawn as a sidebar somewhere on the line drawing or a supplemental drawing or document, so there are plenty of mechanisms to provide wiring detail. You can select the means you deem best in each case.

In addition to drawings, another related and very important document is a wiring schedule, sometime simply referred to as a wiring list and it should be tightly correlated with the cables on your drawings. Regardless what you call it, it is a list of all cables used to connect the system and all its components. Each cable is numbered to correlate with the line drawings. Some companies develop the wiring schedule in a spreadsheet like Excel while others use a special program or database designed for this purpose. Several manufactures offer them. Depending on the program, it may have facilities to show the pin-out for multi-conductor cable as well. More powerful database wiring programs have the added benefit of reporting capabilities that allow you to print summary reports, which are lists that can be grouped by several categories grouped by source, destination, and location. Some even allow you to summarize a report by cable type that can give you the total number of feet required for each type of cable in the list. All reports of this kind are an asset to use in not only during the installation process but is a very valuable tool when it comes to the systems checkout, programming and integration task as another tool in your procedure’s arsenal.

Another part of this process that is sometime neglected is wiring labels. Some industries such as telecommunications have a standard wire labeling format specified by the trade organization such as TIA (Reference: TIA-570B for residential or TIA-568B for commercial) that govern the telecommunications industry. The important issue here is not that you use a certain labeling convention, even though that can be important, especially for consistency. Rather, it is that each cable is given a unique sequential number for differentiation and exact identification, and is usually referred to as the cable ID. This number should be located in the wire list and correlated on each drawing. This is a valuable and time saving asset for the installation project and can also be valuable in servicing the system at a later time or consideration of system upgrades.

If you have a large number of cables that may be installed in a rack going to a distribution amplifier or switching matrix, wire numbers become crucial if you have to troubleshoot the system after installation or during systems integration. In addition, if equipment has to be replaced, you can use the wire numbering system to easily reconnect the wires when the unit is reinstalled without having to trace and identify cables without labels.

Some wiring list programs automatically assign wire numbers and can also print the labels or export the data to another application that can print them on a standard inkjet or laser printer. Also, some small portable label printers have a computer connection that allows you to download your wiring list to it and can print out beautiful printed labels very quickly, even on job site. Wire labels that are dismissed by some as too time consuming or costly to use are vastly underestimating their value.

If your project has a pre-wire phase, you need to consider if and how you identify your cables at that point in your process. Some companies do not identify cables run during pre-wire and wait until they are to be terminated and then they use a continuity or alarm tester to identify them. Some companies only identify cables at pre-wire so they now what they are when they come return to job site to terminate, but then the labeling may be lost when they cut the cable to proper length while terminating them. In either case, temporary labels can be written on the jacket or written-on labels. They can be printed type and same set used for permanent labels. There are also some very good portable hand-held labeling machines you can use at the job site. Whatever method you use for temporary labels, the important factor here is to make sure what you are using is adequate to remain on without loss of identification until the termination phase. Consider the environment and other trades that may be around your cables before you terminate and use a method and materials that will remain on and legible until permanent labels are installed.

Permanent type labels need to be installed as soon as a cable is being cut to length and terminated during the termination phase. They should be installed close to the connector and not too far back where it may get hid or hard to identify. The best type of permanent labels to use in ones printed on a laser printer or hand-help printer. If you make the wiring schedule in Excel format or you use a good wiring database program, some hand-held printers accept downloaded data from your computer. Several companies make labels of all sizes and purposes that can be used on a laser or inkjet printer or hand-help device.

Finally, any information that is helpful or required to setup equipment and to program, calibrate, integrate and troubleshoot the system needs to be made part of the installation documentation. If the installation must begin before all installation documentation can be prepared, start with what is needed first and then complete the remaining documentation as you work through the project. Good planning and project management is required for proper coordination of all project events. Installers should not have to make a special request or call someone else to get information they need to do their job, except for rare instances. Just as equipment needed must be available at the right time, so does our documentation.

Without proper documentation, installation or wiring errors result. This potentially can slow down the entire process significantly. Another important issue is that errors created during the first phases of an installation are subject to what is termed compounding. Compounding results when an issue that exists earlier in the project is not discovered or a resolution is postponed until later. Not correcting at the earliest point possible can have the effect of doubling the time to rectify the issue later in the installation phase. Ways of preventing issues from birthing in the first place or detecting them at the earliest possible state should be a part of the process. Testing procedures used throughout the project timeline can have a significant influence. If something is allowed to go undiscovered or not resolved until later in the process you will find yourself with a compounded issue. Having a good plan and following procedures early in the project and throughout the process can significantly reduce the results of compounding.

Having the Appropriate Test Equipment and Tools at the Right Time

For any technical procedures such as systems checkout and integration to be efficient and complete, a top priority is to have the proper tools and equipment necessary to do the job right. Part of the arsenal should be appropriate and adequate test equipment for the job, which depends on the kind of equipment that is installed and the type of procedures you are using. For example, if the process you need to employ at the time is simply to identify wiring, a simple continuity tester may be adequate.

Later in the process you may need something that will detect damaged to cables during installation or inadvertently damage caused by another trade. The better ones can even estimate the distance to a fault making finding and correcting it much quicker. They have a built-in TDR, which stands for Time Domain Reflectometer. They are also better in detecting slightly damaged cables such as coax cable that has been deformed by a staple or something else but still has good continuity.

In addition, if your system requires any kind of wiring certification, you will need test equipment that allows you to verify performance of your cables and connectors to a known standard. These instruments have a computer algorithm inside that actually provides a specific kind of test signal, depending on the type cable and specification it is to certify, and a readout that tells you if the relative parameters passes or not. You should be prepared with a litany of test equipment and tools to perform these procedures on an ongoing basis for every installation and every requirement.

Also, you may be required to perform calibration the equipment you install. This can be everything from measuring the acoustical properties of a room and setting audio equalization to precisely calibrating a projection display. This requires instruments that are much more sophisticated and costly, but when required you will need it.

Finally, some of the relatively simplest of tools can be valuable, such as hands-free two-way communications devices. These are especially valuable for installations having a head-in rack and a large quantity of distribution cables that may run long distances or multiple floors. Having two-way communications allows you to use two people to troubleshoot a system much quicker and easier than using only one person and not having anything to communicate over long distances. The hands-free types are good to have since they allow you to use both hands while troubleshooting and checking wiring or equipment.

The specifics of what equipment is required for each task will be given in more exact detail in each related section of this article. The important point to make here is that the equipment you need is related to both the task and the performance requirements of the project. Be cognizant that the efficiency and quality outcome of any installation depends just as much on having the right tools and test equipment as it does the planning and procedures you implement.

George Wilkinson is a 35-year veteran in project management, system design, programming, testing, problem resolution, calibration and systems analysis for computer controlled audiovisual systems. He is a graduate in Electrical Engineering Technology from the University of Texas. He is currently employed by The Screening Room in St. Louis who design and install custom home theaters, whole house audio and house automation systems and is a certified CEDIA designer.