AV on a Budget
Nov 15, 2006 6:33 PM, By Linda Seid Frembes
They say that everything’s bigger in Texas, but that’s not always true. While the state may be home to the nation’s largest scoreboard, it is also dotted with small towns that often struggle to provide the equipment for quality extracurricular activities due to budget constraints. Mike Utzman, president of the design/build firm Entertainment Systems Producers (ESP) of Texas, experiences these struggles firsthand as he helps his K-12 clients achieve professional AV systems on a budget.
Utzman recently completed an AV install at Sunray High School in Sunray, Texas. “The town is so small that we had to stay 20 miles away because that was the nearest hotel,” he says.
Sunray’s theater department has received statewide recognition and often competes in state-wide competitions. The school’s auditorium, however, needed a lighting and audio upgrade. “The budget numbers came down to either install a whole new lighting system or choose the power upgrade instead. There weren’t funds for both,” he says. “They decided to work with us on a multi-year, multi-stage project that would address their budget needs.”
While it makes logical sense to break up a larger project into smaller, more affordable pieces, Utzman assists his clients in the decision-making process by taking them through a series of design considerations to create a master plan:
- Determine the end goal of the AV system. Is lighting or video more important than audio? Will the system be used in a support function or will it also double as a way to teach students real-world applications?
- Map out the total install. What is the total dollar amount this will cost the school, including short-term costs, such as labor, and long-term costs, such as maintenance?
- Determine the sources of funding. Is it all public money, or are there opportunities for private donors to help?
- Don’t ever back up; start your design at the front door. The lighting dimmer is just as important as the par cans onstage.
- Gather a wish list for now and for the future. In order to properly plan out a multi-stage install, all equipment needs should be considered upfront.
- Find a trusted partner. Send out a request for qualifications (RFQ) and then a request for proposals (RFP) if needed.
- Plan for growth. Is your AV system overkill today? Maybe, but maybe not five or 10 years from now.
At Sunray, Utzman installed a dimmer for the push-button wall-control system, lighting console, power distribution, and the beginnings of a professional audio system. “All the wiring for lighting distribution is in place, so any future additions to the system will be easy,” he says. “I often advise schools to look at the infrastructure first. If you only have a certain amount of power, you cannot put in lighting fixtures that require more power that what you already have.”
Next year, Utzman will go back to Sunray and add other system elements. He worked on a lighting schematic and plan so that the school can buy fixtures as money allows. Because the dimming and distribution is already in place, adding smaller elements such as fixtures can be done on a piecemeal basis.
As a long-term cost-control measure, Utzman makes a point to standardize on one lighting brand so that the same lamp for multiple fixtures can be kept in stock. The short-term cost is a bit more for new style fixtures, but the long-term costs are lower due to the replacement lamp costs (an average of $15 versus $60 each). Plus, newer fixtures are more energy-efficient and smaller in size.
“The AV equipment does not always have to be the top of the line for all parts. Major pieces should be industry standard,” he says. “In the theater world, pieces like the lighting console and audio console should be industry standard brands and the latest technology.” Meanwhile, pieces like amplifiers should be reviewed for the proper specifications. “In a fixed install, who cares about the weight of the amp?" Utzman adds. "You may be paying more for a lighter-weight version when you don’t need it.”
The education install market continues to be a competitive market segment. Utzman notes that he recently lost a bid by a mere $2,000. “Most schools have trusted relationships with vendors like a trusted electrician or plumber," he says. "An AV installer is no different. Unfortunately, too many times it’s just about the lowest bid. It works for the school at the moment but not as a long-term investment. There will always be companies who will give it away, but will they be there for you next year?”