The Best-Laid Plans
Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Steve Filippini
You are standing in front of your customer's alarm control panel with a work order in one hand and a box of parts in the other. The paperwork states that you must add a series of features and functions to the system by installing equipment that was offered by the sales representative and agreed upon by the customer. Of course, that means any wiring requirements these accessory modules may have must be completed in a short amount of time and without any mistakes.
The first obstacle to address will be where these new parts are going to go. Some panel manufacturers provide large enclosures for their systems, allowing adequate room for such additions. Other manufacturers provide predrilled mounting holes from which brackets and standoffs will secure and support these circuit boards along the insides of the can. If your new application is simple in nature, one or two modules may be all you need. If the new application changes the general operation of the system, multiple modules and wiring schemes may be required.
Once you have mounted the modules in an accessible location, the next task is to wire them together. Now unless you design and install these system-altering configurations on a daily basis, you are going to end up at the customer's kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a stack of installation cut sheets, and a well-used pad of scratch paper in front of you. If you have the chops to lay out the changes on paper in a respectable amount of time, you should be able to transfer the concept from drawing to alarm panel for implementation. If you aren't sure of the design you just dreamed up or if the product line you are working with is foreign to you, you're going to be there a while.
If you installed and wired the parts as planned in the allotted period of time and the new programming for the application is complete, there are only two possible outcomes to your situation: it will work or it won't. Every integrator has been there. Time is money, and the customer is always right when it comes to how he or she wants the system to operate. Sometimes the sales representative oversells the system's functionality. Hard to believe, right?
EASY AS 1-2-3
The concept of a module-based system is an easy one to comprehend. You begin with a simple yet adaptable base panel that has enough smarts built into it to meet the customer's basic needs. This base system is relatively inexpensive, easy to install, and a piece of cake to operate. If you want to add features and applications, you plug in another module, and it's all ready to go. No fuss, no mess, no lengthy installation manuals to invest in, and in the end, it's quite the time-saver. Today's technology has followed this plug-and-play — type option for several years, and for the most part, it has provided the field with what it needed. At least that is what the concept of a module-based system is all about.
However, a plug-and-play format relies heavily on system/module compatibility and the need for periodic software/firmware upgrades. Nothing is self-contained, is standalone anymore, or provides the big picture for little cost. That's fine; consumers have learned what they want and what they don't need. The if-I-don't-need-it-I'm-not-going-to-pay-for-it mentality is quickly becoming the norm in this technologically rich world.
The security industry is not above this way of thinking. Gone (or at least standing in the shadows) are the days of purchasing full automation systems that offer everything at your fingertips. Today's security-minded customers are primarily looking for alarm systems that will electronically patrol their home and businesses and can alert them to a problem within seconds of an occurrence. If they want to add a feature or function not currently available, they have the option of paying a few bucks to add a module that can provide it.
Still, such a concept has its problems. The ratio of system glitches will increase proportionately with the number of modules, wires, and lines of programming you need to add. Although no one wants a system to evolve into something unstable, integrators have limited options to avoid that possibility. If this is a concern of yours — and it should be — then the solution may be something as simple as planning ahead and spending a few bucks to ease your frustration. You may want to consider building an interface panel that is designed to meet a specific or a multiple assortment of customer needs.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
I work for a company that recognized the pitfalls of a labor intensive, special-feature — driven installation and decided to do something about it. It took an empty enclosure, a stack of feature modules, a few terminal strips, and a roll of 18-gauge wire and built a kit. All of the connections required to interface the feature modules are prewired, soldered, glued down, and labeled per a carefully designed, fully tested set of plans. Bench testing is a must, and up-to-date documentation is crucial, but the results are well worth the effort. For one thing, you have taken the guesswork out of the design and greatly reduced the possibility of a troublesome wiring mistake that could result in an hour or two of frustrated head-scratching. The installer only needs to pull the system wiring into the interface panel and make the hardware connections there. As long as the correct wire is tied down on the correct terminal, the chances of a system error are almost negligible.
For service technicians, a prepackaged interface panel keeps the time it takes to isolate a problem down to a minimum. I used to dread going on a service call when the tech that was there before me had little time for wire labels and terminal strips with tight connections. Splices that resembled a Gordian knot were common, as were tape and caps missing from the tips of the exposed wiring, which resulted in tiny sparks that erupted from within the enclosure when the door to the can was closed. Who hasn't seen that before?
Designing, building, and stocking an interface panel for each of your special application customers may not be for everyone. If you don't cater to a string of national accounts or offer a standard feature/function upgrade to your residential customers, the need for a specific wiring application may not be an issue. However, if you are constantly stringing a series of relays and timers together to provide a neat system feature for more than a few of your customers, you may want to look into designing an interface panel to make it easy on yourself.
Steve Filippiniis a senior technician with more than 20 years of experience in the security and installation industry. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.