Info and Answers
Tackling the Retrofit from Hell
A 1950s house with slab concrete flooring and a flat roof offers a major A/V retrofit challenge.
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February 15, 2007 by Julie Jacobson

Editor’s note: Julie Jacobson, editor-at-large for ElectronicHouse.com’s sister publication CE Pro, discusses her retrofit installation in the following account.

There are a wealth of integration companies in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, where I live, including lots of big ones and lots of good ones. Ones with showrooms. Ones with long histories of service and fancy trucks. Ones with litanies of certifications.

Indeed, I interviewed several integration companies, and liked them all, especially the excellent installer from my old production home—Don Haines and his team at SureLock Homes—whom I regrettably had to nix because they didn’t do Crestron.

Neither did Oakdale, Minn.-based Magic Homes (at the time), but Bob Christensen’s up-and-coming company had a close relationship with Drew Wiatrak, a Crestron programmer from Sensation Design Group. I was most impressed with Bob and Drew because of the thoughtfulness they put into the initial project interview, during which they did a thorough walk-through of the property.

Meeting the Integration Challenge
Ours was the retrofit from hell—a one-story 1950s modern home with slab concrete flooring, a flat roof, and an exterior that is practically all glass on one side, and brick on the other.

From a retrofit-wiring perspective, the joists went the wrong way. On the inside, wood paneling throughout. Almost no crawl space to speak of.

I had no idea what we were up against, and quite frankly my husband and I were fearful of the labor costs, which we knew would have to be billed by the hour. Bob and Drew hardly allayed those fears—to be sure the job would entail many, many hours—but at least they took the time to really examine the property, and figure out how the wires would most have to be run.

They poked and prodded, and peeked inside air vents. After lengthy debates, they made a definitive decision about where the equipment rack should be located—not a trivial task. And all of this was just in the initial interview.

The other companies I interviewed threw out a lot of ideas: they confirmed it would be a tough job, they assured me they could do it and would be delighted to do so. (OK, none of them actually delighted in the prospect of this unappealing job.)

I had every confidence in all of the integration companies, but because of the care that Bob and Drew took in the original assessment—and because of the confidence I had in their collaboration—I picked them.

It was a wise choice. I’m not the typical wealthy client. Bob and Drew were sensitive to our budgetary concerns. My husband and I both appreciated their consistent communications with us.

Three Years Later ...
The retrofit was about three years ago, so I’ve certainly gotten use out of the project. It does some cool things—like the AOL lady saying “You’ve got mail” when the mailbox is opened—but it’s the simple stuff we take for granted that we couldn’t live without: Pressing a single button to play a DVD, pausing TiVo in the living room and picking it up in the bedroom. Things like that.

When our security system gets frisky, it’s nice to be able to check the status from any touchscreen in the house.

NPR through the kitchen speakers is pretty heavily used. Music on the porch and outdoors is great. My stepson and his friends like to do their gaming stuff in the family room.

After three years, though, I’ve pretty much made a mess of it. We got a third phone line and Vonage, and I did it myself so the structured wiring is a mess and now my security system seizes my office line every once in awhile. I’ve swapped gear in and out, and now I have an HP Media Center that isn’t yet integrated into the system. It pretty much just sits on top of our 9-year-old, 50-inch Mitsubishi rear-projection TV that’s about two-feet thick and fades in and out every time the heater kicks in—which is often because we live in Minnesota.

To distribute music from the Media Center, I stream it wirelessly to a Squeezebox plugged into the Crestron audio distribution system. Our DVD player went bad awhile ago, so I just used the DVD’s input on the distribution system. To play Media Center music throughout the house, I have to go to the rack with the Squeezebox remote ... not very elegant.

So, after three years of use, here’s verdict: it’s a great system, but it needs professional maintenance. Bob and Drew would kill me if they saw what I’ve done to their once-beautiful handiwork!

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Julie Jacobson - Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.

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