Rescue Works: The terrifying cost of rectifying bad installations
Ideaworks boss Kevin Andrews has overseen the installation of tech infastructure in some of London’s finest prime and super-prime properties over the last 30 years, but he’s been tracking a worrying trend of late…
The investment that Clients make in creating or purchasing a new Prime or Super Prime home is very considerable. At the start of the purchase process, you would expect that Clients would take the best possible advice they can from a whole team of professionals who could deliver their new home.
If it is a new home, the potential Project Management/Quantity Surveyor team, Architect, Mechanical & Electrical Consultants, Structural Engineers and Lawyers may well be selected from a range of Professional Teams. Due diligence will normally be undertaken to ensure that each of the potential team members has the relative experience, capacity and skill set to be able to deliver the project to a professional standard. While the level of fees will be part of these discussions, its reasonable to expect at this very professional and proven level, the fees will be pitched at similar levels. It may be that the teams pipeline of works or particular skillset will push the fees slightly higher or lower. There is also a reasonable expectation at this standard, that paying the least possible level of fees is likely to attract the least qualified or most inexperienced team. The understanding is that their inexperience might cost far more than the money saved on fees and the added risk isn’t worth any potential saving; with risk comes exposure to unknown cost.
If it is an existing property, then getting the right team in to carry out building and structural survey and to ensure that electrical and gas installations are safe is of course part of every house purchase. That’s why most offers are made “pending survey”. The risk that the house is purchased and then a fault is discovered, could run to tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds to rectify. While borrowing might not be an issue at elevated price points, it is as well to remember that mortgage companies are looking to reduce commercial risks of any investment and even most cash purchasers are not looking to take un-necessary risks.
As Connected Home technology becomes ever more a part of every project, it is clear that this element comprises a significant part of the house infra-structure. While some hardware might be expected to be regularly changed out, the wiring infrastructure is pervasive thought out and is hidden beneath the decorative surface of the home; and is far more disruptive to replace.
As a Connected Home company with 30 years history, Ideaworks has seen its fair share of technology developments come and go. As a company, we are keen to track where our new projects come from. I am pleased to say that throughout our history, most of our work has come through the personal recommendation of Clients and professional teams we have worked with before. We appreciate that our best source of business is existing customers, so making the home future proof also serves our needs as we can continue to upgrade the house with new technologies and that by providing good aftercare, customers will feel confident in re-investing in us and our services.
However, we are tracking a worrying trend in recent years. The level of enquires by unhappy home owners has accelerated alarmingly over the last five years; we call these enquires “Rescue Works”.
While most professionals who are involved in the creation or purchase of a new home are required to have recognised levels of professional qualifications and professional insurances, the Connected Home company does not. The only possible accreditation relating specifically to this, is to have some level of CEDIA certification. As a founder member of CEDIA, I can only recommend this as a first step in doing due diligence. However, the price of admission is extremely low and the qualifications purely commercial. No inspection of any completed projects are undertaken and the level of training required is very minimal. So simply having the CEDIA badge tells you very little about the outcome you might expect.
The scary part about not doing due diligence about the company you are about to employ to design and install a system, or having a home inspected before you purchase, is that the numbers to rectify a bad installation can be extremely high.
In a recent home we were called in to inspect, the original cost of the installation was around £300k. This was a home created by a developer, sold to the original purchaser and then resold after a couple of years. We were called in by the second owner as they had purchased the property and found that the systems installed were unreliable and they found it impossible to fathom how they worked. As in most cases like this, the home owner assumes that any Connected Home company could simply arrive, tweak the installation, provide some user manuals and then go on to provide support and aftercare. Just like they might expect from any plumber, heating engineer or electrician. The Connected Home company who carried out the original work had long since ceased trading; although had re-emerged under a new name with the same Directors. So no come-back for our Client.
The first thing we do in these instances is to carry out a quick, no cost, visual survey of the installation. The things we are looking for are the overall specification of equipment, the quality of the installation, any supporting documentation and the quality of the labelling of the cables that have been brought to the main distribution point. We also try and use the system ourselves to see how responsive the controls are, how much sense they make to us and if everything does pretty much what we would expect. Sometimes everything is in order, documentation is good, cables are well labelled and copies of any software are available. If this is the case, we can take over the aftercare of the system, provide any updates and go on to fully support the installation with our Aftercare team. This is rare.
The worst outcome we find is the initial design of the system used a very specific wiring format, for a product that’s no longer around or supported. That can mean chasing new cables into finished walls and taking up floors and ceilings to run new cables. Frequently cabling is a massive bundle of wires behind a rack with no labelling saying what does what. A lack of any documentation and labelling means we have to start by dismantling the central rack and taking off every point, in every room to check, trace, identify and label every cable. We have to do this process before we can even come up with a plan of what can be installed. We also then need to document all the cabling and prepare schematic diagrams so that the work we have done has some value in the future. Frequently system programming has not been provided in a format that can be decoded and reused again, so the whole system needs to be re-programmed. When an installation has been installed to this level, its unlikely that the equipment installed will have been selected with any great care and may also need to be replaced.
In this particular case, it was at the worse end of the scale and it touched every aspect of the home. The installed lighting control was an entirely wireless solution; even though as a new build, they could have run wires. The lighting installed was using retro-fit LED lamps in traditional light fittings. That meant that control of the lighting in some areas was unreliable, as interference impacted the wireless controls and the dimming in all areas was poor as the dimming method employed conflicted with the LED technology built into the lamps. Dimming was no more than 30%, after which the lamps randomly flashed and switched off.
The entertainment system had used a specific brand of product where speaker cables, instead of running back to a central point, had been taken to local volume controls on the walls. This meant that all the speaker wiring would need to be re-run, requiring floors to be taken up and ceilings to be taken down. Because the music and TV systems had been designed independently, many rooms had two separate speaker systems installed and no way of connecting them. The wiring run to the TV positions was the right kind of cabling but because it had been pulled into the positions without due care an attention, the cables, although continuous, had been stretched and bent though 90 degrees meaning that the speed of the cables had been compromised. That meant we could not do any kind of upgrade for the video distribution and it would not support any of the new video formats.
The IT system was a high street solution which gave minimal performance and had so few components that the Clients had given up trying to connect to it wirelessly and used their mobile 3G coverage where they could get it around the house; at basement level they had simply accepted no connectivity.
Some electric blinds had been installed as a separate part of the contract and had not be co-ordinated with any other system. Wiring hadn’t been run for blinds in large double height spaces where really they would have been the most benefit and required new cables to be run.
By each doorway was either a lighting keypad or a touch screen, plus a separate blind control and a thermostat that reported to a central heating/cooling system. Each controller was of a different size, shape and finish. While the touch screens could have controlled everything, no plan was ever made for this to happen.
The central racks were pushed back into a very tight space allowing no air-flow around the equipment. There was no air-conditioning or ventilation in this space. To keep the equipment running at all, the door had been removed, leaving an unsightly gapping hole in a Client accessible hallway.
Although most of the equipment was installed in racks, cabling had been brought directly to the equipment in the racks, without labels, and in a way that resembled a tangled fishing net. This stopped the racks being pulled out for maintenance or even inspection. Later equipment added to the system wasn’t able to be placed in the racks and was left sitting on the floor with cables stretched tight between the wall, the equipment and the racks. The slightest movement of the racks loosened connections between equipment and caused faults.
Control in each area was through a variety of methods with no commonality that the Client could become familiar with. Keypads, older style in-wall touch screens and traditional remote controls, of differing styles, were in each area. A later addition of iPads had been done to improve control; but because they were reliant on the very poor wifi coverage, they worked only in some areas, even though they were designed to control any area.
I would really like to say that installations like this are uncommon. But in reality this is mostly what we find. The cost of bringing this house up to date, running new cabling, repairing the fabric of the building after cables were run and updating the installation was close to £400k. Of this, £330k was the system update and £70k was the building works done in connection with the new works.
What is most alarming was that the cost of doing it right from the beginning wasn’t very much higher than doing it badly; but the cost of rectifying the faults was more then the whole cost of the installation. It was simply the lack of skill and knowledge of the Connected Home installer and of the failure of the professional team in identifying the right company to do the job.
The lessons to learn from this.
If you are buying a house with a Connected Home system already provided, make sure you have a full survey done of the system by a professional team, who would be prepared to go on to provide aftercare for it, if you buy the house. Identifying clearly before the exchange of contracts that there are works to be carried out, might allow you to negotiate any works required with the vendor. It maybe that this is the very reason they have fallen out of love with their home. Really, Agents should be pushing to make sure that along with all the other certifications required, a detailed survey of the Connected Home system forms part of the Sales package.
The cost of remedying a poor installation can be many times greater than any other element you find fault with; this can be the equivalent of a new roof or under-pinning subsidence.
If you are planning a new project with Connected Home technology, make sure you do your due diligence. Look for accreditations beyond CEDIA membership. ISO 9001 or any other process/quality driven measure is helpful in identifying at least a desire to be professional. Talk to previous Clients; but be sure they didn’t have a lower expectation than you have. Ask the professional team if they have worked with them before or if they have any recommendations; of course they may be great to work with but they may not have any Aftercare Team to look after the project, when the rest of the team have all completed the project. At least check their accounts using something like DueDil. You could contact the manufacturers of the brands they are proposing, to find out if they are one of their “best” dealers. Visit their offices to see if what they claim is even possible. “TRY BEFORE YOU BUY” The Connected Home is the one thing you will use fifty times a day. See if you find it easy to use. Find what they mean by an “Aftercare” service. What you mean by 24/7 service might be you want them to pick up the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week and speak to somebody real to resolve a problem; what they might mean is that you can call them anytime and leave a message and they will get back to you Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm.
If you believe that “paying the least possible level of fees is likely to attract the least qualified or most inexperienced team in all other areas of a project” then expect this applies to your Connected Home consultant or contractor as well.
If you expect to reduce risk by surveying a home before you buy it, don’t miss out the one area that might cost you more than any other; the Connected Home systems.