Where’s Ralph Nader when you need someone to outline the dangers in an commonplace product? He helped make our cars safer; we’ll highlight some serious safety issues and questionable installation practices we’ve found with installed sound systems over the last few months… is yours affected?

By and large, commercial sound contractors are not governed by any agency the way the commercial alarm industry is. Anyone can slap a sign on the side of their car or truck, and claim that they are a ‘qualified’ sound contractor. We’ve found many examples of subpar installations, some reputedly installed by long time ‘professional’ sound contractors who cut corners. Some of these shoddy installations have the potential to cause serious injury to patrons or facility staff.

Electrical safety

ULC badges

Seals of approval: [left to right] new Underwriter’s Laboratory mark, UL Canada standard mark, CSA mark.

In order for an electrical product to be used and sold in Canada, it needs to have been inspected and approved for use by either the CSA or ULC electrical safety standards branches. Inspected equipment will have a CSA or ULC sticker or stamp on the product.

The Canadian standards of electrical safety are actually more stringent than the US standards, which usually carry only the ‘UL’ stamp of approval. Equipment sold in the US is not generally ULC approved (the ‘C’ in ULC being for ‘Canada) and building insurance can be considered null and void if you’re found using non-ULC approved amplifiers or other powered sound equipment in your facility.

We recently upgraded a swimming pool sound system that was installed by another company. This company installed rope type tube lighting into the front of the rack to illuminate the sound equipment. To our knowledge, no rope or tube type lighting that is powered by 110 volts is either ULC or CSA approved. The shock hazard from this 110-volt tube lighting was exceptionally high, especially due to the high moisture content in a swimming pool. We immediately removed the rope lighting from the sound system rack. No electrical inspector would put his stamp of approval on this old installation.

Proper hung speaker 500p

The right way: [left] Manufacturer-provided eyebolts and suspension hardware. [top] The speaker has been constructed to be “flown,” the steel beam is clamped with unistrut, and the speaker is suspended with Redi-Rod, bolted and secured with the proper factory bracket. Aircraft cable for seismic restraint is yet to be done.

speaker hanging pointsFear of flying 

In any arena or public recreation facility, it’s reasonable to assume that speakers will hang over spectator seating, the ice arena surface, or the swimming pool area. These speakers can weigh anywhere from 10 to 100 kilograms, or more in the case of a speaker cluster. Speaker manufacturers carefully design speaker hanging points that allow speakers to be suspended from (or ‘flown,’ as the practice is called in the AV world).

Significant design goes into the hanging points of a speaker. The speaker cabinet is usually made of plywood, Baltic birch or some other multi-layer construction. Smaller speakers may be of a carbonate type construction. But all speakers designed to be flown will have specific hanging points, and many cabinets have internal reinforcement around these hanging points so that secure speaker hanging and mounting is possible,

We have seen a number of arenas and high school gymnasiums throughout B.C. where the sound contractor has flown the speakers via the carrying handles or via contractor-installed eyebolts on speakers that were never designed to be suspended.

No fly zone example #1

unsafe speakers 2

This arena’s 27 speakers hanging over the ice are all installed without proper flying hardware or support. They are at risk of falling.

This arena has 27 speakers hanging over the ice surface. The speaker cabinets are made of carpet-covered particleboard. Over time, the particleboard absorbs moisture, weakening the cabinets. The contractor-installed eyebolts into the back of the speakers, which were never designed to be hung by their backs.

We contacted Peavey, the manufacturer of these speakers, and they had the following advice:

“Thanks for notifying us [Peavey, the speaker manufacturer] of this. That particular cabinet does not come equipped with flying hardware. That is enough indication this cabinet it should not be “flown.”  No flying hardware option was included on this Peavey cabinet.”

No fly zone example #2

unsafe speakers 3a

These speakers weigh 25.5kg (56 pounds) each and are defying gravity by being improperly hung over a school gym.

unsafe speakers 3b An arena has twelve speakers flown over the gym floor. Again, the contractor put eye bolts in the top of the bottom four speakers and flew the speakers with chain rather than proper flying hardware.

Again, we contacted the manufacturer, and they had this to say:

“Those look like [Peavey] SP5 enclosures. That model is not designed or braced from the factory for overhead suspension. Any modification done by the installer would not be approved or recommend by Peavey Electronics… I recommend that you have them inspected immediately by a qualified structural engineer and/or taken down. That is a very dangerous and foolish practice, and the installer as well as the facility will likely face a significant liability if someone is injured (or worse!). I am surprised their insurance company lets them get away with it.”

There is nothing wrong with these speakers if they are used on a tripod stand or sitting on a gym stage floor. They simply shouldn’t be flown over spectators or an ice surface.

No fly zone example #3: Don’t sit under this

Restaurant unsafe speakers

Checked out a new restaurant downtown recently and the hostess asked where I’d like to sit. “Not under a speaker,” was my answer. Why? The pressboard consumer bookshelf speakers mounted on the wall are not designed to be hung, and over time the pressboard cabinets will expand, letting go of the bracket.

Rat’s nest installations

rack-afterrack beforeMany times the incorrect sound equipment is installed for the application at hand, and the quality of the installation leaves a lot to be desired. This is a sound system rack before and after, found in a B.C. recreation centre.

Untidy is an understatement! Equipment was stuck to the side of the rack with double-sided tape and hanging by its wires. The fluorescent light to the top left of the picture was also stuck on with double-sided tape, and was hanging by the power cord.

A messy rack makes for not only a poor installation quality, but any tech not familiar with the installation will need to spend extra time on-site when it comes time for any sort of service, and failures can happen if a wire is snagged during equipment removal, causing problems.

pool speaker

This speaker lasted only a few years in a harsh pool environment.

Wrong equipment for the job
This customer was concerned about poor sound quality. Once we pulled the grilles off the speakers, the cause was obvious: the speakers
installed in the pool were not designed for the corrosive chlorine environment, and a few short years after they were installed the speakers were literally falling apart around the edges. Any speaker that is properly chosen and installed should last 20-30 years at minimum, not the eight years that this one lasted.

Choosing a reputable sound contractor

When choosing a sound company, there are several ways to ensure you’re getting a good installation:

  • Referrals and references: Talk to owners or managers of similar venues to ensure that their recent sound system is a step up from their old sound system. Many times, a new sound system can actually sound worse than one that has been installed for years if not installed correctly. The quality of your overall sound will depend largely on the design of the sound system and how it is set up and calibrated, and not because it’s a new model. A good installation takes facility construction such as reverberant environments (“echo-y”) typical of arenas, gyms ,or pools into consideration and overcomes those challenges with a system that sounds great.
  • Service: Has your sound contractor taken care of little (or big) problems as they arise?
  • Low voltage permit: It is mandatory with new construction for a sound contractor to pull a low voltage permit to install the microphone and speaker wiring. Is your sound contractor able to pull his own permit, or does he have to get an electrical contractor to pull the permit for him?
  • Business license, insurance and bonding: A qualified contractor will be able to pull a business license in the city that he’s doing work in, has liability insurance, and can be bonded if required.

A properly designed and installed sound system, regardless of the type of venue, should last 10-15 years with a minimum of service calls. A sound system that has multiple people using it should stand up to a certain amount of abuse without blowing amplifiers or speakers, and of course any installation should be without any risk of falling speakers or shock hazard to the users or the general public.

Have questions about your sound system installation? We’d be happy to answer any questions or concerns you might have.