In custom installation, when you’re dealing with a “room” as big as all outdoors, the rules of the game go flying out the (non-existent) window. Refreshingly,
exterior installations aren’t a hard sell; they’re natural extensions, in most cases, of inside jobs.

That’s where the easy part ends, however. The more complex the client’s desires, the more project planners must think outside the box to create element-proof but visually pleasing solutions that come as close as possible to meeting in-home
installation standards.

We discussed outdoor installations with four professionals who’ve been there and done that.

Classic Stereo & Video • Grand Rapids, Mich. •

“If you put good-quality sound inside, it’s easy to talk people into sound outside,” says Custom Department Manager Jim Rinke. A 15-year vet who spent the first half of his career in the installation trenches, he’s handled basic outdoor installs “with at least a pair of patio-deck speakers” to more challenging scenarios involving bodies of water that ranged from pools to Lake Michigan.

The vast majority of exterior jobs Rinke fields have been audio-only. He’s able to get the sound right with few or no walls to help him set calibration parameters. “You’re typically sending a mono signal around because imaging from a left and right standpoint is difficult,” he says. “You have to remember to aim for achieving good sound rather than extraordinary sound at reasonable volume levels. Clients shouldn’t have to rely on one pair of speakers to reach the patio area, the diving board area and the basketball court. It’s about good-quality, low-level sound more than it is about anything extravagant.”

Rinke stresses the importance of selecting appropriate suppliers who make suitable outdoor speakers that both perform—“I’ve heard both good stuff, and stuff that sounds like a tin can,” he says—and that can handle the elements. “Back in the old days,” he says, “there were a lot of steel grilles. They rusted, and you might see 10- or 15-year-old speakers that still sounded good, but looked terrible. Now, there’s more aluminum and that isn’t an issue any more.”

Rinke has seen minimal demand among his fairly conservative clientele for outdoor video entertainment. “We have had a few gazebo-type installations where people have a normal LCD TV and then pull it inside for wintertime,” he says. “We’ve done projectors, but mostly for indoor pool areas.” However, video-based security/closed-circuit cameras and monitoring are an emerging request among his client base.

An audio/security application mix came into play for Rinke during a job his crew executed at a property on Lake Michigan that had an inland guest house. “The two houses were tied together,” he says. “There was a five-hole golf course between them and an in-ground pool. At the lake, we had low-voltage-lighting speakers with cameras built-in so the owner could keep an eye out on the lake. At the pool, we custom-recessed cameras into the speakers. This client also had a jungle area for the kids to rock-climb, where we also installed speakers, and a long boardwalk to the lake and a putting green with low-voltage-lighting speakers as well. There were 40 outdoor [speakers] altogether, and 40 to 50 throughout the interior properties. The more speakers you have outside, the quieter they can be played so that you don’t bother the neighbors—and, of course, more speakers is good for us, too.”

Integrated Media Systems • Sterling, Va. •

Founder and President Tom Wells has a different “lake” tale. A client, he relates, “wanted his pool system to sound ‘so loud [that] my neighbor across the lake calls me and complains.’” Wells, a bit taken aback by the request, replied, “We can make it as loud as you want, but if you want Woodstock out here, we’ll need a lot of speakers and subs and amps.” Wells asked the client why he didn’t want it loud in the house but very loud outside. The client said, “See the guy over there? He complained about the style of my house and tried to get the community’s architectural board to void my permit. So now I want him to hear every party I have.” As part of the resulting project, Wells’ team actually buried subwoofers, but they eventually deteriorated, leading to a recent replacement and system upgrade that, says Wells, “made it even louder.”

This episode aside, Wells’ clientele isn’t typically vengeful. He characterizes his target market, like Rinke does, as “conservative. My area isn’t like, say, Florida, where people spend a lot of time outdoors and you might get some exotic requests. Here in Virginia, people spend six months where it’s warm outside and maybe two of those where it’s too hot to be outside. Ninety-five percent of those just want music outside and the ability to control it.”

While Wells knows how to pump up the decibels to excess for the occasional quirky client, he also knows how to keep outdoor sound at civilized levels. “You can position your speakers by utilizing boundaries to contain and focus sound,” he explains. “You don’t want to treat an exterior area where the neighbors are real close behind by putting speakers on the house and pushing sound towards the neighbor. You want to use the house as a reflector of sound, rather than have sound dissipate into your neighbor’s back yard.”

One of Wells’ more interesting outdoor installations, achieved in the early ’90s when ready-made options for solving outdoor dilemmas were more rare, entailed a very simple solution for video that, while it wouldn’t wash indoors, made his clients happy. “It was one of the first outdoor installations I ever did, and it was for a client who’d bought an early Sharp LCD projector,” says Wells. “He wanted to put it outside to recreate a drive-in experience like he and his wife remembered, since drive-ins had all but disappeared by then. The screen was actually the biggest problem. We went through some gyrations with that. They didn’t want a solution where they would have to haul it outside, so we did a rolldown window shade that tucked up under the eaves and it worked very well.”

Aurant • Salt Lake City •

“We have put some really ‘out there’ things into our outdoor proposals,” says CEO Jeff Anderson of the ideas he and his crew have pitched to clients—many of whom are part-time residents with second homes in the area. “Our ‘sweet spot,’ geographically, is the Deer Valley market—a real luxury market, and one where there’s much demand for our services,” he says. “Most of the residents have homes with decks that have hot tubs and barbecues. Outdoor living is integral to the lifestyle in the home.”

Anderson’s range of outdoor jobs is quite broad. His firm has installed, for example, temporary applications with inflatable video screens at the beach, speakers on wheels, and even a temporary outdoor stage where video was sent indoors to multiple locations and “whenever there was anything going on—skits, sing-alongs, what have you—it would go to all the TVs in the house,” he says. “Lots of our larger customers like things like that, because they’re spending all of this money to spend time with their families and, frankly, something like that’s a lot more fun to do outdoors than in a dark room down in the basement.

“We’ve done things like broadcast-quality video cameras inside weatherproof enclosures, where the clients wanted a way for people in the beach house to look out on a sailboat and see if the girls are wearing tops, all the way to placing multiple weather stations on homes so that on the mountain side versus the valley side, you can see the differences in temperature and wind, to putting some pretty elaborate enclosures for plasma TVs together that keep the bugs out and deal with humidity changes.”

Anderson advises outdoor installers to not let their imaginations get in the way of more practical concerns. “There’s a tendency to look at these jobs and think about what could be possible, as opposed to simply doing what is most reliable,” he says. No matter how tempting the tendency to go with the unique idea, he says, try to approach even the most challenging demands of vacation homeowners “with the same, repeatable solutions, and try to template them as best [you] can,” not getting too far out of bounds on each job. “Especially when we move outside,” he says, “we have learned to pick products from just a few vendors, after long evaluation.”

Many of Anderson’s projects entail puzzling out exterior audio system solutions, usually with a modicum of video. In one memorable job, he made sound a reality in the most unusual of outdoor circumstances: in a “yurt,” a type of nomadic tent. The clients, Anderson says, “weren’t looking for the best sound—just for intelligible sound, so by just using a ‘vanilla’ application of speakers, it sounded fine. It was never intended to sound like a $30,000 sound system; that wasn’t a factor. ‘Good enough’ was good enough, which is very unusual for the types of jobs we do, but the fact that they had four outdoor speakers around a hot tub made them very happy; the fact they had a TV and a DVD player that worked with just stereo sound was more than enough for them. They just wanted that outdoor experience, albeit with distributed audio.

“The first challenge for the job, which also happened to be at an altitude of 8,000 or 9,000 feet, was access. We had snowmobiles and four-wheel drives and sometimes couldn’t get there. Then, there’s access to reliable power, to phone lines for networking, and access to cellular so that during the project we could talk to people. The travel budget is hard for a project like that. We hadn’t anticipated the challenges as much as we will the next time we do such a job.

“Also,” he says, “custom crews don’t like working in the cold!”

Once the crew could get where it needed to be, the next big hurdle presented itself: hiding the wiring in an enclosure with no walls. “We made channels in what were supposed to be tent stays, but really weren’t. Using light-colored wood, we made small panels in places to put speakers into so they weren’t noticeable, and it sounded fine. For the video, we had to use TVs that worked well in high altitudes.”

Aurant’s yurt job, carefully executed with no “i” left undotted, was an exercise in matching the creativity of the client concept with an equally creative but workable approach. “It was a good example of listening to the customer and coming up with a custom solution to their tastes,” says Anderson. “Most A/V guys say they do that, but end up giving them what they gave someone the last time.”

HiFi House • Wilmington, Del. •

Since he started in custom six years ago, Chief Custom Designer E.J. Feulner has encountered all manner of variables in “out-stalls,” but an early encounter with the dual proximity of sea air and other properties sticks with him as an object lesson. “It involved a beach house with outdoor box speakers installed on the porch wall,” he recalls. “We siliconed the connections to waterproof them, but I learned something: I should have known what salt air’s effect on the metal bracket would be. It rusted out. But the bigger issue with the job—which was on three levels of patio, each with a pair of speakers facing downward onto the porches—was that there were houses on either side and there was a noise issue with the neighbors. So the next time, I learned to put the speakers on the outside, aiming back toward the house.

“Since then, I’ve been involved in much larger systems and have learned that for control outside, you need a waterproof wireless access point, and you need to find the locations for waterproof remotes and for your RF antennas, which you can’t mount in metal boxes.” Typically, he says, his crew takes a cue from the electrical industry and avails itself of waterproof electrical enclosures that are rated in the electrical industry as “NEMA4” for their degree of weather resistance. To achieve optimal sound, he says, “99 percent of the time, we run everything mono.” For clients who are sticklers for very-high-quality outdoor sound, he adds outdoor subs made by reliable suppliers.

A current project involves a planter speaker on a pool deck and a waterproof remote with an RF antenna—but the client, an avid internet surfer, had to be accommodated. “The house is wireless-networked,” Feulner explains, “but to carry that outside, we arranged for a waterproof wireless access point outfitted with a heater and a temperature sensor, because if the circuits inside get frozen, it will affect performance.”

Feulner stresses follow-up with outdoor installs to ensure a satisfied client remains so for the long haul. “We feel it’s better not to learn the hard way,” he says. “You don’t want to leave a keypad outside, because it can conceivably bring down the whole system inside the house. What we do for the winter is we go over for a service call and bring all the outdoor stuff inside. People ‘winterize’ their patio furniture and their pool. It makes as much sense—and maybe more—to winterize your outdoor electronics.” CR