Freeway congestion, 60-hour work weeks, urban gridlock and family obligations have driven the work-and-play-at-home trend. Buyers want everything from home offices with high-speed Internet to home fitness rooms with the latest exercise gizmos and equipment.

Today's high-end homebuyers also want to entertain and be entertained in style at home. The audiovisual technology explosion has served as a catalyst to increase demand for swanky theaters complete with professional sound, lighting, comfy seats-and even a popcorn wagon-in luxury home markets.

What's it worth?

With 4,500-square-foot homes in the $2 million-and-up price range becoming more common, home theaters no longer are an anomaly. How much can a theater add to an electrical contract? Depending on whom you ask and the buyer's budget, it can run anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 or more.

Most of the expense in home theaters is in the components, but there certainly could be thousands of additional dollars in high- and low-voltage wiring. In a $2 million home, this could easily spike upward to cover custom or hidden installation work for big-ticket add-ons such as whole-home control systems, in-wall speaker wiring, and perhaps automated lighting systems, drapes, projectors and screens.

According to Mark Cerasuolo, Leviton Integrated Networks' director of audio/video systems, the cost depends on whether the contractor is responsible for the complete home theater package-which might include video components such as a large-screen TV, surround-sound processing, source components such as DVD player and HDTV tuner, and specialized furniture or AV racks-or just the built-in audio portion of a home theater.

The latter is much more common in production homes and some custom homes in which the homeowner is presumed to have a reasonable collection of legacy audio/video components already. Such a supporting home theater audio system might consist of five to seven speakers installed for surround reproduction, a dedicated subwoofer, and all related connectivity wallplates. This type of mainstream system might start under a $2,000 builder price and run up to $15,000. Final homeowner cost would depend on the builder/contractor sales relationship.

For reference, the Leviton/Sound by Bose large-room home theater upgrade (which includes an Acoustimass low-frequency module and five surround cube speaker arrays, plus installation) will generally sell to a builder for $1,800. It is difficult to estimate the complete package due to the huge cost spread of various TV types (back projectors, front projectors, plasmas, LCDs and more) and associated electronics equipment.

Leviton's Cerasuolo said electrical contractors can break into the profitable luxury home theater niche market more easily than one might think.

“The EC has the incumbency edge with the builder-it is essentially his business to lose in a sense. Many builders already turn to their ECs for nontraditional technology upgrades including structured cabling,” said Cerasuolo. “If the EC invests in time and training to design, install, configure and support home theater systems, getting that business is largely a conversion process instead of selling a new category.”

It is very important for ECs to know about technologies and techniques that specifically address residential home construction. For example, many builders are reluctant to commit to multichannel surround systems that can cause considerable conflict with a potential homebuyer's existing or planned furniture and décor.

Therefore, being up-to-speed on surround technologies that require fewer instead of more speakers, is critical-and contrary to the system integrator philosophy of “more is better.”

The same principle holds for video technology: knowing what alternatives can ensure the planned big screen works for both Mr. and Mrs. Homebuyer is far more important than knowing all the details of the latest plasma technology. ECs should have an adequate inventory of available technologies and applications to support the widest variety of living styles and environments.

To enable Mrs. Homebuyer to work undisturbed in her home office while hubby hunkers down with beer and popcorn to enjoy the thrilling roar of the Indy 500 race, contractors must soundproof the theater. General guidelines from the professional and commercial sound reinforcement fields deal mostly with geometry. Minimizing right angles and making sure the listening space is effectively longer than the lowest bass notes reproducible-almost 60 feet-should help.

Since few of these are practical in residential construction, there are two schools of thought: the art of special room treatments and materials and the science of using advanced digital signal processing (time delay, equalization and so forth) and speaker directivity to overcome acoustical obstacles.

The latter approach, while less romantic for the audio snob, is more cost-effective, and it is the one Cerasuolo recommends. It's always easier to modify the audio signal instead of the room.

Moreover, one can find a wide array of sound-deadening materials on the market. Thicker Sheetrock and reinforced floor joists can be installed in the room or inside the walls. A second layer of drywall can dull vibrations, and insulation applied inside the wall will further muffle noise.

Steep learning curve

Pat Hurley, director of research for TeleChoice Inc. and coauthor of “Home Theater for Dummies,” said ECs wanting a foothold in this market should familiarize themselves with HDTV, which doesn't just impact the display (TV) itself. HDTV also impacts the video distribution network, surround sound and other components, such as a satellite dish.

Contractors also should have a basic understanding of home automation/control protocols-both proprietary systems like Crestron as well as standards-based/open protocols ranging from X10 to ZigBee.

Although some in the industry think that ECs should partner with low-voltage contractors with home-theater experience, Leviton's Cerasuolo takes the opposite approach by asking if low-voltage system integrators should specify and install home theater lighting systems or surge-protected outlets for the theater room.

“While the system integrators try to control every layer, they usually have to subcontract out any of the AC-related infrastructure. However, electrical contractors have an easier path moving into the low-voltage realm. The key is to partner with manufacturers who understand their business and can provide easily customizable complete product packages along with the training and certification to enable them to design and install systems with confidence.”

TeleChoice's Hurley agreed there is a relatively steep learning curve on some aspects of component selection and configuration-particularly on the calibration end. While he sees no reason why an EC might not want to go down those paths, he added a caveat.

“It would make more sense if the electrical contractor were large enough to bring an expert on-board or having enough success with home theater plus whole-home automation, control and entertainment systems that doing the training was worthwhile.” EC

WOODS writes for many consumer and trade publications. She can be reached at patwoods123@hotmail.com.