AV Rack Experts Share Easy Ways to Create the Most Reliable Racks Possible

If assembling quality racks was easy, there wouldn’t be a need for dealers to do it. Putting together a rack system requires attention to detail in order to maximize equipment performance and reliability.

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Few people outside of the integrators who design and install equipment rack systems give these highly customized, behind-the-scenes solutions a second thought … unless the Internet goes down, a security camera is on the fritz, or half the audio cuts out leaving a bar full of intoxicated patrons wondering what happened to the music.

While the public or end users might overlook the intricacies of a properly configured rack system, it stands as one of the most important elements toward performance and reliability. That’s reason enough to rack up some refresher points on what’s involved in their design and installation.

The Rack Category Is Evolving

It doesn’t take an engineering degree to know that weight distribution is a key element of any rack system. Tim Troast, director of product management of Middle Atlantic Products, says that while it is important to create a low center of gravity, there is more involved than simply placing light components at the top when constructing a rack.

“The most reliable systems are ones that take a system approach to incorporating well-planned cable and thermal management and adequate power protection and distribution,” he says. “A good system will isolate the signal path from power; have proper tie down, strain relief, and bend radius; and follow best practice for airflow, convection, and passive versus active thermal management.”

This extensive rack system was fabricated by Cyprus-based Elytronic and took CE Pro’s Great Looking Racks contest honors last year.

Middle Atlantic is working with commercial trade group InfoComm, according to Troast, to develop a standard that defines such requirements and processes for A/V equipment rack building. Troast adds that cloud-based technologies among components are helping to maintain increased levels of reliability and less periods of system downtime. Aesthetically, companies are making accommodations to better integrate smaller components and enable rack locations that are more visible, Troast says.

“As equipment has evolved into smaller form factors with several functions integrated into a single device, rack assembly design is becoming increasingly focused on size and aesthetics. With smaller rack assemblies, there’s limited space within the enclosure and within the room it’s located. Creative installation solutions optimize the smaller, compact footprints by supporting localized systems. For example, mounting small devices behind the display, under the table, in the ceiling, within furniture, in the wall, or utilizing purpose-built carts and stands in the room.”

Too Cool for Breakdowns

Next to the actual security of the products, meaning they are safely secured in place within a rack, a high priority for dealers configuring rack systems should be the thermal environment electronics components live in. Frank Federman, CEO of Active Thermal Management (ATM), says that with many components utilizing digital technologies, processors and computing elements, thermal management is a critical element of any rack system.

“These processors are operating at ever-increasing speeds and generating more heat,” he says. “The heat not only affects the solid-state switching devices, but it also surrounds passive electronic parts such as capacitors, resistors, etc.”

“When clients understand that surge protection is an insurance policy … they begin to [see] the value.” 

— Tim Troast, Middle Atlantic​

Some of the ways dealers can manage the thermal environments is through forced air ventilation and air conditioning products. Federman says that fan-based forced air products are typically more cost effective than air conditioning and easier to implement.

To devise a thermal management plan the amount of heat (in BTUs, or British thermal units) has to be determined, Federman says, and once that number is calculated, a simple formula will tell dealers how many CFMs (cubic feet per minute) of air-flow is needed to keep temperatures within a safe range. Look to the products’ specifications for help with the number crunching.

The next step in the thermal management process is finding a location to dispose of the hot air; equipment rooms and hallways are recommended, Federman says. The last step is to figure out what type of air moving system is appropriate. If the rack is freestanding and has a back and sides, a fan panel pulling fresh air in through a passive vent located at the bottom of the rack to the top should be sufficient. If there are no side and back panels to contain airflow, a fan panel can be used directly above the hot components.

Power Up Reliability

There is also the dilemma of powering and protecting rack-mounted components. Troast advises that when setting up power for rack systems dealers consider three key points: distribution, backup and control.

“There should be an appropriately sized [e.g., number of outlets, physical dimensions] power distribution strip where it’s needed, and dealers should ensure that circuits are not being overloaded,” he emphasizes. “Secondarily, a dealer may choose a UPS [uninterruptible power supply] to not only provide distribution, but battery backup as well. Last, but certainly not least, is the ability to control the power to the rack and individual outlets through either a local switch or by remote control. Some intelligent power distribution systems, such a Middle Atlantic’s RackLink or Wattbox from SnapAV, offer the ability to control the power over the network/Internet and monitor energy usage.”

Meanwhile, Troast says A/V components are especially vulnerable to fluctuations in power, including surges and brownouts. “A surge event can fry thousands of dollars in equipment. When clients understand that surge protection is an insurance policy for everything from displays and amplifiers to control systems, they begin to understand the value.”

UPS products serve a dual purpose, Troast says: a battery backup in the event of a power failure, and a means to counteract voltage/frequency fluctuations. Some of the options built into these products include individual outlet control and extension batteries to prolong running times. Troast recommends examining a system, dividing it into parts, and then determining what components need the benefit of UPS. This approach will help to save on the cost of systems and the weight of the rack system.

Putting Custom Into Configurations

If assembling quality rack systems was easy then there wouldn’t be a need for dealers to do it. This skill is supported by manufacturers like Chief that provide solutions to build anything integrators’ clients require.

Product manager Gina Schneider says Chief offers all the basic accessories, including shelves, blank panels, ventilation and faceplates, as well as advanced cooling and power strips from SurgeX that fulfill a variety of installation configurations.

The company also offers furniture racks that dealers can deploy in boardrooms and houses of worship, as well as skeleton and gangable racks to create back-end systems that better fit customers’ usage patterns.

Keeping a supply of blank panels, screws, casters, tie bars and lacing strips is always a good idea to allow dealers to quickly meet any client request, Schneider adds.

Plus, companies such as Chief and SnapAV typically provide next-day or two-day shipping of bigger, bulkier products. It all helps dealers remain just as reliable to customers as the racks they are installing.

About the Author

Robert Archer
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Robert Archer:

Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). Bob also serves as the technology editor for CE Pro's sister publication Commercial Integrator. In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass., and he also studies Kyokushin karate at 5 Dragons and Brazilian jiu-jitsu at Binda Brazilian Jiu Jitsu; both schools are located in Haverhill, Mass.

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