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Chapter 24:The Grass isn't always Greener on the other side of the Contractor Fence.

Chapter 24 – The Grass isn’t always Greener on the other side of the Contractor Fence.

Being a small company with a wide variety of technical needs that vary from project to project, I use a lot of contractors.  For example, I couldn’t bend a pipe without more dents than a Honda in a hailstorm.   However, WISP operations and many different types of projects like video surveillance, access control, or even VoIP projects means that I had to bring in other people with special skills that I don’t have.  However, a recent event in being the sub-contractor on a project with EarthCam has made me rethink how I’m going to treat my contractors in the future.

 

A friend of mine who does sub-contracting through a bid site was recently in a bind the night before he did a project that EarthCam desperately needed done.  Since it was late at night, I told him I would take care of it the next morning for him so his bid status stayed positive.  The project was to simply hang 2 cameras on a wall.  These cameras are simply high-resolution still image cameras that upload the pictures to a website over a data connection.  These images are then monitored by the clients and contractors to keep track of the construction process and probably to create a build movie at the end.   Nothing special there and something most of us could easily build for between $500 to $2500.  In fact, we will cover that later in the article for anybody that wants to do the same thing and save as much as $10,000 or more, depending on the cameras.

The contract provided by EarthCam is not much different than most of us use.  You bid a job for a fixed cost until completion.  That should have been my first clue to walk away from this project, favor or not.  I have never used this type of contract and pay most of my contractors hourly.  The problem with EarthCam is their definition of a completed project comes from the Enron book of business definitions.  Apparently, the installing the camera on the wall and the techs tell you they are receiving pictures doesn’t constitute a completed project.   A week later, when they realize that there are some problems with the installation, they expect you to sit for 4 hours waiting for a shipment they failed to get on-site in time for a 6am installation, and then move cameras around a couple times because they marked them incorrectly, and you should do all of that for free or at half rate after a significant discussion.

I hope that all of you who use contractors treat them better than EarthCam does with their contractors.  If a contractor takes a project for a fixed bid and completes the project, any problems they have after the initial installation should have additional appropriate compensation.  In my case, putting up EarthCam cameras isn’t my business nor will I ever take a call from them again other than to let them know I’m filing in court for non-payment of my invoices.  I think they must have used the same accountant Bernie Madoff used.

I’ve got tower projects that are coming up and in every case; I’m paying the climbers daily rates.   That’s fair to them since they aren’t going to be able to do other projects, even if they get done early.  It’s up to me to estimate their time on the project.  If I make a mistake, it’s on my dime.  Ethical business practices should be the cornerstone of every business whether dealing with clients, contractors, or vendors.  The few dollars you may save on the project will never fix your reputation and may financially damage your company.  Surveys have shown that every unhappy customer will tell 10 people.   Nobody wants that as part of their business as it’s a lot harder to convince someone you are now ethical after you have demonstrated otherwise.  In addition, in this day of instant worldwide communication, the word gets around that your business doesn’t deal with its contractors fairly and nobody wants to do the work for you.

If you have ever been to Disneyland and visited the exhibit right inside the front gate showing you the history of the happiest place on earth, then you now know what EarthCam does.  They place regular digital cameras of various high-resolutions in locations to take pictures of long term projects such as building construction for historical and management review purposes.  The camera is basically programmed take snapshots at set intervals such as 1-5 minutes or longer.  The camera is then attached to a router that connects to the internet and each snapshot is then stored and added to the previous pictures to create a simple stop action video.

With all the web enabled devices out there today, this is a relatively easy task to do.  There are many low-resolution video cameras that can do that now.  However, other than construction monitoring, why would you want to do this?  I have 2 words, forensic analysis.

Let’s say you set up a video camera to monitor a public park.  The camera is watching a fairly large area such as a skate park.  Some vandalism occurs overnight and you review the video in the morning to catch the villain.  Unfortunately, the villain looks like an extra from “The Man With No Face”. The reality is that even a 2MP video camera at 100’ is going to make it difficult to have enough quality for a jury to determine without a doubt who the culprit it.  However, if you supplement the video camera or use a 10MP camera or higher shooting every 30 seconds, there is a good chance that you will be able to zoom the image enough to see if the vandal is still using Clearasil.

The speed cameras that Janet Napolitano slammed in under executive order for Arizona before bailing out from wrath of the voters of Arizona, work just like that.  For those of you who don’t know, speed cameras are automated ticket issuers installed along the freeway that instantly snap your picture when you drive by them at some preset trigger speed above the posted speed limit.  If you are caught, then they automatically send you your picture in the mail along with your license plate and a very nice letter telling you to pay the fine.  One little detail all the politicians left out (Is an omission of fact a lie?  I can’t imagine any politician ever doing that.) is the devices were actually video cameras recording all traffic until a car was caught speeding.  At that point, a second camera would shoot a high-resolution picture to supplement the video stream.

Regardless of your political position on this device (do you seriously believe I’m going to let that statement stand without mentioning that I thought it was a cowardly act by the woman now in charge of defending our borders, IMHO of course), the technology was sound.  In order to see the quality of the video, I got one of the tickets for research purposes (okay, I got it because they were smart enough to place the cameras where the freeway drops from 65 to 55) and I will tell you that it picked up the fact I needed a shave at 1am in the morning in pitch dark through a dirty windshield.

So, if you want to take your video surveillance system to the next level, supplementing the video stream with a megapixel snapshot isn’t a bad way to do it.  Keep in mind that storing video snapshots can be significantly less storage that the video stream itself.  There is a lot of software that lets you do that easily.  Software such as “Canon Remote Capture”,  http://download.cnet.com/Canon-RemoteCapture/3000-18489_4-199150.html, lets you even run the camera remotely through the USB port.  You might also need a USB over IP converter but there are many ways to do this.  The only question is what to do if the camera is placed in an area that doesn’t have an internet connection.

Assuming you don’t have some type of close Internet access, the next step is a cellular router/modems.  Skyroute 4000 series modems/routers look pretty good for that although there are a lot out there.  However, you have to be careful here because many of the internet cellular data plans have bandwidth caps.  If your 10MP camera is shooting uncompressed pictures across the internet every couple minutes, the plan could cap out and cost big time.  Assuming a 12MB image every 5 minutes, that’s 60MB per hour or 1.32GB per day.  Over a month, that’s almost 40GB. Considering that cellular carriers are already capping things, unlike BP, I’m guessing that your cellular bill will start rivaling your mortgage.  So, if you use this method, keep this information handy.  If you get the right camera and router, they should all fit inside some type of standard outdoor video camera case.

So let’s start putting in video systems that when the bad guy is shown on the 6 O’clock news, his momma can recognize him and apply proper justice.  With inexpensive cameras and software, anybody can do the EarthCam thing and make sure we catch em’ all.  And tip your contractor, or at least pay him for an honest day’s work, especially if he is doing your company a favor at great inconvenience to himself after your company dropped the ball.  You really don’t want him complaining that your company (Did I mention the company is Earthcam?) takes advantage of contractors and then nickels and dimes them for their efforts.  Who knows, they might even write a column telling people that yours is not the company they should be doing business with.

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