Over the years I’ve been asked by a lot of churches about equipment lifecycle stewardship. In some cases, I’ve been shocked by how old equipment is that’s still in use at churches that should have been retired long ago. While I understand the rationale that goes on in a church wanting to eke out all the life, and more, that is in the technical equipment, there is a flaw in that thought process. I’ve built my own lifecycle parameter based on what I’ve seen and what works and doesn’t work after the design life.
Let’s look at the main reason for continuing to use equipment that is way past the design life. Money. Realistically that’s the only reason. Churches look at the money that is required to purchase technical equipment and because they look at it as a one-time, extraordinary purchase they never look ahead and plan for obsolescence. So what ends up happening is that, even though the equipment still functions, the quality of the equipment has downgraded to the point where it is no longer within the design specs that it had when it was new. Or a piece of equipment expires (usually on Sunday morning right before service!) and the church has to find the funds to replace the equipment on an emergency basis. Doing an upgrade this way usually costs more money and significantly more stress.
I recommend that all churches realize that technology ages at given rates and should plan on a budget cycle for replacement and upgrades. A church that does not plan ahead does not steward their limited funds properly. Yes, technology is expensive but the one true statement about technology is that every generation of a given technology advances significantly compared to the previous version. What that means for a church is that the equipment that cost X dollars and had Y specs now may be cheaper and have more features that make the equipment more useful.
Let’s look at managing the lifecycle of various church technology equipment. This will allow a church to establish a baseline and create a reasonable budgets based on each church’s individual requirements. Keep in mind these aren’t manufacturer recommendations but are based on my real-life observations helping over 50 churches understand their technology needs.
COMPUTERS (This area allows for a trickle-down implementation where the hardest used machines get replaced and re-purposed more frequently than less-used machines)
The best practice for church computers is to identify the high-use areas (typically video and audio editing and presentation machines) and then,in order of descending horsepower requirements, all the other areas within the church that utilize computers. Once you’ve done that now you’ve got a structure that will allow you to replace the high-use machines as needed and trickle down the old machines to the next level and so on. This works for desktops and laptops with the following caveat. While laptops have made tremendous strides in heat management, their biggest problem is still the hard drive needing to be replaced by about year 3. As long as you realize this and change out the hard drive when you repurpose the laptop you should be able to get additional years of service. Heat will always be the biggest enemy for computers so on a yearly basis take the time to blow out the fan areas with canned air. For laptops that sit on a desk for the majority of time invest in a laptop cooler that blows cool air on the bottom of the laptop. It will help dissipate the heat. Alternate the cycles that you purchase computers. This way you’re not taking a big hit to your budget all at once.
Desktops: 3-5 years. Desktops (depending on the make and model) allow for easy updating of components. Any computer that contains an Intel Core i5 or i7 or AMD equivalent has more than enough horsepower to run any desktop application for the foreseeable future. Adding RAM is cost-effective and usually speeds up a sluggish computer. Graphics and video-editing software will strain a computer pretty well so if you have a desktop for these applications that is struggling consider what the cost to upgrade the components (hard drive, RAM, graphics card) will be. In a lot of cases it is cheaper over the lifespan of the given duty to replace the computer with a new model that can handle the load. Repurpose the old computer to the next level of usage. While hard drives tend to last longer with a desktop you may still want to look at upgrading the hard drives once the computer reaches 3 years of age.
Laptops: 1-3 years. I know, I know. 1 year??? Yes some laptops, especially the low-end ones can get unreliable after 1 year of heavy usage. With a laptop a lot of the lifecycle depends on the care taken on the use of the laptop. If it sits on a desk for most of its life with a desktop cooler you can definitely expand the lifecyle past 3 years. If it’s thrown into a backpack, operated in a hot mode, or in dusty conditions expect the life to be significantly less. If you have a premium model laptop (most Apple models and $1,000 and above Windows models) they will tend to last longer due to the quality construction and components compared to the lower-priced units.
In all cases, whether a desktop or laptop, if the equipment starts not being reliable get rid of it. I can’t tell you the number of churches that I’ve had emergency calls from regarding unreliable equipment. It not only stresses out the tech team but also the worship team, pastor and office. It’s not worth saving $300 when it affects the quality of your service.
In most cases, professional-level equipment (as opposed to MI or music industry or DJ) will cost more and last longer. Bear in mind that while the initial expense may be substantially more than the music store stuff, there are good reasons to spend the additional money. Professional-level equipment tends to be more rugged, better quality, and have better warrantees and customer support than the other equipment. For example you can pick up a LED PAR64 for $99. Or you can spend $400 for one. The $400 LED will have a more rugged housing, will have built-in thermal protection and a substantial fan, the circuit board and componentry will be designed for continuos use instead of intermittent use and the company will still be around 5 years from now. The $99 LED will probably fail within a year. Attempting to replace it with a similar model will be all but impossible resulting in replacement of all the other $99 LEDs you purchased so you can match the light.
Mixers: Sub $1,000 mixers should be viewed as throw away mixers. Here’s why. Manufacturers save money by building these mixers with a single circuit board. So if a fader goes bad or a subgroup section goes bad you have to replace the entire circuit board. By the time you do that you’ve come close to the cost of a new board due to the labor and parts cost. These mixers, while well built if you purchased a Mackie, Yamaha, Allen & Heath or Soundcraft, still have a lifespan of 10 years. Yes they are built like tanks and meant to take abuse but in reality you still want to think about replacement after 7 years. Digital mixers and higher-end analog models tend to have longer lifespans with 10 years or longer not being unreasonable. Digital models have the advantage of having upgradeable software and firmware which tends to keep them current. One important concept that churches don’t seem to get is that of preventative maintenance. All equipment is designed to be serviced on a timely and regular basis. Dust and dirt is a major killer of mixers. You need to keep your mixer covered and spend a weekend once a year blowing the dust out and running DeOxIt cleaner on all the pots and faders to keep them working properly. It tends to be cost effective to get the higher-end mixers repaired as opposed to replacing them. I know several churches that have 15 and 20 year old analog mixers that sound wonderful and wouldn’t change them out for any new model. They follow a careful maintenance schedule and repair problems as soon as they develop.
Amplifiers: Assuming the style of music is static and has not changed dramatically and also assuming that the amps were spec’ed properly in the first place, amplifiers can last 7-10 years. Any power spikes or surges will shorten their life. So will dust so preventive maintenance is again key here.
Speakers: Speakers are mechanical components with moving parts. As such they tend to wear out gradually as the speaker cones and the foam surrounds degrade. Old speakers will never sound as good as new speakers just because of the degradation. Assuming you don’t abuse the speakers by pumping more signal than they are designed for or by pushing them into distortion because the amps aren’t sized correctly, speakers will last 5-10 years. If your church has high humidity or is an coastal environment you may have to replace them sooner. Check the surrounds and the cones on a yearly basis for deterioration and fix or replace the speaker component immediately if you notice a failure in either component. In a lot of cases you can replace the components yourself and save yourself money as opposed to replacing the entire speaker assembly.
Microphones: Microphones can last a long time as long as they’re taken care of. It’s not unusual to see 20 year old mics still in use and still doing a good job. If you’re using Shure, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, AKG or other name brands you can be assured that your mics will last a minimum of 7 years. Do some preventive maintenance once a year by removing the spit shield and rinsing out the inside foam. After a year of being used as a vocal mic you won’t believe the amount of coffee/soda/water residue that gets trapped in the foam.
Cables: Mic and instrument. I make it a habit of changing out cables once every two years. Why? After two years it seems that cables tend to fail just because of the abuse they take. Buy quality cables not the cheap stuff and they’ll last longer. Instruct everyone that handles the cables on the proper usage and coiling of the cables. 90% of cable failures that I’ve seen are caused by someone yanking the cable out or coiling it around their arm.
Projectors: View the low-cost (under $500) projectors as disposable. Bulbs tend to run around $250 even for the lower-end projectors and after a couple of years, with all the advancements that are occurring in projectors it’s not worth keeping old technology. As projectors age they will get dimmer. A projector generates a tremendous amount of heat and heat ages all the components of the projector. A five-year-old projector will not be as bright as a brand new projector even if they are identical specs. A quality projector will have a lifespan of around 5 years. At that point you should replace it. For most churches that have a single service on Sundays I recommend replacing the bulb every two years so after two bulb replacements it’s time to plan for a projector upgrade. Preventative maintenance is crucial to get the maximum life out of the projector. Going with a quality brand like Christie, Barco or Hitachi ensures that the projectors are designed for permanent mounting which means that the filters and bulb housing will be accessible while the projector is mounted. It also means that the projectors will have multiple fans to cools the insides with. Clean the filters on a quarterly basis. You’d be surprised how much dirt will be in the filters.
Lights: Plain old PAR cans, Fresnels and Lekos will last almost indefinitely with just a bulb replacement. LEDs will last but not as long due to the increased complexity. These lights have circuit boards and while LEDs don’t generate the heat the incandescents do, they still can sustain heat damage. Regularly check that the cooling fan (if equipped) is functioning. Since LEDs are the new kid on the lighting block new technology is rapidly being developed. New lights tend to be brighter and cheaper than older ones. I’d plan on a 3 year replacement cycle for quality LEDs. If you go with the cheap $99 or $199 LEDs plan that they’ll break in about a year. Lighting controllers tend to last forever but still after 7-10 years it’s worth looking at upgrading them. Dimmer packs tend to last a long time as well but if they start getting cranky just replace them.
Acquire, Deploy, Manage, Maintain/Upgrade, Refresh and Retire. Follow the design lifecycle of the equipment, maintain it according to manufacturer specs, upgrade on a prepared cycle and retire old or unreliable equipment. Over the course of your church’s life following a lifecycle plan will provide proper stewardship of your church’s financial resources.