Theatre Green Book Two Toolkit – Maintaining and Replacing Technical Equipment

 

Maintaining & replacing technical equipment 

Introduction 

Every theatre in the UK has technical equipment. It’s vital to the success of theatre, and often represents a significant investment. So it’s essential to keep the equipment working as hard as possible. Inevitably, equipment will need repairing and replacing over time. Managing equipment is an important part of running a theatre sustainably.

• Good maintenance is the key to maximising lifespan, and ensuring equipment is running as efficiently as possible.

• Making equipment last longer helps mitigate the carbon impact of manufacturing it.

• Equipment has a carbon footprint from travel, too: much of it isn’t made in the UK.

Theatre technical equipment includes everything from stage lights, dimmer racks, control desks, speakers and projectors, to flying systems, pit lifts, cue lights and laundry kit. 

This toolkit takes you through the various items to consider when reviewing your technical equipment, from basic maintenance through repair and upgrade to full replacement. 

Maintaining equipment 

Ways to keep your kit going and knowing when you need to upgrade –

Most theatres and arts venues will have infrastructure or installed equipment that hasn’t been replaced possibly since the building opened, which could be 20, 40, 60 years ago. 30 years is beyond the expected lifespan of most electrical equipment. How do you assess what action to take on a weekly, monthly or annual basis to keep your venue running smoothly?  

Know your kit 

You know the equipment in your theatre – you use it every day. Some is frequently moved about and rigged/derigged. Some never moves, but is powered 24/7. What can you do to increase the lifespan of your equipment, minimise downtime, avoid unexpected repair bills. and improve sustainability? The information below will help answer some of these questions.

Planning Maintenance

Maintenance of equipment is an essential part of running a building sustainably, and it should be given the appropriate time and budgets that are needed. Poor maintenance doesn’t only mean inefficient equipment which needs early replacement. It can also mean bad sound quality, kit that doesn’t work, or – at worst – ‘show-stopping’ moments and dissatisfied audiences.

Maintenance takes time. Programme your maintenance time to work out how many staff you need, and develop a maintenance schedule.  

Plan how much time is needed to undertake maintenance that can only be done when the theatre is closed (LOLER checks on pit lifts / flying systems, EICR (Electrical Inspection Condition Report) on your electrical installation). Most Stage Engineering systems will require a third party to come in and carry out the tests and maintenance so it is vital to plan ahead allow time and space for checks. 

Basic maintenance

Always follow manufacturer’s instructions, which vary from each manufacturer. If an item is within a warranty period, any major faults should be referred to the supplier and/or manufacturer for advice and repair, don’t risk invalidating your warranty by attempting repairs yourself during a warranty period.

Do a risk assessment to make sure that doing maintenance on a piece of kit is safe to do so, and you have all necessary PPE if required and the appropriate tools for what you’re going to be doing.

Keep your kit clean 

Theatres get dusty. Whilst you’re never going to win the battle of the dust, it is worth protecting your most expensive items by removing dust from them on a regular basis.

Non-invasive maintenance – Dust can be removed from items easily with a vacuum cleaner and a new dry paintbrush, or an air compressor can blow dust out of items – this is always best done in the open air. Doing this will extend the life of your equipment, especially any item that has open sides, or a fan inside it (amplifiers, PCs, some moving lights). Over time, dust can cause components to fail, especially moving parts. Many cooling fans in equipment can be cleaned, so taking the time to clean the dust from inside and outside electrical items (if you can get inside), will make them last longer. A broken fan in a piece of equipment can cause expensive components to overheat, perhaps rendering the piece of equipment beyond economical repair. So with items that are critical to the operation of your venue, take the time to give them a clean, to make sure they last as long as possible. 

What a fan should not look like!

What a fan should not look like! 

 What a fan should look like!

 What a fan should look like! 

Carry out safety tests. 

As part of any maintenance regime, you should be following the Code of Practice – In-service Inspection and Testing of Electrical Equipment (5th Edition 2020) (ISITEE – published by the IET – formerly known as Portable Appliance Testing). 

Doing your ISITEE will ensure that your equipment is electrically safe to use. 

Repairing equipment 

Knowing how to maintain and repair equipment can put off the need to replace it. It’s as important as the equipment itself and should be a consideration in any purchase.  Anyone on the team with an electronics or engineering background may understand how equipment works at component level, and be able to help with repairs. Many manufacturers offer spare parts ranging from mechanical parts, screws, nuts and bolts, to whole circuit boards and more. 

If a set of powered loudspeakers have stopped working, but the speaker cones seem fine, the cost of replacing the power supply board or other circuit board may not be too expensive. Repairing an item is far more sustainable than replacing it, and lessens the impact of disposing broken equipment to landfill.

For older equipment that is still being used frequently you may find replacement parts more difficult to find after a while. Second hand stores like Ebay etc can sometimes come in handy as you may be able to find spare parts or even a complete replacement that can be used for parts.

Maintenance Contracts 

If you are not able to undertake repairs or do your ISITEE (appliance testing) yourself, you need to get a reputable provider to help. Choose a company that works with theatrical technical equipment on a regular basis (local hire companies are always a good first option). There are companies that will come and do ISITEE for less than £1 per item, but may lack the specialist expertise theatres need. Some hire companies offer a full-service maintenance contract, which would be suitable for venues that don’t have skilled in-house technical staff or have limited time or resources to undertake this work in house. 

The cost is likely to be balanced by less frequent replacement. Effective maintenance is essential to running a theatre sustainably. Repairing will always be more sustainable .

Think long-term for repairs and upgrades 

Planning for repair, upgrade and replacement should ideally begin as soon as equipment is purchased and installed. Installers can provide advice on expected lifespan. Maintenance can ensure you achieve it. Warranty periods can be monitored, and budgets planned long-term to manage your assets as sustainably as possible.

Monitoring equipment in use will give you early warning of major repairs and ultimate replacement. It can also flag up other problems. For example, if lights that you expected to last 8 years are all failing after 4, is there an environmental, operational or maintenance factor that is contributing to the failures?

Planning Checklist

Life span

  • Ask manufactures / distributers about warranty periods 
  • Ask manufactures / distributers about expected life spans, e.g. hours of use or expected number of duty cycles
  • Ask manufacturers what provision they have for the replacement, re-use or recycle of component parts
  • Research common points of failure and/or common issues with maintenance or operation of the equipment 
  • Ensure where the equipment is stored or located (for installed items) has the correct environmental conditions. For example; if the room you house your equipment racks in is hot and dusty the equipment is likely to fail more quickly. 
  • Artistic life span. How long is this equipment going to be relevant for before its outdated? 

Training

  • Ensure your technical staff are trained in operating the equipment, aside from safety issues, improper use can be a contributing factor in equipment failure
  • Make the most of manufacturers’ dedicated training programmes for  the equipment you buy. If it’s not freely available, ask for it as part of your purchase negotiation.  

Maintenance

  • Replacement parts – are these easily accessible and/or generic, or manufacture specific components
  • Understand if you are capable of maintaining this equipment yourselves or do you need outside assistance? If it’s not something you can maintain yourself, make sure you have appropriate annual budget allocation for the required maintenance

 

Replacing Equipment

Choosing New

There are several factors in choosing new equipment sustainably:

• Make sure it’s durable, and will provide maximum years of life before needing to be scrapped.

• When looking at options, check on the carbon footprint of manufacturing the equipment – and of delivering it, sometimes across the world.

• Check on its enery consumption in use.

• Avoid over-specifying. 

Understanding material and carbon footprint 

Speak with your local supplier and ask for information on where the equipment is coming from. Is it all manufactured abroad? Is there an opportunity to purchase locally manufactured equipment? At present most of the larger stage lighting and audiovisual companies manufacture their goods outside of the UK. However, a lot of stage engineering components like steel, hemp and wood are manufactured in the UK. 

Speak with your preferred suppliers or manufacturers to understand what the equipment is made from and from where it is sourced. You can usually find out a lot of this information on the manufacturer’s website too. 

As an example, to manufacture a stage lantern involves a large number of different elements from across the globe to be shipped to a factory to be manufactured. 

Understanding transport and packaging

Every piece of equipment needs to be transported, sometimes from overseas. 

Many manufacturers are now looking at ways to reduce the use of airfreight  and replace it by sea freight which has the lowest carbon emissions of all transport (Airplanes emit 500 grams of CO2 per metric ton of freight per km of transportation, while transport ships emit only 10 to 40 grams of CO2 per kilometre sourced from https://www.sourcinghub.io/air-freight-vs-sea-freight-carbon-footprint/). Some companies have already made this change for economic reasons, but more are moving to this approach. As users we must also try and ensure we order equipment in a timely fashion to avoid unnecessary costs and carbon emissions in flying our goods to us instead of it travelling by sea or train. 

Further ways to help reduce the carbon footprint of your new equipment is to try and wait until you have a large order that can be transported by one vehicle instead of many. Another consideration is ordering in advance to adequately incorporate lead times which most of the time will result in more carbon friendly transport methods. 

The revolution of electric vehicles for large goods vehicles has some way to go yet but its always worth asking your supplier if they have an option for electric vehicle delivery. 

Packaging of equipment can sometimes include a lot of single use plastics; you can ask your supplier to not use them and replace with sustainable packaging products.

Companies now use local suppliers for their pulp moulding which they use when shipping their lanterns. This is made from 100% recycled paper. The uses of plastics, in particular electronics is still high. The new Eco-Corr ESD film is hopefully a good alternative, and you should ask your supplier and manufacturer if they can use it.

If you are ordering in a large amount of the same equipment, you can ask your supplier and manufacturer to only include one copy of the manual or better still ask for an e-copy only! 

Specifying

Over specification can have large cost and environmental implications on construction or refurbishment of performance venues. There are many things to consider when considering your new equipment:

– Expected loads from touring and in house productions. Strike the balance between allowing additional capacity within the building structure whilst not over specifying your counterweight system SWL to cope with a ‘once in every 10 year’ show

– Create a strategy for how you might achieve a show which requires more capacity than your standard system allows, this might be some high-capacity strong points for example. 

– Overall load on the building capacity 

High specs can save on touring weights – 

– Venues that can have a high spec PA system, can reduce the need for PA systems to be toured with a band

– Speak with regular touring companies and producers to see if there is equipment or infrastructure that will help them each time they visit your venue. Discuss a long term hire or combined purchase of equipment that can be used by companies each time they tour in but is kept at your venue.  

Rehoming and recycling old equipment 

There are plenty of options to consider before sending old equipment to landfill.  Depending on the condition of your equipment you can sell it to other venues or second-hand retailers. Any profit made from these sales can sometimes be put towards offsetting the costs of the new purchases. 

If you can’t sell your equipment, can you give it away to other venues to be used as spares? 

By nature we’re creative, so why not look at your old stock of kit and see what can be salvaged and reused into something entirely different. Turn a parcan or spin dryer into a plant pot, turn a speaker into toybox, why not create some outdoor artwork from old hemp lines. There is so much we can do with our old kit! 

There will be of course some equipment or parts of it that nothing can be salvaged from, this is when you need to speak with your local theatrical lighting and AV supplier about WEEE Recycling. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive requires countries to maximise separate collection and environmentally friendly processing of these items. 

In the UK, distributors including retailers must provide a system which allows all customers buying new electrical equipment the opportunity to recycle their old items free of charge. For more information on this click on the government website HERE.

Recycle electricals

Lighting

Many venues are looking at changing to LED stage lighting. This is an expensive capital investment but a significant improvement in sustainability. An LED equivalent of a traditional 1kw Parcan or Fresnel lantern, uses around 150watts of power, 85% less energy than a 1000watt tungsten equivalent. LED fixtures do require more components in manufacture than traditional tungsten. HOWEVER, for most theatres, the in-use benefits of LEDs over Tungsten outweigh the carbon footprint of manufacturing.

The capital outlay of LED may be paid back quite fast. Find out what you are paying for energy (power and cooling) and do some calculations. As more venues turn to LED, the price of tungsten lamps will inevitably increase, so this should be factored into your calculations too.

Another benefit of LED fixtures is that they reduce the overall heat loads within a performance area, therefore reducing the energy demand for cooling.  

Converting from Tungsten to LE 

LED luminaires are fast becoming the go-to fixtures of choice for many venues with a wide variety of type and range of quality. Newer, premium fixtures with increasingly improving LED arrays are able to provide superior colour rendering mimicking that of their tungsten counterparts. With a reduction in power consumption as described above, switching to LED is a way to reduce a production’s footprint. 

However, there are some issues to be aware of:

• If you have relatively new tungsten fittings, it may be worth deferring the switch to LED.

• LED fixtures are more complex than traditional.

• Over time, LED colour rendering slowly degrades, meaning the light’s output will not be the same on year 10 as it was on year 1. Many manufacturers commit to 50,000 hours of use before this starts to show.

• LED fixtures need regular attention to ensure they run at their optimum conditions, ensuring a longer life. 

Luminaires with an LED source would not require dimmer racks as the intensity of the light is controlled within the fixture. Relay or non-dim racks could be provided within the infrastructure to support which tend to be cheaper. It’s worth considering, when designing a venue, if dimmed fixtures might be required. Not having the ability to bring in legacy or hired equipment might mean higher purchase or rental costs to fulfil your lighting design. 

If you have a large stock of tungsten profiles it may be possible to retro fix them with an LED source as demonstrated by ETC with their S4FWD product: https://www.etcconnect.com/Products/Lighting-Fixtures/S4WRD/Features.aspx. 

This is type of product enables us to keep using the bodies of our tungsten fixtures by only changing the back end of the fixture. This cuts down on waste and carbon emissions so is thoroughly recommend as an option moving forward. 

Summary 

We are living through a technological revolution. New products are produced every year, offering possibilities directors and designers may not even be aware of. If that technological arms-race means throwing away workable equipment, then it is not sustainable.  We have a duty as theatre makers to be responsible with our upgrades and not simply purchase the next new shiny product when its released. 

When thinking about the equipment you own and what upgrades you think you might need, ask yourself what the equipment you currently own can still do for you. Make your equipment last as long as possible through careful management and maintenance. Repair, rather than replace. If you need to upgrade working equipment, then make sure you find it a new home.

When upgrading or purchasing new equipment do lots of research, find out where the equipment comes from and how it’s made. Check its expected lifespan, and put a plan in place for maintenance and future replacement.

Sustainable theatre-making requires us to look at the whole life-cycle of equipment, from manufacture to disposal, ensuring throughout that we’re working as sustainably as possible. 

With thanks to Charcoalblue LLP