When specifying a project, the term “or approved equal” (OAE) comes up often. We frequently find it easier to describe a specific make and model than force the bidder to decide what we are looking for from a detailed list of specifications. Adding the term OAE lets the bidder know they are free to present alternatives that are better or equal in terms of functionality, performance, and durability. And, make no mistake, we are happy to look at substitutions. We’d always prefer that an integrator was working with products they are used to, and limiting the products that can be used often limits the pool of competitive and competent bidders on a project.
As a result, we often find ourselves evaluating substitutions and lately we’ve had a few near misses that have caused us to re-think the process. Why? Because products, in general, keep improving and as a result we tend to take some features for granted. And that’s the root of today’s cautionary tale!
We recently approved a substitution for a number of pan/tilt/zoom (p/t/z) IP cameras on a project. The proposed substitution sure appeared to be a better deal for our client. The optical zoom range was better, resolution and other performance metrics were comparable, and the product was from a known manufacturer (Panasonic) with an excellent reputation and good product line. We had direct experience with their products on other projects, and may not have examined the data sheet as closely as we should have.
And even if we had gone through it with a fine tooth comb, we likely would have missed the fact that the substitution had no slip rings and was therefore a 350-degree dome, not a 360-degree dome as specified. This means that the dome didn’t rotate in a complete circle. At a certain point, it would stop and if you wanted to follow a subject, you’d have to rotate the dome quickly in the opposite direction to pick up where it left off. As these domes were going into a parking lot, there was obviously a usability issue with this. Fortunately, we had specified it correctly and we were working with an excellent integrator who stepped up to the plate and provided an alternative that met the original specifications.
My point is that we may no longer be checking for critical features on a product when evaluating substitutions, assuming that they are “jacks or better,” but we should be. When you buy a car, you no longer check to see if it comes with a spare tire as all cars include that, even though it was once an option. When evaluating electronic security equipment, I learned the hard way that such assumptions really don’t apply. You may be used to long warranties on cameras but you still need to verify. The same with power over Ethernet compliance (rather than compatibility), included accessories, and dozens of other things - including 360 degree rotation, apparently!
Now more than ever, caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware!”