The True Cost of Free Car Audio Installation

You've seen the ads. "All head units installed FREE!". "Security systems $99 installed.". Typically you'll see these specials advertised by the large chains but now specialty shops are starting to get in on the "free install" bandwagon. Sounds good right? After all most shops want $40 to install your new head unit. So what's wrong with free installations? Read on.

In and Out Rush Jobs

Free installs bring in a lot of business all at once and often the store doesn't have enough installers to handle the sudden surge. This puts the installers under pressure to start cranking out installations faster to keep customers happy. And what happens when people are rushing? Mistakes get made, corners get cut and vehicles get damaged. The installer might not even notice that anything was damaged but you'll know and you'll have to prove it. A good installer will do a check of the vehicle for damage both before and after the installation but when the pressure's on the checklist is often the first thing to go. Now it's up to you to convince the manager that the two inch scratch in your dash was not there when you brought it in.

Twist and Tape

Another casualty of the free installation pressure is proper wiring connections. I always insist on using solder and heat shrink for my installations. Crimp connectors (properly used) are another acceptable option. But both of these connections take time and money. The solution of the harried installer is the "twist and tape". Basically it involves stripping the two wires to be connected, twisting their bare wire together and taping over the twist with electrical tape. The only thing holding the connection together is friction and a little bit of adhesive. In the always moving, always bumpy automotive environment this is not acceptable. This is especially critical in security system installations where the safety of the vehicle could be compromised by poor connections. Some installers don't know any other way so make sure you specify that you want either solder and heat shrink (not electrical tape) or crimp connectors.

What Do I Need an Adapter For?

Unless you have a factory DIN sized head unit you're probably going to need a dash kit. These are the plastic assemblies that allow the installer to fit a standard DIN size head unit into your non-standard factory opening. These will run $10 and up and will almost never be included in the "free installation".

Dash kit
Image courtesy of Metra

What Happened to My Factory Connector?

Another adapter you're going to want is a factory wiring harness adapter. This allows the installer to connect your aftermarket head unit to your factory wiring harness without cutting the factory connector off. Unless you plan on keeping your current vehicle forever you'll probably want to re-install the factory radio when you sell it. This will be next to impossible without the factory wiring harness plug intact. These adapters are in the $10-20 range and are often not part of the "free installation".

Wiring Harness
Factory wiring harness adapter
Image courtesy of Metra

Free installations are not always a bad thing. It really depends on the installer whether corners will be cut but even the best make mistakes when they're rushing. Just be aware of the possibilities and that free doesn't always mean no cost.

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