Chp. 3: Cost to Operate

Chapter 3 – How much will this cost to keep running?


Converting to fulldome video isn’t just a one-time cost.


What those continuing costs will look like going on into the future will depend on what decisions you made with your conversion. A not unreasonable rule of thumb is the more you spend initially, the more you’re going to spend in ongoing costs, but the more you’ll be able to do with your planetarium system now and in the future.


Among the most basic costs are those related just to theater upkeep. All of that electronics and HVAC you might have had to install will require both regular maintenance and eventual repairs.




All projectors, of course, need lamps to illuminate them. With the video projectors, these lamps have a wide variety of costs and lifespans. Some of the video projectors currently used are standard types used in the cinema and other audiovisual industries. Others, though, are still highly specialized projectors, and lamps may be only available through one vendor. Obviously, such lamps will be far more expensive to replace. Count on having spares available. Some projectors use multiple lamps and may recommend that all lamps be replaced when only one of them burns out. How you manage your lamp inventory and usage will be entirely up to you, but you will need to plan for it.  A good rule of thumb can be to always have at least one complete spare set of lamps at all times. 


Always test new lamps as soon as you get them, since warranties often start when you receive the lamps, not when you install them. Do they work? Are they uncharacteristically dim? Is the color drastically different from what is normal for the lamps? If so, you may need to send them back, which will incur more shipping costs.




Projector Maintenance and Repairs


Regular care of projectors will help keep costs down. Keep fans and filters clean, do not disrupt airflow around the projectors, and follow any other preventative maintenance as specified for your projector models.


Even with great care, catastrophic failures can still occur. If your system is still under warranty, you may only incur shipping costs –make sure you save the original packing boxes. If your system is out of warranty, you will need to pay for repairs and/or replacements. If an endowment or budget reserve to cover such costs is not an option, make sure that your parent institution can handle such an emergency funding request.





You also need the budget to replace and maintain the back-end components. Many of us have first-hand experienced just in daily life that computers can always have catastrophic failures, and the computers running your system are never immune. It’s important to have the money to immediately replace any failed components with appropriate replacements, and to consider replacing them on a regular basis. Some facilities will even maintain two identical sets of computing hardware, so that in the event of a catastrophe they can be instantly switched out. Spare RAM and video cards can be important to have on hand… although you might find hard drives are most important of all! Quality enterprise hard drives may be more expensive up front, but will last longer than their consumer-level counterparts. Even so, the enormous read-write loads of fulldome systems can also make these the components that need the most replacement.


Aside from the components running your theater, you need to fund the components doing any production. Computing power still continues to increase at a rapid pace, and this means you’ll probably regularly need to upgrade any production computers.


If you have a render farm for creating pre-rendered content, that will mean regularly upgrading many computers, as well as adding additional computers to continue distributing the load. And it’s not just hardware that costs money: software often costs money, too. You’ll need to regularly spend money on renewing or purchasing additional software licenses. There are a variety of open source software solutions that can keep your costs down, but open source software may not necessarily meet all of your needs, nor give you as much room to utilize or collaborate with freelance artists that often use commercial software packages.


Production and Maintenance Staffing


If you do want to do a lot of pre-rendered production work, especially to produce content for sale to other planetaria, you’ll likely need an expanded staff. For higher-end work in animation, editing and compositing, this staff needs the appropriate specialized training, and this also means you’ll need to pay industry appropriate rates.


Pre-rendered productions will not only involve more man-hours than classical programming did, they’ll also involve lots more computer hours, hundreds or thousands of combined hours of computers rendering away, 24/7 for weeks or months at a time. It is not impossible with a small staff or perhaps even one person, but it will take far longer to complete.


You absolutely can avoid some of those costs by not doing pre-rendered productions, or you can reduce costs by pooling your creative and technological resources with other planetarium producers. While cost sharing is an obvious benefit of collaboration, working with others has the added benefit of assistance in creative problem-solving.


Service Contracts


Aside from the costs related to the continued updating and staffing of the system as it is now, there are often service contracts from the vendor related to the sustainment and maintenance of the projectors and hardware, and keeping your facilities’ software up-to-date and supported properly.


Before you know it, those initial conversion costs might be rearing their head again. Opto-mechanical projectors could last for decades when properly maintained. Many facilities are still running projectors from the ‘60s and ‘70s today. That kind of longevity doesn’t exist with fulldome systems. As projection technology has advanced at a stunning pace since the inception of fulldome video, a system purchased only a few years ago is already beginning to show its age. While projection technology is stabilizing, especially with the revolution in digital cinema, individual hardware components go obsolete and are discontinued. Resolutions, contrast, color saturation and brightness are all improving, and better technology is always trickling down to improve less expensive projectors.


That means within 5, maybe 10 years of your initial conversion, you might find yourself needing to upgrade that technology to a more current generation. Some components might be able to stay intact, but you might find you’ll not only need to make front-end changes, but also new back-end equipment to keep everything running.


As mentioned in the last section, it can be difficult to justify raising the funds for these upgrades on a regular basis within only a few years of each other. It can be good, during the initial conversion, to raise enough to establish a modest endowment dedicated to the planetarium. Not only can this help with continual costs, as above, but if it accrues enough interest every 5-10 years, can be used to fund, or at least seed, the continuous upgrade process to keep the theater as up-to-date as possible.


It is not unheard of for some facilities to use a fulldome conversion to attempt to revive interest in a planetarium being neglected by its parent facility or community. But these ongoing costs can make this risky: while it’s tempting to think that a community that has just sunk thousands or millions into the conversion process will have a renewed interest in their planetarium, this isn’t always the case. The ongoing costs can be high enough that a planetarium without good institutional or community support can find itself an easy budget item to be cut, even if it was already a large investment.


If your planetarium is in a precarious budgetary or political situation already, it’s probably best to find ways to improve what equipment you have already. Improve your relationships with any parent facility or community (as much as possible, we all know some of these relationship can be difficult), and keep any equipment changes low budget. Make sure what you have is equipment that can run on minimal support for a long time, rather than take on some of the greater costs and risks that can be associated with fulldome. If you feel fulldome is critical to your mission, shop carefully. Make sure you go with an option you feel your facility will be able to sustain and one you’ll feel confident using to wow your facility and your public.