When building or remodeling a home, most builders focus on construction basics such as the foundation, plumbing, and electrical system. Unfortunately, many builders ignore the electronic foundation that supports high-speed voice, video, and data communications. If you’re serious about technology in your home, budget for structured wiring in your next new home or major remodeling project. Pulling the wires during construction is easy to do, relatively inexpensive, and it doesn’t disturb the finished home. Plus, you can roll the cost of structured wiring into the tax-deductible home mortgage. You may find the money you spend on wiring more than returned when you sell the home, because homebuyers have started showing their technical savvy. Homes wired for video and networking can have a higher resale value, especially those with high-speed Internet access.
How much should you expect to pay for structured wiring in a new home? Keith Smith, home cabling national sales manager at The Siemon Company, offers this rule of thumb: "Budget at least 1 percent of the finished cost of a new home for voice, data, and video wiring." He notes that this covers only the cost of wiring and installation labor; electronics such as TV signal amplifiers or network firewalls should be budgeted separately.
With wireless phone and data communication becoming so popular, you might think that wiring a home is no longer a high priority. Wireless technology such as cordless phones or 802.11b "Wi-Fi" data communication certainly can be a useful part of a connected home, but wireless technology doesn’t make a good foundation. At present, no wireless technology is as secure, fast, or reliable as a good set of wires. It’s like the difference between a space heater and a furnace; the space heater’s convenient but it doesn’t replace the furnace.
Wiring the Home
Structured wiring can mean different things to different people, but nearly all professionals agree on using a "home-run" wiring strategy and a minimum set of wires. With home-run wiring you make all the wiring runs from a central point in the house, usually in a closet or a basement. At the central point, the wires terminate at various types of patch panels that let you connect to equipment such as signal amplifiers or network hubs and to external sources such as the incoming telephone and cable TV lines. In contrast, many older homes often have telephone and TV lines connected in a "daisy-chain" fashion, where a single wire runs from room to room through splitters or splices. Such an arrangement causes lower signal quality and is a particular problem with high-speed services such as DSL, where data and voice share the same pair of wires.
For voice and data networking applications, the wiring of choice is Category 5, which consists of four twisted pairs of copper wire in a protective plastic or Teflon jacket. When properly connected and terminated, Category 5 cables can handle 100 megabit Ethernet data traffic, and they are more than sufficient for standard voice telephone lines or DSL data service. You can install even higher grades of network wiring, such as Category 6, if your budget allows and you want to plan for Gigabit Ethernet in your connected home’s future. Video applications use coaxial cable, or "coax," that consists of a single center-wire conductor surrounded by one or more shields to prevent interference. The center conductor is usually solid copper, and the shields are usually made of aluminum foil and wire braid. The most common type of coax used for home video applications is triple-shielded or quad-shielded RG6. The quad-shielded variety of RG6 can provide slightly better signal quality but it is thicker than the triple-shielded version, a bit harder to bend in restricted spaces, and requires special connectors.
What about fiber-optic cables? Five years ago, fiber was all the rage in high-end homes as a hedge against future high-speed data demands. Today, some structured wiring vendors still carry it but they don’t push it. "Fiber is an additional cost that doesn’t provide any benefit," says David Marshall, president of UStec Inc. Instead, improved twisted-pair copper wire such as Category 6 seems to be handling the high-speed data duties that fiber was expected to serve.
In addition to the types of wiring to use, consider where to run wires and how many runs you should make. "Install at least a ‘two-by-two’ run from a central location to each room in the house: two Category 5 twisted-pair and two RG6 coaxial cables," advises Marshall. Generally, one of the Category 5 runs is used for telephone, one for network; the RG6 cables are used for incoming and outgoing video. If you do expect to run a full complement of wires to each location, you can get pre-built bundles of cables to simplify the cable pulling process. "Plan ahead with as many outlets as possible," Marshall adds. "People don’t think they’ll need wiring to the baby’s nursery, but five years later that room may be a home office."
Generally, it’s best to consider security system wiring deployment separately from TV, network, and phone. Although it is low-voltage wiring and can be run in close proximity to the others, security wiring is usually installed by an alarm system professional along with the associated alarm panel, motion detectors, and magnetic contacts. The security system usually won’t need any interconnection with these other systems, so it doesn’t need to be installed in the same area. "I don’t recommend putting security in the same box with phone or network wiring because security wiring tends to generate noise," warns Siemon’s Keith Smith.
No matter how well you plan, there may be times when an additional wire run is needed after you’ve finished the home. To reduce the hassle of doing that work, consider installing wiring conduit and access boxes in locations that will be inaccessible once the walls are finished. For example, you might have a conduit that runs from the central wiring location in the basement up to the unfinished attic in a two-story home. If you find you need wiring in a new location on the second floor after finishing the home, the new wire can be pulled from the basement through the conduit up to the attic, and then fished down the wall of the second-floor room.
Getting the Job Done
Okay, now that you have a plan it’s time to run the wires. Pulling wires in an unfinished home is within the abilities of an average handyman who knows how to handle a drill, but incorrect installation can cause more than its share of headaches. There are a lot of rules to learn and follow. Access holes need to be drilled so that they don’t compromise the structural integrity of the joists or beams they penetrate. Low voltage wiring such as phone and network must be kept clear of AC power wiring to prevent interference. Local building codes may impose additional restrictions. Kinks, over-aggressive stapling, or tight bundling can affect the performance of Category 5 cable to the point where it cannot handle 100-megabit network traffic. Also, a builder or contractor might have liability concerns if someone other than their own subcontractor is pulling the wires. You should discuss these are issues with the builder before the project begins.
A professional cabling installer has the right tools, knows the tricks of the trade, and can usually get the job done in much less time than an amateur. The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) Web site at cedia.com provides information about wiring and home automation issues, plus a nationwide directory of participating dealers and installers. As with any project, it’s a good idea to get written estimates from multiple wiring contractors that spell out what will be done and what kind of guarantee is provided.
Regardless of who does the job, here are some rules that will ensure a top-quality job. Good labeling practices are essential. Both ends of every wire need to be clearly marked so they can be easily recognized when the time comes to use them. You can simplify this process if you use different colors for each wire. For example, if you’re using two runs of Category 5 to each location you might use gray-jacketed cable for phone and blue for network. For two RG6 runs, you might choose black for the outgoing (hub to outlet) signals and tan for the return signals. At every outlet a wire’s purpose will be clear from its color alone, so only the ends at the wiring center need to be labeled to indicate where they go. Special cable marking sets are available, or you can use a permanent marker to write directly on the cable if the cable’s color isn’t too dark. Don’t use household transparent tape or masking tape, which isn’t permanent and can leave a sticky residue.
For mounting outlets, use either "mud rings" or very deep electrical boxes. (A mud ring, a metal frame with two threaded holes, is nailed to a joist. The threaded holes are used to mount the finishing outlet cover.) Category 5 or coax wire can be damaged if it’s crammed into a box with sharp bends, so it’s often better to let the wires hang loosely behind the outlets in the wall cavity.
Check the wiring after it’s pulled but before the walls are up, because it’s easy to fix problems at that point. The simplest test, for continuity, ensures that the wires aren’t open or shorted. You can perform a continuity test with a simple electronic multimeter. Sophisticated tests, such as frequency response, require specialized equipment but they’re the only way to tell in advance whether the wiring can perform for high-speed data and video. These tests are not absolutely necessary when good quality cable has been pulled with care, but they’re an extra insurance policy. A professional installer should have the tools and equipment to test frequency response.
Even when wiring checks out fine at this point, there’s still another challenge for it to pass: the drywall crew. While the drywall is being hung, wires may be pinched, cut, nailed, or nicked. Also, outlets can be "buried" in the wall if the drywall crew forgets to cut out an opening for them. Mark the locations of each outlet box on the floor and check after the drywall is hung to make sure that every box was cut out and none are buried in the wall. Look inside the boxes to see if the wiring was cut or nicked; if so, see if it can be salvaged or whether a new wire should be pulled. A good time to do the final wiring check is after the drywall is up, but before the surface is taped or plastered. If a sheet of drywall needs to be removed to fix or find a wire at this point, it’s not a major inconvenience.
The most common and versatile way to finish low-voltage wiring is with "keystone" jacks. These consist of a finish cover plate with from one to six rectangular holes in the plate. You can snap a variety of different jacks into the holes, such as telephone, networking, cable TV, or audio connectors. Because the cover plates don’t dictate a particular layout, you can customize each location depending on the equipment you plan to connect there. Generally, you’d choose the plate color (e.g., white or ivory) to match the colors of the electrical outlets in the room. You can use jacks that match the cover plate color, but the jacks are available in many different colors and you can use color-coding to help ensure that the right equipment is plugged into the right jack.
The Wiring Center
The central wiring area, where all the wires meet, is where costs can really add up. The cleanest and most impressive layouts will use equipment from the same vendor and fit into the standard spaces and racks provided by the vendor. A multi-vendor approach generally saves money but may be a bit more challenging to lay out and install in a small space because of the varying equipment dimensions.
For telephone and networking, wires are usually connected to "punchdown blocks" using a special tool. The tool pushes the insulated wire into a "v"-shaped metal fork on the block, which cuts into the insulation and creates a good electrical contact. For telephone voice lines, the incoming phone lines are usually punched onto the block and connections made right on the punchdown block. On the networking side, the punchdown block connections usually go to RJ45 jacks and each line is plugged into a network hub or switch though a patch cable. Other equipment, such as wireless access points and network routers, will usually be located in or near the wiring center, and these will also be plugged into the networking hub or switch.
Video wiring is usually terminated with a threaded "F" connector on each wire. The connections go to a video distribution panel that amplifies incoming signals and splits them out for outlets around the house. The incoming signals include cable TV, satellite, or antenna, but can also include video sources inside the house such as cameras and DVD or VCR players. These video sources can be modulated onto an unused TV channel and fed into the video system so that a TV in any location in the house can see them.
Wired for the Future
A wired home has unlimited potential, but most people have limited funds. If you’re on a tight budget, commit the money you spend to the wiring inside the walls. Just finish off the TV, phone, and network outlets you initially require, place a blank wall plate over the unused outlets, and complete the work when your budget allows. All the wire finishing work can be done just as easily months or years after the house is built, but running wires after the walls are up can add another 20 or 30 percent to the cost of wiring. For the same reasons, don’t try to save money by skimping on the quality of the wiring; you won’t be saving money if you have to redo the work later. Your home’s electronic foundation deserves its fair share of attention.