This is a follow up to the recent Notes For A Home Build article, this article will cover low voltage wiring in new construction homes and give you many things to think about as you plan your dream build.
You can future proof your home during the build by adding all sorts of wire to the house. Even if you don’t install all the devices right away, you can still run the wire and create a number of projects for the future. The idea is to prepare your new home for complete and comprehensive internet, TV, phone, alarm, and home automation.
You can apply many of the concepts to retrofit an existing home, but you’ll have to figure out running the wires on your own.
This article will deal specifically with Internet (ethernet), TV (RG6 coaxial cable), and phone. A future article will cover alarms and home automation.
Definition: Home Run
You’ll read in many places in this article the words “Home Run”. What this means is that all wires are independently run to a single location and not chained together. In other words, the wire from each jack or outlet in the entire house is brought to a single central location, usually in the basement.
The central location can be anywhere… In our house it is in a small locked room I built in the basement. You could put yours under the stairs as that is often wasted space and should be large enough. This room becomes the distribution and consolidation hub for all the signals in your home. For example, all of your internet cat5e or cat6 cable will go to this location and will be connected to your switch and router there. Your internet service, phone service, TV service, your roof mounted antenna, and any other incoming signal will all go this room and be distributed through your house. Your actual alarm system components and all your home automaton equipment will live there. And possibly a home file server and your backup external hard drive will be in this location as well.
Some services such as alarm and internet generally all go back to a single location already. But phone and cable are often split in the walls to save work and wire during the initial installation. For a proper system each jack should be independently run to the central location so there are no splits embedded in the walls.
Why Home Run: Flexibility
Home running all you low voltage wiring gives you more flexibility in how and what you connect, allows you to turn on and off different wiring to different rooms in your house, and makes trouble shooting a bad connection very easy. The downside is that you’ll use a little more wire. Oh well.
Chances are very good that not all jacks will be connected all the time. Home running allows you to change the active jacks according to your needs and your equipment. For example, in our house we have a total of 22 internet jacks. But at any given time only 7 are active since we only have an 8 port switch. If our needs change I can either change which jacks are active by simply plugging in a different cable, or I can upgrade my switch.
I wanted the option for every room in the house to have wired devices and I wanted the capability to have a TV in every room too. I know there is no way we will actually have a connected device in every room but I didn’t want to be restricted to where we could plug something in.
A Few Words About Cable
In my opinion the most cost and labour effective way to run wire is to use bundled cables (aka Structured Wiring). The cable I used 4 years ago contains 2x cat5e cables and 2x RG6 cables in the same cable jacket. it’s large and heavy cable, but it’s faster to run than a whole bunch of small cables.
If I had known what I know now, I would not have bothered running 2x RG6 cables to every room. In my opinion the use of co-axial RG6 will disappear in the fairly short term as TV signals get distributed from the basement by centralized TV tuners such as the HDHomeRun and ethernet connected media centers. I also think that right now fiber optic cables in the home are overkill since fiber today is mostly enterprise data center equipment. It is really expensive, not for the wire itself but for the network cards and switches you will need. I’m not saying DON’T run it, I’m saying if you are watching your money, I don’t think there’s a need for it today or for the foreseeable future in the home.
Doing it again, I would have bought double, triple, or even quad bundled cat 6 cable such as this one.
Side note: the difference between cat5e and cat6 in home applications is currently minimal. They are both capable of Gigabit connection speeds and generally their range is 90 meters (just under 300 feet). The benefit of cat6 is that is is capable of 10 gigabit speeds. In my opinion it will be quite a while before 10 Gigabit speeds are common in the home. But i would strongly suggest to use cat6 cable since there is only a minor price difference, and build in a bit of future speed ability to your home wired network. I wish I had used cat6…
I did not run separate phone cable to any room. There are a number of reasons:
- it’s relatively uncommon to have a wired phone anymore. Most home phones are cordless. At most you’ll need one phone line to plug your cordless phone into (but see #3 below).
- It’s getting less common to have a home phone at all as more people rely solely on their cell phones.
- If you do need a phone line wired into any room, two strands of the ethernet cable can be used as a phone line (in theory you could run four separate phone lines on a single ethernet cable) and you still have the remaining cables available for your ethernet connections assuming you ran multiple ethernet cables to each room.
We use magicjack which is an inexpensive voice over IP (VOIP) phone provider. Once our kids are old enough they will likely have their own magicjack phone number. Since there is ethernet cable going to each room, one of the ethernet cables can be used to plug the magicjack in, and the other could be used for a wired computer. Either that or they will simply have their cell phones…
Make A Detailed Plan
The first thing you need to do is plan. This is most important if your builder is letting you do some wiring yourself – you will likely have a short window of opportunity to get it done, and you don’t want to waste time planning on the spot, or worse, running out of cable or other equipment on a Sunday afternoon.
Get a copy of your builders floor plan and some coloured markers or highlighters. For each service – internet, cable, phone, put a different coloured dot on the plan where you want a jack to be. Try to imagine how your rooms will be organized, where a desk will be, where beds and TVs will be, where a small media center device might be.
From this plan you will be able to roughly estimate how much cable you’ll need – calculate height of the walls (don’t forget about adding height of the floor joists and the basement height as well!) plus the horizontal runs, and add 15% to each run for some snaking around in the walls and for a LOT of extra left over in the basement.
Here is how our house was planned (a drop consists of one bundled cable):
- Every bedroom: 1 drop.
- Home office: 2 drops on different interior walls. Allows for flexibility for desk placement in that room.
- TV room: 1 drop. We have several devices that connect to the network, so I decided to run dual cat5e cables to this location and split within the AV Cabinet using a small desktop switch.
- Living room: 3 drops, one on each major wall.
- Kitchen: one drop near the breakfast bar where a TV or media center might be located.
- Eating area: one drop at the built in homework desk.
But I missed a few. These days many kitchen appliances are internet connected as are thermostats, washers and dryers. I didn’t run any cable to these appliances since none of ours are connected. Our basement isn’t finished and I have access from below so cable will be run before the basement ceiling is closed in.
After I had done my math, I purchased two giant spools of bundled cable. This turned into 1000 feet of bundled cable. This was for a 2000 square foot 2 storey home.
Why so much cable in a world of wireless devices? A few reasons:
- As already mentioned, ethernet cable gives you Gigabyte speeds. Wireless N does not. Wireless AC is promising but still won’t give consistent gigabyte speed.
- Being plugged in will always be more reliable than wireless both for the initial connection and for ongoing data transfer, which is important for streaming HD video and 4k video in the future.
In addition, running wire to each room will allow you to easily add wireless access points (range extenders) anywhere in the house that isn’t well serviced by your main wireless router.
I assume you already have a drill and a spade bit and know how to use them, and that you are familiar with all the safety precautions you need to take when working with a drill and in a construction zone (such as work boots, eye protection, hearing protection and a good sense of balance). This is specifically NOT a how-to for installing and running wire… If you aren’t at this skill level, perhaps this job isn’t for you to complete yourself…
The Low Voltage Boxes
Low Voltage wiring, especially internet, should not be located in the same stud bay as high voltage electrical plugs. The electrical plug and wire can cause interference and disrupt the signal leading to slow network speeds.
Also, ideally, low voltage wire should not run beside AC wire and crossing AC wire should be minimized. Sometimes it will be impossible not to have them cross, but effort should be made to minimize the distance they run together. You’re better off with a longer run, within reason, than running beside AC wire for any distance.
Most low voltage boxes will be located at standard wall plug height. There will be a lot of them so being at the exact right height will make them look like they belong. I would suggest that you create a jig for installing the boxes rather than measuring each time. Cut a piece of 1×4 or other to the exact length you need to match the opening with the electrical boxes. Then when you go to install one of the low voltage boxes just rest the box on top of the jig and screw or nail it in. The exception here is for wall mounted TVs. you may want a low voltage box above your fireplace or on the wall in your home theater room (And have your electrician add an electrical outlet as well). Choose your height carefully – ideally you want the outlet(s) to be hidden by your TV.
Running the Wire
I will give a few pointers that are specific to this kind of low voltage wire installation:
- Low voltage wiring should be done after electrical is finished and after HVAC is completely in place. you will be more flexible about where low voltage wires run than electrical or HVAC. Plus, the worst thing for your builder would be to have a maze of wires all over the place that interfere with the installation of HVAC or Electrical. Aside from insulation, Low Voltage should be the last thing to be done while the walls are still open.
- Before you drill anything anywhere CHECK THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF WHAT YOU’RE DRILLING TO ENSURE THERE’S NO OTHER WIRE, ESPECIALLY ELECTRICAL, THAT YOU’LL BE DRILLING INTO!! This deserves repeating…
- Plan your routes. Think through where you’re coming from and where you’re trying to reach. A longer route may be easier to run, and you may have to work around obstacles such as triple 2×10 beams or steel beams.
- Put your spool of wire in the basement and run wires up from the basement. It will be easier to have your huge spool of wire in one location and branch from there rather than move the spool around the house with you. While you will be fighting gravity in some cases you will end up with the right amount of cable each time.
- Mark both ends of each cable / bundled cable with permanent marker for exactly where the cable goes. For example, if you have three drops in the living room, the drops would be labelled clockwise in the room LR1, LR2, LR3. Develop a number/letter scheme and stick to it. If there isn’t enough space to write on the wire, wrap a piece of duct tape around each end of the wire once it’s run and write on the duct tape with permanent marker.
- Remember that builders will be in there after you to drywall. Leave your wire IN the wall… Run it through the low voltage box and secure it really well BELOW the box (assuming your wire will be coming from below). That way, once you move in you will be able to pull the wire out of the wall. If you’re using bundled wire, I’d suggest to strip the outer sheath of the bundle from where the bundle enters the low voltage box. Doing this will allow you to pull one wire out and terminate it rather than pulling the whole bundle out, then putting it back. I didn’t do this and wish I had.
- You will also need to secure your wire in the floor/ceiling joists so that they don’t interfere with the ceiling drywall. These little zap straps with a nail hole in them are fantastic for this purpose – cinch them tight around the wire and nail it in every 4-6 feet.
- Ensure that you leave enough space between your holes so that drywall screws won’t touch the wire. This is also true for draping wire through ceiling joists. It should be held high enough so that screws won’t accidentally penetrate the cable. If it’s not possible to route the cable far enough away from potential drywall screws, use a metal safety plate to ensure drywall screws don’t get put at that spot.
- Leave a LOT of extra cable in the basement. leave at least 4 more feet per cable than you think you’ll need. You won’t know exactly where your routers, switches, and other cables will end up until after you move in. You don’t want to be short on wire!
- It will be MUCH easier to do this work with a helper. running cable, especially heavy bulky cable, can be tiring work alone. It is possible though, but you have to plan a bit better and count on going up and down stairs a lot. For heavier cable, you’ll likely have to push and pull it through holes you’ve made rather than pull it. Having your helper feed you wire can make the job go way faster. 3 to 6 feet at a time will probably be the limit to what you can feed at a time with the bigger wire.
- Finally, have your electrician wire two separate electrical plugs to wherever you put your distribution center. Each plug should run to a separate BUS in the electrical panel and be on separate breakers, and should be dedicated plugs to this area. I’ll explain more about this in the alarm and home automation article coming soon. Regardless of your home automation plans you will need a lot of electrical in this room so it makes sense to wire it early. Make sure these are surge protected outlets – you can buy outlets that are themselves surge protected, you can use a breaker that is surge protected, you can install whole home surge protection, or you can use high quality power bars with surge protection.
Once You Move In
In order to function as a connector, both ends of the cable need to be terminated.
The wire in each room will be terminated in a keystone module. Each module clips into a square hole in a mounting plate. You can get a variety of different mounting plate configurations for one to six connectors. Pick the one that matches your bundled wire and planned use. For example, if you ran four Cat6 cables to each location and plan to use all of them as ethernet, get the four hole mounting plate. If you plan to split one of the cat6 cables for two phone lines, get the 6 hole version and buy some blank modules as well. There are two wall plate options – those that come with the Decora cover integrated, and those that don’t (pictured). I prefer the ones that don’t because they more closely match the look of standard light switches and plugs.
There are different keystone modules for Cat5e and Cat6 due to to slightly larger wire used in Cat6 cable. Ensure you get the correct ones for the wire you have run! Terminating a keystone jack is called “punching down” the wire. A good tutorial is located here. Keystone jacks and plates can be found in most big box retail stores or at many online retailers. You’ll normally get better prices and better colour selection online from a retail store you trust.
Your bundled wire will contain different colours of individual Cat6 cables for each individual cable. I suggest to designate one colour as primary, another as secondary, and so on, then pick different colours of keystone jacks for each designation in order to keep your wiring consistent. And once you have decided, write it down on a piece of paper and store it near your central distribution point so you can easily remember two years down the road when it’s time to change something.
The basement end of the wire will have an rj45 (8 wire) plug attached to it. There are different plugs for cat5e and cat6 wire due to the slightly larger wire in cat6. Ensure you get the connectors that match your wire. I won’t provide a tutorial here because there are a lot of good things already written about terminating cat5e and cat6, such as here and here. What I will say is buy a good crimping tool for the job!
I am taking a progressive approach to wiring. I’m putting keystone jacks only in the rooms where I want a connection. As those needs change I’ll add more wall jacks. For the unused drops I simply have a blank plate covering the low voltage box.
Conduit Is Your Friend
A final note for when the walls are open: take the opportunity to run some large diameter plastic conduit from the basement to the attic. This is in case you forget something on an upper floor or you plan to do some wiring later, for example running speaker wire to the upper floors for whole home audio. If you are very limited in your time or access to your build, running conduit from the basement to the attic will help you run wire later. You can always run wire to the attic then back down inside the walls if you need to – it will use more wire but it will get the job done without cutting up your walls.
Use two 2″ plastic conduit or more. This conduit can have minor bends (preferably 45 degree bends or long smooth 90 degree bend. Bends are OK because you will have to pull wire through using a fish tape. I actually didn’t do this because I ran out of time, and really wish I had. It has essentially prevented me from installing whole home audio.
While we are talking about conduit, run a few small conduits to the basement for any low voltage boxes that have to be on outside walls. Use 1/2″ or 3/4″ conduit and connect it to the bottom of your low voltage box. Doing this will preserve the integrity of the vapour barrier and will save you a ton of headache trying to fish wire though an insulated exterior wall.
And plan your home theater room. If you will have speakers or any other low voltage connections on exterior walls, put in conduit. (Even if you can pre-wire everything in these rooms, running conduit can make our life much easier if you choose to change wire later). Some rooms can’t avoid exterior wall installations but with good planning you should be able to avoid exterior walls most of the time.
I hope this has helped you think a little more about wiring in your new home. I made some mistakes that for the most part aren’t impossible to undo, and I learned a whole lot about wiring in the process. Good luck to you in your wiring!