Homeowners who use computers, MP3 players, digital cameras,
satellite or cable television, and other electronic equipment
are asking for houses that make it easier to live with these
devices. They want extra phone lines, easy housewide access to
their high-speed Internet connection, and the ability to listen
to music or watch TV in any room in the house.
The people who know how to make this happen refer to themselves
as home-technology integrators. When I started installing home
automation equipment in 1989, the first thing I learned was
that the part you can't see — the in-wall wiring —
is the most important part of the system. Back then, there were
no standards for this type of wiring, but the industry has
since established standards that make it possible to install
high-tech wiring without the worry that it will be incompatible
with new equipment or obsolete in a few years. As a result,
two-thirds of all production builders now offer structured
wiring as a standard upgrade.
What Is Structured Wiring?
"Structured wiring" is the term used to describe the
distribution panel, low-voltage wiring, and wall outlets that
tie communication devices together in a "connected" and
"automated" home. Installed in a central location, the panel is
linked by wire to outlets and devices in various rooms.
There is nothing new about having such wired devices as phones,
intercoms, and multispeaker audio systems in a residence. But
with structured wiring, the cabling for video distribution,
music, phones, computer networking, security, hvac control, and
lighting control is planned, installed, and managed as a single
system. This allows for simpler operation from more locations
within the house.
Home runs offer flexibility. One major difference between
conventional and structured wiring is that in the latter
arrangement all of the wires are "home run." That means each
device is connected to a wire that runs all the way back to the
central distribution panel (see Figure 1). In the
"daisy-chained" wiring found in electrical systems, each outlet
or device is connected to and affected by the one before it.
Home runs increase the integrity of transmission by reducing
the number of splices and connections.
Figure 1.Structured wiring requires many cables,
because each one goes directly from the distribution panel to a
single receptacle or device. The cables in this panel (left)
have been trimmed to length and terminated with RJ-45 and
coaxial connectors. When the installation is complete, the
panel will resemble the one in this manufacturer's photo
Home-run wiring makes it easy to go to the distribution box
(which is like a circuit-breaker panel) and reconfigure the
system by unplugging a wire from one component and plugging it
into another. For example, clients might keep an eye on their
baby by installing a monitoring camera in the nursery. A few
years later, they might want to convert that room to another
use. With structured wiring, they could unplug the camera and
use the existing wire to connect a computer to the Internet or
a television to a cable or satellite source. Without structured
wiring, the conversion would be much more difficult, because
new cable would have to be fished into the room.
Similar to an electrical panel, the distribution panel is a
metal box through which all of the wires pass. But, unlike an
electrical panel, which sends electricity in one direction, the
distribution panel functions as a hub. Any device that is wired
to the panel could potentially connect to any other device on
or off the property.
An empty box. Like an
electrical panel, a distribution panel starts out as an empty
box. But instead of breakers, different modules are added to
the panel, depending on the system's various devices. For
example, there are modules for phones, video, audio, data
distribution, and security. A distribution panel also can be
outfitted with networking components, such as a cable modem and
router, and hard drives for storage of music and video
Sometimes the distribution panel is called the brain of the
system, but in reality it's more like a highway interchange.
The "smart" parts are the computers, control devices, and
modules that plug into the panel or into outlets around the
home. This makes upgrading easy: Instead of tearing open a wall
to swap out a device, an old component can simply be unplugged
and a new one put in its place (Figure 2).
Figure 2.The module with the coaxial connectors on
it is a splitter for distributing audio/video signals (right).
The blank plates represent open spaces where other modules
could be installed. Here (far right), the installer plugs a
Cat-5e cable into a module that networks
There are several types of cable that can be used in a home
system. The most common ones are Category-5e (four twisted
pairs) for voice, data, audio, and control devices; RG-6
coaxial cable for video; and 16-4 stranded cable for music
distribution. Security devices use either 22-2 stranded or
— if the device requires power — 22-4 stranded
cable. Fiber-optic cable is optional; few types of equipment
use it now, but you might want to install some for future use
Figure 3.At left are three of the most commonly
used cables: Category-5e (top), RG-6 coax (center), and 14-4
speaker wire (bottom). On the right are a bundled cable (top)
and a cable for a video monitoring camera (bottom). The bundled
cable contains two Cat-5e and two coax cables. The video cable
contains a coax cable plus a pair of low-voltage wires to power
The installation goes faster if you use bundled cable.
Typically consisting of two Category-5e cables and two RG-6
coax cables (and available with fiber-optic as well), bundled
cable is more expensive but takes less labor to install than
Wall outlets are the primary access points to the in-wall
wiring. An outlet consists of a wall plate with openings for
different types of connections — typically two RJ-45
jacks (for phone and data) and a pair of coaxial cable
connectors. An RJ-45 jack looks like an oversized phone jack
and will accept the RJ-45 plugs used for computer networking,
as well as the RJ-11 plugs found on standard phone cords.
Phone. One RJ-45 could tie
into a multiline phone system or allow the owners to use the
telephone as an intercom between rooms. The clients could also
use it to talk to someone who is at the front door, or even to
unlock the door and let visitors in.
Computer. The other RJ-45
could connect the computer to the Internet, to a remote backup
device such as a hard drive, or to a home network that includes
printers, scanners, and other computers.
Video. The coaxial connectors
bring video into and out of a room. The homeowners could use
one connector to allow a television to receive remote video
sources from the distribution panel, such as cable or satellite
TV or a VCR or DVD player in another room. They could use the
other coax to send signals out from a monitoring camera or from
another source (such as a DVD player) in that room. There could
also be receptacles to connect freestanding speakers to sources
elsewhere in the home. The source could be just about anything
— a conventional radio broadcast, a CD, an MP3 recording,
or a radio that comes in via satellite, the Internet, or
Creating a Plan
Normally, structured wiring is installed right before the
drywall and after all of the mechanicals. But planning for it
should begin early in the job.
I start by talking with the homeowner and the builder about
what systems need to be supported. The list might include
— but would not be limited to — phone, video, data,
music, security, hvac control, and lighting control.
Once we've determined which functions to support, it's time to
decide which rooms to install them in. Some components that
connect to the system might be available in just a few
locations, while others might be available nearly everywhere.
For instance, music speakers may be desired only in the family
room and kitchen, while phones, Internet, and video may need to
be available in a number of locations.
There will be a lot of wires to keep track of, so to prevent
confusion it's a good idea to create a chart that lists every
wire by type, intended use, and where it starts and ends. I use
this as a checklist to make sure nothing is missed (Figure
Future satellite TV
Loop extra cable
Prewire for future use
Prewire for future use
Prewire for future use
Great rm computer
Phone and data/Internet
Great rm TV
Prewire for future rear speakers
Figure 4.Installers use a checklist that lists
every wire by type, use, and location to ensure they don't miss