Wiring The High-Tech House - Continued
How Much Is Enough?
I recommend installing two coaxial cables (RG-6 shielded wire)
and two Cat-5e twisted-pair cables in every major room. The
wires should all run to a location where they can be connected
to a single gang wall plate with receptacles for phone,
computer, and video (Figure 5). The client doesn't have to use
all of them right away, but they will be there if needed.
Figure 5.Low-voltage wiring does not require
conventional electrical boxes. This green bundled cable goes to
a mud ring (left), but it could also go to an open-back box.
The cable, which contains two Cat-5e and two coax cables, will
terminate at a wall plate (above) with connection points for
A bare-bones system might include a distribution panel plus
boxes (with two Cat-5e and two coaxial cables) in the master
bedroom, kitchen, and living room. The homeowner would probably
use it for the phone, to share an Internet connection, for
network computers, and to run television off shared video
sources such as a DVD player, cable, or satellite. In new
construction, the installed cost would be about $375 ($75 per
room plus $150 for the panel).
An average system would include all of the above, plus runs to
other bedrooms and to extra rooms like the office, den, loft,
and basement. In addition to phone, TV, and computer, the owner
of a system like this would probably have monitoring cameras
and perhaps a whole-house audio entertainment system. The wire
runs still cost $75 each, but this system would require a
larger, $350 panel. Assuming an additional six rooms (four
bedrooms plus a den and office), the structured wiring would
cost about $1,000.
A better system, containing all of the above, plus runs to more
locations and fiber-optic cable for future needs, could cost
$4,000 or more.
All of these prices are for new construction; unless the
building has been gutted, it costs much more (two to four times
more) to retrofit an existing home. The above estimates don't
include the cost of modules and electronic equipment.
Because it's so much easier to install wiring when the walls
are open, it's a good idea to install extra cable or a chase to
areas where wire might be needed at some future date.
I recommend running 2-inch PVC pipe between the distribution
panel and the attic, so you can get wire to rooms on the second
floor. Because new entertainment equipment is being introduced
all the time, I often run empty conduit from the distribution
panel to the area where entertainment equipment (audio or home
theater) might someday be located.
It's also a good idea to run speaker wiring from the
distribution panel to areas where the owner might want to
listen to music in the future. The volume and audio source is
typically controlled by wall-mounted keypads in the individual
rooms, so run Cat-5e wire to the keypad location.
Another option is to run extra wire to the thermostats so the
owner can activate the hvac system remotely or avoid the hassle
of using a programmable thermostat. Depending on what equipment
is located outdoors, you might want to run wire or conduit
there, too. With the right equipment, lawn sprinklers, pool
pump, and spa heater could all be remotely operated. Other
options include a door phone, outdoor speakers, and an outdoor
camera for keeping an eye on the kids.
What about wireless? Wireless connections are an option for
certain kinds of signals. They are a good way to share an
Internet connection with a laptop that is used in multiple
locations. However, a wireless connection is unlikely to be as
fast or as reliable as one that is hard-wired. Also, there may
be security concerns, because wireless signals do not stop at
the wall of the house. Without a proper firewall, neighbors or
passersby may be able to pick up the signal and access the
homeowners' Internet connection or hard drive. I think of
wireless as a supplement to — rather than a replacement
for — a hard-wired system.
Installing the Components
Prewiring is the act of pulling all the low-voltage wires and
installing the service panel and boxes. Household wiring can
cause electrical interference, so it's important to keep
low-voltage wiring away from it. Ideally, structured wiring
should be at least 12 inches away from electrical wires; 24
inches is even better. At some point, a low-voltage wire may
need to cross household wiring. When that happens, be sure to
cross at a 90-degree angle to minimize the amount of
Figure 6.Because household electrical wiring
produces interference, the installers keep the blue low-voltage
cables away by running them along a different ceiling joist
than the Romex (left). If structured wiring has to cross
high-voltage wiring, the two types of wire should cross at a
90-degree angle to minimize interference (right). In this case,
the low-voltage cables above the joists are perpendicular to
the household electrical wire that runs along the
Because many mechanical subs and electricians are not aware of
these requirements, it's important to let them do all of their
rough-in work before installing structured wiring (Figure 6). I
don't want an electrician coming in later and running his wires
close to (or through the same holes as) my low-voltage wiring
to save time. And low-voltage is more delicate than household
wiring, so it's important not to staple, fold, crimp, or splice
it. (Where fastening is necessary, I loosely wrap the cable
— or bundle of cables — with a cable tie and then
either staple or screw the loose end of the tie to the
When I'm running wire for future in-wall speakers, I like to
leave some extra in the wall so that it's easier to shift the
speakers' location. It's also smart to document the location of
prewire items by photographing them before the drywall goes up
Figure 7.The best way to prewire for future
speakers is to leave extra wire and loosely staple it in a
zig-zag pattern across the bay. This makes it much easier to
find the wire later on.
Locating the panel. It's easier to wire the house if the
distribution panel is centrally located. It can go in a closet
or in the mechanical room; the important thing is to keep it at
least 24 inches away from the electrical panel — 36
inches (or more) would be even better. Some of the devices in
the panel may require power, so it should have a dedicated
15-amp line that enters the panel from a different end than the
I try to install the panel in a conditioned space so it will be
easier to work on. Protecting the panel from temperature
extremes also makes it less likely the modules will go haywire
because it's too hot or cold.
Final connections. Once the drywall is up and the walls are
painted, it's time to terminate the cables and install wall
outlets. This part of the job includes making connections
within the distribution panel and using electronic test
equipment to verify that the in-wall cables are correctly
Unlike electrical wires, which are stripped and screwed to
terminals, low-voltage cables are terminated by clipping them
into the backs of wall plates or by attaching them to pluglike
coax or RJ-45 connectors (Figure 8). I use a hand-held crimping
tool to press the connectors onto the cable. Once the connector
is on, the cable can be attached to the wall plate or plugged
into a receptacle in the distribution panel.
Figure 8.Four twisted pairs of Cat-5e cable clip
into the back of a wall-mounted control device (left). Once
installed, the device will control the speaker volume in the
room and access an audio system that is installed elsewhere in
the house (right).
With several cables terminating at every wall plate, keeping
track of which cable goes where can be tricky. To avoid
confusion, I like to color-code my cables (cable is often
available in different colors). For example, I'll run video-in
with black coax and video-out with white coax. The Cat-5e wire
to the boxes can be color-coded in a similar manner: gray for
phone and blue for data. Color-coding the receptacles on the
front of the plate (phone system gray, data jack orange, and so
on) has made a lot of my clients happy. At the very least, use
consistency in how you connect wall plates throughout the house
— so that, say, phone jacks are always in the upper left.
If you can't do that, label each receptacle.
When the cables are pulled, they come into the panel and run
long. There are a lot of them, and the only way to keep track
is to label each one with a marker, number tape, or write-on
label. The color and type of a wire may tell me what it is, but
I still need to mark where it goes (Figure 9).
With home-run wiring, there are a lot of
cables, so after installation it's important to mark each one
with the same information that's on the wiring
Finally, I use an electronic tester to verify that the
individual cables are intact and properly terminated at both
ends. At this point, modules can be put in the panel, and
phones, computers, and electronic devices installed in various
rooms. If anything needs to be rerouted, it's just a matter of
plugging or unplugging, either in a room or in the distribution
Helen Heneveldhas 15-plus years of experience in the
home automation business and is co-author of the manual and
certification guide HTI+ Home Technology Integrator & CEDIA
Installer I All-In-One Exam Guide.