by Martin Holladay
Although most builders can confidently specify plumbing or
roofing materials, many feel out of their depth when it comes
to answering customers' questions about broadband Internet
access or home automation. Perhaps you're still sitting on the
sidelines, wondering whether today's communication cables and
hardware will become obsolete, the way Betamax lost out to
Customer demand for structured wiring varies widely,
depending mostly on geography. In some areas of the country
— including San Jose, Calif., and northern Virginia
— builders have been forced by insistent customers to get
up to speed on communications wiring. But in rural areas away
from high-tech hot spots, demand for structured wiring is still
weak. "Builders won't spend a nickel until they know that their
customers want it," says Bill Black, vice president for wire
and cable at the Copper Development Association.
What's Structured Wiring?
Communications wiring is often referred to as low-voltage
wiring or structured wiring. Structured wiring includes the
cables, outlets, and distribution boxes, as well as the process
of installing them.
Structured wiring can accommodate many overlapping systems,
including telephones, Internet access, home computer networks,
cable or satellite TV, audio equipment, home-security
equipment, and home-automation functions (such as hvac control,
lighting control, and smart appliances). Structured wiring
generally includes two, and sometimes three, types of
- Unshielded twisted
pair (UTP or TP) wiring, which is basically upgraded
phone wire. UTP is used for phone systems, Internet access,
computer networks, and home-automation systems. The most
common type of UTP is called Category 5 or Cat 5 cable.
(Cat 5E is an enhanced version of Cat 5.) Cat 5 cable
contains 8 conductors in 4 bundled pairs. Cat 5 wiring
requires an 8-pin RJ-45 jack, rather than the usual 4-pin
RJ-11 jack used for most telephones.
(coax or CX), which is a heavier, better-shielded version
of RG 59, the common TV cable used in most homes. Coaxial
cable is used not only for television signals, but also for
cable modems providing broadband Internet access.
- Fiber-optic lines,
which are often called simply "fiber." Although fiber-optic
lines are commonly used for long-distance communications
cables, at present they have virtually no uses in homes.
Nevertheless, some structured-wiring installers include two
fiber-optic lines in their residential installations,
because the fibers can be marketed as an enhanced feature,
at little cost to the installer.
Most residential structured
wiring installations include two Cat 5 cables and two
RG 6 coaxial cables.
Bundled cable, which is
available from several manufacturers, is a sheathed cable that
usually includes two Cat 5E cables and two RG 6 coax cables.
Some types of bundled cable also include two fiber-optic
structured-wiring installers have achieved a consensus on what
a new home requires. The existing standard for residential
communications wiring is ANSI/TIA/EIA-570-A, published in
September 1999. This standard offers two grades of service;
most installers recommend that new homes be equipped with Grade
2 service, which requires installing two Cat 5 cables and two
RG 6 coax cables to most rooms. Standard 570-A requires wiring
to conform to a star topology (meaning that each outlet is
served by home-run cables running back to a centrally located
distribution panel). This standard replaces an earlier
standard, 570, which permitted daisy-chaining cables.
From the perspective of companies promoting structured wiring,
most Americans, including builders as well as homeowners, are
ill informed about communications wiring. This lack of
knowledge, they feel, is a major barrier to growth.
Component manufacturers are trying to reassure bewildered
customers by forming marketing alliances. In February, 2001,
Smart Corp., a home-automation products manufacturer in Las
Cruces, N.M., announced an alliance with appliance manufacturer
General Electric and software giant Microsoft. Similarly, Home
Director, a manufacturer of home-automation products, recently
announced a partnership with Sears Connected Home, the
home-automation division of Sears Roebuck. The marketers
forming these alliances hope that uncertain homeowners and
builders will be more likely to purchase systems from a company
with a well-known brand name.
Another hurdle for the industry is public indifference to
home-automation features. A sizable fraction of the population
is content to control their lights with toggle switches and
their furnaces with old-fashioned thermostats, and doubt the
need for their home appliances to be connected to the Internet.
But even skeptics admit that though their refrigerators don't
need to be online, their teenagers do. "What's driving this
thing is the demand for faster Internet," says Bill Black.
What about existing homes?
High-tech proponents predict that within the next five or ten
years, structured wiring will become standard in new homes,
just as indoor plumbing did in the early years of the twentieth
century. When it comes to rewiring existing homes, however,
predictions vary. "Only a small percentage of homes in the
marketplace have fanatics who want to rewire their homes," says
Richard Dunfee, training program manager at BICSI, a Tampa,
Fla.-based trade association for manufacturers and installers
of communications wiring.
Many manufacturers are developing systems to permit computer
networking and broadband Internet access without installing any
new wires. Under development are wireless systems using
radio-frequency (RF) communication, powerline systems that
transmit signals or data over existing AC wires, and systems
designed to cram increasing amounts of data through existing
4-conductor phone lines.
Consensus standards do not yet exist for these emerging "no
new wires" systems. But even if wireless technologies
eventually capture the existing-home market, the advantages of
wired systems — better privacy and higher
data-transmission rates — will almost certainly tip the
balance in favor of structured wiring for new homes.
One supplier of structured-wiring
systems, Home Director, calls its distribution panel a
network connection center. All of a home's Cat 5 cables
and RG 6 coaxial cables are wired back to the panel in
a home-run configuration, simplifying troubleshooting
and future modifications.
Climbing on Board
Before you decide to jump onto the broadband bandwagon, be
sure to do your homework. Cat 5 wiring or bundled cable must be
installed with care (see
Wiring," 5/00). The wires won't be able to carry the data
they were designed to transmit if they are installed with tight
bends or too close to 120-volt AC wires, or if twisted pairs of
wires are excessively untwisted when terminated in a box. The
wires can also be easily damaged if they are pulled too hard or
dented by staples.
Careless rough-in is just one pitfall for the unwary. The
main reason that most builders prefer to leave structured
wiring to an experienced subcontractor is to ensure that
someone else handles any problems during the warranty
Who's installing? Lately,
everybody and his brother has been getting into the low-voltage
wiring act. Contractors offering to install structured wiring
- members of CEDIA, a trade association that trains and
certifies structured-wiring installers;
- electricians, some of whom have received training in
- security-system installers, including Brinks Home
Security (800/334-9750; www.brinkshomesecurity.com);
- cable television companies, including Cox
Communications (404/843-5000; www.cox.com);
- installers employed by electronic retail chains,
including Radio Shack and Best Buy;
- phone installers;
- manufacturer-certified installers selling packaged
systems like Home Director (800/426-7144;
www.homedirector.com) and OnQ
Although most new homes do not include structured wiring,
the percentage that do is growing rapidly. As a result, there
is an acute shortage of qualified structured-wiring
. The cost to install
structured wiring in a new 2,500 square-foot home ranges from
about $750 to $3,500, depending on what equipment is included.
Cat 5 cable costs about 8 to 14 cents a foot, while bundled
cable (which includes two Cat 5E and two RG 6 coaxial cables)
costs about 50 to 85 cents a foot.
Learning more. Three good
sources of information on structured wiring are: CEPro magazine
(508/358-3400; www.cepro.com); the Custom Electronic
Design and Installation Association, or CEDIA (800/669-5329;
www.cedia.org); and the Home Automation and
Networking Association, or HANA (202/712-9050;