Low voltage wiring - what you need to know
Your home's low-voltage wiring is the foundation for which everything communicates. Wiring after a home is completed is significantly more time-consuming and costly. So how do you ensure it's done correctly and nothing is missed?
Wiring Gauge and Conductors
In some of these sections below you'll see reference to wiring gauge and conductor count. The wiring gauge is simply how thick the copper wire is. The lower the number, the thicker it is. The conductor count refers to how many individual color-coded wires there are inside a single cable. For example, if you see a wire designated as 16 AWG/4 it means it has 4 individual wires and each wire has a 16 gauge thickness rating.
First things first: let's talk conduit. Conduit is flexible non-metallic tubing installed during your home's construction from your attic to a termination point (like a wall outlet). This tubing provides a clear runway that will allow the replacement of older cabling and/or new cabling to be installed with relative ease. In a perfect world, everywhere we are terminating ethernet, coax, HDMI, audio or other cabling would be fed with conduit. However, we at Firefly understand that cost often makes this prohibitive. The next best thing would be to use conduit for all locations that would be extremely difficult to get to later. These places include outdoor patio TVs, internet service provider handoffs, brick/masonry locations like fireplace TVs, and finally areas with difficult future overhead access. This could be where there is little to no attic space or where cabling is run from one story to another.
Now that we have conduit out of the way, let's talk ethernet cabling. Depending on budget and need, we recommend either Cat6 or Cat6a ethernet cabling. While there are many similarities between these two standards, the biggest difference is in the speed capabilities at longer distances. Both will handle 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) or 1000 Megabits per second at 328 feet. Generally in the states, your internet service provider will max out at this speed. However, we don't wire for today. We wire for tomorrow. Cat6 will do 10 Gbps to 165 feet while Cat6a will be capable of 10 Gbps for the entire 328 feet.
Note: Copper not copper-clad! Some wiring manufactures use acronyms like CCA (copper clad aluminum) or other terms to describe ethernet cabling that is not pure copper. Copper-clad aluminum degrades over time, reducing speed and reliability. It is generally MUCH cheaper than pure copper which is a good indication to look a little deeper into the technical specifications.
Now that you know what cable, let's talk where and how many. Typically, home builders will place a single ethernet drop at each TV location. This is a good start but misses the mark in some key ways. The first, and arguably most important piece for a modern home, is your WiFi coverage. When your internet service provider comes in to place their equipment, their first thought is generally where is it easiest for them to install. The best location is often an afterthought. If you only have single wire runs at each of your TVs, it means placing your router there or back where all of the cables will homerun to which is generally not centrally located for good WiFi coverage (more on this later). Instead, a good builder will wire for multiple Wireless Access Points (or WAPs) across your home. While we will have another article focusing on proper access point placement, a good rule of thumb is one access point for every 1500-2000 sq ft on a single level. Even if your basement is only 150 sq ft, put another access point there.
Next, ethernet cables can be used for more than just connectivity. You can also use them to send HDMI, IR, and audio signals back to a central location. Let's take HDMI for example, why may you prefer sending HDMI over ethernet rather than just running a long HDMI cable? Because it is more future-proof. Is that HDMI cable that was installed 10 years ago only capable of 1080p? What happens when you install a 4K or 8K TV? What future standard may we want instead in 5, 10, or 20 years that would mean pulling it out and installing a new HDMI cable? Instead, with Cat6 ethernet we don't need to change the cable in the wall when a different standard comes along, we just change the converter/receiver equipment on each end. Saving time, money, and a lot of headaches.
Security cameras are another consideration in your ethernet wiring plan. Modern-day IP cameras receive both power and communication with only a single ethernet cable run, simplifying install complexity. Run ethernet cables anywhere you may think you want a security camera in the future. It's easy to keep it bundled up in an eave or behind a wall until that point, just make sure you keep track of where everything is.
Last, don't forget your internet service provider. You have a brand new home - everything is fresh and clean. Then when the internet provider comes, they need to run an ugly cable up your wall and around your home to get access inside. Always run ethernet, coax, and an extra pull-string (with conduit) to an outdoor box. It's clean, professional, and your internet service technician will really appreciate it.
RG6 Coax may be going the way of the dinosaur, but it is still a standard in new home construction due to the use of this cable by traditional cable and satellite TV providers to get signal to each set-top box. Just like ethernet, it's relatively inexpensive to install while there's no drywall up so put at least one drop to each TV location. Coax, like ethernet, can also carry audio signal back to a whole-home audio system as well. If you are an avid movie watcher or music listener, another place you may want to consider having coax installed are subwoofer locations. These could be in general areas like the living room and kitchen as well as outdoor areas like the patio.
Wired security sensors make security systems seamless. No batteries to change and one panel to control it all tucked away out of sight. Door contact and motion sensors only need 22 gauge, 2 conductor wire. However, it's smart to run 4 conductor wire in case you have a cut in your wire down the road which leaves a conductor inoperable. For glass break sensors and keypads, 4 conductor wire is needed. For the same reason above, we suggest running 6 conductor wire for peace of mind.
Multi-room audio is our most requested smart home offering. We recommend wiring the living room and any other dedicated movie watching room like a theater or den for surround sound. For the kitchen, dining, patio, and master suite wire for multiple speakers in each room depending on size and use. The gauge of wire depends on how far each speaker is away from the audio amplifier and how much power each speaker needs to operate. Generally in residential, 16 or 14 gauge wire will more than suffice. However, it is not unheard of to see 12 and 10 gauge wiring depending on distance and speaker. Like security above, we recommend running 4 conductor wire to each speaker instead of the usual 2 conductor wire in case anything is damaged during the building process or in the future. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
The network rack
After knowing what kind of wiring and how many we want, we need to decide on the central point at which all the wiring will lead. You may have seen in-wall boxes that builders will put all of their wiring. Here are a couple of common mistakes builders can make when using an in-wall enclosure. First, the type of material the enclosure is important. Metal enclosures will kill WiFi signal in or out. While we do not recommend installing a WiFi router in an enclosure, we understand internet service providers may do so for ease of install. Also, if you have a smart lighting controller or other accessories that require WiFi in your enclosure and your router is outside of the enclosure, it will have a hard time connecting and staying connected. If we are installing an enclosure, we use high-quality plastic construction which works better for wireless communication.
Where the rack or enclosure is placed is an important consideration as well. We often see electricians and/or builders install these in the garage next to the breaker panel. This is suboptimal for several reasons. Any network equipment like switches or routers installed in these enclosures will have to contend with a wide swing in temperature, humidity, and dust. This will all reduce the lifespan and performance of the equipment. Also, if a wireless router is placed here, generally the garage is not centrally located to areas that need a strong WiFi signal. Finally, being close to the high voltage lines going to the breaker panel, it is common to see electromagnetic interference which kills bandwidth and signal reliability.
So what's a better way?
If you can spare some room for a dedicated network rack, that is the best. These racks range in size but most homes can get by with a rack that is as little as 2' W x 2' D x 1.5'-2' H. These racks can be floor-standing or wall-mounted to save room. You can place these network racks in out-of-the-way places like closets or under stairways. This will allow you to have full-size (and better-performing) network and automation equipment in a central location. If you have built-in cabinets in your living room, that is also another option to run your wiring to. Make sure when plans are being drawn up that you have enough depth (we recommend 20-24") and outlets for power. If an enclosure is the best that can be done, place it as centrally as possible in your home within easy reach. A hall closet is often a good place to locate it.
Electromagnetic Interference (EMI)
Last, let's talk about a personal pet peeve of every great low-voltage professional and something that we've already alluded to above: electromagnetic interference or EMI. Running low-voltage (LV) wiring alongside high-voltage (HV) wiring will result in EMI that will kill your speed and reliability. Common wiring mistakes that result in EMI are running HV and LV through the same holes, using the same space between studs, and running HV and LV parallel with each other for more than a couple of feet.
Low-voltage installation professionals should begin installation after the electricians are finished to avoid any of the above. If LV needs to cross HV, it needs to be done perpendicularly. If there is no other option but to run parallel with HV, a special shielded wiring should be used to cut down on any EMI.
Oftentimes when building a new home, wiring is the last thing we're thinking about. It's much more fun to pick out floors, countertops, backsplashes, and paint than something you're never going to see again after the wall are up. However, if you wire the right way the first time, it will save time, money, and a lot of headaches for future you. So be nice to future you - wire with Firefly Smart Homes.