Building a new home can be exciting, but also overwhelming. There are choices that need to be made about everything, and it’s very easy to overlook details that could make a big difference in how effectively you can integrate technology in the home.
Do you want to have the ability to play music throughout your home? Is having great Wi-Fi coverage important to you? Are you planning to “cut the cord” and rely heavily on internet-based streaming services for content? What about surveillance cameras? Do you have any interest in motorized window treatments?
Building a home certainly begins to get expensive, as every amenity added has an accompanying cost. It is important, though, to “begin with the end in mind”. You’ll need to think through all of the things you’d like to do eventually, even if your budget doesn’t allow you to do it all upfront, and do your best to put the infrastructure in place to support your long-term goals. The raw wire is relatively inexpensive, and it will likely cost you a lot more to try to retroactively run the wires later than to just get it done during the build phase.
General Best Practices
- Most wires that get run through the house will end up being home runs. Except in specific use cases (70v speaker system, for instance), you should never run wires in series, daisy-chaining from one wire to the next. You should identify a “Main Equipment Closet” or “MEC” for short, and that area should serve as the head end of your network as well as your distributed audio and/or video. The majority of the wiring that runs through the house will end up in the MEC.
- You should put together a “TV Pack” and each possible TV location in the home should get one of these. At minimum, a TV pack should contain a quad-shielded RG6 coaxial cable and a Cat6 cable. Ideally, though, it would contain (2) RG6, (2) Cat6, and (2) multi-mode fiber optic cables. This provides the maximum amount of flexibility for control, content distribution, network infrastructure, and service provider options.
- Each wire should be labeled at both ends using a consistent system that makes it easy to identify each wire without having to tone it out. The labels should be securely placed on the cable, be legible, and should not be prone to fading over time. They should be far enough down the sleeve of the cable from the end to allow the cable to be stripped and tipped or put into a keystone, but close enough to the edge of the cable to be easily read in the future.
- Low voltage wiring should typically be run after electrical is finished but before drywall and insulation. The low voltage wires could be run before the electrician is done, but waiting until afterward ensures that the low voltage lines are run through their own holes with adequate spacing from the Romex. Low voltage cables, even when shielded, are susceptible to interference from power lines, and this can manifest itself with noise in your speakers throughout the home, reduced signal quality for televisions, and possible network slowdowns. A good rule of thumb is to always keep at least a full stud bay’s width between low voltage lines and power lines, and if you have to cross, try to do so at a 90-degree angle to minimize the cross-talk.
- Hiring a professional to do your pre-wire will likely cost more on the front end, but will save you money, time, and headaches on the back end. I strongly recommend having the company who will be installing the actual equipment when the home is finished create the pre-wire plan and wire up the house. Below, you’ll see an example of a job that the client’s electrician pre-wired before we got involved. Miles of wire was run throughout the home, but not a single wire was labeled. Some of the wires were very short and barely made it halfway down the wall, while others were coiled up with over 50′ of unnecessary slack. We ended up adding nearly 3 full days of labor to this project to organize the wires, tone them all out, label them, and get them terminated.
Conduit is a great way to give yourself flexibility for the future but save some money today. Let’s say you have a 2-level home and your MEC is going to be located downstairs. If you run a pipe from the MEC up into the attic, it could allow you to hold off on some of the wiring you might have done on the top level of the home until a later date. It also at least partially protects you against the possibility of a new type of wire that you may need to run later.
Conduits are also nice for projector or TV locations in which the wiring has to run outside of a single stud bay. Generally speaking, you’ll want the largest size conduit you can fit (1-1/2 to 2″ or larger is ideal) and you want to try to minimize the bends and turns as much as possible. Once you get to 2 90-degree angles in a conduit, it becomes very difficult to pull a wire through, especially after the first wire is already in. Having a strong but flexible nylon pull string in your conduit is a really good idea. When you use your conduit to pull wires through, I would also recommend running a new pull string along with the wire in case you need to use it again in the future. If you’ve got a conduit with no pull string, you can try feeding a bit of pull string into one end of the conduit, and then using a vacuum on the other end to try to pull that through.
If you have devices going into your new home that need to be connected to the Internet, and you can hard-wire them, you should. Hard-wiring a device ensures that it will have the fastest and most reliable connection possible, and it frees up valuable wireless bandwidth for devices like phones and tablets that have to connect wirelessly. Simply put – everything on your network will perform better.
In a normal residential application, the length of the cable shouldn’t be a huge concern. Cat6 cables on a Gigabit network can run about 328′ or 100 meters and can run around 180′ or about 55 meters. If you’re reading this post and considering pre-wiring your new home, you should be looking to use Cat6 cable rather than Cat5e. The cost is practically the same. Single-mode fiber optic cable has no practical length limitations, and multi-mode fiber lengths range from 300 to 600 meters, depending on the type. In any case, there are very few houses in the world in which a ~1000′ wire run isn’t long enough to get from Point A to Point B.
Based on the increasing role of network connectivity for nearly all devices, I would recommend having at least one network wire run to each room of the home. You’ll also want to run wires for 1 WAP (wireless access point) per ~1500-2500 square feet of finished space. A Wi-Fi heat map can help you determine where to place those WAPs, and the company you’ve chosen to partner with should be able to provide that as part of the project documentation.
One of the ways that you can cut the number of total wire runs needed is to run a 4-conductor speaker cable for pairs of architectural speakers you may be planning to install throughout the house. Run the speaker wire to the first speaker location, create a little loop there with some extra wire to be able to strip the shielding and pull it down to connect to the speaker, and then on to the next one.
We’ll dive a bit deeper into this in another post specifically about distributed audio, but the best way to think about speaker placement is to consider sound coverage the same way you think about lighting coverage. You wouldn’t typically put one or two large bright lights in a big room and hope to cover it evenly. Typically you’ll spread can lights, sconces, lamps, and other lights throughout the room to create an inviting, evenly lit environment. If you put a couple of big speakers in a large room, to get good sound on one side of the room you might have to make it uncomfortably loud for the other. Distributed audio is typically for ambiance rather than critical listening, so having a larger number of smaller speakers to get better coverage is typically better than trying to just spend up to get the best in-ceiling speakers possible.
Architectural speakers also give you an opportunity to match the aesthetic design of the rest of the room they’re in. A good pre-wire will include new construction flex brackets to position the speakers so that they’re symmetrical in the room and the size of the speaker along with the shape of the grille can make the speakers blend in so well that nobody will notice them!
Future Additions To This Post
Some of the things that I’d like to address soon as an addendum to this post or possibly a new Part 2 post are:
- Length Limitations for HDMI
- Importance of Cable Quality
- Power Considerations (especially in the MEC)
- Outlet Placement