If you’ve ever lived in a home built more than 40 years ago, you’ve probably experienced how frustrating technological advancement can be. Frustrating, that is, when you can’t easily plug in and use electronic equipment. Modern consumer life is designed assuming that every electrical outlet is grounded, polarized, has three-prongs, and every wet spot is served by GFCI-protected outlets. And since older homes weren’t built this way, hooking up even basic electronics can become expensive and disruptive. But at least you can’t blame old-time builders for the trouble. Ground-fault interrupters and plug-in phone connections were as far from reality in 1960 as the Jettsons. And, we’ve learned our lesson since then, of course. No one would ever build houses this out of step with the future today. Or would they?
The fact is, brand new houses are being built right now that fail to anticipate important technical advancements that are just over the horizon. The information infrastructure that’s considered sufficient in new homes today will be completely inadequate 10 years from now. As expectations rise with new electronic devices that come on the scene, homes will need to be able to support the advancement or be branded second-rate. And that’s happening faster than you might think. Who’s going to want to buy a house where you can’t plug in what has become regarded as electronically essential in the year 2012 or 2022? But it doesn’t have to be this way, provided you have a basic understanding of leading-edge developments right now. And that means knowing at least a bit about tomorrow-ready, residential data wiring.
The whole issue boils down to wires in walls: what kind; where they go; how they’re installed; how many there need to be. This sounds simple, and it is, once you know the facts. Whether or not you actually use the wires immediately isn’t relevant. Just get them in while the walls are still open.
Why Bother with Tomorrow-ready Electrical Wiring?
Tomorrow-ready wiring starts to make sense when you consider your home as a kind of machine, one that must be steered in many small ways each day. Steering maneuvers happen so often that we don’t think much of them. But every time you fiddle with a thermostat, switch lights on and off, survey the fridge before a shopping trip or punch numbers into a security system key pad you’re doing things that could be better handled by a home automation system. And that’s one of three reasons why data wiring will be considered an essential home feature in the near future.
The best home automation installations take care of routine control jobs, leaving you free to enjoy more time with your family, listen to and control music, read, work in the garden or do anything else you like. Complete systems can even wake you up slowly in the morning, with gradually increasing light levels, music and a fully warm room.
Smart wiring is the second facet of the new-home data revolution, and it’s different than home automation. Using advanced cables, smart wiring creates an in-home information network that distributes TV signals, music connections, security system controls, video camera feeds, high-speed internet access and multi-channel phone service (from a single incoming line) to any room of your house. It also allows multi-room distribution of audio and video signals from a centrally-located CD player, VCR or DVD player. Remote control of these devices is possible anywhere in the home, with sound and images distributed wherever hidden speakers or TV screens are located. Even CD track numbers and volume levels are visible on some touch-style key pads. Did the doorbell just ring? An image of who’s there will automatically appear on all video screens in your house. See who it is without going to the front door, talk to them, and let them in remotely if you choose. Need to get some urgent work done in your home office? Watch and listen to the kids at the other end of the house via a video camera while you remain productive. Got a security system? Smart wiring can identify your car as you drive in the garage, deactivating the system just before you enter the door, without that mad rush to the key pad while the alarm sounds.
The hardware required to power advanced sound and visual systems in a home theater can be installed in any house, new or old. But the process is never as inexpensive and easy as during initial construction. This is the third reason why tomorrow-ready data wiring in new homes usually includes cabling to make home theater happen.
The move to home theater makes more sense when you consider advancements in movie recording media. The DVD format is the latest thing being pushed by the film industry, but it pales in comparison to what’s on the drawing board. Last fall, Matsushita Electric Industrial unveiled a two-sided, optical rewritable disc capable of storing 100 gigabytes of data. That’s more than 20 times the current capacity of DVDs, allowing vastly better graphics and sound from equipment capable of handling it. Eventually, delivery of high-definition video products will happen by wire, side-stepping the need for little silver discs altogether. Type your request into a key pad, and the movie of your choice appears on screen, with charges automatically applied to your credit card. As these kinds of entertainment options emerge, the presence of home theater equipment will become more an expectation than a frill. And even if you never intend to install home theater equipment, the presence of theater-ready wiring will have a growing impact on the resale value of what you build.
Nuts and Bolts
As a builder you’ve got to know more about the mechanics of data wiring installation than the average homeowner who just intends to use the stuff. Even if you intend to sub the work out to a specialist, it pays to know something about what you’re hiring that person to do. And because of the technical nature of data wiring, there are unique, important installation issues that aren’t immediately obvious.
There are three kinds of cables used to data wire a home: Category 5 cable (abbreviated Cat5 or Cat5e, depending on the type); RG6 coaxial cable for video feeds; and 16 gauge, FT4 audio cabling for high-fidelity speaker wiring.
Morgan Millward is owner of Audio Video Architechs Inc., a Canadian data wiring specialty firm that’s been helping residential builders install tomorrow-ready wiring in new homes since 1998. “You need to start by envisioning what kind of electronic equipment you might possibly want in each room. And that list is probably longer than you think. Home design is moving towards the installation of local area networks (LAN) for both computer use and appliances like toasters, BBQs, stoves and fridges. And for that you need Cat5e data cabling.”
If the idea of plugging your fridge into a telephone-style wall jack sounds wacky, reserve judgment until you read more. Right now more than 200 appliance manufacturers are building products that conform to a Microsoft data standard called Universal Plug and Play (UPNP). This means they’re technically capable of connecting to a LAN and talking to a central data system that would allow remote control of appliance operation and monitoring. What does that mean? From a graphical computer display in your study or your office, for instance, you’ll be able to fire up the barbecue to a specific temperature, or check and adjust the heating or cooling levels in your house. Smart fridges with bar code capabilities will monitor food going in and food coming out, automatically ordering replacement supplies from an online vendor who will deliver the groceries to your door. And even though lots of people don’t want to run their household this way just yet, some do. More will, and they might be interested in buying the house you’re building now. Will they find it ready to go?
“With Cat5e cable, there are general rules you have to follow when you pull it,” explains Millward. What gives this cable its speed is the twisted configuration of wire pairs inside. You can’t pull it with more than 25 lbs. of force, step on it, or bend it tighter than a 1 inch radius or sharper than 90 degrees. Any of these maneuvers will damage internal twisting and slow the performance of the cable. You must also run Cat5e in its own holes, separate and as far away as possible from regular electrical cables. All this sounds complicated, but only because it’s new. Eventually the installation of Cat5e cable will become standard practice. It’s not only going into high-end homes right now, but subdivision tract homes, too.
You can learn more about the nuts and bolts of residential data wiring from many online sources. Here are three of the good ones:
- www.avarchitechs.com — a Canadian site offering information on data networking, home automation, home theatre, smart wiring and distributed audio/video.
- www.cablingsystems.com — another Canadian site offering leading-edge information for those in the data wiring industry.
- www.cedia.org — website of the leading international trade organization that represents companies designing and installing electronic systems for homes around the world.