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The Unbearable Lightness of Home Wiring

Ever want to wire up your house for network and video?  Wonder what is involved, and what it might cost in time and materials?

I did.  After many years of living in an apartment, I bought a townhouse, and wanted to enhance it.  The house was wired for cable, but the jacks were in all the wrong places.  There were phone jacks, but most only had one line connected.  There was no support at all for an Ethernet network.

Mid-2004 addendum: I sold the house and bought a new one.  I wired up the new house in a similar way, but with a camera over the front door, and full drops in every bedroom.  The prices for parts and tools are significantly lower now than what is shown here.  The guys at HomeTech were once again very helpful.  I've written up a description of some of the work. 

So, in the middle of 2000, I set about learning how to do the wiring myself.  After searching the web for a little while, I ended up in HomeTech Solutions, which is located conveniently near my house.  HomeTech stocks the complete set of tools, cables, faceplates, punch-down blocks, and other miscellaneous stuff you need to wire your residence (not to mention more X-10 stuff than you thought existed).  More importantly, they were willing to take the time to show me how to use the tools and provide advice on the best way to approach the problem.  Their web site has tutorials on several topics, from crimping Cat-5 cables to designing whole-house audio.

Other people have recommended SmartHome for online purchases.  They seem like a fine store.  Do not, under any circumstances, visit x10.com -- they put annoying "pop-under" ads on web pages, and at one time their software would allegedly trash your machine by putting "X10" logos all over the place (e.g. on the Windows Media Player).  The x10.com company has no relation to the X-10 protocol or products based on X-10 signaling.

The Situation

I decided to put video, telephone, and network drops in five locations.  The following impossibly crude diagrams show roughly how my house is laid out.

Downstairs:
+-------|    |---------+---|                |--+
|                  [2b]|                       |
|                      |                       |
|                      |[1]                    |
|                     F|                       |
|[3]   Living         F|                       |
|       Room          F|                       |
|                     F|   Garage              |
|                      |                       |
|                  [2a]|                       |
|                      |                       |
|                      +--------------+--|  |  |
|                          Stairs     |     |  |
|                      +--------------+     +--|
|                                              |
|                          Kitchen             |
|                                           |BR|
|                      |                    |  |
+-----|           |----+--------------------+--+

Upstairs:
+----------------------+--+-----------------+--+
|                      |X |                 |  |
|                      |                       |
|      Office       [5]|                       |
|                      |--|                    |
|                      |FF|                    |
|                          Master           |--|
|        [6]               Bedroom             |
+-----------------+    |                       |
|                 |    |                       |
|   Bathroom           |    [4]                |
|                      +-----------------+-    |
+-----------------+        Stairs        |     |
|                      +-----------------+     |
|                                        | Bath|
|   Bedroom #2             Bedroom #3    | Room|
|                                        |     |
|                      |                 |     |
+----------------------+-----------------+-----+

The front of the house is at the top.  The left and right sides have walls common with adjacent townhouses.  The numbered locations are:

  1. Distribution panel.
  2. Living room.  (a) is the main location, (b) is for speakers on the other side of the fireplace (the 'F's).
  3. Living room, far wall.
  4. Master bedroom.
  5. Office, master bedroom side.
  6. Office, bathroom side.

In the upstairs diagram, the master bedroom has two closets.  The one on the left has an 'X' to indicate where we drilled a hole in the floor and ceiling (the 'FF' is the chimney in the wall).  This was necessary to pull cables from the garage up to the attic.

The ideal way to wire up a house is to pull all of the cables from a central point (a "star" or "home run" configuration).  The center of the wiring is a distribution panel, typically in a garage or well-ventilated closet.  This configuration makes it easy to change connections, add additional phone lines, and route video.

The Plan

HomeTech sells a wonderful product called "SpeedWrap" cable.  In one 3/4" cable, you get two quad-shielded RG6 co-ax cables, two Cat-5 network cables, and (optionally) two multi-mode glass fiber-optic cables.  You can get it with a simple plastic weave holding it together, or a heavy outer casing that makes it easy to pull through walls.  It also comes with Cat-6 cable, though that is considerably more expensive.

One Cat-5 cable is used for the Ethernet network, and the other is used for telephone jacks.  Each Cat-5 cable has four pairs of wires, so you can have four phone lines on one cable.  Since it uses twisted pairs, you don't get the same level of crosstalk that you get from common four-conductor telephone station wire.

One of the RG6 cables is used for video distribution, the other for video return.  Examples of video return include DVD players and DSS satellite tuners.  You can take the output of these, run them into an RF modulator, and combine that signal with your cable TV on a specific channel.  You could, for example, declare channel 88 to be the "DVD channel", and watch a DVD from any room in the house.  This is most useful with digital satellite receivers and digital cable, since it lets you avoid paying a monthly fee to have a receiver in every room in the house.  (Of course, everybody in the house has to be tuned to the same channel.)

The fiber optic cables really have no use at this point.  They add a modest amount to the price, but I don't want to pull more cable around if terabit fiber optics become common.

The Basic Plan was to pull a length of this cable from the distribution panel to each of the five locations.  Location #2 was trivial: across the garage floor and through the wall.  Location #3 was tricky, since it had to go through the garage wall, under the house, and up behind the baseboard into the wall.  Location #5 had to be pulled up through the garage ceiling, into the closet in the master bedroom (conveniently right next to an existing heating duct that comes up out of the garage), and through the wall.  Locations #4 and #6 came up through the closet floor next to the #5 cable, then went up through the closet ceiling to the attic, and then down through the walls to the designated points.  The only place where you see cables is in the garage and in my closet, making the whole thing rather tidy.

The Amended Plan recognized that network distribution works best when you have a firewall protecting your network.  I wanted to be able to switch firewall products (e.g. the D-Link analog modem one and the XRouter or SonicWall DSL one) without having to un-bolt components from the distribution panel.  So, we pulled two extra Cat-5 network cables from the distribution panel to office location #6.  One comes from the DSL box or cable modem box up to the firewall in the office, the other goes from the firewall back down to the distribution panel and into the network hub.

The Slightly Amended Plan noted that DVD players and digital cable receivers are more fun to use when you can control them.  It's great to be able to watch them upstairs, but it's also great to be able to pause a DVD or change the digital channel.  It turns out you can convert infra-red signals into electrical signals and broadcast them with three wires.  Since I only want two analog phone lines, I decided to use two of the pairs in the Cat-5 telephone cable for IR.

The Further Amended Plan arose when I started thinking about buying a real TV set.  That 19" Emerson model was great right after I got out of college, but it's just not cutting it anymore in the DVD era.  With 5.1 surround-sound, you want to have a couple of speakers behind you.  Thus, location #2b was born.  There was already a hole in the wall from the existing cable TV infrastructure, so I just re-used that.  The cable selected for this part of the operation was 14-gauge Monster speaker cable, which is available in bulk and not nearly as expensive as the Monster cables you buy in fancy A/V stores.  The cable had to run under the house, from living room location #2a and #2b to #3.  With this configuration you can have the TV on one side of the living room and the surround speakers on the other without tripping over speaker wire or feeling lumps under the carpet.

Tools

You can't work without tools.  There are specialized tools for video and network stuff, and general tools that you need to do work about the house.  I already had screwdrivers, a hammer, and even some wire strippers, but I never found a need for a wallboard saw while living in an apartment.

Specialized tools are required for terminating (attaching the ends to) RG6 co-ax cable and Cat-5 network cable.  For the former you need a co-ax cable stripper and a compression tool.  The compression fittings are supposed to be better than crimp-on connectors, because they provide a gas-tight seal.  For network cable you need a cable stripper, an RJ45 crimping tool, and a 110 punchdown tool.  The RJ45 crimping tool isn't used much, since most of the connections are female punch-down blocks, and it's easy to find male/male "patch cables" in assorted sizes.

 
$15.95 Tele-Strip twisted pair stripping tool (takes the outer sheath off of Cat-5 cable)
59.95 Snap-n-Seal compression tool
19.95 Heavy cable cutter (cuts through the 3/4" SpeedWrap cable easily)
34.95 Punchdown tool for phone and network blocks
14.95 Punchdown tool #110 blade
0.89 Twisted pair "spludger" (very handy for positioning wires before punching them down)
69.95 Network cable tester (tests RJ11/RJ12, RJ45, and BNC/"F" connectivity)
8.66 (2 sets) BNC-to-"F" converters (a string of parts that connect a BNC connector to a press-on "F" for the cable tester)
44.95 Wall-Eye flashlight (flashlight periscope, very useful for looking around in walls)
6.99 Wallboard saw
34.99 Coveralls (heavy jumpsuit, worn when crawling about under the house)
3.97 Putty knife
11.99 Staple gun (had to reattach some attic insulation)
5.99 Drill bits for wood, 1/2", 3/4", 1"
4.99 Caulking gun
$339.12 TOTAL
 

(Prices are in US dollars, and represent the total spent for items, i.e. if it says "2 sets" the price is for both sets.)

Items I already had and aren't listed: diagonal wire cutters, wire stripper, hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, soldering iron, small scissors, RJ11/RJ45 crimping tool, cordless drill, flashlight, string, wire coathanger.  I borrowed a baseboard removal tool.

Equipment

Some fancy items are required in the distribution panel and elsewhere.  The cable TV signal has to be distributed from one cable to several, requiring a video amplifier.  The telephone wires need to be connected together through a "bridged" 110 block, and the network needs to be connected with an Ethernet hub.  Rather than terminate the network cables directly into the hub with an RJ45 connector, they were terminated on an "unbridged" 110 block, and patch cables were used to connect them to the hub.  This arrangement is a little easier to manage.

The IR stuff requires receivers, emitters, and a "connecting block" that brings it all together.  Sending the digital cable box output to all TVs required an RF modulator to take the baseband output and move it to something else.  I used channel 88, because there were no "live" channels between 80 and 95.

 
$118.95 Leviton wood-back project box (metal frame mounted on 3/4" plywood)
24.95 Mounting bracket for Leviton project box (not needed if you flush-mount it between wall studs)
109.95 Amplified video distribution module (two mixed inputs, eight outputs)
74.95 110 patch block, bridged (for phone)
94.95 110 patch block, unbridged, with RJ45 connectors (for network)
129.00 Netgear 8-port 10/100 Ethernet hub
111.90 (2 sets) Hidden Link IR receivers
49.95 IR connecting block with power supply
12.95 IR emitter (also flashes visibly, for debugging)
259.95 One-channel MTS stereo RF modulator
99.95 Deluxe learning remote
19.99 Surge suppressor power strip (for the distribution panel)
$1107.44 TOTAL

 

Cables and Fittings

Besides the cable itself, it's necessary to have the parts to terminate both ends.  RG6 has "F" connectors, and Cat-5 cable has RJ45 plugs or 110 punchdown blocks.  Speaker wire plugs into a "five-way binding post", into which you can insert a banana plug, spade lug, bare wire, or just about anything else.

It's also necessary to consider the wall plates.  I chose Leviton QuickPort modular face plates and inserts.  The face plates have a number of holes in them (from one to six for a single-gang plate), into which you can snap a variety of components.  These include RJ45 for network, RJ11 for phones, "F" for co-ax cable, and 5-way binding posts for speakers.  There is no component for stereo mini-jacks, needed for the IR receivers, but you can make one out of a blank face plate.  The mini-jack socket I used needs to have three wires soldered on in back.

On the advice of the HomeTech guys, I used Cat-5 inserts for most of the phone connectors.  The advantage of using RJ45 instead of RJ11 is that, if you decide you want an extra network drop and don't need a phone jack, all you have to do is change the wiring in the distribution panel.  Your basic phone jack fits into an RJ45 jack just fine.  I used a regular RJ-11 insert in the places where I also had an IR receiver, because the IR receiver needed two of the pairs from the telephone cable.  (One caution: if you mistakenly plug an Ethernet cable into a phone jack, your phones won't work until you unplug it.)

 
$629.95 (500 foot spool) SpeedWrap cable with outer jacket, two Cat-5, two RG6, two fiber-optic
89.95 (1000 foot spool) Belden Cat-5 network cable
79.00 (100 feet, not on spool) Monster 14-gauge two-wire speaker cable
29.50 (bag of 50) Snap-n-Seal "F"-connector compression fittings for RG6 quad-shield cable
5.34 (6 sets) Caddy cut-in ring (metal frame that attaches to drywall; the faceplate screws to this)
4.77 (3 sets) QuickPort 6-port faceplates
6.36 (4 sets) QuickPort 4-port faceplates
1.59 (1 set) QuickPort 3-port faceplates
26.90 (10 sets) QuickPort "F"-connector insert
57.00 (12 sets) QuickPort Cat-5 insert
5.78 (2 sets) QuickPort RJ11 insert
31.60 (8 sets) QuickPort five-way binding post insert (4 red, 4 black)
0.76 (4 sets) QuickPort blank insert
2.90 (10 sets) "F"-connector 75-ohm terminator
5.56 (4 sets) Stereo mini-jack sockets (for do-it-yourself QuickPort mini-jack inserts)
14.15 (5 sets) foam pipe insulation, 6' long (keeps the cable off the garage floor and insulates from heating ducts)
?? (5 sets) water-tight cable fittings (holds the cables where they feed into the distribution panel)
2.97 (3 sets) 1" - 3/4" reducing washer (goes with the cable fittings)
2.49 3/8" staples for staple gun
4.49 Silicone caulk (for sealing up the holes around the cables)
6.32 (8 sets) J-hooks (these nail to the joists under the house or in the attic and hold up the cable)
2.69 Spackle (for when you "oops")
$1008.48 TOTAL
 

I already had a bag of RJ45 connectors, so I didn't buy any of those.  Not all of the stuff above got used.  I still have plenty of SpeedWrap and Cat-5 cable left over, as well as a few extra QuickPort face plates and inserts.  Most of the individual parts did get used, and you get a significant discount for buying cable on a spool, so the price is close to what it would be if I'd only bought the parts I absolutely needed.  The SpeedWrap cable would've been about $100 less without the fiber optics.

Other stuff I already had: duct tape, electrical tape, cable ties, assorted screws and nails.

Labor

Rome wasn't wired in a day, and neither was my house.  Drilling holes, cutting holes in walls, and dragging cable under the house and through the walls was done by my father and me over two weekends.  Setting up the distribution panel and terminating the cables was done by me in small chunks over several days.  Getting fancy bits like digital cable distribution and DSL's dedicated 3rd phone line working took their toll.

Dad and I count as "somewhat-skilled" labor.  He has several years of home improvement experience, and I'm no stranger to video, networks, or telephones.  According to my estimates, we spent roughly 19.5 hours working together, and I spent an additional 17.5 hours alone.

Total Cost

The total cost of tools and materials listed above is $2455.04.  These were acquired during four trips to HomeTech solutions, five visits to Orchard Supply Hardware (some of which were motivated by other projects), and one trip each to the Home Depot and Fry's Electronics.  This does not include shipping (I picked it up myself) or sales tax, nor does it include a 7% "tech cash" discount that HomeTech gives you.  (7% of the bill becomes "tech cash" that can be spent on future purchases.  The account is limited to $50, after which the 7% comes straight off your bill.  They do this to encourage you to buy stuff from them in the future.  Clearly not a problem for this project!)

If you paid somewhat-skilled laborers $35 per hour, for 56.5 billable man-hours you would pay $1977.5 for installation and testing.

Things I Didn't Do

I didn't put Cat-6 cable in the walls.  It's considerably more expensive, and utterly ridiculous for a network that is meant to provide convenient drops between rooms.  All of my heavy computing equipment is in the office, which has its own hub, and can be upgraded to gigabit Ethernet at any time for comparatively little.  I'm also told by some people at work that Cat-6 cable tends to be more brittle than Cat-5, which could have been dangerous for something that's getting dragged around corners and through the walls.  (Probably wouldn't have mattered much -- the quad-shielded RG6 cables don't bend readily, making the SpeedWrap cable a pretty cozy place to be.)

I didn't wire up the two small bedrooms.  One is going to be used for storing old computer gear (my Apple II collection finally has a home!) and other stuff that I'm not comfortable leaving in the attic.  The other is a guest bedroom, and I worry that if you make your guests too comfortable they may never leave.

I didn't stick a camera over the front door (wow, it's the "front door" channel on the TV).  Would've been neat, but the cabling would have been tricky.  If I get motivated I'll hang one out the office window and just plug it into the video return jack in one of the office drops.

Follow-Up

The work was completed in mid-July of 2000.  As of mid-October, it's running just fine with the following additions:

  • DSL modem.  The modem lives in the patch panel, with a direct connection from the 3rd line in the phone demarc box.  Covad/Concentric doesn't run DSL over an existing phone line, so I just ran wires.  If I were getting service from Pac Bell, I would need to put a DSL/voice splitter in the patch panel too.
  • Big TV with 5.1 speaker system.  The 5-way binding posts worked wonderfully.  I spent another $117.15 at HomeTech and bought enough parts to make eight lengths of speaker cable.  The same grade of Monster cable with the banana plugs and "cable pants" already installed would have cost significantly more.  I was able to use the leftover cable from the under-house run.
  • TiVo box.  I can't praise this piece highly enough.  I run the RG6 into the cable box, run composite video and audio out of the cable box into the TiVo, run one set of TiVo outputs into the receiver and the other set into the RF modulator.  By using the virtual "channel 88", I have a 30-hour VCR in every room.  Since the TiVo box can control the cable box with an IR emitter, I can use it to record programs on digital channels -- something that was difficult with my VCR.  Being able to pause live TV while upstairs is way too much fun.  (As of late 2001, I'm up to 135 hours and can connect to the box remotely.  Read this for details.)
  • A lovely metal and glass rack to hold the TiVo, receiver, VCR, and other goodies.  The rack on the left of the TV ended up right smack in front of the location #3 wall jacks, which some people believes improves the aesthetics.  Somehow, after all this work, I would almost prefer to show the wall plates off. :-)

The only glitch in the system is one of the IR receivers doesn't seem to work very well.  I may need to replace it.  [I did replace it.  Works great now.]

What the Professionals Do

Some new townhouses were recently completed just down the street from where I live.  These narrow, three-story, 1500sq.ft. designs have structured cabling in the walls -- the same stuff I used.  The face places appear to be Leviton QuickPort modular jacks.  They terminated the cables at five points: two in the living room, one in each of three bedrooms.  Each plate featured two RG6 connectors, one RJ-45 Cat-5 connector, and one RJ-11 connector.

Sound familiar?  They didn't wire IR, or drag an extra set of Cat-5 cables around to facilitate an upstairs network firewall, but they did have a glorious patch panel in a downstairs laundry room, and all of the cable went through the walls.  The patch panel was screwed shut, so I wasn't able to peek inside, but it was a fair bit larger than mine.

There's some measure of personal validation in knowing that professional construction companies use the same parts I do -- and also in knowing that my custom wiring lets me do things that the new homeowners can't.


Photo Gallery

I don't have a full description of all the holes that got drilled, all the time spent poking a wire coat hanger through holes to draw a cable, or all the trips I made slithering under the house with a bag of tools in one hand and a flashlight in the other.  I do have some pictures of the finished product though, from mid-July 2000.

Location #1, the distribution panel.  I have pictures with the cover on dist-cover.jpg (19012 bytes) and off dist-open.jpg (106931 bytes).  (Click on the thumbnails to see a larger picture.)  I removed the plastic label plate from one of the punchdown blocks so you can (sort of) see it.  The box doesn't have the DSL bridge in this picture, which is probably a good thing -- it didn't have wall mount holes, so I just sort of wedged it in the upper right corner with a couple of screws under it.

Location #2a, living room to the right of the fireplace.  This one port2a.jpg (19745 bytes) is the neatest of the bunch, with two F connectors (video in, video return), two RJ45 connectors (left is phone, right is network) and two speaker outputs.

Location #2b, living room to the left of the fireplace.  This port2b.jpg (30853 bytes) used a three-port faceplate because HomeTech was out of two-port plates at the time.  They sold me a 3-port and gave me a blank insert for free.

Location #3, living room far wall.  There are two separate four-port faceplates here port3.jpg (28136 bytes), one with video, network, and phone, and the other with left and right speaker inputs.  The item in my hand is the IR connecting block, which plugs into a phone jack (lines 3 and 4), power supply, and up to four IR emitters.  Note that I couldn't use a double-gang faceplate here because the hole on the left sits between a copper water pipe and a stud with very little clearance.  Farther left outside the picture is a power outlet, farther right is a heating duct, so there wasn't a lot of room to maneuver there..  The cables come up through the floor port3-bb.jpg (30532 bytes) right behind the baseboard.  We did this to avoid opening the wall up completely while still obscuring the cables.

Location #4, master bedroom.  This location port4.jpg (21338 bytes) has an IR receiver jack using two of the wires from the phone cable, so it has an RJ11 insert instead of an RJ45.

Location #5, office (on the wall shared with the bedroom).  It's port5.jpg (21374 bytes) behind a desk, with a 2.4GHz cordless phone base station plugged into it, so it's a little hard to see.

Location #6, office (wall shared with bathroom).  This plate port6.jpg (21216 bytes) has no RJ45 network jack for normal connections.  Instead, it terminates the two separately-pulled Cat-5 cables.  The left one comes from the DSL modem in the distribution panel, the right one comes from the firewall in the office back down to the garage, where it goes into the hub that feeds the rest of the house.  (The office has its own hub, which might get upgraded to gigabit Ethernet if I ever get the inclination.)  Because it has an IR receiver jack, it uses an RJ11 insert for the phone connection.

The SpeedWrap cable looks like this speedwrap.jpg (27085 bytes), and is about 3/4" across.  It slides easily through a 3/4" hole.  If you want to run something else through the hole, such as speaker cable or Cat-5 network cables, you need to drill a 1" hole.  If you don't plan well, you may need to drill some of your holes more than once...

Whatever you do, don't forget the coveralls surfacing.jpg (106956 bytes) and lots of soap!


All words and pictures by Andy McFadden.