It all started with the computer. As people became comfortable and dependent on the machine’s ability to manage their personal and professional lives, it wasn’t long before a second or third PC joined the family. Today, about 25 percent of U.S. households have more than one computer, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
At first, homeowners simply doled out the cash to buy each computer its own printer, scanner and other peripherals. There was no other choice, they figured. Assigning each PC a different system is a fine setup, certainly, but there is a more economical and efficient way to give every computer access to all of the necessary equipment.
Networking systems effectively tie together an assortment of home office products so that they can communicate seamlessly, even if they are located many rooms apart. Because networking systems are so easily obtained and fairly inexpensive, many owners of multi-PC households have successfully implemented wireless networking systems. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that arrangement either.
However, according to most home systems professionals, nothing beats the performance, reliability and flexibility of using wire to link PCs—as well as other electronics devices—together. You won’t pick up the interference you might with a wireless networking system. Plus, it’s more secure.
Just remember: Not any old wire will do. When many types of products, from PCs and phones to security cameras and TVs, start communicating with one another, it becomes increasingly important that the wiring inside the house be well organized, that the connections in wall outlets be well labeled and that the ability to modify and add components to the network be ever-present and simple. That’s why so many homebuilders, home systems installers and homeowners are now opting to install preconfigured systems of high-speed cabling, otherwise known as structured wiring.
Most structured wiring systems are composed of three main parts: cabling, outlets and a hub (also called a panel or enclosure). Typically, the cabling that’s included is Category 5 (or 5e) communications cabling and RG-6 coaxial cabling. These are considered “high speed” wires. The Cat 5 or 5e (the e stands for enhanced) cable distributes data from the Internet, telephone calls and sometimes music to wall outlets located throughout a home. The
RG-6 cable distributes all forms of video, including cable TV and satellite programs, pictures from security cameras and movies from a DVD player, to every connected TV. Both the Cat 5 and the RG-6 cables are bundled together inside a protective sheath.
Basically, the more high-speed wire your home has, the better. Some builders, for economic reasons, skimp by pulling just a couple of runs of Cat 5 and a couple of runs of RG-6 to a few outlets, known as drops. They might proclaim this infrastructure as “state-of-the-art” and “ready for the future.” But in fact, “you’re getting exactly what you got—phone and cable TV to a couple of rooms—30 years ago,” says Dave Marshall, vice president of sales and marketing for structured wiring manufacturer UStec.
Ideally, at least two runs each of Cat 5 and RG-6 coaxial cabling should be routed to at least one location in each room, says Marshall. Why two runs of each type of wire? One run of Cat 5 cabling can handle the incoming telephone calls, while the other handles the distribution of data between the Internet and your computers. On the coaxial side, one run distributes cable TV signals, while the other distributes signals from internal sources, such as security cameras and DVD players, to multiple TVs. In a nutshell, one cable cannot carry every type of signal.
The number of outlets (commonly called multimedia outlets) that come with a structured wiring system depends on how the homebuilder or the home systems installer decides to “package” the system. An outlet might hold only phone and data jacks, or it might combine phone, data and cable TV connections. The combination of connections and jacks is up to you—a decision you should base on the function of each room. For example, a home office should certainly contain a few multimedia outlets, each one loaded with phone and data jacks. A multimedia outlet of mostly cable and data jacks, on the other hand, might better serve a home theater.
Finally, every piece of wire that’s connected to an outlet terminates at a single junctionlike box in a utility room, the basement or a closet. This box is what contains (or doesn’t contain, in some cases) the logic to transmit video, audio, data (Internet) and control signals to the appropriate pieces of equipment.
There’s a fair amount of hype that surrounds structured wiring. Builders claim to be on the cutting edge by offering these systems as a standard part of their homes. It’s a nice touch, certainly, but it doesn’t mean your house will be downloading images at the speed of light the second you plug in a computer. The hub of a structured wiring system is often the piece that makes that magic happen. “In some cases, a prewire package might be going to an empty box,” says Greg Margolis of home systems installation firm HomeTronics in Dallas, TX. “Then it’s up to the homeowner to pay for the appropriate components for the inside of the box.”
Again, there’s nothing wrong with having a bare-bones system with an empty hub, as long as all the cabling is in place and the builder or home systems installer is up front about it. In fact, several manufacturers package empty systems intentionally. The absence of infrastructure smarts makes for a very economical system that provides a solid foundation for a completely networked home. To install the proper wiring and an inactive box into a house will probably cost just $300. Still, be sure you understand up front what your home’s structured wiring system will or will not support. “All too often corners get cut,” says Dave Hanchette, vice president of marketing for structured wiring manufacturer OnQ/Legrand. “It’s like saying a car has a 200-horsepower engine and you open the hood to discover it’s a four cylinder.”
Smarts to Start
Two of the most common smarts to add to the hub of a structured wiring system are a phone module and a video distribution module. Many manufacturers provide these two modules as a standard part of a structured wiring system. A data or computer-networking module is another fairly common add-on.
The phone module simply enables multiple phone lines—usually four—to enter the house. Each line connects to a specific phone jack. For example, the phone module might feed line 1 to the kitchen phone, lines 2 and 3 to the home office (for fax and phone) and line 4 to a phone in a kid’s room. By expanding to a larger module, the system could feed additional lines into the house to provide several computers a high-speed connection to the Internet. Of course, dedicated lines can be added to any house without a structured wiring system. The beauty of tying the lines to a phone module is the ability to modify the destinations of incoming calls. Say you move your home office from the kitchen to a spare bedroom. By moving around two wires inside the hub, the phone module can now direct the office line to the spare bedroom. The same goes for the Internet connection. The phone line that used to give the PC access to the Internet from a kitchen wall jack can be redirected to the bedroom wall jack.
Still, a standard phone module really does nothing more than decide where each incoming line will go. By adding a more sophisticated PBX or KSU module to the structured wiring hub, the phones can be networked, which allows them to transfer calls and function like intercoms, among other features commonly found in a business telephone system.
Cable to All TVs
As for the module that receives and distributes cable and satellite TV video signals, make sure it fits your needs. For example, if fewer than four TVs are inside the house, a 1 x 4 splitter will suffice, but consider sizing up to a 1 x 8 splitter just in case you add more TVs. Another caveat: Each TV will still need its own satellite or cable TV receiver box. The structured wiring system simply ensures that the necessary wire is in place.
A splitter is a common method of distributing cable and satellite signals to TVs, but many professional home systems installers recommend adding an amplifier to the wiring panel. “When you get beyond four TV locations, the reception might falter without an amplifier,” Marshall says.
That covers incoming video signals. There are also many video sources that reside inside a home that you’ll want to tie into a structured wiring system. With the addition of a modulator to the hub, movies from a DVD player, a VCR and even security cameras can be seen on multiple TVs. This internal network offers the convenience of starting a movie in the family room, then finishing it in the comfort of your master suite; the peace of mind of knowing exactly what movies your kids are watching; and the economy of having to buy only one set of entertainment components for the entire house.
Just because a house has a structured wiring system does not mean the computers are networked. In order for computers to freely exchange files, share peripherals and utilize one Internet connection, you’ll need to add either a Net switcher or a router to the enclosure.
A Net switcher effectively enables several computers to communicate and access the Internet. A four-port switcher, for example, facilitates exchanges among four computers a six port supports communications among six computers, and so on. A Net switcher certainly adds a level of convenience and efficiency to a home with multiple computers, but with one drawback: Only one person can use the Internet at a time. In order for everyone to use the connection simultaneously, you’ll need a router rather than a switch. A router also adds firewall protection to the structured wiring hub.
Music Beyond computer networking, video distribution and telephone systems, the upgrade opportunities get a bit pricier, but even more fun. One of the hottest upgrade options is an audio distribution module. This module acts like a whole-house music system. However, instead of using conventional speaker wiring to transport music from a stereo to remote speakers, the music travels on a structured wiring system’s Category 5 wiring from the stereo to the audio module, then off to each room.
Security No manufacturer makes a security module per se; they offer connections and accommodations inside their hubs for the integration of a stand-alone security system. Some hubs are designed to only allow the manufacturer’s own line of security systems to be added to it, while others are open to any system make or model. Additionally, an RJ-31X jack can be built into a phone module, enabling the security system to seize a telephone line and dial out for emergency assistance automatically whenever the security system trips.
Ready for the Future
When your builder says your home is “networked,” “ready for the future” and has a “structured wiring system,” it’s up to you, the consumer, to read between the lines. Determine exactly what type of wire is being used, how much of it there is and in which rooms of the house. Learn what functions the system will support immediately and what upgrade options are available. By understanding the critical elements of a structured wiring system, you’ll know whether your home is truly up to the task of making your life simpler and more convenient.
Certainly, a structured wiring system provides a solid infrastructure for many of today’s cool technologies, but there are some important components that its wiring simply doesn’t support. Be sure to prewire your house for these components as well:
- Security sensors
- Home control/security keypads
- Security alarms
In addition, consider pulling extra runs of RG-6 coax and Category 5 cabling to the media center, the home office and other technology-brimming areas.
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