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AUTOMATION / GENERAL

How To Wire And Network Your Home

By Staff Writers | Sunday | 04/07/2004

Every home deserves an ample amount of wiring to handle computers, music systems, video systems and security.

 

It all started with the computer. As people became comfortable with, and indeed dependent, on the machine's ability to help manage their personal and professional lives, it wasn't long before a second or third PC joined the family. At first, homeowners simply doled out the cash to buy each computer its own printer, scanner and other peripherals. Assigning each PC a different system is certainly a fine setup, but there is a more economical and efficient way to give every computer access to a set of peripherals. Networking systems effectively tie together an assortment of home office products so 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 setup, either. But according to most home systems professionals, nothing beats the performance, the reliability and the flexibility of using wire to link PCs as well as other electronic devices together. With a wired network, you won't pick up the interference you might with a wireless networking system, plus it's more secure.

But not any old wire will do. When many types of products - from PCs and phones to security cameras and TVs - start talking to each other, it becomes increasingly important that the wiring inside the house be well-organised, that the connections to wall outlets be well-labelled, 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.

Structured approach

Most structured wiring systems are composed of three main parts: wiring, outlets and a hub (also called a panel or enclosure). Typically, the wiring included is Category 5 (or 5e) communications cabling and RG-6 coaxial cabling. These are considered 'high-speed' wire. Category 5 or 5e (the e stands for enhanced) 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, be it cable TV and satellite programs, pictures from security cameras or movies from a DVD player, to every connected TV. Both the Category 5 and the RG-6 cables are bundled together inside a protective sheath.

Basically, the more high-speed wire in your home, the better. Some builders, for economic reasons, skimp by pulling just a couple of runs of Category 5 cabling and a couple of runs of RG-6 coaxial cabling to a couple of outlets, known in the industry as drops. They might proclaim this infrastructure as 'state-of-the-art' and 'ready for the future', but in fact, you're merely getting exactly what you got 20 years ago — phone and cable TV to a couple of rooms.

Ideally, at least two runs of Category 5 and at least two runs of RG-6 coaxial cabling should be able to run to at least one location in each room. Why two runs of each type of wire?

One run of Category 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 builder 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 contain a few multimedia outlets, each one loaded with phone and data jacks. A home theatre, on the other hand, might be better served by a multimedia outlet of mostly cable and data jacks. Finally, every piece of wire connected to an outlet terminates at a single junction-like box in a closet or utility room. 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.

Bare bones

There's a fair amount of hype surrounding 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, 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 the magic happen. In some cases, a prewire package might be going to an empty box, so 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 as long as the builder or home systems installer is upfront about it. In fact, several manufacturers package empty systems intentionally to create an open solution that allows homeowners to buy any type of system they want and have it fit. The absence of infrastructure smarts also makes for a very economical system, but provides a solid foundation for a completely networked home. Still, be sure you understand upfront what your home's structured wiring system will or will not support, as all too often, corners get cut.

Making the connection When plugged into special wall outlets, called multimedia outlets, every electronic device in your house functions better.

Speakers can receive music through the cabling of a structured wiring system.
Category 5 cabling and RG-6 coaxial cabling forms a network that connects a home's computers, TVs, phones and other electronic devices. TVs can display images from a security camera and content from a computer when connected to a structured wiring system.
The hub of a structured wiring system is where the magic happens. Modules mounted inside have the intelligence to route music, telephone calls, satellite programs, web content and other information to the ap>

 

Many security systems have the intelligence to operate a home's lights and thermostats
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 also fairly common.

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 with 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 the 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.

However, not all types of phone modules will allow you to change the wiring so easily. If a module features punch-down-style terminations, the lines are typically locked in place. But if the module utilises RJ-45 jacks, you're free to unplug and plug as you like.

Regardless of type, 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, you can network, which allows them to transfer calls and function as intercoms, among other features commonly found in commercial telephone systems. Most structured wiring systems are designed so that an external telephone system can be connected to the panel.

Cable to all TVs

As for the module that receives and distributes cable TV and satellite TV video signals, make sure it fits your needs. For example, if fewer than four TVs reside inside the house, a 1x4 splitter will suffice, but consider sizing up to a 1x8 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 strongly recommend adding an amplifier to the structured

wiring panel. Most cable companies do not provide enough signal level to drive a four-way splitter, let alone an eight-way splitter, without creating snowy pictures. This makes an amplifier mandatory if you want to enjoy cable TV on more than two TVs.

There are also many video sources that reside inside a home that you'll want to tie into a structured wiring system as well. With the addition of a modulator to the hub, movies from a DVD player and/or a VCR, as well as images from security cameras, can be seen on multiple TVs.

 

 

Computer networking

Just because a house has a structured wiring system does not mean the computers are networked. In order for computers to exchange files freely, share peripherals, and utilise one Internet connection, you'll need to add either a switch or a router to the hub.

A switch effectively enables several computers to communicate and access the Internet. A four-port switch, for example, facilitates exchanges between four computers, a six-port supports communications between six computers, and so on. It certainly adds a level of convenience and efficiency to a home with multiple computers, but with one drawback: when you want to work on the Internet, you've basically got to stand in line as only one person can be on the Internet at a time. For everyone to use the Internet at the same time you need a router rather than a switch. A router also adds firewall protection to the network.

Music and security upgrades

Beyond computer networking, video distribution and telephone systems, the upgrade opportunities get a bit pricier, but to some people, even more appealing. One of the hottest upgrade options is an audio distribution module. This module basically acts like a whole-house music system. But instead of using conventional speaker wiring to transport music from a stereo system to remote speakers, the music travels on a structured wiring system's Category 5 wiring from a stereo system to the audio module, then off to each room. Audio distribution modules can usually distribute music from only a single source to multiple locations.

Manufacturers generally offer security module connections and accommodations inside their hubs for the integration of stand-alone security systems. Built into a phone module of a security-minded structured wiring system is usually a RJ-31x jack, which enables the security system to seize a telephone line automatically whenever the security system trips so that it can dial out for emergency assistance. Many security systems also have the intelligence to operate a home's lights and thermostats. A security-amenable structured wiring system, therefore, enables you to both network and automate your home.

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, and to what rooms of the house. By understanding the critical elements of a structured wiring system, you'll know that your home is up to the task of making your life simpler and more convenient.

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