You may not think you’ll ever need an updated communication system, but with the increasing digitizing of our society, you will. The need is now. Within a few years, digital TVs will be the only show in town, and the high-speed links to the Internet will be more necessary and affordable. More and more, electronic components will need to “converse.” And your old phone and cable wires just won’t be up to the task.
It’s easy to feel intimidated by all the electronic jargon. However, for now, all you need to know is that your telephone, TV, Internet and other communication needs can all be handled by running only two types of cable—all headquartered in a central distribution system you can install yourself. It’s as easy as fishing in a new phone line, except that you’ll need four cables (two phone and two coaxial) to each jack to do the job right.
We’ll show you how to run the wires, install the proper jacks and hook up the central distribution box. The new system doesn’t mean you have to scrap your old cables and jacks. Existing phone lines and jacks can coexist with your new system.
We recommend that you initially install new cables and jacks to rooms only where they’re needed, and upgrade the system with new jacks and lines as your electronic needs change. The beauty of the installation system shown in this article is that it will be easy to reconfigure, enhance or expand it in the future. Eventually you’ll be able to connect any compatible devices simply by “jumping” cable or phone lines in the distribution box (much like old-time telephone operators used to do in the first half of the 20th century).
It’s easiest to install the system when you’re remodeling, adding on or building a new home. The walls are open and it’s simple to route the cables to every room. But in most cases, you can also retrofit your existing home (although it’ll take a little more effort fishing cable and sometimes cutting and patching walls). We’ll show you some strategies that’ll help.
Capabilities of a New Communication System
- One DVD, VCR, and cable or satellite TV receiver will be able to transmit to any television in the house.
- Computers can be networked to share files or computer peripherals like printers and scanners.
- Remote closed-circuit TV cameras can be hooked up to televisions anywhere in the house, and security-system hookups are a breeze.
- You’ll have enough telephone-line capacity to run the Pentagon.
- Your home will be rigged for either cable- or telephone-based high-speed Internet service.
- The necessary lines will be in place to handle the inevitable switch from analog to digital TV.
- Whole-house audio systems can be routed over the same cables.
- Depending on the system, integrated home controls can be coupled with “smart appliances.”
The key to an upgradable system is to place the main distribution panel in a location where it’ll be easiest to fish additional wires and jacks to the rest of the house. In the example home (Fig. A, below), we show the laundry room as the logical place for the distribution box. From there, wires can be easily fished to the basement and to the attic and then on to selected outlet locations anywhere in the house. But the best location for the distribution panel may be different in your home—a furnace room, garage or even a closet.
You’ll also need to create an access into the stud space above and below the panel. For easiest access, position the panel in an open stud space so you can fish new lines into the panel. We show you how to do this with a panel that unscrews from the wall (Photo 18).
Next, plan your cable routing paths. Attics, basements, crawlspaces, garages and even closets offer the easiest unimpeded routes. Then you can usually drill holes through top or bottom plates and fish the cables in without opening up finished walls. But middle floors that are sandwiched between finished floors can be more challenging. Routing to those rooms by surface-mounting cables through closets is one good strategy, but sometimes cutting and patching holes in finished walls or even ceilings to run the wires is inescapable.
Here we show you the most useful jack configuration: two cable jacks and two phone jacks, all in the same cover plate. (A single cover plate will handle four different lines.) And a cable jack will handle video- or cable-based Internet.
The extra two phone and coaxial cables will handle “interhouse” networking. You probably won’t need all these lines right away, but pull the wires in anyway. However, you don’t have to hook them all up. Just attach the jacks and snap them into the cover plate and coil the extra lines neatly inside the distribution box.
All four of the lines from each outlet go back to the distribution box. That calls for a lot of wires, but wiring and jacks are relatively cheap. If you know that you’ll only need one cable or one phone jack, just run single lines and use a different cover plate.
Photos 1 – 4 show how to cut out a stud space and mount the distribution panel. We opened up the stud space within a few inches of the ceiling and floor to mount the distribution box and to fish the cables (Photo 2). But that stud space has to remain accessible for running new cables later as your system grows.
A handsome cover panel made from painted MDF (medium density fiberboard) screwed through the drywall into the studs makes access just a matter of unscrewing it from the wall (Photo 18).
Following your plan, position and cut holes for the low-voltage remodeling boxes (Photo 5) and run the cables (Photo 6). When you fish wire from the jacks, label one cable of each pair with an “in” and the other with an “out.” It’s easy to get confused once all of the lines have been run. Use colored tape around both ends (Photos 7 and 14) of the cables and identify the outlet by writing its room location on the tape at the end you feed into the wall before you fish it. To keep everything straight, do the same on the outlet end after it’s cut to length.
We used orange tape to designate “in” and blue tape for “out.” Retape and mark the ends as you cut the cables to final lengths within the distribution box for hookups (Photo 16).
Handle CAT-5e cable with care. CAT-5e cable is made to exacting standards with specially designed twists between each individual pair of wires. For best performance, follow these wiring guidelines:
- Make sweeping, gradual bends of no less than a 2-in. radius, not sharp bends.
- Gently pull phone cables when fishing, with no more than about 20 lbs. of force (about the tension you’d use for good, tight bootlaces). Don’t jerk or yank on the wires or pull them around sharp corners.
- Never crush CAT-5e with staples or other fasteners like bent-over nails. Instead, bundle it or strap it to framing with loose loops of Velcro and then use special cable staples after all the cables are run.
- Cross any existing electrical cables at 90-degree angles to avoid electrical interference. Never run them side by side unless there’s at least a 2-in. separation.
Photo 6: Fish in the Cables
Fish the cables from the openings into the distribution box in pairs of coaxial and CAT-5e. Mark the ends of the cables with colored electrical tape for the outlet location.
Run the fish tape down into the outlet stud cavity through a 3/4-in. hole drilled through the plates from the attic, then tape both of the marked cable ends to the fish tape. Pull them up into the attic and then push them down to the distribution box. Leave about 3 ft. of extra cable at the distribution box. Cut off the outlet end of the cables about 12 in. past the openings and mark the ends with more colored tape.
Gently Untwist the colored pairs and bend them into the matching terminals. Work from the front of the jack toward the back, using the punch-down tool that comes with the jacks. Push them in until you feel the little snap that tells you the connector has bitten into the wire. Using the scissors, cut off the excess wires flush with the side of the jack.
Note: You don’t have to strip the insulation. The connector cuts through it when you punch it down.
Photos 7 – 9A show you how to wire the CAT-5e jacks. It’s easy to get confused by the “A” and “B” markings on modular jacks (Photo 9A).
The color-coded sticker on the side of the jack shows you where to punch down each wire. Generally, residential phone systems and telecommunication modules are designed for the “A” layout while commercial systems are designed for the “B” system.
Tip: When you’re installing jacks or punching down wires on the terminal board, untwist pairs carefully and punch down within 1/2 in. of the beginning of the untwist.
Clamp the stripper tool around the coaxial cable with about 5/8 in. of the cable projecting past the tool. Spin it around the cable several times until the sound of cutting metal stops, then remove the tool. You may need to adjust the cutting depths of the little knife blades inside until it strips the cable as shown below right. Expose the three layers of the cable by stripping with your fingernails to reveal the inner signal wire, white insulation and metal shielding.
Photos 10 – 12 show you how to attach the coaxial cable connectors and jacks and snap them into the wall outlets. You need special tools for this operation (Photos 10 and 11).
Snap in the telecommunication module and cable splitter and organize the phone and coaxial cables within the box for easy hookups using loose-fitting Velcro straps. Leave an extra loop in the main coaxial cable line from the street for a future signal booster. Route coaxial cables in from the top of the box for easier splitter hookups.
Crimp F-connectors onto the "in" coaxial cables and screw them to the splitter terminals. Cap any unused terminals with terminating resistors. Strip the CAT-5e cables (Photos 7 and 8) and punch them into the terminals on the voice and data module, then clip off the excess wires with the electrician’s scissors.
The punch-down markings on the module in the distribution box also can be confusing because the slots are marked with a color but no stripe designation. You’ll have to study the instructions that come with the module to make sure.
Usually the mostly white wire with small colored stripes goes in the uppermost or farthest left slots followed by the mostly colored wire with the thinner white stripe (Photo 16).
If you get either the module wires or the jack wires mixed up, your phones probably won’t work, so be sure to consult the directions before hooking up either one. To further alleviate confusion after the system’s installed, plan on using colored jacks, too (Photo 7).
Remember to ground the system
It’s important to ground the distribution box (Photos 13 and 14) before snapping in the telecommunication module. Even small static charges you introduce to the system from your body can damage delicate electronic components.
We show connecting a 10-gauge wire from the ground screw in the box to the main ground wire of the electrical service panel. Hook the new ground wire anywhere on that main ground wire. You can also attach the ground to your main water supply pipe within 5 ft. of its entrance point, if the pipe is metal.
Let the phone and cable companies do the main interface hookups
The phone and cable TV interfaces (the boxes where the lines from the street hook up to your home lines) can be positioned either inside or outside the house. It’s up to you to get the lines from the distribution box to the interfaces. Run them to the interface locations and leave a couple of extra feet of cable. Call the phone and cable TV companies to take care of the actual hookups.
What Should I Buy?
You’ll find all the materials and tools you need for your wiring project at most home centers in the telephone accessories department. The big-ticket items are the distribution box and its components. After this initial investment, expanding the system is cheap.
Buy your cable in bulk— it’s much cheaper that way. CAT-5e phone cable is sold in 1,000-ft. spools. It’s made to extremely high standards and contains four twisted pairs of wires, so it’ll carry up to four different telephone lines per cable. RG-6 coaxial cable is sold in 500-ft. spools.
2. DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM
The heart of the system is the distribution box (Photo 2). If you think you’ll only need six or fewer outlets throughout the house, buy a small box. But if you want to leave room for expansion with lots of outlets and space inside the box for networking, signal amplifiers or other hardware, get a larger one.
Go to any electronics store or home center and you’ll find plenty of hardware designed to speed up, expand or improve your basic system. The space needed for this hardware is one of the main reasons we recommend going with the larger distribution box.
The telecommunication module (Photo 14) is the nerve center for phone jacks and jack-to-jack link-ups. Also included in the module is a coaxial splitter. The splitter distributes the cable connection from the street and “splits” the signal to send it to any components you hook up to it. You can add more phone banks or splitters as needed. A starter module will take care of your immediate needs. You can snap in banks of jacks or even more modules as required.
3. JACK MATERIALS
At the outlets, you’ll attach modular telephone jacks that snap into the backs of the cover plates. Don’t worry—they’ll accept old and modern phone lines.
You’ll find crimp-on F-connectors in packages of 10. End all coaxial lines with crimp-on male F-connectors, which then screw on to splitters within the distribution box or onto snap-on female F-couplings at the cover plates. F-connectors screw into these, which in turn snap into the back of four-port cover plates.
The four square holes receive either modular jacks or F-jacks in any configuration. In addition to buying the hardware, you’ll have to buy these must-have specialty tools for working with communication wiring and fittings:
- Coaxial stripper (Photo 10)
- F-connector crimping tool (Photo 11)
- Electrician’s scissors (Photo 8)
- Plus, you’ll need a right-angle drill (rental; Photo 3) and a 2-1/2 in. hole saw (Photo 3) to drill the wire-run holes.