The top 10 issues for residential cabling systems

What will it take for this market to go from early-adopter to maturity?

Th 117510
Th 117510
Click here to enlarge image

As the residential market grows, it is important that we are all aware of issues that need to be addressed to get the market from an early-adopter stage to maturity in the next year. This list of issues and commentary was developed from following the market closely and from various discussions at industry forums.

1. How do we increase builder/developer awareness of structured cabling?

This is a very basic issue that must be overcome for the market to grow to its full potential. The good news is that high-end homeowners and their architects and builders already have some understanding of structured cabling, and desire a home theater, a home office, and whole-house audio. High-end residential audio/video installers understand how to listen to their customers and translate their needs into an integrated residential system.

The bad news is that way too many high-end homes are built with what can now be considered obsolete telephony and television wiring. Marketing campaigns are needed at builder shows and in builder publications to effectively disseminate the features and benefits of a structured cabling system. The industry needs to realize that a structured cabling system adds at least 2% to the resale value of a home, allows the builder to profit from upgrades, and makes it possible for the homeowner to easily take advantage of new technologies in voice, video, data, audio, and home automation.

2. What awareness does the homeowner have of structured cabling?

The current or potential homeowner may have some awareness of structured cabling, but does not realize how a system needs to be designed and configured to meet his or her requirements. They usually just address one issue, such as using a wireless connection for computing devices or installing a home theater with components out of the box. They do not know that a properly installed structured cabling system lets them integrate all of their devices into a fully functioning system capable of supplying whole-house audio, home automation, and alarm and security.

There are going to be three distinct markets addressing the homeowner: The hobbyist, the professional installer, and the system integrator. Retail home-improvement chains are starting to sell Category 5e and RG-6 cables, and connectivity hardware to the weekend remodeler who may be able to install a home office or a home theater, but may not have the skills or equipment to verify the adequacy of their installation. Also, if multiple devices and protocols are needed, these do-it-yourselfers will not have the computer-programming skills necessary to make various functions work together in a residential environment.

For both prewiring and rewiring, an alarm and security dealer may be a good choice. They are familiar with low-voltage installations, have typically installed and terminated UTP and coaxial cables, and know how to select cables, cabinets, and outlets for structured cabling systems. They are especially good at rewiring since they have the expertise and tools for installing cable in wall cavities of existing homes. In prewire, they can supply the structured cabling along with the alarm and security system. In some markets, electrical contractors do prewire of new construction since they are already pulling power cables in the home.

Audio/video custom electronics dealers and some retail outlets can select a good list of equipment in the customer's price range and offer a complete installation using a trained installer. This approach is commonly followed in existing homes, since rewiring is typically done for specific applications. In new construction, a consumer electronics firm can design, install, integrate, and test a structured cabling system providing whole-house access to its various features.

3. Why is structured cabling important in a home?

There is no reason to believe that lifestyle improvements will stop dead in their tracks in the next decade. We should now consider a structured cabling system as a utility for the new home, which is every bit as important as the 110/220-V AC power grid, the HVAC system, and the fresh- and waste-water infrastructure. Without a structured cabling system, a brand new home will contain 1950s-era wiring and we will not be able to effectively realize the benefits of current and future lifestyle enhancements. Those who do not put a structured cabling system in their new home now will pay ten times as much to do it later. Just ask anyone who has had to rewire an existing home.

4. How is a structured cabling system defined?

According to the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA—www.tiaonline.org), a structured cabling system consists of a centrally located distribution device (DD), UTP and coaxial cables with optional optical-fiber cables, which are installed in 90-meter-maximum (295 foot) home runs, and Grade 1 or Grade 2 telecommunications outlets (TOs) in individual rooms. The distribution device is typically a residential cabinet, which is 14.5 inches wide and is mounted between studs on 16-inch centers. In other words, a cabinet is needed, which is centrally located, but close to incoming services—telephone, cable, high-speed data—and within 1.5 meters (5 feet) of a duplex 15-A power outlet. From this cabinet, Category 3 or 5e, RG-6 coaxial cables, and optional optical-fiber cables are installed directly to TOs, without splicing, bridging, or daisy-chaining. If one of these elements is missing, you do not have a structured cabling system.

A Grade 1 outlet has either a Category 3 or Category 5e UTP cable for voice and low-speed data, and an RG-6 coaxial cable for broadband video. A Grade 2 outlet has two Category 5e UTP cables for voice and high-speed data, and two RG-6 coaxial cables for external broadband video and internally generated baseband or broadband video. The cables are connected in the cabinet using a punchdown block or mating 8-pin modular plugs and jacks of the same category as that of the UTP cable. The RG-6 coaxial cable is terminated using Type-F connectors, and barrel adapters are used to mate two of these connectors together. Optical fiber is normally left unterminated, pending future applications. The FCC lets homeowners file a class-action suit against a builder who advertises a structured cabling system but does not deliver a conforming and performing system.

5. How should a user select the right cables?

Category 5e cable is a very meticulously designed product with demanding electrical-performance characteristics mandated to 100 MHz by the TIA. An ISO 9001:2000 certification indicates a manufacturing operation with stringent quality-control procedures. World-class manufacturers test these cables to 200 or 350 MHz. Genesis Cable, for example, manufactures and tests to both of these frequencies. Also, a simple notation of "Category 5e" on the cable box is not sufficient. The cable should be third-party verified by ETL or UL, to ensure that the requisite performance is consistently present. The RG-6 coaxial cable should be tested to a minimum of 2.2 GHz to accommodate satellite services. (At Genesis, we test to 2.4 GHz.)

For individual runs, single cables may be installed, such as a Category 5e to a telephone on a kitchen wall, or an RG-6 to a small television sitting on a kitchen counter. For Grade 1 TOs, a Siamese construction is recommended, which consists of one Category 5e and one RG-6. For Grade 2 TOs, a multimedia bundle consisting of two Category 5e and two RG-6 cables is recommended. In either case, make sure the manufacturer tests the individual cables both before and after the bundling and jacketing process, because when these processes are not done properly, they can significantly degrade electrical performance. For example, Genesis Cable employs a proprietary manufacturing process that does not degrade these cable constructions during bundling. We validate that claim to our customers by testing the individual cables before and after they are bundled.

6. What selection process should be followed for hardware?

The cabinet should be from a reputable manufacturer that offers a wide range of upgrade options and provides good technical support. Typical cabinet sizes range from 12 to 40 inches in height to accommodate various numbers of cable drops. All of the category cable components should be rated to 200 MHz, and the coaxial cable components to 2 GHz. The TOs, also called information or multimedia outlets, should be similarly rated and available in Grade 1 and Grade 2 configurations, with optional fiber connections.

A basic system may only consist of a cabinet fitted with a telephone module and a cable TV splitter. The cabinet should be large enough to accommodate future upgrades. The cabinet manufacturer you select should have a broad selection of upgrade modules, which would include an amplified cable TV splitter, a data module for Ethernet, a router for high-speed Internet access, an audio module, a lighting-control module, and an alarm and security module. These upgrades are easy to add, since typically the only labor involved is the installation of a module in the cabinet and its connection to the cable.

7. Why is testing important?

Testing is very important, since any cable damage that occurs during installation or termination is normally not apparent. A handheld tester must be used to verify that each Category 5e drop meets TIA electrical performance requirements. The same applies to RG-6, whose performance is governed by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE—www.scte.org). It is much easier to replace a defective cable run in a commercial installation, since only a few ceiling tiles have to be moved to gain access. In a residential installation, sections of wall may need to be demolished to gain access to the cable. So, ensuring the performance of installed cable in a residence is critically important.

A basic test sequence requires only an inexpensive meter, which tests the continuity of the conductors, and wire map to ensure that all connections are made properly. But this does not verify the electrical performance of the cable and will not detect increased attenuation due to cable stretching during installation, increased reflection loss due to bends below the minimum bend radius, or increased crosstalk due to conductor deformation or excess untwisting of pairs. I strongly recommend that you use a full-function handheld tester, which is capable of doing all of the tests specified in the TIA/EIA-570A residential and TIA/EIA-568B commercial standards.

8. What standards are applicable?

The TIA published the TIA/EIA-570A Residential Telecommunications Cabling Standard in 1995. The standard currently has three addenda, covering alarm and security, home automation, and whole-house audio applications. The entire standard is currently being rewritten by the TIA TR-42.2 committee to include additional design, installation, and testing requirements. TIA/EIA-570B will be published early this year. BICSI (www.bicsi.org) is writing a residential methods manual to carefully document the entire structured cabling process. BICSI has also published a comprehensive residential cabling manual, which is available on their Web site and at major bookstores.

All structured cabling installations must be in compliance with the National Electrical Code. Cables installed in a single-family home must meet the fire-retarding characteristics for general-purpose cables, with a CM rating printed on their jackets. Cables installed in a condominium or an apartment building must have a riser (or CMR) rating when installed vertically between floors and a plenum; or, CMP rating when installed in an air-handling plenum. These types of installations in multiple-dwelling units are more analogous to a commercial installation.

9. Where can you obtain training?

Training can be obtained from many sources. All of the manufacturers, including Genesis, Leviton (www.levitonvoicedata.com), OnQ (www.onqtech.com), and UStec (www.ustecnet.com), provide training for dealers and installers, as do major distributors—such as ADI (www.adilink.com) nationally, and regional wholesalers locally. BICSI, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA—www.necanet.org), and the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDA—www.cedia.org), offer training in most major cities. Trade shows such as CEDIA, Electronic House Expo, the International Security Conference, and NECA's Voice-Data-Video show are built around a strong residential structured cabling program. CEDIA has advanced training covering the system-integration aspects of audio, video, and home automation.

10. What about warranties?

A structured cabling warranty provides recourse for the builder to a manufacturer if the installation is faulty, and it provides peace of mind to the homeowner for many years. Most warranties are transferable and last for 15 years.

Whether we like it or not, technology will continue growing at warp speed. To stay abreast of the latest technical innovations and business opportunities, you must be a prodigious reader of industry publications, attend trade shows emphasizing residential applications, participate in industry associations, and obtain all relevant training. A decade or two down the road we will be living in fully automated homes with robots serving us drinks and mowing our lawns, while we watch a holographic movie in our home theater. At that time, we will be very pleased that we installed a structured cabling system, without which many of our new lifestyle enhancements would not be possible.

John Pryma is vice president and general manager of Genesis Cable Systems (www.genesiscable.com).

More in Cabling Installation