This is probably the most important stage if you’re building a new house. Before the drywall goes up, it’s easy to add wires. After it goes up... not so much.
The biggest part of my home’s pre-wire was the Cat6 cable. (Cat5 is fine too... As a matter of fact, they are functionally almost the same. Cat6 is made to a higher spec and ultimately can carry higher speeds, but Cat5 is much easier to work with, and even though I decided to go with Cat6 in an effort to ‘future proof’ myself, in actuality, most of my uses are well below the limits of Cat5 (or Cat5e) anyway. Anytime I’m referring to Cat6 or Cat5e, the other can probably be substituted unless it is very high-speed specific). The biggest thing about the Cat6 cable is that it can be used for things other than just carrying the internet to your computer. If you wire extensively with Cat6, you should not wire separately for phone, as you can just repurpose a Cat6 jack into a phone jack very simply. Furthermore, through the use of ‘baluns’ you can repurpose a Cat6 wire to carry other kinds of signals (USB, audio, HDMI - requires 2 equal length Cat6 runs) UPDATE: With HDBaseT, HDMI can be carried on ONE Cat6 cable.
The toughest battle you will fight is how much you can wire vs. your budget. Depending on your builder, this battle can be much easier or harder to fight. In my case it was much harder. The builder included 5 ‘drops’ with the home, and wanted to charge a significant amount for each additional drop. (The builder would not let me install them myself). Even if it were two drops to the same location (which is barely any more work and only uses more of the very inexpensive cabling) they would charge full price for each drop. This made me revisit my wiring plan, and trim a lot of the excess Cat6 cabling out. To some extent, I still have many more Cat6 drops than I’m actually using (part of the reason I wanted to install many drops is that I wasn’t yet completely sure on what usage would look like, or where furniture would go, etc...) but in some rooms, like my office, I’m already wishing I had installed more. Someone I know is currently preparing to build a house and his builder is going to give him a couple of days and let him pull all of the low voltage wiring himself. If I was in this position, I would likely have installed more drops. (If you pull the wire yourself, be sure to label them as you pull and save yourself some headache).
Ultimately I settled on a total of 30 conventional drops of Cat6, an additional 3 behind the alarm system keypads (which I will cover more extensively when I do an entry on the alarm), 3 more drops for some IP Cameras (I’ll cover that in a later entry as well) and 8 drops to the whole-house-audio volume control locations (see the entry for whole-house-audio).
I also had 13 RG6 (coax) drops put in. A lot of locations are set up as a single wall plate with one RG6 drop and two Cat6 drops. I don’t have any locations with multiple RG6 drops and given today’s modern satellite or cable distribution systems I don’t see any need to. If you do though, it should be no problem whatsoever.
I also had 8 zones wired for whole house audio. This included a ‘volume control’ location at light-switch level where the Cat6 cable was run to as well as two speaker locations in the ceilings. This is a good place to be picky about location. If you’re pulling the wire yourself... no problem. If your builder is doing it, see if you can get out there with the low voltage guy and tell him where you want the speaker pre-wires and where you think the most useful place for the volume control is.
I also had the Media Room wired for 7 channels of audio, with 2 coax runs to use for subwoofers. These were run to the same place as the 8 zones of whole house audio. In the basic ‘spec’ the builder would wire a media room for 5 channels of audio as well as the main living room. I found it silly to have a living room with 5.1 sound in it if I was going to have a full home theater anyway, so I had them only wire it as one of my 8 zones of whole house audio. (Note: Not wiring the living room for 5.1 surround is the ONLY thing that the builder actually gave me a credit for declining. I’m pretty sure it was an error).
The builder includes an alarm for the house. They hardwired all of the sensors back to the alarm panel, as well as some 4 conductor wire for the keypads.
This is probably a good time to mention the head end. Most builders will install the alarm panel and structured wiring panel in a master bedroom closet or something. If you’re doing any kind of more extensive build out (like the one described here), it’s a good idea to pick a more suitable location. I have a closet on the side of my media room that was carved out just to hold some of the media room equipment and structured wiring needs. There was a bit of dead space in our floor plan that worked out perfectly for this.
Finally, there is the access to the outside. The builder pulls a Cat6 and RG6 run from your structured wiring panel to the outside for the cable and phone company. If I were doing this again, I would have them pull 2 RG6 runs. I had the telephone hooked up, and when the Comcast guy came to install the internet modem, he used the RG6. I wanted to go with DirecTV for TV, and when the DirecTV guy got there he said, “The Comcast guy took my wire!” He had to do a new run from outside into the structured wiring panel. Again, I was very fortunate in that we had good access to these places. I could easily imagine having the structured wiring panel in a location where adding a wire like that would be incredibly difficult, so it would have been worth it to have two RG6s running outside from the start. (Possibly something to keep in mind when locating your structured wiring panel).
When the wires are pulled, and before the sheetrock goes up, grab a camera and take pictures of everything. Photos are free with a digital camera, so take at least one picture of every wall in every room, and closer, more detailed pictures of the more significant parts of the job. You will refer to these, I guarantee.
In the next entry I’ll cover the structured wiring panel itself in more detail and talk about trimming out that area.