Structured Cabling in This Old House

One of my latest projects for our nearly 70 year-old home is to rewire all the low-voltage cabling into a modern, structured system for our convenience and for home improvement value. It’s going well, albeit very slowly.

As a lot of you know, what was once our home office is now a nursery for our soon-to-be daughter. It’s a very worthy sacrifice, although it’s taken a heck of a lot more work than we’d ever expected. Both in moving all (and it is a lot) of our office stuff elsewhere as well as creating a proper room for the baby.

Our Home OfficeThe Nursery

Before and after pictures of the closet sized room that has received so much attention over the past few years in our home. Who would ever think we’d get so much use out of a 9′ x 12′ room?

Well, after we got our bookshelves, filing, and computer desk moved to an adjacent guest room, we still had all our computer and phone networking gear still sitting on the floor of the nursery. Well, I don’t prescribe to the half-baked idea that WiFi can harm humans (and even if I did, I’d say it’s worth it) but a baby’s room just isn’t the place for hot, noisy networking equipment. I have had grand dreams of rewiring all the low-voltage stuff in our house in a neat, modern wiring system of structured cabling but in case you were not aware, old homes weren’t built with that sort of thing in mind. Our house was lucky to have been built with electricity in mind. Telephony and coax cabling were an afterthought, much like the air-conditioning and storage (we still don’t have latter).

I decided I’d move all the network gear down to the basement1. This first meant adding another outlet as networking gear has an affinity for electricity. My friend Chris helped me with the wiring of that during his family’s recent visit. The next step was to place a panel on the wall for mounting the structured cabling equipment to. I also added a shelf for the networking gear, as it needed a high (and dry), out-of-the way spot to live in.

Network Hub

Next comes the actual structured wiring part. My project includes telephony, coax cable for television, and ethernet. The plan is to place a wall jack with one of each in most rooms. Initially, this will only be three rooms on the first floor: living room, sun room, and side room. Eventually, I plan to include the kitchen and three second floor bedrooms, as well as a second jack set for the living room. The first phase is roughly 100′ of cable for each type and the second phase will consist several hundred feet more, with likely some sort of conduit system to the attic.

I’m attempting to do this as cheaply as possible. Mainly because I’m cheap and also because I need purchase some specialty tools in addition to all the hardware. Even the cheap wiring tools are fairly pricey. Here’s roughly what the major materials cost (note: pretty much everything came from various big-box hardware stores unless otherwise indicated):

  • Electrical Outlet in basement (wired off of junction box I installed last year): $5 for new wall boxes and covers. I had some extra Romex cable and the outlet itself already lying around.
  • Wall panel and shelf: $4.50 for a 24″ square piece of 1/2″ plywood. I already had the scrap 2″x4″ to mount to the walls, brick screws for mounting, exterior deck screws for attaching the plywood, two cold-formed shelf brackets, and 1″x12″ for the shelf from various older projects.
  • Network gear: Linksys cable modem, Linksys/Vonage phone router, Linksys WRT45G router w/ 3rd party Sveasoft software, Linksys NAS controller, salvaged 250GB SATA hard drive in a budget USB external controller, a cheap 10-min. UPS, and a older surge protector. All of this was old office stuff we just moved, but probably worth mentioning for completeness.
  • Block 66 panel for telephone: $3.50, stand-off for cable control: $3, 100′ of Cat 3 cable for phones: $16
  • Nine-way Coax splitter: $18, 100′ of Coax w/ F-type connectors ea. end: $20
  • Cat. 5e Patch Panel at Amazon: $28, hinged 2U wall rack-mount: $36 (ridiculous, but the cheapest one I found), 100′ of Cat 5e cable: $28
  • Punch tool for 66 and 110 blocks: $25 (and absolutely worth it as it makes the tedious process very quick).
  • Three wall plates with three modular holes: $1.50 ea., RJ-45 modular plug: $5.50 ea., RJ-11 modular plug: $4 ea., F-type connector modular plug; $4 ea.
  • Wall panel jack boxes for existing structures and low-voltage wiring (i.e. – open back box with clips that attach to drywall/plaster in place): $8 for pack of six.

My calculations put the cost of each wall jack, adding up wall panel, modular plugs, and cable to reach it, at around $25. The cost of the central cabling point is around $85. All things considered, not a terribly expensive project. It is however, labor and planning intensive. Each wall jack is a different animal. Given our homes plaster and lathe walls, none of them are particularly easy to tame.

The first step of the wiring was to install the central distribution panels on the wall panel. The older-style 66 block used for the the phone panel is the most tedious to do, in my opinion. Particularly in my project as the method of distribution I am using requires many short jumpers across punch-down points. Having a multi-tool for punching down wires (mine switches between 66 and 110 blades) is critical in my opinion for doing any signifigant amount of this style of work. The 66 block is simply more cumbersome than the more modern 110 block used on the Cat. 5 ethernet punch panel.

The co-axial cable is about as simple as it gets given I used a specialized cable stripping and crimping tool for placing the f-type ends on the cable. Generally the only method of cable television distribution is single-point hub, there are no jumpers or anything to worry about. There are some signal-boost splitters available for home structure wiring but I found it was easier (and cheaper) to simply use the power signal boost wall block provided by my cable company. The hardest part about working with co-ax is the thickness and stiffness of the cable itself, particularly when trying to pull it through some tight spots in walls.

The ethernet punch-down block, as I’ve said, seems to be a much easier and faster method of tying together a wiring system (of course, the equipment is nearly ten times the cost). I don’t yet have a method of ensuring I’m meeting the Cat. 5 standard, and such, transfer speed. However, currently for our household, it’s competing against older powerline and 802.11g speeds, so even if I can reach half of a 100MB transfer speed, it’s as good or better than before.

Phone Voice & Data Wiring in the Wall

Cutaway view of wall jack wiring.

So far, for the actual home wiring, I’ve only gotten one jack installed. Everything went very easily, although not particularly fast. If you’re going to attempt to cut any holes in a plaster and lathe wall, though; use a high-speed rotary cutting tool (i.e. a RotoZip). You’ll have a much better time of it.

  1. We have a wet basement; that is, one which simply allows groundwater to seep through the walls and then out through a big drain in the middle of a slopped floor. It’s not as bad as it might sound, just not what most people (including us) are used to today. It remains to be seen if this is going to affect the electrical equipment. However, it’s yet seem affect the alarm system or less sensitive electrical items. []

Five Fun Things Friday – Mid-June Edition

Okay, so this is turning out to be more of a bi-weekly thing than anything else. I don’t recall ever promising anything — as who would I promise it to?

Five things that have been on my radar ‘o fun over the past couple of weeks:

  1. This is a great music video by a formerly-not-known-to-me Brit indie Bats for Lashes. I like the kind of creepy, haunting sound of the song which matches perfectly the Donnie Darko inspired video imagery (via BoingBoing).
  2. Angela and I have been watching Judd Apatow’s “Undeclared” via Netflix. It’s not nearly as good as "Freaks and Geeks” but still better than your average comedy. Most of this, by Apatow’s description is due to the fact that the really good stuff that goes on at college can’t be shown on network television. True, that. Anyone wanting to go see Knocked Up, please give me a call.
  3. Last night, we went to see Son Volt at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. Last week was Big Head Todd & the Monsters. Two really good bands. Frankly, I didn’t have too high of hopes for the Son Volt show as the “reunion” of that band feels a lot like Jay Farrar cashing in on the relative success of the band as compared to his solo career (especially last month’s new album, which I found disappointing). However, I really like Farrar’s songs, be they Son Volt, solo career, or Uncle Tupelo – all of which got some play-time last night.
    Uncle Tupelo Cover
  4. Per everyone-I-know’s recommendations, I read the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s "Slaughterhouse Five" recently. Well, after having read the book, of course the next thing to do is see the movie (no, not really – I think it’s a shame that the general notion seems to be that the highest status a novel can have is to be made into a film). So last weekend, I watched the 1972 movie based on the book. I was fairly pleased with how it got portrayed and apparently, Vonnegut was, too.
  5. Last, but probably the most important, Angela and I really enjoyed the baby shower our friends Holly and Meg threw for us at also-friend Jessica’s house. It was great and we were simply amazed at how generous our friends are. We clearly have no idea what we’re doing with this whole baby thing (apparently just like everyone else, knowledge that has kept us going). However, in addition to the really great gifts that everyone went out of their way to get us (and mail us, too!), having people to count on is a big deal. Thanks, everyone.

Five Fun Things Friday – June 1st Edition

Well, it’s been two weeks since I last did this, so I should have plenty of fun things, right? I’ve been soon busy with work and house stuff, I’m not sure…

  1. Watching “Waiting for Godot.” After being publicly shamed, I figured I’d better see what all the fuss is about. I tried to watch a taped version of the play on Google Video, but it was really poor quality (in all the ways it can be). However, the “
    Beckett on Film
    ” version I rented from Netflix was very enjoyable. I found myself actually laughing allowed at some of the very dry humor (at least it was dry in this interpretation).
  2. Big budget, summer blockbuster movies. Pirates 3 didn’t make any sense plot-wise, but was fun. It seems like everybody’s favorite part was the surrealist Davy-Jones’ Locker scene. A lot of that comes from Johnny Depp’s charm in the films but director Gore Verbinski deserves a lot of credit for putting a very odd scene in a blockbuster film. Here’s hoping Transformers is equally entertaining.
  3. Angela and I finished up watching "Freaks And Geeks," the short-lived 1999 television show by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow. The show’s 18 episodes are consistently good both in writing and acting. We just got the first disc of Apatow’s follow-up show "Undeclared" and are looking forward to seeing Knocked Up soon.
  4. Speaking of television, I’ve been watching some episodes of ABC’s "Notes From the Underbelly" at their website. Apparently loosely based on a novel of the same name, the pilot episode was terrific and subsequent episodes have been fairly good, although not great. The humor hits home, though, as it does it’s best when making fun of neurotic first-time parents-to-be like Angela and I. Surprisingly (mainly just because I like it), the show will be back next season.
  5. And finally, something not related to film or television, we’ve been really enjoying getting baby stuff together. We finished up most of the nursery for our little girl and on top of that, people have been sending us all sorts of cool baby stuff. We really appreciate all the kindness and help (keep it coming, good people!). It’d be silly to say I was enjoying that a lot. We’re having our first baby shower tomorrow and it should be a hoot.

Parallel To All

I’ve been using Parallels on my iMac ever since I got that machine back in January. Like most everyone else I’ve read on the program, I’ve been very impressed with it’s ability to run different OS’s within the OS X environment.

I’ve been running Ubuntu (Linux) 6.06, Windows XP Pro SP2, and Windows Vista Ultimate without too much trouble. All are snappy and responsive, especially Windows XP. I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that Parallels 2.x has some extra features under the hood to particularly improve the Windows experience in terms of speed. It honestly feels like using a Windows machine when switched to full-screen mode. Ubuntu is also nice, but it didn’t have the easy-configuration installation features that Windows installation has. I’m not kidding when I say this: it is easier to install Windows in Parallels on a Mac than it is on a Intel or AMD purpose-built box.

Vista is a bit of a different story when it comes to performance (installation was equally easy, though). None of the fancy, 3D Aero affects are there. Even the 2D graphics are pretty sluggish. After first loading, I decided to test drive the most important feature of any Windows installation: solitaire1. The enhanced graphics of Windows solitaire made the game difficult to play – cards not dragging and dropping as they are supposed to. Even with the native Intel processor and 1GB of RAM alloted to the virtual machine, the emulated graphics couldn’t keep up. Needless to say, Vista was a bit of a disappointment on Parallels.

Well, just yesterday evening, the Parallels team announced version 3 of the Mac Desktop product. This version includes 3D graphics support, which as you can guess is something I was anticipating in this release. While they are touting the ability to play games (which is also greatly missed, don’t get me wrong), being able to fully experience Microsoft’s newest OS in all it’s glassy glory is going to help sell copies of Parallels (as well as macs in general).

Now, if I can only convince my company to buy me a macbook with Parallels & Windows for work. I think my IT guy is on board with that (right, Scott?). The one thing I’d do different with that, though, is to install Windows using BootCamp and then use Parallels to access the BootCamp partition (yeah, you can do that.). That way it can run as an entirely native Windows machine should the need arise, but otherwise can have the Parallels best-of-both-worlds goodness.

  1. Trey and I were discussing how great it is that Windows includes games people actually play in the OS. The inclusion of card games shouldn’t be too big of a surprise to us, given Bill Gates’ love of playing cards. []