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. []

3 thoughts on “Structured Cabling in This Old House”

  1. Putting Structured Cabling in to a home is a real challenge. We had to put a large structured cabling installation into a very large home in London some time ago and the only way it could be done was when the whole house was completely refurbished.
    Otherwise it would have made a real mess.
    But, all that said, the most important thing is to make sure it is done correctly, otherwise you spend a lot of money and it is very unreliable.

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