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. []