Enthusiasm about high bandwidth capabilities of fiber optic cable, and speeds with which fiber transmits data and video, often overshadows the fact that most end-user residential connections still are made with copper cable. Also, most local-area networks (LANs) in business applications contain twisted-pair copper wiring for conventional telephone service, data transmission, computer networks and to operate security and fire-alarm systems and intelligent building controls. Coaxial cable supports audio and video connectivity.

“The vast majority of new indoor premise installations still use copper, whereas outside premise installations mainly utilize fiber,” said Marco Costa, ICC product marketing manager. “The demand for copper tools for copper VDV [voice/data/video] remains stable because fiber has not yet become a popular, cost-effective alternative to indoor premise cabling.”

As they are for electrical wiring, the basic tools for making twisted-pair copper connections are cutters, strippers, crimpers and punchdown tools. However, Costa recommends not using electrical wiring tools for low-voltage VDV work but rather tools developed specifically for VDV applications.
“None of the tools we offer is intended for use with electrical wiring,” he said. “For example, punchdown heads are specific to VDV work.”

Employing the correct tools for specialized applications increases workers’ efficiency, saves time, increases productivity and helps achieve quality terminations that reduce occurrences of network failures. As have other categories of hand tools, tools for copper VDV installations have steadily evolved, incorporating ergonomic features that make them easier to use, that have sharper cutting edges, and that are more durable.

(Editor’s note: Testing is an important step to confirm network connections are correctly made, but the scope of this report does not including testing equipment, which is covered in articles devoted exclusively to testers.)
Representatives of four manufacturers offer the following comments about those copper datacom connection tools available today.

Fluke Networks, Paul Alexander, field test equipment marketing manager, said: “Copper installation in any residential install is still the norm. The hybrid combination of fiber/copper networks is more complimentary than it is competitive, so both copper and fiber installation tools are essential, and they will be for many years to come.

“Proper termination is vital—every-thing starts with the connection/termination; it’s invaluable for any VDV installer. It’s paramount. Without a proper termination, it won’t be possible to get verification, qualification or certification of a network.

“Tool designs are all about increasing efficiency, productivity and reducing installation time and errors. A perfect example is a tool that seats and terminates all wires simultaneously, with one squeeze of the handle, giving users accurate terminations and clean, consistent cuts every time.
“Companies constantly strive to keep up with new standards and improve upon what they’ve already built. We always are looking at how we can increase productivity and efficiency while reducing installation costs and errors.”

Greenlee, Michael Stephens, senior product manager, said: “The ratio of copper to fiber varies considerably depending on what part of the country or even the region in a state [you are in]. While fiber may be more prevalent in backbone and even last-mile applications, copper still rules from point of entry. To this point, copper cabling has consistently risen to the continually increasing performance needs of the market. Until it reaches its inherent limit—or until the cost of fiber and related connectivity products drop—I don’t see copper use declining significantly in the near future.

“We’ve seen demand for fiber tools increase but not to the detriment of copper. Copper is still prevalent where most of the tools are needed—from point of entry—plus there is an enormous installed base of copper that’s not going away anytime soon.

“The signals sent down VDV cables continue to evolve. What is sent, how much and how fast, and at what quality levels [have] dramatically changed in the past 10 years. As a result, the cable and connectors have evolved which, in turn, requires tools to adapt.
“Advances in materials and hardening processes, innovative solutions to addressing the functional needs, and continual focus on ergonomic benefits have all contributed to incremental improvements in tools within the past five years.

“Cutter, stripper and crimper are the basic tools for VDV terminations. The types of each will vary depending on what kind of cable. The stripper must be designed to remove the outer jacket, but not knick the insulated pairs. Then a crimper should be dedicated for the type of modular plug being used: RJ-45, RJ-11, AMP or WE/SS style, etc.

“Poor signal quality or service disruptions are typical problems experienced if a cable is not properly terminated. The highest quality cable and connectors are rendered useless if a good connection isn’t made. The most common errors involve not fully seating the cable into the connector before crimping and failing to complete the crimp cycle with the tool. Additionally, many problems can result during the cable prep process, such as stripping the wrong step lengths of insulation, shielding, conductor, etc. And, lastly, choosing the wrong type and size connector for the cable being used will always cause trouble.”

Coaxial Cable
Coaxial cable is used for 10 gigabit Ethernet and most closed-circuit television and security transmissions, said Michael Stevens, Greenlee senior product manager. It still is commonly used for electronic test and measurement equipment; broadcasting, including distributed antenna systems and radio transmission systems; space and military applications; and satellite/GPS systems. As the cable of choice for most entertainment interconnects within the home, coaxial requires specialized cutters, strippers and crimpers designed for the specific cable size and connector type used for proper termination.

“Tools needed for coax include a cutter designed to cut through several layers of jacket, insulation and conductor without deforming the round shape too much,” Stevens said. “For stripping, the tool must have multiple blades—usually two for the most common types—set at proper spaces and depths to leave the prescribed lengths of dielectric and conductor exposed. Once the shielding is folded back, a coax crimper for the specific type of connector is needed—for example, hex or compression connectors for TV ‘F,’ RCA or BNC.” —J.G.

ICC, Marco Costa, product marketing manager, said: “Newer copper VDV tools developed in the past few years include simultaneous multiple wire-pair termination capabilities along with some single-handed tools for termination.

“The basic tools required for terminating jacks and patch panels are punchdown tools, cable stripper tools, wire cutters and handheld termination aids. A variety of punchdown tool styles is available, such as a single blade, 4-pair, and 5-pair, along with different styles of cable stripper tools: economy and deluxe. Economy models are for basic UTP cable preparation. For more advanced features, use the deluxe models to cut, strip and prepare round networking cable; coaxial cable RG-59, RG-6, RG-7, RG-11; and flat telephone cable. To cut cable, ICC offers a standard wire cutter and a deluxe wire cutter and stripper. Wire cutters and strippers are designed with knife-like blades for easy cutting and stripping wire ranging 10–22 AWG single and 12–24 AWG stranded wire.

“Basic tools for terminating patchcords are modular-plug crimping tools. A variety of tools is available, but the most impressive is the professional-grade modular-crimping tool with a comfortable and ergonomic handle to crimp eight-position modular plugs. It also is integrated with a stripper and cutter.
“Punchdown tools have been enhanced to save time during installation. The head on the 4-pair punchdown tool can be changed to terminate EZ type and high-density jacks. Installers can terminate all 4-pairs of jacks with one punchdown, cutting off excess wire simultaneously.

“Making clean and professional terminations is critical. Common mistakes to avoid are nicking the insulation on wires and minimizing the untwist of the wires prior to the termination point. Installers must be able to recognize proper termination configurations and sort out the wires for proper pin-out on jacks and patch panels. When bending cable, it is recommended a minimum bend radius [of] 4 times the diameter. Overrun cable should not be stuffed back into outlets. Labeling cables prior to termination is a good practice.”

Platinum Tools, John Phillips, product and marketing manager, said: “As with electrical installations, installers require cable cutters, strippers, and crimpers, but it most cases, I would say 80 percent of VDV applications require dedicated special tools in order to correctly complete the work.
“Cable-cutting tools are specific to the type of cable, and different tools are needed to prep each type of cable and different connectors require termination and crimping tools for each type of connector. In some cases, tools do crossover to different applications—usually about 20 percent of the time.
“Evolution of VDV connection tools has been driven by the need to connect point A to point B easier, faster, more efficiently, and to provide better performance. I would say, about 90 percent of the time, problems with a network are due to a bad connection. Every type of connector has a specific prep required for it to be properly terminated, and if it is not done right, it probably will fail. Along with knowing what the correct prep is, it is necessary to have the right tool for meeting those prep requirements and [to] understand how to use it.”

Patch cables, panels, face laces, blocks, racks, shelving, and bays must be correctly labeled, so labeling tools are a necessity for making network installations. (Labeling tools were covered in the January 2010 issue of Electrical Contractor. Click here for that article.)

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.