A house is no longer just a place to live. People now have different views of what a house should do for them and what should be contained within. Some only want a phone line and one personal computer in their new or renovated home. But these simple desires are changing and getting more complex as technological possibilities grow.

Housing technology is in transition and no one can predict just when structured wiring will become mainstream. Despite the buzz from communications and IT companies that smart home technology will soon be a must-have, not every home is being built for it. Fewer homes are being renovated to include smart-home capabilities. This process is moving slowly. In fact, a good percentage of new homes won’t be futureproofed for wiring upgrades homeowners will demand in 10 years.

In a home, structured wiring serves as the backbone for high-speed Internet access, phone systems, computing, cable TV, home automation and management, security, and entertainment. If homeowners want their own information highway, they need structured wiring.

These composite cables consist of any combination of Ethernet, coaxial, fiber or other wiring standards. Once the wiring is complete, the media, data and security services are easy to install and program within days, even if the capabilities are not put into use until years later.

According to a 2003 In-Stat/MDR survey of 580 home builders, 74 percent said they offer structured wiring. Of those who do, 30 percent offer it as a standard feature, 50 percent as an option, and 21 percent said it depended on the home. Structured wiring is so popular that Home Depot stocks full systems with centralized home network distribution centers, wiring bundles, connector plates and more.

Some California and Northeast builders concentrate on futureproof wiring, even if the homeowner doesn’t opt for it. But other areas show little interest. Ernest Wagaman Sr., ex-president of Electrical Contractors & Design, Gresham, Ore., said few contractors in his area install it now.

“I think we’re going to see more of it,” he added, pointing to some custom company-installed homes in which homeowners look for Category 5e wiring to accommodate home theaters, cable or satellite.

Still, most homeowners don’t expect to be monitoring their front door with a video camera connected to a channel on a TV set. Nor do they envision high-speed data access in every room. But few argue these options won’t be commonplace and will be much harder to install without structured wiring.

Prewiring new construction allows homeowners to add security, data networking, entertainment, satellite TV and IP cameras throughout the home. If the proper cabling has been installed, there is no need to run more wiring through the walls. A home can then handle anything new smart home technology throws in its direction. But that’s not an easy sell. The cost of installing structured cable may not serve much purpose for years, which makes many embrace traditional wiring. A basic structured wiring package, including home theater and lighting controls, can add $20,000 to $80,000 to the cost of a new home. For those who want complete home automation, the prices range from $125,000 to $450,000. And there are other factors, such as longer wiring times and extra subcontractors.

But cable manufacturers say to not futureproof is a mistake. Belden Wire and Cable sells a variety of structured wire options, but the company most commonly bundles Cat 5e with Coax RG-6 for video. The choice, however, depends on the homeowner and whether the installation is a custom upscale home or a developer’s plan, said marketing director Kevin Miller.

Bundled wire is easier to install, and the stronger wires (RG-6) help protect the weaker wires (Category 5) during the installation process. With good-quality wires, there will be no loss of performance or interference from bundling. Bundled cables can go further still. Omni Cable usually sells bundles of two Cat 6, two coax and two fiber optic cables.

“It’s quite expensive as opposed to standard [wiring],” said Peter Comber, director of sales and marketing at Omni Cable. Nevertheless, it may save homeowners money long term, since they will need to install the required cabling later. Many builders are using some kind of Category 6 wiring, Comber said, who has seen recent increases in cable demands in California and Washington, D.C.

Many builders are using packaged structured-wiring options such as the one made by Square D, which comes preconfigured with all the switches and terminations ready for installation. The builders then dictate what cabling should be installed to accommodate them. On the other hand, if he were building a home for himself, Comber said he “would put in the whole shebang, with a provider for structured in the basement.”

Wireless solutions, often known as Wi-Fi, have been slower to take hold. “There’s not a lot of wireless,” Comber said.

General Cable, also known as Carrol Cable, almost always sells at least Cat 5e with RG-6 dual-shield for residential.

Satisfying customers with optimum performance and low price is still a juggling act, however, according to General Cable’s marketing director Jeff Leiter.

“Unfortunately, the market is too price-driven. Performance perimeters don’t come into it,” Leiter said. Yet, as smart-home technology availability increases, this may change. But in the meantime, customers are still looking for the lowest price. Customers want the 350 megahertz Cat 5e delivers, but don’t want to pay for it. On the other hand, Leiter said, “With RG-6 you see some ridiculously low prices, but you’re not getting what the homeowners need.” In addition, Leiter said, “Installers should look at what they are getting. Is it easy to terminate?”

The low-cost demands melt away when dealing with the custom home-entertainment market. In custom homes where millions of dollars are being invested, homeowners are more likely to “want the whistles and the bells,” Leiter said.

“Markets are growing and people are getting more into [smart home technology]. You have to get more sophisticated,” he said.

It is only a matter of time before an average homeowner expects to have perimeter control security, Internet access in every room, or a more sophisticated sound and video system.

Associations have sprung up in response to the growing interest in smart homes. The Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) is a global trade association of more than 3,000 companies that specialize in planning and installing home electronic systems, including integrated whole-house subsystems that control lighting, security and HVAC. While its representatives say few electrical contractors share in the market, CEDIA has electrical contractor members along with designer/installers, manufacturers, sales representatives, distributors, consultants and affiliates.

Getting in on the smart home action can only benefit electrical contractors. Others are vying for that same action. Residential cabling-system suppliers include the commercial cabling manufacturers and home-appliance suppliers offering complete automated systems. The apparatus suppliers have taken the lead position in selling total home-cabling systems based on their commercial apparatus products that they have downsized for the home market; these appliances can be integrated with cables on an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) basis.

Lucent Technologies sells a home-cabling system based on its end-to-end commercial SYSTIMAX system. In addition, a number of small start-up firms are bringing their own expertise to the home market, producing limited products, OEMing most of the products and supplying a systems integration function. These groups include Future Smart Networks, USTec, and Greyfox Systems.

All the contractors interviewed for this story agreed on one thing: structured wiring is going to increase in the coming years and signs of that growth have emerged across the continent. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer, based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.