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Remember the good old days when connectivity meant having one electrical outlet (most likely not a grounded receptacle) in every room and one telephone in the entire house? How did we survive?
What once was an amenity reserved for multimillion-dollar homes now embraces Middle America.
“In this digital era, multiroom audio, home theater, security systems and structured wiring all appeal to the new ‘iPod Generation’ of home buyers,” said Bill Ablondi, director of home systems research for Parks Associates, a market research and consulting firm in Dallas. “For years, builders emphasized amenities like larger kitchens, bigger closets and elegant master baths,” but that’s given way to the digital era. He added that with competition heating up among builders as mortgage interest rates edge up, structured wiring will further differentiate their services. In new homes, structured wiring is a given and by 2008 Parks’ research forecasts more than 10 million home users of the wiring. But it is not reserved for new construction.
In whole house remodels and retrofits, homeowners are taking the plunge. It is probably a safe bet that even those who aren’t gutting walls will do what they have to for an automated home. Homeowners have come to rely on high-speed Internet and networking at work and now they want streaming video, whole-house audio, automated lighting and more at their personal domiciles.
The structured package
Structured wiring supports voice/data/video, audio, security, environmental controls and home automation. Structured cabling begins with solid copper, unshielded twisted pair (UTP) wire. Tightly twisted, the wires stave off interference. Two grades of UTP are commonly used for voice and data transfer: Category (Cat) 5e—the “e” standing for enhanced—or Category (Cat) 6. Cat 6a “a” for augmented, is a next-generation product, but it is yet to be governed by a standard. The category number references the wiring according to Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) standards that specify cable requirements.
Structured wiring allows for faster data-transfer rates, known as bandwidth. Several years ago, Cat 5e was the mainstay and it is still the most commonly manufactured and deployed. Cat 6 is fast on its heels and will continue to gain popularity as prices come down and homeowners’ needs evolve. But structured connectivity is more than Cat 5e or Cat 6 UTP. The entire package includes various types of multiconductor copper cable as well as coaxial and fiber optics.
There are two grades of cabling specified for voice/data/video residential wiring. Grade 1 meets minimum requirements for basic telecommunications services, including voice, video and low-speed data. A Grade 1 cabling installation would include the following:
- One Cat 5e for voice and low-speed data—Cat 6 is recommended
- One RG-6 (coaxial) for external video from a rooftop antenna or a CATV or satellite dish
Grade 2 meets the minimum requirements for both basic and advanced telecommunications services. In addition to voice and external video, it distributes internally generated video and provides networking of computers and high-speed Internet access. A Grade 2 cabling installation would include the following:
- Two Cat 5e cables—Cat 6 is recommended (one for voice and the other for data)
- Two RG-6 coaxial cables for external and internal video
ANSI/TIA-570-B Residential Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard sets minimum requirements for residential structured wiring, said Bob Jensen, RCDD and Standards and Technology Development Manager for Fluke Networks, Everett, Wash.
“The standard specifies the minimum requirements for twisted pair cabling as Category 5e, with Cat 6 recommended. Standards do not recognize 6a cabling as yet. This ‘a’ designation today is typically used to market cable that has better performance characteristics than Category 6,” he said.
Jensen, who chairs the TR-42 Engineering Committee and the TR-42.2 Subcommittee on Residential Telecommunications Infrastructure, recommends installing the best performing equipment and cabling possible.
“Cabling must be viewed as an investment. The future holds many new services that will be bandwidth intensive. It just doesn’t make sense to try to deliver multiple streams of HDTV over cabling that isn’t made for that purpose,” he said.
Many in the industry concur that for the majority of customers, Cat 5e will suffice. But for customers who desire multiple phone lines, whole-house audio and Internet-based camera surveillance around the property, Cat 6 is a wise choice and now, recognized through ANSI/TIA-570-B. The industry as a whole is prepared to move to Category 6 and many agree that transporting gigabit data within the home isn’t far off.
“From a speed standpoint, Cat 5e is appropriate for almost every residential application for the immediate future, but if cost is not a consideration, it doesn’t hurt to upgrade to Cat 6 or even Cat 6a [Augmented Category 6 (10Gb)],” said David McBain, senior product manager, Hubbell Premise Wiring, Stonington, Conn. “The faster the transmission speed, the better equipped the system will be to handle high speed data, video streaming and gaming applications in the future.”
Cat 6 bandwidth, for example, is 2.5 times greater than 5e, which equals higher performance and speed. Still, there remains the question over whether most typical residential customers at this time will come close to needing Cat 6.
When talking about the capability to support digital video, it is best to consider Cat 6, said Steve Sterling, product manager, Honeywell Cable Products, Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Sterling said Honeywell’s tests of Cat 6 have verified that it can reliably transport 10Gb data over 55 meters or 180 feet without signal degradation.
“There’s still a cost factor with Cat 6,” he said. “You may pay 40 to 45 percent more overall for about 1,000 feet of Cat 6 cabling, but it’s really worth it when you consider what you are getting.”
Being able to offer the latest technology will start to pay off big, especially as commercial customers build or remodel and want the latest technology at home, according to John Pryma, director of structured cable, Honeywell Cable Products. Pryma is vice-chair of TIA-42.2 Subcommittee on Residential Telecommunications Infrastructure.
The National Electrical Code (NEC) also has provisions for structured cabling installations. For example, installers are not allowed to place cables in the same holes drilled into a stud that also carries electrical cable. In addition, a proposal to the 2008 NEC is asking that newly constructed homes have a minimum of one telecommunications outlet. (Substantiation cited several safety improvements for homeowners and installers.) In addition, a proposal was also included to the NEC to include a fine print note informing readers that one way to determine accepted industry practice is to refer to nationally recognized standards such as ANSI/TIA-570-B or other ANSI-approved installation standards. Future-what?
“Obviously, no one has a crystal ball that shows us what we’ll need in 10 years,” said Arn Reno, RCDD and southwestern regional manager for ICC, Cerritos, Calif. “As it stands right now, 5e is satisfactory for the next 3 to 5 years, but down the road, consumers will look more at Cat 6, especially if they are not in a budget crunch. There’s also a move to put video on unshielded twisted pair and if that comes around, structured cabling will really take off. Today, 5e and coaxial cabling are what the homeowner needs.” Arn suggested installers put in a 3/4 or 1-inch flexible conduit pathway and install 5e. That way, down the road, and if the customer desires, they can use the raceway to deploy Cat 6.
“When we started in all this, we thought the 14-inch enclosure would be plenty to handle technology. Now, we’re looking at 28- and even 42-inch enclosures/networking boxes,” Reno said, adding that modular design allows flexibility in application, easy upgrades and future expansion.
But to really future proof, if that is possible, fiber optic cabling may be the way to go, said Greg Niemiera, technical sales and marketing manager, Mohawk Cable, Leominster, Mass.
“Putting fiber optics in is one way to really future proof, and that’s becoming more feasible as the telecos continue to bring fiber to the curb. Then, it may be more cost-effective to bring it inside the home as well,” he said.
But right now, Niemiera said, from an economic standpoint, using Cat 5e and above is where manufacturers continue to put their focus. EC
O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or [email protected].