Pre-wiring Considerations for Your Smart Home Build
12 December 2021
At this late stage in the home design for Debbie and I, we’re starting to get down to the literal ‘nuts and bolts.’ Debbie is pouring hours into looking for the perfect light fixtures, drawer/cabinet hardware, flooring and paint. As you all know I’ve been focused on the smart home technology integrations to make our home perfect as well.
The critical elements of making my part of our home work involve infrastructure — electrical and low voltage wiring. I’ve taken a systematic approach to this point but making lists of technologies we want to include in our home and noting them as to dependencies, alignment with other technologies and isolated or standalone. A couple of those elements are power and wiring needs.
Recently I started working with our architect on the electrical plant for the house — basically where I need electrical outlets, power for lighting and wall switches — both interior and exterior. Thanks to my systematic approach, the electrical planning has been simplified to a degree by comparing preliminary mark ups I’ve done on the floorplans where I want network ports and associating the technology need attached there and what the power need is. A good example are the TV locations where I’ll need power, network and antenna connectivity.
One of the beauty’s of today’s smart home is that it’s mostly wireless so you might be asking what’s the big deal with all the network planning. Wireless protocols such as Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wifi and Bluetooth LE have done away with the need to install overly complex or expensive wired networks just to control your smart lights remotely. I covered all of these protocols in detail on a previous post ‘Wifi, ZigBee and Z-Wave: Which Is Best for your Smart Home?.’
Many believe in the modern smart home, all you need is a smartphone and a Wifi router to unlock the power of connected devices. And in many cases this may be the case, especially when applying smart technology in an existing home or apartment or for a light smart home plan.
In our case though, with a new home build it makes more sense to pre-wire. There are even good reasons to run network wiring where you can in an existing home. I’ve done this in previous homes where I could get wire down the walls from the attic and it made a huge difference — especially in our game room at our San Antonio home. But I wouldn’t recommend hanging out in an attic in July running wire as it is ridiculously hot.
There are still many key smart devices you are going to have to hardwire though. This is not so they can work with smart home systems, but because they need to communicate with your ‘dumb’ appliances, such as connected heating and air conditioning systems, smart garden sprinklers and irrigation, and the electrical wires running through your ceilings and walls.
If you really don’t feel comfortable messing with wiring there are battery-powered versions available for some of these devices, but hooking them into your home’s wiring is the best way to go if you want to get the most out of the cool, connected capabilities they offer.
Going back to my list of technologies that I felt needed to be wired, here’s what my list looked like:
- Switches and outlets
- Computer and Internet
- Heating and Cooling
- Smoke Detection
In a smart home, all of these systems are generally wired to one particular point in the house. Some people refer to it as a distribution center or a wiring closet. What’s important about this spot is its purpose — all of your systems connect to this central location.
The description of it as a ‘central’ spot doesn’t necessarily mean that this control center must be in the middle of your house. In our case, our central location or ‘AV’ racks will be in the Office, which is near the front of our home. The advantages for us there are that it’s an easy, direct point of entry for the fiber at the front corner of our lot and it doesn’t take up valuable real estate in the other areas of the house.
Select a location that:
- Has space for at least one wall panel and at least one equipment rack.
- Maintains a moderate temperature.
- Is close the wall to where service feeds, such as those for internet and cable television, enter your home.
- Plenty of electrical outlets for plugging in your gear.
- Is easy to access. Often, a spot on your main floor is most convenient.
- Is positioned over a section of the basement through which you can run wires.
In our case, my current plan includes two 12U 4-post open racks installed in a cabinet in the Office. The cabinet will be ventilated and we’re going to install a decorative vent panel on the wall behind the cabinet in the Foyer to promote air flow. The racks will house the patch panel where the Cat-6 terminates, network hardware, universal power supply, power distribution, AV equipment for audio throughout the home and network attached storage.
When you’re learning how to wire an automated home, you must learn the terminology, so you know what you’re working with. Here are some of the components I’ll be using:
4-Post open rack: Open frame server racks are an effective solution for many types of equipment mounting. They’re used in data centers as well as small, home IT closets. These racks allow easy access for maintenance, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have many 2 post and 4 post options depending on environment and equipment installed.
CAT-6 cable: The Ethernet cabling we’ll be using for the network. It connects your computer and smart devices to the network, internet, servers and other resources. When wiring a smart home, opt for CAT-6 over CAT-5e, as this will support any of your network needs for years to come. The labor to install is the same and the difference in cost per foot is negligible.
Patch Panel: This piece is essentially an organizer for your cabling. All the cabling in your network terminates here at your distribution center or wiring closet. Components plug into this that are installed in the racks. The wires terminated at the Patch Panel extend to the end points around your house to distribute the signals from the components that are housed in your control area.
Universal power supply or UPS: The UPS is a battery backup device that your racked components connect to for power. When incoming utility power drops below or surges above safe voltage levels, the UPS switches to battery power to run connected equipment. They provide power during such events as a blackout, voltage sag or voltage surge.
If you can prewire your house by adding the necessary wiring during the building process, you really should. It’s not only significantly cheaper than going back to add wiring later but also much easier during the framing process. And in some cases with more recently built homes, it may be impossible to add wire later due to fire breaks between studs or getting cable into first floor areas of multi-story homes.
As I shared earlier, I’m using a prewiring checklist to make sure I have cable endpoints everywhere I need them. And some speculative areas as well.
Computer Network: The network is the backbone of a smart house. The network hooks your devices up to your router to connect them to internet access. Much internet access can be wireless, but some devices are best hardwired to the network. Setting up your network also includes installing wireless access points throughout the home.
Video: Your televisions or home theater space needs to receive video signals from streaming services, cable or satellite services. In our case, we’ll install two or three Cat-6 cables and a single Coax cable to all of our TV locations. We’ll be cutting the cord when we move into our new home which means we’ll be relying on entertainment content from streaming services and over-the-air broadcast TV. I’ve covered this in a couple previous posts, ‘Is it time to Cut the Cord?’ and ‘Cutting the Cord Part 2 — TV Antennas.’
Audio: Enable connectivity anywhere you might want speakers for listening to audio content like music or podcasts. My plan is to have pairs of speakers in many of the rooms wired back to the wiring closet with 16-guage cable. The audio cable will be terminated in a similar manner as the Cat-6 so it can be connected to devices like the Sonos Amp for audio content in the internet. Some of the rooms will also leverage this wiring for television surround-sound systems.
Home Utilities: This category includes lighting, heating and cooling, irrigation and services such as internet for adjusting smart gadgets like window shades. We’ll also be installing Cat-6 cable in the Kitchen and Laundry Room behind where the appliances will sit in anticipation of network-connected ovens, refrigerators and washer/dryer. Currently appliances like these connect via Wifi so this is a speculative cable install to eliminate reliance on Wifi and reduce Wifi traffic.
Security: You can run wires for surveillance cameras, smoke alarms and other security devices. We’ll be hardwiring (power) our smoke and CO detectors but the exterior security cameras will all connect to the network via Cat-6. One of the other great aspects of Cat-6 is Power Over Ethernet or POE. With POE, we can power devices like the video security cameras and Wifi access points without the need to run electrical power in parallel but a special POE-enabled switch in the equipment rack or power injectors to push power via the Cat-6 is required.
Smart home systems vary in the size of distribution center or a wiring closet that they require. Even if you’ve settled on a system that doesn’t require much space, I’d recommend installing deep boxes between the studs during construction. That way, if you decide to switch new equipment or expand your smart home footprint at some point, you’ll already have the space to accommodate it.
No matter how much prep work you do to prewire your smart home, there will probably be times when cables or wires must be switched out or added. Conduit provides an easy path through which you can add wiring in the future. There are specific types of conduit for fiber, network and electrical cabling but in many cases simple PVC satisfies the need. We plan to fill the space between the studs behind/above the distribution center for the planned network and electrical wiring and for future need, between the attic and equipment racks. We’ll also drop conduit in the outer walls of the house between the attic and outer edge of the foundation so we can get Cat-6 or fiber out into the front or back yards for smart irrigation, Wifi, network or audio if the need arises.
As I’ve already said, it costs much less to install wires upfront than to go back and add more wires to a finished house. It’s okay if you don’t use them all right away; they’ll be there when you are ready for them.
For example, as you run wires for security cameras, instead of dropping one wire to each location, drop two. That way, if you later need greater surveillance coverage, you can easily hook up another camera to a wire that is already in place.
In a similar fashion, run speaker wire everywhere that you might possibly want to listen to music someday: indoors, outdoors, in the bathroom, on the patio. You don’t necessarily have to hook a speaker up to each wire, but if you later want to do so, the wires will be ready and waiting for you.
Motorized shades, interior and exterior, are another area we’re still doing some homework regarding prewiring. For exterior shades on our west-facing Patio, they require direct electrical cabling so we will plan for that. But interior shades are a different matter. Most currently on the market are battery powered which I’m not a fan of from a future maintenance perspective. Newer models coming out now are bother direct electrically powered or POE. I love the idea of automating shades based on sunlight or thermostat to save power so we have some decisions to make on a solution so we know what type cable to run to the window frames.
This can all seem a little overwhelming but it’s not really with appropriate planning. Remember, this has been a project over a year in the making so far. Keep in mind, a lot of this stuff you can do yourself in your spare time with some basic tools. And the smart devices, in most cases, are designed to integrate with existing smart home platforms and to be installed by someone with average technical skills. I’d love to hear your smart home cabling stories or what your plans are. Leave Debbie and I comments here or DM or email as we really enjoy the feedback and questions you have.
We’d also be interested in hearing what kind of smart home tech you picked up in the recent big pre-Holiday sales. There’s a lot of great stuff out there and you may have found something Debbie and I could use or other readers may be interested in. Until next week …
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