What Do I Need to Install My Own Ethernet Cabling?
May 29, 2022
I’ve continued to get great questions and comments regarding the theme over the past couple weeks of wired or wireless for your home. Last week I covered Why Does My Home WiFi Stink? as a follow up to Wired vs Wifi: Skip Wifi in Favor of Ethernet Where You Can. As most of us aren’t building new homes, we’re saddled with the challenge of either making wireless work or running cable where we can. Which brings to a lot of the feedback I’ve received about ‘How do I run cable in my home?’
The good news is it isn’t that hard to do it yourself as long as you have even basic DIY skills. I’ve done it myself with a little help from family and friends so you can too. In my earlier post ‘Our Smart Home roots …’ I described the work I did in a couple of our previous homes but never went into any detail on what tools I used or what you need to wire up your own home.
Having the right tools for the job can help ensure that your project doesn’t turn into a DIY mess. Here are some tools you’ll need to run your own Ethernet cables.
You should look for CAT 5e, CAT 6 or CAT 6a. I’ll be using Cat6 for our new home but I ran Cat5e in past projects. Debbie and I are seeing a lot of Cat5e in new homes we’re checking out which is nice but makes me wonder my they’re not installing the newer Cat6. It’s probably a simple ‘network’ package sold to home buyers as it’s a little cheaper than Cat6 which only saves the builder money. It’s still short-sighted in my opinion as smart home technology advances and device speeds increase, homeowners could literally outlive their network capacity.
But Cat5e is better than no wiring which we run into frequently — it’s amazing that builders are leaving money on the table here as homeowners have become more tech savvy.
Ethernet cabling isn’t high voltage and shouldn’t be attached to anything that can push a lot of current, either. That means it isn’t really dangerous if used as intended.
That said, there are some precautions you should always take while working around the AC power lines in your home or putting holes in the structural components of your house, including when you’re installing Ethernet cables.
Always shut off power at the breaker box. If you’ll be running an Ethernet line through the wall from one room to another, be absolutely sure that the breakers for both rooms are off. To be completely sure, verify that the power to the rooms is actually off by flipping the light switches on and off and plugging a lamp into the outlets in the rooms. Lights, fans and other things like those can often run on separate electrical lines from the outlets on your walls.
All Ethernet cables should be placed as far from the AC power lines in your house as is reasonably possible. The National Electric Code (NEC) requires unshielded Ethernet cables be a minimum of 8 inches away from any AC wiring. Follow this rule even for shielded cable as it’s just a good policy all around. Running Ethernet cabling too close to AC power causes attenuation. AC electricity produces a magnetic field that interferes with the signals running along your Ethernet cable or can even induce harmful voltages in the Ethernet cable.
Ethernet Cable Anatomy
All Ethernet cables are made up of 8 wires (four pairs) that are color-coded. They are: Orange and white/orange, blue and white/blue, brown and white/brown, and green and white/green. Each colored pair is twisted together to help reduce noise and interference, which helps ensure that you get the maximum performance possible. Some Ethernet cables include a special shielding that sits between the plastic sheathing, usually called the jacket, and the twisted pairs inside to further reduce interference.
Most likely you’ll be routing cable up and down walls and through your attic or crawl space. My preference is to not batch more than 2 to 3 cables in the same hole to keep the holes small. To route multiple wires, I make multiple holes that are vertically separated by at least a few inches. After running and securing the cables, I use spray foam insulation to seal the holes in the framing to prevent air flow and maintain moisture seal.
If you opt to bundle larger groups of cables through a single hole, be sure to make the hole in your stud (or other framing member) only as big as it needs to be to accommodate the wires you’re running. Don’t make a hole with a diameter larger than 40% of the width of the framing member. Try to put the hole in the middle of the stud as putting it too close to an edge, a screw or nail could easily pierce your Ethernet cable. Where the hole is larger I’d suggest sealing the hole behind your work.
Other considerations when running cables down walls is blocking and insulation. Blocking is a horizontal 2X4 placed between the vertical studs as either a fire break or where an intersecting wall connects between studs. This is being done more frequently in new home builds. Once you decide where you want to terminate a cable run in a wall it’d be a good idea to run a stud finder (I’ll explain below with the other tools) to find the nearby vertical studs and then floor to ceiling to reveal any blocking that could prevent you from getting cable to where you want your Ethernet port to be. Insulation in the walls will generally not prevent you from getting cable down the wall but it can complicate the process.
Another good rule when routing cable is to include a service loop where possible. A service loop is simply a few extra feet of cable, for example, left in your attic on each cable run above where it heads into the stud and down the wall. This network design trick allows for future flexibility in case you’d want to move the termination point in the wall at a later point. Another rule though that supersedes the service loop is cable runs cannot exceed a maximum total length of 100 meters.
Ethernet cabling can be also be installed in conduit or cable tray as well as directly through the studs in your walls. These tend to be more commercial applications of cable installation however. I will be installing conduit in our home though. As our home will have an extensive Ethernet network, Including network terminations in the floors, conduit will need to be run through the foundation.
To get cabling to other places like the front and back yards (or possibly fiber optic cabling, for excessively long distances), I’m going to have to route cabling down through the outer walls and into the foundation that lead outside. These paths will allow for installation of standard network and Power Over Ethernet (POE)devices like lighting and security cameras. We’re planning for a circular driveway so I’ll have conduit under that too so I can get network to the yard inside the drive if necessary. Nothing network related is currently planned in that space but again, thinking future flexibility, it’s much cheaper and easier to install conduit during construction.
A Drill and the Right Bits
One tool you’ll definitely need, regardless how you install your cable, is a good drill. You can get any drill you want, but some great options are DeWalt or Milwaukee. Their top-of-the-line tools do come with premium prices, but like with most high-end tools, they’ll last for a long time if you take care of them. Plus, better quality tools will save you a lot of time and frustration, especially when working in a hot/cold attic or crawl space.
You’ll need a drill with a reasonable amount of horsepower if you want to easily bore through studs. If you run enough cable you will eventually run into a double top plate, or two 2X4’s on top of each other, and you’ll be thankful for having a legit drill. The flexibility of a wireless drill is also great in this situation as having to contend with a cord can be annoying if not difficult running an extension cord.
You’ll need the right drill bits too. Standard and spade bits are popular choices for this, but some people use hole saw bits as well. Spade bits are less expensive, but they tend to produce messier holes and they’re harder to keep straight. Hole saw bits are more commonly used for drilling holes in doors for knobs and dead bolts but can be used for large bundles of cable. I prefer to use standard bits just slightly larger than my cables so the holes are easier to seal afterward.
If you’re installing raceway, conduit or anything else, you’ll need a few different Phillips and flat head bit screwdrivers. The faceplates of the Ethernet panel usually attach with a small flathead screw, and some of the boxes (the things that attach inside of the wall) use Phillips screws to clamp into place. You don’t really need anything special — any set you can buy at your local hardware store will work just fine but I’d guess if you’ve read this far, you already have all those.
You’ll need to be able to cut your Ethernet cables to the correct length. Most every crimping tool will have a pair of cutters that will go through Ethernet cables without a problem. A dedicated pair of wire cutters are well worth it if you’re going to take on other home improvement projects in the future.
Most Ethernet wall outlets will have multiple sockets, or jacks. Each socket is connected to the Ethernet cable running in your wall by pushing each colored wire into a small groove with tiny metal blades inside. The metal blades slice through the insulation around the wire, and the blade is “punched down” into direct contact with the conductor in the wire. The blade itself is connected to the pins in the Ethernet jack. Then when you plug an Ethernet cable, from your computer or TV, into the jack, the signal travels from the pin in the jack, to the blade, and then into the Ethernet cable in your wall.
You don’t necessarily need to buy a special punch down tool if you’re only doing one or two sockets. Most of the jack kits you’ll buy will include a plastic punch down tool that will get the job done. Doing a dozen sockets or more means punching down and trimming hundreds of tiny little wires however. It’s already tedious work and doing it without the right tool just makes it worse. A good punch down tool will easily push the wire into place and trim the excess wire off the end. Do yourself a favor and invest in a punch down tool as it’ll ensure good connectivity and save you a lot of time.
If you’re putting Ethernet cabling into your home, you’ll have devices around to connect to your network. To plug your Ethernet cables directly into them you’ll need to connect an RJ45 plug. You may also need to make custom length patch cables if your cable runs are punched down on a patch panel to connect your devices.
RJ45 plugs come in two basic variants: pass-through and non-pass-through. Which you use determines what kind of crimp tool you need. When you attach a normal RJ45 connector to CAT cable, you need to trim the jacket back to expose the right length wire so the twisted pairs can seat fully in the connector, while retaining enough of the jacket so that the connector can clamp down on the jacket when crimped.
Pass-through connectors make the process a bit easier. You don’t need to worry about getting the jacket cut back to exactly the right length, and you don’t have to worry about making sure your wires go in perfectly straight as long as they make it through the end of the plug.
There are crimper tools specifically designed to work with pass-through connectors. The major difference between a pass-through crimper and a regular crimper is the addition of a blade to trim the excess wire off the end of the RJ45. You can use a regular crimping tool with a pass-through RJ45 plug, but you’ll obviously need to trim the extra wire off. You can do that with a razor or a very fine pair of flush cutters. On the other hand, every pass-through crimping tool is fully compatible with non-pass-through RJ45 connectors.
I’d suggest practicing this with some left-over cable and whatever connectors you decide on as it’s not the easiest part of this whole process. The twisted pairs that go into the connector generally need to be separated and straightened to fit correctly into the plug.
As mentioned above, a stud finder is another ‘must have’ tool for running Ethernet cables in the walls of your home. This is another tool I’d suggest investing in, especially if you’ll be running a lot of cable.
A stud finder generally uses an intelligent micro-sensor chip with high sensitivity to accurately and quickly find edges and center of metal, studs, joists, pipes and live AC wire behind walls, floors and ceilings. They usually have an LCD display and sound an alarm when they detect the location of objects behind drywall. The LCD display indicates the direction and the intensity of the alarm increases as you move closer to hidden targets.
Knowing what’s behind your walls will not only help with placing Ethernet drops but also finding things to avoid — like plumbing and electrical lines. You REALLY don’t want to damage or come in contact with either of those with a tool like a drywall saw.
Just like the name implies, drywall saws are great tools are making quick work of cutting holes in drywall to install Ethernet drops (and other applications like wall/ceiling speakers). Besides drywall though, they’ll also cut wallboard, plywood, plastic and PVC. So they can also be used for cutting conduit for your cabling.
These will become your best friend in getting cabling down walls from above or below. If you’re working with a gutted walls, you wouldn’t need these as you could just pull the cable by hand. But more often than not so you need something to push cable toward your termination point.
If you’re working with finished walls that are filled with insulation, and there’s no conduit, you will definitely need a fishing rod. A fishing rod is a narrow piece of fiberglass that you can use to force Ethernet cable up or down a wall, or across a ceiling, even if you’re pushing through insulation. Fishing rods come in different lengths, different levels of flexibility and some even glow in the dark to help you direct them if you have line of sight.
Fishing tape is useful if you need to move Ethernet cable through existing conduit or raceway, large empty spaces (like in an attic, above the insulation or in an interior wall). You will probably have more trouble forcing it through insulation than a fishing rod, but fishing tape is also a lot more flexible. For example, fishing tape is probably going to be easier to use than a fishing rod if you have to get wire around a corner.
It’s always a great idea to label all of the Ethernet cables you run. This can be done by tagging them with formal cable labels or simply writing a descriptive name on the cable itself (“Media Rm 01). It isn’t strictly necessary, but it’ll save you time when you go to punch down the panel end and run patch cable to your other devices.
Most residential applications don’t involve enough cables to warrant cable management. If nothing else, keeping your cables tied together while pushing or pulling them through holes in studs will help streamline the process causing tangle issues. You can secure cables together most any way you want, but the usual ways are electrical tape, zip ties or velcro straps. It just comes down to personal preference. Electrical tape is easy when pulling through holes but can unravel on long runs. Zip ties are the easiest to use but they’re prone to snagging when you pull them through holes. Velcro is extremely easy to put on and take off but tends to snag if you’re pulling a whole bundle of cable.
This is certainly not a complete list but these are the tools I’ve successfully used. I’d love to hear from you if you have used other tools. I doubt I’ve run my last Ethernet cable so anything to make the job easier I’m on board with.
Debbie and I would love to hear your comments. Have you run your own Ethernet cable in the past? How did it go? Did you use the same tools and techniques? If not, how did you complete the runs? If you haven’t run cable before have I helped inspire you to ‘get wired?’ I will add that the tools above are not all that expensive and you may already have some of them. So I’d challenge you to give it a try as I think you’ll surprise yourself. Doing a simple search on YouTube for ‘Running Network Cable in the Home’ brings up dozens of videos on how to run your own cable. And just think about all the money you’ll save by not hiring a professional to do the same work.
Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails as we really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’ Wishing all a great Memorial Day weekend …
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