A Developer’s Guide to Networks Part 1: Wiring
Kate and I bought our first house a few months ago. This likely comes as a shock to us more than anyone else. The house was built in 2002, which means it has the benefit of being built to a more rigorous set of standards and codes than say a house built in 1972 and as such is theoretically safer and more energy efficient. The downside of a house built in 2002 is that it’s on the wrong side of the great technology upgrade divide.
Most houses these days are wired with data in mind. The current standard is somewhere between CAT-5e and CAT-6a as they can be used for any number of evils throughout the house like internet, home theater, or even analog telephones, and are somewhat future-proof because they can handle gigabit to theoretical 10-gigabit speeds. In addition, coax is still often run to many rooms for cable boxes or internet connections. If you go back in time a few years you might see a few networking runs, but you’ll see more coax runs, and possibly a few analog telephone runs using CAT-3. If you go even further back, you’ll find just coax and CAT-3, and if you keep going back you’ll see even less. The farther you go back, the less useful wiring you’ll find.
There was a time when builders didn’t really add any extra wiring capacity to homes, but consumers had a demand for technologies requiring it, so the home owners got the service providers like the cable or phone companies to do the wiring installs. The unfortunate problem is that the installed wiring is often not future-proof and therefore has a limited utility, and, of course, needed updating whenever technology matured past a certain point.
What this long winded history lesson leads to is the fact that this house was built with very little useful wiring for my home network.
One of the first things I did when we moved in here was to do an inventory of all the wiring. The previous owners liked to watch TV, and they liked to talk on the phone, but the house wasn’t pre-wired for this sort of thing so at some point they got the-cable-provider-that-shall-not-be-named to run a ton of coax and CAT-3 everywhere.
One nice thing about outdated wiring is that you can use it as the pull string for the new wiring. In this case the wiring all originated from the
ugly lovely beige service points on the front of the house, and ran into the basement where it developed into a rats nest of wiring. Thankfully coax requires special termination when branching because of signal degradation, but CAT-3 telephone wiring does not. Well, it does, but not for idiot installers. Each telephone drop was haphazardly run through whatever seam was available, or run through pre-existing holes used for mains wiring (balanced connection or not, there’s going to be interference), and the installers just used electrical tape and wire nuts whenever they needed to be spliced into another line.
The wiring running upstairs exited the basement through a hole in the wall used by the power and refrigeration lines of the AC condenser, hidden away inside the little lip on the siding used to move water away from the house, run up the side of the wall, back into the wall, and sealed off with some water-resistant sealant.
So I had that going for me.
I decided none of it was salvageable, and more importantly none of it was running the right way, so I ripped it all out.
By this point, my ISP, EPB Fiber, had already been in and ran a new CAT-5E cable to a spot near a shelf in my garage (see what I mean above?). We owned the house all of a day and half when the installer showed up so I hadn’t given a lot of thought to where it should go. The only option I had at this point to was to plug in a wireless router. The router worked fairly well for a while, but there were two critical flaws in it’s location: 1) it gets hot in the summer because the basement is not insulated, and 2) it was about as far away from my office upstairs as it could be, so the signal sucked.
The next step was to figure out how this place should be wired. I’ve learned a few things over the years having been part of many office cabling jobs. There are a few simple rules worth keeping in mind when trying to lay out a wiring design:
- All wiring should come to a head in a single place
- That place should be central to everything, if possible
- Keep the runs as short as possible
- Run more cables than you think you’ll need
I’m sure the pros can list a dozen more rules, but these are what I know.
I had a pretty good idea where I wanted network drops, but I didn’t have a great idea where they should all start. I consulted my mostly-to-scale drawing of the house I created in Visio (every home owner makes one of these, right? No? Just me? Weird.) and found that the trunk line for the second floor AC runs up a column right in the middle of the house.
That column runs from the basement all the way to the attic. Handy. A few feet away from that is the back of the basement stairs where the previous owners stored a bunch of leftover materials from the renovation they did. It wasn’t useful for very much besides storage, so I decided it was the best place to run all the wires.
As luck would have it, the new internet drop was actually installed just on the other side of that wall, so it didn’t have far to go to get to under the stairs. Unfortunately the installer did something that I found to be stupid:
In reality it probably had no impact on performance. The cable was crossing perpendicular to the mains, never really ran parallel with any of it, and it was a good distance from everything. Still… it looked bad, and it bugged me. Since I was already running wire, it wouldn’t hurt to plan to include another 50ft or so to the fiber demarc out front.
So now that we’ve got a nice central spot for everything to run, I needed to figure out what to run. EPB runs CAT-5e as a matter of course because it’ll support gigabit, but it’s hitting it’s upper limits of performance these days. I decided to go with CAT-6 because my base internet connection is gigabit fiber with the potential to upgrade to 10-gigabit (seriously), and it’s still got a lot of room for upgrade in the future. I also couldn’t justify spending twice the cost for CAT-7 on the whim that I might upgrade to 10gb in the future. Frankly at that point I’d just run fiber — it’s more fragile, but not susceptible to interference.
Anyway, getting back to realistic future-proofing, I decided to run at least two cables per room, more for rooms I know would need it — like my office. I measured the runs from under the stairs, up the column to the attic, across the ceilings, and down the walls to the various spots they needed to go. I added 20% to each run for safety and figured I needed a little more than 600 ft of cable.
I bought a roll of 1000ft and cut it into segments long enough for each run. I could have bought less, but its cheap in bulk, and I was going to make mistakes. I collected all the wire destined to run all the way to the attic (most of the wiring as it turns out) and taped them all together every 5 ft or so. I ended up with a massive and heavy snake of a cable.
Now the fun part. If you’ve ever run cable you know it’s a pain in the ass, especially through multiple floors. I had to get the heavy cable from the basement all the way to attic. I decided to use a metal fish tape run through the column from the attic to the basement (hitting every possible thing imaginable along the way). My working theory was this: pull as much cable into the attic as possible, leaving just enough in the basement long enough to be neatly run to the spot under stairs. It worked well enough, but gravity didn’t have any of it, so I had to tie some off in the attic and route it through the access hole to keep it from falling.
The next phase was to get the wires to the necessary walls, which were, of course, at opposite ends of each other. I bought a bunch of cheap hooks to hang in the attic so the wires weren’t just sitting on the insulation. In addition to keeping things neat and tidy, they also provided spots to loop the wires so they don’t get pulled taught.
Once the wires were in the general vicinity of the wall I had to drill holes so they can run down the wall to their final spot. I cut a hole in the wall where I wanted to network drop to go, and used a 48″ drill bit to drill up the wall into the attic space. I was expecting to hit a fire stop in the wall (a horizontal 2×4 fit between the wall studs) and was not surprised when I hit one with the bit. It was too cumbersome to drill through it with the 48″ bit, so I cut a hole just below the fire stop and used a shorter bit to drill through it.
I had learned a neat trick when cutting holes: cut out the left, right, and bottom sides at a steep angle, but leave the top side uncut. Break the top drywall, but leave the paper intact. Now you wont lose the chunk, and it’s easier to repair.
Once I was past the fire stop I was able to use the 48″ bit to drill through into the attic. I ran the fish tape up the wall, using the upper cutout to guide it into the attic, taped the bundle of wire destined for that wall to the end, and yanked it down. Rinse and repeat for each wall. Once I was certain I was done in the attic, I cleaned up the insulation that got moved around (don’t compress insulation — it reduces it’s effectiveness), closed up the access hole and proceeded to drink a gallon of water — word of advice: only do work in the attic early in the morning, or in the winter, or hire someone else to do it. The wires were terminated with CAT-6 keystone jacks.
Now I needed to finish the other ends back down in the basement. I didn’t want to just terminate the wires with RJ-45 connectors, so I opted to wire them into a patch panel.
The patch panel wasn’t going to mount directly to the wall, and all the networking components needed a place to live, so I mounted everything into a rack. This had the added benefit that it has a small fan at the top pulling air over all the components keeping them just a little cooler than they would normally be.
However, the area beneath the stairs was open stud, so I needed a place to mount the rack. I bought a sheet of 3/4″ plywood and attached it with a dozen screws across 3 studs. The rack itself was mounted to the plywood, into the studs with four 5/8″ x 3″ lag screws. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.
Before wiring in the patch panel, I routed the wires through a hole in the top of the rack and neatly wrapped them together using Velcro ties — don’t use zip ties, they’ll dig into the jackets.
Once the patch panel was wired in I used a simple continuity-based cable tester to verify I didn’t mix up any pins. Of the two-dozen or so jacks, I only switched one wire pair in one jack — not bad!
I installed the patch panel at the top of the rack to allow for proper cable management. Below the patch panel is a Ubiquiti EdgeRouter, and below that is a Linksys switch. At the bottom is a small UPS mostly just used to keep everything alive long enough to prevent any damage during power outages. On top of that should be a small shelf, but I couldn’t be bothered to install it. Where the shelf should be is all the gear that isn’t mountable, like the NAS, Cisco SMB PoE switch, and the power injector for my network-connected Geiger counter.
I decided to color code all the patch cables. Red is inter-network, and yellow is intra-network.
A speed test was in order once everything was all wired in.
Not bad at all.