Common New Home Low-Voltage Overlooks
With the proliferation and popularity of home electronics, it is important that a new home have the proper infrastructure to support the connections a home owner will want. Excellence in home communication signals is essential! It is the era of prevalent electronics, with an expanding number of devices that communicate, and are installed and in use in the home … often referred to as “connected” devices, the "smart" home, and the Internet of Things (IOT).
No doubt new home owners will bring technology to the home, or will acquire new equipment as they acclimate to the home. DIY equipment from Best Buy, Costco, Amazon, and others will continue to populate new homes. However, when offered, the opportunity to have communications set up properly, the new home wired and configured, and have devices and gadgets installed and running - many if not most or all say yes. Here is a question ... if you were moving into a brand new home, would you like to have an 80" 2016 model 4k hdr tv already installed and running - you press the on button and surf the channels? Or you stream Netflix 4k to it with the push of a couple of presses? Heck yes, count me in. What it amounts to for the new home builder - how much wire, what devices are "connected", and how much is the system configured and set up for the new homeowner? Options, that is good, better, best are always good.
A new home building company should desire to be known as tech-friendly and proficient. However, because technology can be complex and rapidly evolving, many home builders avoid trying to excel in this area. They often leave home low-voltage connections and gadgets to homeowner after closing. One of the first calls the new homeowner makes is to satellite or cable company and the internet provider. It used to be to the phone company and the guy that would install an antenna on top of the home.
A very basic phone and tv wiring package may be offered by the builder, but the builder misses out, as a result, on additional revenue and referral opportunities and the chance to appeal to a broad group of technology interested home buyers. The demand cuts across the various generations of buyers, whether younger generation X&Ys, millennials, or boomers. Demand has pushed large national home companies to offer technology options, and smaller independent home builders are following and will need to follow suit.
Good, better, best technology options – but good needs to be adequate! “Basic” by itself may no longer be adequate, that is a few wires and a garage wall, metal structured wiring can where the wires are wrapped inside. Or a closet without adequate thought to electrical outlets and shelving – and the devices that will reside there. Think power, cooling, shelving, signal strength.
A low voltage plan that makes sense uses a wiring and wireless design that will support generations of equipment and devices. With an intelligent low-voltage plan in place, builders, home owners, and technology suppliers benefit. Today, this means a minimum of Category 6 cabling, and RG6 coaxial cabling from outlet wall boxes into a central structured panel. Although we can’t expect wiring to last the possible 100 year life span of the home, we are hoping to perhaps match the drywall life and the wiring life. Maybe in 25 years at major remodel time, it will be ok to be all wireless - but it is a common misconception today that wireless is ok - you need copper and fiber to maximize effectiveness.
Trends in Home Electronics:
- Large screen, thin, 4k tv’s hung on the walls
- Settop box to TV connections (satellite & cable)
- Home network is important
- Remote and cloud access to the home gear
- Streaming devices and content
- Video cameras for security
- Control the home devices with a phone or tablet
- Cell phone notification upon sensed event
- Two screens viewing (tablet and tv)
- Digital music
- Desire to monitor and manage utility usage
Common Home Low-Voltage Needs Upon Move-In:
1) Communications signals (various) properly and powerfully distributed throughout the home:
2) Connected to utility provider network(s), tested and working.
3) Attractive wall boxes and devices, and organized electronics. Wall warts minimized.
Communications components need to be planned for:
- Internet modem
- Home security and control hubs
- Wireless transmissions
End electronic devices need to be planned for:
- Cell Phones
Most residences today will have a network of gadgets and devices installed. Planning ahead for these is important in order to properly equip the home with needed power outlets, attractive wall jacks, category and coaxial cable, and shelves or mounting. A poor low-voltage planned new home ends up lacking the cable runs and outlets that are a part of the needed network. Potential pain points can be avoided – such as ugly “wall warts,” no available wired communications paths, etc.
I recently audited new home networking issues in 28 homes. The homes ranged in price from $220,000. to 4.5 million dollars. Here are some problems common in new home construction regarding low-voltage:
The Internet Router and wifi equipment are not well planned for – and as a result there are no outlets, shelves, or an attractive place to locate them in a central structure location. On the top 10% of homes, there might be a closet or low-voltage area in a theater room, where an equipment rack might be located.
The low-voltage wires run into a small structured metal can in an inconvenient and non-central interior location where the cables are not terminated but tie-wrapped into a bundle and there are not near enough electrical outlets and mounting space for future devices. This might not be a problem, but this is an indicator to look for some of the other common problems below.
If the can is on an edge of the structure, there is not proper wiring to a key centrally located point for the devices, such as Internet routers, hubs, and settop boxes. A wire needs to be run from the phone and cable “demarcs” on the outside to a central location. A central location insures better signal distribution throughout the structure.
There is no home automation (HA) hub for a control network in place. It would be easy to have even a single device or minimal number of devices with expansion capabilities. Or, a security panel with automation capabilities.
On some wall jacks, RJ11 phone connectors are used, rather than RJ45 network connectors. Land lines are shrinking in usage, but a phone line to a house demarc is still needed. Then, if so desired, the signal can be distributed to wall jacks and used for 1) home office phone system, 2) fax, 3) security system, or 4) DSL internet service. In some developments, DSL could be the only internet utility provider option, when cable isn’t brought into the subdivision. A wall jack wired with an RJ45 can accept phone line signals to it and have an RJ11 phone line plugged into the RJ45 and operate as a phone, when properly wired. Or, it can be wired and connected to a network port through Ethernet. But an RJ11 phone jack is limited to phone use (if the phone signal is there at the outlet).
Many neighborhoods and houses have less than 5 bars for mobile phone usage, so service levels are less than desired. Signal boosters can help.
TV’s will likely be wall mounted in obvious locations, but the cable and electrical outlets are at 18”. Therefore cables will dangle up to the back of the tv, or new boxes will need to added and cable fished up. A network cable is often not included where the coax outlet for the tv is. However, most TV’s today will benefit from a hard-wired network connection, in addition to the coaxial RG6 video cable (smart tv’s and settop boxes). The ideal low-voltage wall box includes 2 coaxial and 2 network ports (four wires from the can).
There is no spare Cat6 wiring for later easy addition of POE security cameras. Later, when a video security system is installed, the owner will need to crawl around attic with big drill bits, and drill for the video and power cables for the camera. Power Over Ethernet means a Cat6 cable will terminate back at a network router or network video recorder. Replacing batteries is to be avoided.
There are no spare cables in the wall for future devices – such as a security control pad on the wall (POE) that is close to entry(s), perhaps a doorbell video camera, security cameras in ceiling corners, etc.
Key utilities that use expensive resources are “not connected” or programmed, such as the sprinkler controller, thermostat, lights, etc.
There is no satellite dish prewire, so there exists the potential for future ugly wires strung from dish to can.
If there are stations that broadcast over the air in the area, the home is not equipped with an antennae and cable to feed to the structured box for signal distribution.
There is no simple way to view utility usage and control via “connected” device.
Leak detectors are not installed (water - code forces smoke, fire, gas detection).
I do professional audits for new home builders and suggest design improvements and changes to solve the common problems above. Regardless of new home price range and buyer type (millenials, Gen X/Y, boomers), there are well thought through solutions that will increase new home buyer satisfaction.
The pictured home is one I built in Ouray, Colorado, complete with home automation, networking, lighting control, whole house audio, and other features.