Home Wiring, The Next Generation

In May 2004 my wife and I sold the townhouse described in the original article.  We bought a detached single-family house that had been built in 1972.  The electrical system was adequate and the plumbing was copper, but a lot of stuff we were accustomed to was missing.  We decided to scrape the acoustic "popcorn" ceilings, add recessed and track lighting, replace the (original?) furnace and ducting, paint over the dated "Navajo White" walls, and so on.

Of course, we also wanted to wire up video, telephone, and network connections.  The plan for the townhouse had worked out rather well, so we decided to stick to the same plan.  We did a few things differently:

In the old place we used every part of every drop in every room at least once.  We wished we had drops in the two spare bedrooms at one time or another.  This inspired us to put a drop in every room, whether we thought we would need it or not.

Because we were going to have to re-finish the ceilings -- and, as it later turned out, all of the much-abused walls -- we were able to run cable into otherwise annoying places by cutting holes in the ceiling.  Rather than do it all myself this time, I added it to the set of things for my general contractor to handle.

The contractor, Mike Wicks, did an amazing job.  We added and removed walls and drop ceilings, removed a window in a bizarre place, reworked plumbing, added natural gas lines for a clothes dryer and cooktop, upgraded the electrical panel and added GFI circuits, added recessed/track/ceiling-mounted lights in every room, installed the burglar alarm, added bathroom exhaust fans, replaced carpeting and vinyl flooring with wood laminate, demolished a deck and a shed, re-textured and painted the interior in several different colors, and did most of the low-voltage wiring work.  Mike found good sub-contractors and got the whole thing done in about two months, with full permits.

I decided to help out by reprising my original role of He Who Terminates The Cables.  Since I wanted to set up the IR receivers and the extra ethernet jacks in the office, I terminated the cables and configured the faceplates in the eight different locations.  Mike ran the cables, and terminated and labeled the cables in the wiring panel.  The general setup is nearly identical to the old house.

Wiring Panel

The panel is again in the garage, but this time it's recessed, and has power built in (instead of coming from a power strip screwed to the wall nearby).  Here's a picture with the cover off:

new-panel.jpg (91343 bytes)

Here's the parts list for the new construction.  The ChannelVision parts are listed with model numbers.  All of this was figured out by sitting down with James at HomeTech Solutions.

Basic stuff:

$71.95 (C-0138E) ChannelVision 38" panel
29.95 (C-0138C) Cover for panel (white metal, overlaps box so it covers gaps between box and drywall)
45.99 (C-0501) 8-port network termination block
47.99 (C-0432) 4 in 8 out telco 110 block
127.99 (C-0329) 2 in 8 out amplified video distribution block
16.95 (C-0702) AC power strip w/mounting bracket
11.99 (C-0213) F-connector barrel termination block
25.00 (C-0309 x2) Blank mounting plates
12.95 AC power module (two outlets, fits in bottom of panel)
19.95 CompUSA 8-port 10/100 Ethernet switch
259.00 500 feet of structured cable (Cat-5E x2, Quad RG-6 x2)
14.31 9 sets of QuickPort 4-port faceplates
42.75 9 sets of QuickPort Cat-5 jacks
26.01 9 sets of QuickPort 6-conductor phone jacks
48.42 18 sets of QuickPort F-connector jacks
$801.20 TOTAL

Fancy stuff:

$149.95 (5005-W) Weather-resistant B&W bullet cam
83.99 (C-0301) E1200 single-input RF modulator block (for camera)
64.95 (C-0703) DC power distribution block (for camera + RF mod)
49.95 Corning ADSL/POTS splitter
$348.84 TOTAL

Total of $1150.04.  The various ChannelVision blocks have plastic "pop rivets" that allow the blocks to snap into place.  This turned out to be extremely convenient, because the panel got re-arranged a few times for convenience.  There were times when I wished I'd gone with the 50" panel instead.  As mentioned earlier, the DSL splitter actually sits at the telco demarc rather than the wiring panel.

Comparing the above to the setup in my townhouse is tricky, because I kept some of the old stuff (IR receivers/emitters), and added some new things (the camera and its RF modulator).  The ChannelVision blocks with mounting brackets tend to be more expensive than their "loose" counterparts.  I already had all of the tools, and vaguely remembered how to use them.

I re-used some leftovers from the original project, e.g. the spool of Belden Cat-5 (which was over-built to Cat-5E specs back then).  The structured cabling leftovers from the original project got used up in various ways, such as dragging an extra pair of RG-6 cables up to the attic in case I ever decide to switch from cable TV to satellite.

Here's a close-up picture of the new panel:

new-panel-innards.jpg (248369 bytes)

There are two RG-6 cables at each drop, because that's what's in the structured cable, but generally only the first gets used.  The rest get terminated in the C-0213 block.  One of the cables, which has the output from the RF modulator attached to my TiVo, plugs into a signal combiner instead, which merges it with the output of the camera's RF modulator.  The combined output goes into the second input on the video distribution block.

The pink RG-6 plugging into the last connector on the C-0213 comes from the cable demarc point.  We used a length of structured cabling to pull the signal from the demarc to the wiring panel, so the unused RG-6 line is capped off here.  The one we're using feeds into the video distributor.

The cables running from the ethernet switch to the termination block are 18-inch pre-made cables.  Last time around I made my own in sort of a rainbow shape, but since this was a straight line I figured I'd just buy some off the shelf.  I've only seen two ethernet cables go bad, and one was a cable I had terminated myself, so I let that factor into the decision.

Points of Termination

I had initially planned on 9 drops, but reduced it to 8 because it fit better (things often come in multiples of 8).  The drops are:

  1. Downstairs family room, behind the TV set.  Both video jacks are used, the cable box uses the phone line, and my modified TiVo uses the network jack.
  2. Family room / kitchen, in the floor.  If you pry up a fairly inconspicuous panel in the floor you get low-voltage jacks on one side and AC power on the other.  My brother-in-law has used the network port for his laptop a few times.
  3. Living room.  We still don't have any furniture here, so this hasn't really been used.
  4. Master bedroom.  Video and IR receiver jacks are used.  The wall plate is behind a dresser, but I found an angled QuickPort face plate that let me position the furniture closer to the wall.
  5. Bedroom #2.  My wife uses this as an office when she works at home, so the network port is used for her laptop.  She prefers a headset to a cordless phone for work, so the phone jack is used as well.
  6. Bedroom #3.  This is the guest bedroom.  The room lacks a desk, so our guests tend to set up downstairs, and the jacks have so far lain fallow.
  7. Bedroom #4(a).  This is the office, and my work-at-home location.  The first jack just has a fax machine plugged in.
  8. Bedroom #4(b).  The second location has the phone jack for our cordless phone base station, an IR receiver, a video feed for a small TV, and two ethernet connections.  The ethernet jacks are set up as before, with one "hot" jack that connects to the firewall box, and one "out" jack that runs back downstairs into the ethernet switch in the wiring panel.

There is a 5th bedroom downstairs that we turned into a library.  With wall-to-wall bookshelves it would be difficult to find a good place for a wall plate, so we decided to not add one here.  It's the physically closest room to the wiring panel, so if we change our minds someday it's the easiest one to update.

I bought several QuickPort jacks for speakers.  Each speaker requires two jacks, so stereo speakers require 4.  We needed one set for the TV surround speakers, which we mounted on the ceiling with OmniMount brackets.  We needed another set for the living room and a third for the back yard, which meant we needed a 12-port double-gang face plate just for the speakers.  This went behind the TV, with two sets plugging into the receiver, and the back yard set as yet unused.

The "speakers" in the living room are actually a single speaker with one woofer and two tweeters.  The Klipsch "contractor" 2-in-1 stereo speaker was exactly what we wanted for ambient music in the living room.  The speakers plug into the "B speaker" outputs on our receiver, which can send stereo audio to A, B, or A+B.  Combine that with an iPod and you're ready to party.

Six Months Later

Toward the end of 2004 we noticed an abrupt drop in video quality.  The analog channels were fuzzy, the digital channels would occasionally have severe dropouts, and the output from the RF modulator was terrible even when it was just showing a TiVo menu.  This could have been a Comcast problem -- maybe there was a lot of noise on their signal, and some of it was broadcasting on channel 88, which we used for TiVo -- but that seemed unlikely.

I talked to James over at HomeTech, who told me a couple of things.  First, the ChannelVision parts had a two-year warranty, which made me happy.  Second, most problems such as I described were due to problems with the power supply.

Long story short: the original power supply for the C-0329 video distribution block went AWOL during the remodel, so we had been using one of the F-connector power outputs on the C-0703 DC power block.  It was rated at 300mA, and the original power supply was rated at 500mA.  Replacing the power supply fixed the problem.  I guess the C-0703 just got tired and gave up one day, though to its credit the output was still 12V exactly, and none of the other stuff plugged into it (the video camera, RF modulator, and ethernet switch) have shown any signs of trouble.  In other words, it's surprising it worked as well as it did for as long as it did.

I had just enough space to squeeze another DC transformer "wall wart" onto the power strip.  Not a lot of room left to expand, which makes me nervous, but there are always tricks that squeeze things in more tightly.