Wiring Your Home for Computers

Even if you don't operate a business from your home, plan some space for a computer center.

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Start talking about computer networks, those complex systems of wires that connect computing devices, and most office workers have at least one horror story to tell. Computers crash, work gets lost, and files get sent to a printer in some other building. With the headaches at work -- where there's on-site tech support to lend a hand -- do you need a network in your house?

Today, you probably don't need a home network unless you work in the technology industry or operate a business from home. But the connected future is close at hand and, in this age, building a new house that isn't wired to support a network is comparable to building at the beginning of the last century and leaving indoor plumbing as an afterthought.

Prewiring is a relatively simple and inexpensive process, as long as it takes place after the house is framed but before drywall goes up. Expect to spend between $1,500 and $5,000, depending on the size of the network and number of jacks and outlets.

Today, network wiring will give you a few benefits. You'll be able to distribute audio and video signals throughout the house, and if you're technologically savvy, you can access a single Internet account from two or more computers at the same time. But the big payoff will come later, when more hardware, software, and appliance companies will produce network-ready equipment.

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For example, by connecting electrical appliances to one another and to a computer, you'll be able to monitor the total electricity use, calculate the costs, and fine-tune house systems to operate most efficiently. You might even be able to develop nifty charts and graphs that will help you track month-to-month and year-to-year performance.

And don't worry about hiring an engineer to live in the spare bedroom to keep everything running. A new standard called Universal Plug and Play, or UpnP, promises to make connecting devices to your network as simple as plugging in a toaster. The standard ensures that all of the appliances are talking to one another in the same language.

To help consumers and builders learn more about building in flexibility for the future by prewiring for networks, the Home Automation Association has developed an initiative called Wiring America's Homes. Check their Web site to view their recommendations.

Home Automation Association

Simple home networks, which connect one or two devices, are inexpensive and relatively easy to set up. Here are two options for building networks where it's not possible to install wire in the walls.

Phone Networks. Inexpensive systems that let you connect multiple computers using your home's phone wires are available today. The networking systems cost between $90 and $200. In most instances you'll have to open the cases on your computers to install a network card, but doing so isn't as intimidating as it sounds. Information is available on the Internet from The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance.

Wireless Networks. An alternative to moving data from point "A" to point "B" using wires is to broadcast it with a low-power radio signal. The signals can go through walls so where you place your computers (or other network devices) isn't critical. No-wire networks will allow you to connect to the Internet from a laptop computer that can be moved from room to room. Further information is available on the Web from The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance.

Home Phoneline Networking Alliance

Where We Spent

For a little additional money, the owners of this home office were able to wire their house with an infrastructure that can support several computers and a whole-house audio system. By including audio inputs at the computer desk, they made it possible to pipe sound from the computer to other rooms in the house. With this feature, they can listen to audio from the Internet, which can play live broadcasts from out-of-town radio stations.

Costs

STANDARD: Wiring for computers, cable television, and conventional phone service. UPGRADE: Increased wiring, whole-house audio system, extra cable, computer, and phone jacks. Cost: $4,000.

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