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Wiring Your Home for Today's Electronics

The TV, DVD player, stereo, and computer -- all of today's entertainment appliances -- compete for use of your home's wiring. Are you up-to-date?

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A media room needs modern wiring.

If you're building or remodeling a family room that will include a home theater or other high-end electronics, now is the time to install the proper wiring to support them. Even if such luxuries as high-definition TV or a digital sound system are dreams at the moment, installing high-capacity, high-grade wiring and cable during the building or remodeling phase -- while the walls are accessible -- can save you big bucks down the road.

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What You Need:

To get the most out of today's electronics, builders recommend installing Category 5 (Cat-5) twisted-pair wire for voice and data transmissions and RG6 quadshielded coaxial cable for video. Though more expensive than traditional wiring, these conductors are better able to handle the demands of high-speed transmissions -- resulting in less interference and clearer reception.

An integrated home network consolidates all your wiring. Instead of many separate wires (for power, telephone, cable or satellite TV, computer, and so on) all daisy-chained through your walls, a network puts everything you need in a single, central hub. Wire then runs directly from this hub to each room, where modular outlets provide access to services.

Newly introduced wireless networking products can connect computers, printers, or other devices, as can kits that use the existing electrical or telephone wiring in your house. Neither of these solutions, however, supports the connecting speeds of a hardwired, dedicated network. Of course, they do take away some of the pressure of finding exactly the right location for every telephone and computer jack.

Price Issues

The cost for an integrated network varies with the size of your home and complexity of the system. Do-it-yourself home networking products are available for undaunted homeowners. If you're hiring a professional installer, expect to pay about $100 per run of wire in new construction, $300 to $500 per run for rewiring. (A run varies in length; it is the distance from the hub to a single room, regardless of how near the room may be.)

If your budget is tight, you can wire your new family room with the good stuff and update the rest of the house later. But if you're ready to rewire your whole house now, seize the opportunity to integrate your home's systems. Imagine the following scenarios: Use your TV's picture-in-a-picture feature to check on your sleeping baby. Network all your home computers to play multiuser games or use a single printer. Pop a movie into the family room's DVD player and watch it in your bedroom. Slide your favorite CD into the stereo and listen to it in any room of the house -- or outside.

If you decide to stick with standard wiring, consider installing plastic conduits in the new walls to simplify the rewiring process later. When you're ready to update, your family room will be, too.

Here's a look at the basic terms you'll need to know when wiring or rewiring a room.

"Plain old telephone service" wires can't always handle today's computer data.

POTS -- This is the wiring-industry abbreviation for "plain old telephone service." It refers to the old-style, multistrand, four-wire, "bell wire" in a plastic sheath that works perfectly fine for carrying your voice, but is not sufficient for the high-speed data transmission associated with the Internet and home computer networks.

Category 5 wire vs. Category 1 wire -- Category 5 is high-quality wire for voice and data transmission. For data installations it comes in "twisted pairs," two solid-core insulated wires twisted together to reduce interference. Cat-1 telephone wire is for POTS only and carries signals at less than 4 megabits per second. Cat-5 wire carries data at 100 megabits per second. Cat-5e (enhanced) carries data at 350 megabits.

Home-run wiring vs. Daisy-chain wiring -- A home-run wiring scheme runs a single wire or cable from a centrally located distributed panel to a given outlet box. It's also called a "star" pattern. A daisy-chain wiring pattern runs a single wire or cable from the distribution panel to a series of outlets, like traditional plumbing or electrical service. Modern whole-house installments tend to be home-run type.

RG6 cable vs. RG59 cable -- RG6 is enhanced coaxial TV-video cable. It is better shielded than the RG59 cable that is installed in many homes now. Signal loss for RG6 is 5.9 decibels per 100 feet; loss for RG59 is 7.1 decibels per 100 feet. The solid wire core of RG6 is 18 gauge; the core of RG59 is 20 gauge.

F connectors -- These screw-type connectors are used to attach video cable (either RG59 or RG6) to televisions, VCRs, DVD players, or other video devices.

RJ45 vs. RJ11-- Standard connectors to plug a telephone set into a wall outlet are RJ11 plugs and jacks. RJ11s are plastic with space for six conductors. They usually have four conductors present, but some RJ11s have only two. RJ45 plugs and jacks, used in data installations, are larger than RJ11s, with space for eight conductors, with six usually present.

Find the right pro to help you get wired.

Because of growing consumer demand, electricians, telephone contractors, computer network installers, audio system specialists, and others are all getting into the home networking market, as are big-name manufacturers, such as Honeywell and IBM Home Director.

Not all electronics contractors are created equal, however. On the whole, they all can offer high-quality design, installation, and service, but the type of professional you choose could flavor the types of solutions you end up with. A custom audio installer, for example, may lean more heavily toward offering home entertainment solutions, while an electrician may focus on the basic nuts and bolts of wiring. Call around; even if one contractor doesn't provide the services you seek, he or she may know of another that does.

Sit down with your family to identify your wants and needs, but plan to keep an open ear for suggestions from your potential contractors. Consider questions such as:

  • Do you want a home theater installation? What about whole-house audio?
  • Will you want to receive TV signals via traditional antenna, cable, or satellite?
  • Do you want to network multiple computers?
  • Do you want to share high-speed Internet access, such as a cable modem or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)?
  • Will security, lighting control, or home automation systems be included in your plan?
  • If you have a home office, how might business growth affect your technology needs?

Solicit bids and initial designs from a variety of professionals. If you give everyone the same set of requirements, the proposals will give you a better understanding of each person's expertise.

Have a budget and general time frame in mind when talking to potential contractors. Remember that a basic home networking system will allow you to add devices and functions as you grow into your home; you don't necessarily need everything right away.

Evaluate how your priorities compare to the proposals you receive. All the ideas should be focused on providing solutions and systems with which you'll be comfortable.

Ask to see demonstrations of the equipment the contractors propose. You might also ask to talk to other homeowners whose installations they've done.

Check references and credentials as appropriate. You might also ask architects and builders their opinions of a given contractor's work.

Making Connections

Network installers in your area could be listed in the Yellow Pages under:

  • Audio-Visual Equipment -- Sales
  • Electric Contractors
  • Home Theater
  • Stereo & Hi-Fi -- New & Used
  • Telecommunication -- Cable & Install
  • Telecommunication Equipment & Systems -- Dealers
Everyone will want the remote in your deluxe media room.

Nearly 20 million American households own a complete home theater system, according to estimates by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). All it takes, according to the CEA's definition, is a TV with a diagonal screen size of at least 25 inches, a video source such as a hi-fi VCR or DVD player, a surround-sound-equipped stereo receiver, and four or more speakers.

Any room can be converted to a home theater, but for the biggest impact, dedicate an entire room to movie viewing -- preferably one that isn't subjected to household distractions. According to audio-video experts, a movie soundtrack sounds richer and more realistic in a rectangular room than in a square one.

Include large rugs over hardwood floors because hard surfaces can distort sound; fabrics lessen distortion. Hang draperies on windows; replace toggle-style switches with dimmable switches.

Here's what you need to create a home theater experience.

The Right Equipment

Three basic kinds of equipment need to be worked into the room: video gear, audio gear, and control equipment.

Screen Though it may be tempting to squeeze in the biggest screen available, in matters of video sizzle, bigger isn't always better. The distance from the couch to the screen matters most. Professional installers recommend a seating distance that's 2 to 2-1/2 times the width of the screen. For example, if a screen is 27 inches wide, the couch should be 54 to 68 inches away. To comfortably view a 120-inch screen requires a room that's large enough to push the seats back at least 20 feet from the screen.

A front projection system, which consists of a separate screen and video projector, offers the biggest picture (up to 200 diagonal inches) and lends the feel of a real movie theater; however, it requires that a room be completely dark for a good picture. Rear projection systems and picture-tube televisions, on the other hand, look as good with the lights on as they do with the lights off.

Speakers Next, you'll need at least five speakers to create the full surround-sound effect. Together, the speakers create a sense of movement and sound localization that links a movie's visual cues with the soundtrack. For example, when a jet flies left to right across the screen, in a surround-sound system, the engine's roar "moves" left to right through the speakers.

To create this effect, place one speaker on each side of the TV screen, two behind the couch and one on top of the TV. The two stationed at the sides of the screen should sit about level with your ears (when you're seated) and about 3 feet away from the side walls. Place the center speaker, which distributes the dialogue of the movie, smack dab in the center between the front left and right speakers. Finally, plant the two rear speakers on the wall behind the couch, 6 to 8 feet above the floor. Space them at least as wide apart as the front left and right speakers. You may need to install a speaker mount for proper positioning on the wall.

Action-movie buffs will want a subwoofer. This component intensifies the bass of a movie soundtrack so those big booms sound all the more dramatic.

Accessories The rest of the equipment -- audio-video receiver, VCR, direct satellite receiver, DVD player -- can be stowed inside a cabinet or even in a well-ventilated closet in another room. For the latter option, be sure there's enough cabling to make the connections to the TV.

Remote Lastly, pick up a universal remote control. Available at home improvement and electronics stores, it does the job of every clicker now hiding in the sofa.

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