As with any construction project we begin with a drawing or drawings that show what we are planning to build. Whether you draw it up yourself or have it done by others there is one main thing to keep in mind here. The purpose of the drawing is to convey information from you … the owner and end user … to the people who are going to build the project … contractors and equipment installers. If you use an architect or designer to produce the drawings remember that he is a middle man / translator / guidance provider. You must be clear with what you want from the project and make sure that the designer understands it too.
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When dealing with home technology do not assume that your designer has all of the knowledge necessary. Insist that he bring in a systems integrator at the beginning of the project and work together at every stage of the design. The most beautiful home theater cabinetry in the world is rendered useless if the equipment does not fit into it or will not function because of lack of access or overheating issues. Attention to these details is what makes or breaks the installation. Remember that once construction is completed all these guys go home and you are left to live in the home. Take on the responsibility and make sure you get what you pay for and want. Take the time at the beginning to learn and understand what the drawing is saying. Eraser’s are cheap … sledge hammers aren’t 🙁
I could write a complete book on how to design a networked home but that’s another project. For the demo we have 2 rooms to design and a quagmire of wire to run throughout the building. For the Home Theater room I did a construction drawing showing the physical renovations that need to take place. This involves removing a wall, building in some display shelving, framing out for the equipment cabinets and relocating and adding lighting, power and heating equipment. Nothing fancy here … as I said we just need to convey the information to the builders. Since I planned to do the framing myself all I really needed was an outline and some dimensions for the construction end of things. The complexity in this project lies in the wiring and equipment cabinetry. The bulk of the low voltage wiring in the Home Theater runs to and from the equipment cabinet. I’ll cover this key element of design a bit later but suffice to say that extra planning effort here will pay off big time later. You want something that looks nice, is convenient to access and provides room for current and future equipment requirements.
The lab / wiring hub / equipment closet is even easier. It’s located at the other end of the building (about 60 feet away) in a partly finished workshop / storage room. Since it is a lab I wasn’t too worried about the looks … more about the function. One wall of the room (about 10 feet long) is dedicated to the equipment and wiring. This is probably more room than most will need but for our purposes we wanted to allow for lots of future expansion and experimentation. All I needed to do here was put in an old desk and table to hold the PC and multi room audio equipment along with odd bits and pieces for home control. Centrally located above this I marked out where all of the wiring is to come through the ceiling. We have an attic space above so running the wire is fairly easy. The wiring panel will go on the wall in a central location below the wiring access hole.
The Wiring – Nightmare or Dream Come True?
The messiest part of this project will be installing the multi room audio system and communication outlets. Cutting speakers and keypads into existing ceilings and walls creates drywall dust everywhere … making Gracie a very unhappy lady and me a sneezy guy. A bit of planning here can save some of the mess … but don’t kid yourself … if you are wiring an existing home you will be living in a construction zone for awhile.
There are many ways to sort out where wire needs to go, what types of wire to use and what it does. Floor plans showing outlets and wire runs, schematic drawings, wiring details etc. You and/or your designer and integrator will need to do whatever is necessary to prepare a set of instructions for the electrician or whomever is going to physically install the wire and another set of instructions for whomever is going to connect it to the equipment at each end. While there are some industry accepted standard wiring recommendations, someone must still get into the details to ensure that current and future wiring requirements are met. You really only want someone crawling around in the attic and drilling holes etc. for a few days at the beginning of construction. Having to run an extra wire at the end of the project is costly, messy and a general pain in the butt. If in doubt … put in extra wire now and try to anticipate future needs and locations. If you need to tear out walls and ceilings to run wire then it’s wise to install conduit in these locations for future wiring needs or repairs.
I could have done a drawing showing all of the locations etc. (which is what you would normally do) but since I plan to be available during all of the construction processes I chose to use masking tape to clearly mark all of the speaker, keypad and wall outlet locations for the electricians to run wire to. I put a piece of tape at each location marked with the room name, types of wires and where they are to run (mostly to the lab). In all cases I tried to locate keypads and outlets etc. one stud space over from the existing wall switches to avoid noise on the lines from the high voltage wiring. This was not always possible but in all cases I tried to keep as far away as possible from the powerline with the low voltage wire. Bear in mind that the insides of walls and ceilings can be full of surprises so be prepared to move things around if need be because of unexpected stud locations, backing and other general Murphy’s law issues.
Another point to touch on here is that many projects do not proceed all at once … nor should they have to. We tend to do things bit by bit around here … sometimes because of time constraints, sometimes budget limitations and often just because we don’t think that clearly all the time 🙁 This project for example started last summer when I started updating the lighting system from the older X10 switches to new Leviton DHC units. We were also relocating and renovating our offices. I decided at that time that while the electricians were crawling around in the attic and we were in construction mode that I would get them to run some of the wire for this project (which at that time was still a long term idea without detailed plans). A quick call to an Integrator for some guidance … a few rolls of CAT5 and audio wire … some general ideas for keypad and outlet locations … and away we went. As it turned out some of the wire was wrong but the majority worked out and it saved us a mess later on … especially in occupied offices. It also opened our eyes to the process. My feeling is that many people would like to start but are afraid to make a mistake or miss out on something. My recommendation is that you jump in and do what you can when you can afford the time and money. I learned to use a computer by buying one … not reading a book about it!
Here’s a summary of the wire that we have run for our project.
1. Communications and Data
* 2 runs of CAT5 from the lab to each of 6 wall outlets located in various rooms and offices. One Cat5 is for ethernet (data) and the other for 2 phone lines.
* 4 runs of CAT5 from the lab to the media equipment cabinet. Will be used for IR control distribution and hmmm … not sure … but I know there will be a use for it because most new equipment today has an ethernet port for communications of one sort or the other.
* 1 run of CAT5 from the lab to the telco box on the outside wall of the building bring 2 phone lines to the wiring hub for distribution.
2. Multi Room Audio System
* 6 runs of 14 gauge 4 conductor wire to each audio zone keypad location.
* Separate runs of 14 gauge 2 conductor wire to each speaker location from the keypad location. Since we were not sure of the system that we would be getting we ran this wire to the wall pad location rather than directly to the speaker locations. Simple volume controllers require you to run the speaker wire to the control and then to the speakers from there. With more sophisticated systems you run the wire directly to the speakers and only control wire to the keypad. If we use the latter type of system we can splice the wire in the wall at the keypad locations.
* 1 run of CAT5 from the lab to the keypad location for system control. This will cover most possibilities whether control is via IR from a simple volume control or full communications from a sophisticated keypad.
* 1 extra run of CAT5 and one RG6 to the location of our special surprise … an Elan VIA Touchscreen. This is a case where we had to go back and run the extra wire because we didn’t know what was required when the first bit of wire was installed (a few months ago).
3. Home Theater System
* 14 gauge speaker wire to all speaker locations from the equipment cabinet
* Special wire to the subwoofer (ask your integrator for this). Again there are different configurations depending on the equipment that you are using.
* 4 runs of RG6 to the lab. Cable in for the receiver and cable box plus extra runs for future considerations that we don’t know about yet.
* Special wire to the plasma screen or TV location. Different configurations are possible here as well so work this out based on the equipment you will use. At this point we have just installed a mud ring in the drywall where the plasma screen is to be mounted because we don’t have the equipment yet.
* Separate 110 volt circuit for the home theater equipment cabinet and the plasma screen. Outlets for subwoofer, screen and equipment cabinet in the appropriate locations.
* 110 volt wiring to from the equipment cabinet to the cooling fan (located in the attic).
4. Multi Room Video
* 2 runs of RG6 from the lab to each zone outlet location. In our case we only have one additional zone (other than the Home Theater room).
* 1 run of CAT5 to each zone outlet (for IR distribution etc.)
* 1 run of CAT5 from the cable company box to the hub in the lab.
5. Security System
* Control wire (CAT5 or other) from the lab to each wall pad.
* Control wire (2 or 4 conductor) from the lab to each sensor location.
* RG6 and control wire to each camera location as required.
6. Auxilliary Systems
* Sprinkler control – 2 runs of 6 conductor control wire from the lab to the sprinkler valve boxes.
* Awning control – 1 run of 6 conductor control wire from the lab to the awning control relay (in the attic)
For the lighting system we chose to use Leviton DHC powerline control switches (read review). Since we are in an existing building this seemed to be the best choice for us. I’ve used X10 switches and equipment for years … with mostly good results. One thing I did do for this project was to install a Coupler/Amplifier/Repeater in the breaker panel which improves reliability. Many of the lighting controls were installed earlier in this project so we have had time to live with these switches. So far we’ve been very happy with them and by using the HomeVision (read review) controller we are able use some of the extended commands available to the Leviton receivers (ie HomeVision can tell a light to go directly to a particular dim level and no matter where the light level currently is it will dim or brighten to the commanded level). I will be using these switches in the Home Theater room and plan to add a scene controller beside them so I can have a convenient … yet manual way to set the mood in the room. There will be 3 lighting areas to control:
* Display – One pot light and 4 track lights highlighting display shelving etc.
* Reading – 2 pot lights over our chairs
* Theater Cabinets – 2 pot lights in front of the equipment cabinets.
I’ll cover more about setting up the scenes when we get there but basically I want to be able to set the light levels for various activities such as reading, watching TV or entertaining without having to use the home theater controller. My feeling is that having a scene controller with a few buttons on the wall for this will be more user friendly for the rest of the family and guests.
So … here we are with a bunch of plans, a bit of equipment, a few miles of wire to run and a mess to make. In my next article I’ll discuss the installation of the wiring, the cabinet design and installation, the lab layout and some other considerations to take into account. If all goes well I’ll be able to share have it ready next month.
If you have any ideas to for this project please let me know or better yet visit our HowTo book and share your knowledge with everyone. Just go to the chapter that you want to contribute knowledge or ideas to and write it down in the “Add Your Comments” submission form. That way we can all learn from each other.