When I have a construction project on the go I get excited when I hear a truck in the driveway … because it means that something is about to be built. Gracie hates it because it means someone is here to make a big mess 🙁

For our project (since I did the framing myself) that means that the electrician is the first one here to start running wire in the attic. I’ve got all of the locations marked with masking tape and pencil notes and there are several coils of wire on the floor of the lab. Ready to go 🙂

Running the Wire

Running wire is a 2 man job … no doubt about that. Jarrod and Sam (our electricians) are young, agile and experienced crawling around in attics without coming through the ceiling unexpectedly. In my book these guys are heroes … because I’ve been up there and it’s an ugly hot itchy place. To add to their difficult job the temperature is in the high 70’s today and the attic is probably above 90 at noon. For that reason they chose to start first thing in the morning and take turns in the attic.

Most of our wire runs go between the lab and media rooms so that’s a good place to start. Be sure to put some thought into the location of the wire penetrations. In the lab for example there will be a large bundle of wires coming through the ceiling and branching off to the panels etc. You need room for that and you want to be able to keep some semblance of organization. In the media cabinet you will need the wiring to be out of the way of your equipment rack (in the back) but still accessible. Also, if possible it’s a good idea to cut a man sized access to the attic nearby … it will save a bunch of time in the long run and can be patched later if need be.

As you can see in the photo, we made sure to leave lots of wire length for the rough in. The last thing you want is to find that your wire is too short once you come to make connections. This is especially true at the media cabinet end where the wire need to be long enough to allow you to pull out the equipment and turn it around when you need to make changes or additions (photo on the right). By the way, the duct that you see in the photo is the inlet for our Cinema Fan. It’s mounted in the attic and draws air from the equipment cabinet for cooling. Don’t forget this important point in your installation. You may not need the fan … but you need some form of ventilation to prevent overheating of your valuable equipment.

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The second major set of wires serves the multiroom audio system. In our case the equipment will be located in the lab so all of the speaker and control wires run from there to the various keypad locations. When we started the project we didn’t know what kind of equipment we would be using so we ran a basic configuration of 4 conductor 14 gauge speaker wire and one Cat5 control wire to each location where we wanted a volume control. From there we ran 2 conductor 14 gauge speaker wire to each speaker location in the room. This is messy work in an existing building. Cutting holes in drywall creates a lot of dust and fishing wire down walls and into far corners of the attic is not a bunch of fun. Our systems integrator recommended that we come up with some way of boxing in the speaker locations to prevent a bigger mess when the time comes to install them … ie when you cut a 6″ diameter hole in the ceiling out falls a great glob of insulation. Also … it’s a good idea to keep loose insulation from the back of the speaker and to provide some air space for acoustical purposes. Bearing in mind that the attic is cramped and hot … and truss spacing is not perfect … I had to make something that the installers could assemble in place without too many tools etc. I cut a bunch of 24″ square pieces of plywood that would span the trusses over the speaker locations and cut lengths of cardboard (about 24″ x 3.5″) that could be friction fit between the trusses to hold back the insulation. Then I drilled a 1/2″ hole (off center) in the plywood for the wire to go through. At each speaker location the installer pushes back the insulation and held it back with the cardboard, drills through the drywall for the wire, feeds the wire through the plywood and ceiling and nails the plywood down. Now we have a clear 24″ x 24″ x 3.5″ hollow cavity in the attic with the speaker wire ready to go. Installation of the speakers will be one of the last things to do (to avoid dirt and damage).

As it turned out we could have run the speaker wires directly to each location without going to the volume control location first. Many of today’s systems (such as the Elan that we will be installing) do all of the volume control etc. at the equipment end rather that at the keypad. All they need is a cat5 control wire to each keypad location. No problem mind you … we just ended up splicing our speaker wires in the wall behind the keypad. The way we wired allows us to try different systems and simple volume controls at the keypad if we need to in the future.

Another group of wires runs from the lab to the various communications, data and video outlets located in offices, media room, kitchen etc. These are mostly double cat5 runs and rg6 where we have other TV locations. This is pretty straight forward but again requires making a mess and fishing wire down the walls. Care must be taken to stay away from 120V wiring … it’s OK to cross over them but avoid running in the same stud spaces as you may get noise from the high voltage wire transferred to your low voltage wire resulting in poor transmission characteristics. We installed mud rings at all outlets and keypad locations and just popped the wire through … ready to connect.

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The last bunch of wires go to security system sensor and camera locations. These need to be planned in advance and generally just require you to pop the wire through a hole in the drywall.

That’s it … 2 days of messy, noisy and distracting activity … but now there are a few miles of wire holding the place together in case of earthquake. Gracie is already fed up with the whole process and she’s wearing out the vacuum cleaner (me) and she keeps asking me what all the coily things are hanging out of the ceiling for. I just nod and gaze wisely into space … I’ve found it’s best not to try and explain.

There are a few other things to make sure of while you are doing the wiring. The first is labeling. Please make sure you do it … I don’t care how fancy … just be sure you know what each end of each wire connects to at the other end. Secondly … neatness counts. Especially in the attic. Try to keep your wire runs tidy and in plain view. The next guy in the attic might not care what he steps on or gets tangled up in.

Finishing Touches

The bulk of our finishing work now moves to the media room. That involves:

* Drywall … about a weeks work … subcontracted to a professional outfit … big dusty mucky mess.
* Finishing carpentry … mouldings, baseboards etc. Yours truly … dusty, tedious work … big mess … weekend shot. Cleanup again.
* Painting … a few days work … subcontracted as well … mucky, stinky mess. More cleanup but starting to look nice.
* Cabinet installation … tricky stuff. We elected to use kitchen style boxed cabinets rather than custom made. It worked out great but be careful that you allow enough room for your equipment rack and that you have a patient installer. A usual kitchen cabinet job goes quickly but when you start having to string bundles of wire through the cabinets and cut holes for ducts and electrical outlets it can get a bit hairy. Be prepared with a nice cool drink of water now and then as well as much praise for a job well done (you hope).
* Carpeting … these guys always get the most credit. An almost complete room with a concrete or wood floor looks … well … almost complete. Put a carpet down and WOW … even Gracie has a smile on her face.

We’re planning to install an AVtrack equipment rack so there are a few special requirements that need to be considered if you are building or buying a cabinet for your A/V equipment.

* Be sure to leave enough clearance at the back of the cabinet for the rack, equipment (some of the newer receivers are quite deep) and a big clump of wire that hangs down.
* Be sure to leave enough clearance for the width of the rack to clear hinges and catches.
* Leave extra length on your speaker wires etc. so they can pull out and rotate.
* Put a 110 volt outlet at the back of the cabinet … high up and to one side.
* Drill a bigger cable access hole than you think you need … more wires will come in the future to haunt you 🙁
* The equipment will generate heat in a closed cabinet. Provide for cooling with ventilation … larger systems may need a fan.

Back to the Lab

As far as the design and finishing in the lab goes … we’ve kept that pretty simple for now. As the project progresses we’ll probably need to install some specialized furniture and equipment but for now we have cleared out one complete wall (about 14 ft. long) for the equipment and furniture. At one end we have an old desk that will be for the home network computer, keyboard, monitor, printer etc. This will be where we review, program and set-up systems and test equipment. Next to that we have a long table where we can sit the multi room audio equipment, home controller and other test equipment etc. Under it is a good storage area for parts, wire etc. Between these two is where all the wire comes down from the attic. This is where we will mount our structured wiring panel and any other equipment that we can. The Elan system came with it’s own wiring panel that will mount nicely beside the Leviton panel. The wall is finished off with hardboard and we can easily locate the studs behind for equipment mounting. The photo at the left shows where the wire comes in above and some of the preliminary connections to the Leviton panel. There and there are 2 120 volt outlets located on the wall about 4 feet off the ground. I hope this is enough but as I see the equipment start to roll in I’m beginning to wonder 🙁

That’s about it for this installment. The messes have been made and cleaned up. Now it’s time to get some equipment in place and start connecting the dots. The next installment will discuss the equipment that we are going to install, how and where we are going to install it and some of ways we will interconnect various systems.

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.