Chapter 1: Seriously, Why bother?
Home systems and entertainment continues to evolve
20 years ago, a daisy-chained RG59, or worse yet a flat twin lead wire, was sufficient to carry the aerial antenna signal from your roof to every TV. Most homes had, at best, one or two phone lines run to central locations. Interestingly, we were all happy.
The World, however, has changed. High speed internet, on-demand movies, and a need for both hundreds of live channels of content and most recently, dynamic in-home media content to every TV is catching many a homeowner off guard and causing a lot of extra wire retrofits
Make no mistake; trying to get wires to where you want them after walls are already finished can cost thousands of dollars and in some instances be nearly impossible. The best plan is to prepare during the building process, but even the up front process of thinking through every future option can be daunting. Luckily, there are a lot of great resources to help you through the whole process, and this guide is a good start.
The problem is that unless you are regularly keeping track of technology advancements, it would be difficult for you to predict and plan for what you will want or need 5 years from now. The people that seem like on-the-edge geeks are pioneering new technologies and methods and determining what will become mainstream. The truth is, you cannot possibly completely future-proof your home, but you can certainly plan the next 5 or 10 years, greatly increase the value of your home, and have a great time doing it.
Get more help online
When you are ready to jump into your own project, however, we highly recommend joining one of the online forums where literally thousands of talented folks are eager to help you through specific issues.
If you really get in a jam, there are lots of professionals that would be happy for you to hire them. In general, look for installers that are members of CEDIA (www.cedia.net has a nice way to locate dealers by zip code). Prices and skill-sets vary widely but wherever you live, there is always a backup.
A couple of tips if you want professional help:
Some dealers are big home theater companies â€“ meaning some specialize in $50K plus jobs, some dealers are closer to home handymen â€“ make sure you match their skills to your particular job.
Inquire about their specific experience with your specific system. You should not pay for them to learn.
Make sure they are bonded, if they get hurt on your property you don’t want them coming after you or your insurance company.
If you are having electrical work done (real wall outlets, switches etc) that is a specialty â€“ have a licensed professional do that for you, the low voltage guy should not just â€œthrow it in”
Hiring and directing a professional in this area is much like going to the Doctor â€“ being informed and knowing what you want before you step through their door is your best way to get good results. All of us in this business definitely want happy customers, but it is a business and if we can talk you into the next better system or â€œjust a few more upgrades” we will â€“ lovingly. Professionals tend to be opinionated about systems and methods and a great source of detailed information but any one that tells you something is too hard to explain, or not willing to take your direction and input should be a contractor you walk away from immediately.
Chapter 2: Can I actually get away with this?
If you are actually building your own home or using a custom builder, you are all set because you are in charge, but if you are buying from a semi-custom or tract home builder you need to carefully plan your approach.
Some tips to keep in mind as you arrange your project:
* Builders are schedule driven and paid bonuses based on completion rates on a schedule â€“ any project like this threatens their personal pocketbook.
* Everything is negotiable â€“ but you have to find the right person to negotiate with and do it at the right time. The sales person is the place to start. They are incentivised with making the sale and are generally willing to work out a deal to give you access if you lay that out up front.
* Get your agreement in writing. Make sure that the limits of your actions are clearly spelled out, how long you need to do the work, your agreement to hold everyone involved harmless in the event of injury, your responsibility for damage, your agreement to follow and be held accountable to local and national codes.
* Be prepared to smooth the way with the builder as well â€“ as cheesy as it sounds, a case of beer is usually a good choice (end of the day, not cold so they don’t consume while they are working on your home). A couple pizzas a the opportune moment is also a good gesture. What you want is for the builder and his crew not to resent you â€“ they need to call you to tell you if there is anything that is getting in their way or will interfere with inspections. Clear communication is key.
* When you get the chance to actually do the work, speed is key. Take a couple days off work and get it done, don’t drag it out over multiple weekends. You are looking for the few days in between the framing inspection and when they come in to insulate.
* While there are no specific codes that hold low voltage wiring to the same stringent levels as electrical, you should follow a few basic principles so as not to draw attention to your work. It should look as if a professional installed it under the direction and supervision of the builder:
1. All boxes should be standard height (match switch or outlet heights)
2. All wires should be secured (stapled, tied or hung) within 6″ of a box, supported horizontally every 2′ and vertically every 3′.
3. All wires should be out of the way of drywall installers and with large bundles or close to the surface, metal plates installed.
4. At the media cabinet, wires should be neatly gathered and coiled and secured like you did at the boxes.
Automate Your Home with a Weatherhawk
Finally, be sure to plan the finish work. The media cabinet does not have to be completed prior to final inspection if it is not in a finished space, but all room boxes at least need a blank cover plate. If you are responsible for phone/TV outlets as part of your deal you need to terminate those using keystone plates prior to final inspection.
So, what can go wrong?
I’ve had plenty of folks say their builder (or home company) was not willing to work with them or insisted that they only allow work from a licensed professional. Low voltage wiring requires no license or certification from the government so the excuse is hollow. The best advice I can give is that you MUST be prepared to walk away from the deal. I’ve never had anyone tell me they could not come to some arrangement although there are a lot of painful stories.
A good negotiating technique is to volunteer to take on the network, phone and cable labor and materials if they let you do the rest of the low-voltage pre-wire. That can be worth $1000 or more to them as they have to pay a low voltage company to come in and do the basics.
My own experience with my last home was particularly distressing. I ended up paying extra for basic structured wiring (2 RG6, 2cat5) to each room through the builder, but clearly I couldn’t stop there. So I went in one night with the â€œgeneral knowledge” of the builder and installed just a little extra wire. 3 1000′ spools of Cat5 and 4 500′ spools of RG6 later I was done. Unfortunately I had to go off on a business trip for the next week, intending to finish, secure, and tidy up my work the following weekend. I returned to find all my wire neatly coiled in the middle of my living room floor along with a note from the builder that they had to do an inspection while I was gone and they failed because the city electrical guy objected to all the loose hanging wires in the basement. The builder had left me a message (which I missed) and ended up having to get his electrician in to clean it up. The cleanup was catastrophic to my plans. As insulation was the very next day, I had no time to renegotiate and get back in there. The best I could do was to get permission to put in a couple of conduit chases so I could get wires to the different sections of my home from the basement. What did I learn? Communication, smooth the waters with the builder, do not get in their way, and always keep in mind what incentivises them.
But, in the end, it is your home, they all work for you. Do not back down.
Appendix A: Links to sources, references, and products:
Other good how-to and pre-wire guides:
* http://www.crutchfield.com/learn/learningcenter/home/mrintro.html Crutchfield on multiroom systems
* http://www.smarthomeusa.com/info/prewire/#pre Prewiring basics from smarthome
* http://www.crutchfield.com/Learn/learningcenter/home/multiroom_remote.html remote control systems from crutchfield
* http://www.hometech.com/learn/audio1.htm home tech solutions whole home audio intro. There are some more detailed speaker placement guidelines and some good ideas for combining home theater and whole-home audio/video room/plans.
* http://www.xantech.com/Downloads/Training/ Xantech IR training powerpoints
Products referenced in this guide:
* http://www.audioauthority.com/product_details/scp-11 Baluns â€“ single Cat5 for component plus digital audio
* http://www.cepro.com/article/review_russound_c_series_multiroom_audio_system A review of the Russound C5 by CEPro
* http://www.russound.com/cseries_system.htm The Russound C-series (Search on internet for good direct pricing)
* http://www.nilesaudio.com/products_niles.php Niles audio products – multizone systems, multizone amps, wall controls etc.
* http://www.nuvotechnologies.com/ The main nuvo website with a nice selection of systems
* http://www.provantage.com/tripp-lite-p568-050-ez~7TRPA1T6.htm HDMI cable specifically made for pulling through conduit â€“ circular pull off ends.
* http://www.bocsco.com BOCS Whole-Home Audio/Video distribution over COAX
With 20 years in the Consumer Electronics space, David pioneered wireless LAN for home use in partnership with Linksys, rotating storage for portable electronics at Cornice, and is most recently a founder and chief marketing officer of BOCS Inc, the manufacturer of a new whole home A/V distribution system for retrofit applications.