Consumer demand for high-speed voice and digital communications, computer and whole-house networking, sophisticated security and systems automation, distributed audio, video and home entertainment systems has grown exponentially over the past few years. The Yankee Group, a technology industry analyst firm, estimated that the number of networked homes would reach 9.95 million by the end of 2003, up from 660,000 in 1998-and that growth is expected to continue. And, according to the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), more than a third of builders now offer structured cabling packages as standard or optional equipment in their new homes.

While not as complex as commercial and industrial premise networking, residential networking does require a certain amount of specialized knowledge and expertise. Typically, a structured cabling system for home automation should be designed to meet the TIA/EIA-568-B.2 standards for Category 5e performance. Beyond these standards, however, there are quality and performance differences among marketplace cable offerings. That’s why, in selecting, designing and installing a residential cabling system, some guidelines should be kept in mind.

Single or Composite Cables?

Previously, when homeowner requirements were fairly basic and the rooms selected for each application were fixed, discrete single-cable runs proved to be the least costly choice. For the average home, for example, a contractor may have specified 4-pair UTP cables for phone, fax and dial-up Internet hook-up, RG6 coaxial cable for one or two CATV connections, and audio cables for the sound systems.

For today’s tech-savvy families, however, the single-cable approach is limiting and inflexible. What happens if a family wants to add more Internet-enabled computers, additional TVs, sound or intercom systems to kids’ rooms, guest room or home office? What if they decide to install a home theater/media room in the finished basement? If the right cabling infrastructure is not already “behind the wall,” the retrofit needed to accommodate these choices can be laborious and expensive.

A better choice is to install a composite structured cabling system at the outset. Composite cabling is a design that conveniently “bundles” the required cables within in a single jacket. Or, in the case of the newer jacketless cable design (see photo of Belden HomeChoice Banana Peel? Cable, for example) the required cables are affixed along a single center spline, ready to be “peeled” off and terminated as needed for each application. This design innovation provides easier handling and installation. In addition, since its diameter is smaller than traditional jacketed composite cables, its overall bend radius also makes for easier installation.

Belden’s HomeChoice? Banana Peel? Cat 5e composite cables feature a center-spline design and jacketless construction to enable faster, easier installation and termination.

Composite cables for home use typically include: one or two 4-pair UTP cables which can handle voice or data and provide many times the bandwidth of standard telephone cable; plus one or more RG6 coaxial cables, the current standard for video transmission and cable-based Internet service. Sometimes a fiber optic cable is added to the composite cable to handle even higher bandwidth future applications.

For installers and homeowners alike, composite cabling provides a high value proposition, delivering optimum flexibility and assured performance and reliability. Through a single composite cable, any room in the home can be wired for computer networking and multimedia, HDTV, cable or direct broadcast satellite (DBS) television, multi-line telephone and fax service, security and energy management systems, and much more.

Category 5 or Category 5e?

More and more, homeowners and builders have come to realize that it pays to specify Cat 5e over Cat 5 for residential installations, even though a Cat 5 system will support the most current applications. With technology changing so quickly, and the cost differential relatively small compared with the quality and performance advantages, specifying Cat 5e is a better value for the dollar-especially considering the potential for significantly higher speed and capacity and the fact that Cat5 cabling is now obsolete in the latest TIA/EIA Standards.

Seek Out Optimum Cable Quality

One important guideline in selecting Cat 5e composite cabling is to be sure that the cables are designed and manufactured to meet certifiable performance standards, both before and after installation. Taking such a careful approach ensures that you are getting what you pay for-namely, that the structured cabling system has been tested and third-party verified to the TIA/EIA 568-B.2 standard and will actually perform to that level, even after years of use. For the UTP portion of the composite cable, Belden calls this quality assurance measure “Installable Performance.”

Composite cables offer a high value proposition for home automation and networking applications because they incorporate voice/data and video cables within a single jacket.

In recent years, design innovations have been introduced to foster Installable Performance. One such innovation is Bonded-Pair technology. Bonded-Pair UTP cables feature a design improvement in which the individual copper conductors are affixed along their longitudinal axis, resulting in uniform conductor-to-conductor spacing. The result is two perfectly balanced conductors-mirror images of each other-resulting in balanced signal transmission. Because of these design and construction features, Bonded-Pair UTP cables avoid the impedance and signal transmission problems that can result from lack of concentricity and gaps between the conductors. In addition, they are more immune to electrical noise from the environment, such as EMI, RFI and cross-talk from other pairs.

For your broadband applications, look for coaxial cables that are performance-tested from 5 MHz to 2.25 GHz. Solid copper conductors can be used for CCTV, CATV, and Satellite applications. Belden’s shielding innovation features a tri-shield construction consisting of a foil tape surrounded by an 80 percent braid, plus an outer layer of foil with a shorting fold. This combination offers superior high frequency shielding when compared with traditional quad shields, and can be stripped in a single step for easier installation using standard connectors.

Invest in Value – For Today and Tomorrow

To sum up, it makes sound business sense for homeowners to take the time to research the residential cabling system marketplace and apply the same value-based thinking to selecting a cabling system as they do in selecting their home. Installing top quality products and building in ample headroom for future applications not only adds value to the home and protects your original investment, but will also help you avoid costly upgrades and retrofits down the road.

About the Author:
Frank Koditek is Marketing Manager/Home Automation for Belden Electronics Division.