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Whole House Wiring Basics
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Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners,
she makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable.
- Martin Luther

One of the hottest business sectors associated with consumer electronics today is the distribution of
audio, video and control signals throughout the home or office. Multi-room multi-zone is a mantra that is
heard from the architects offices to the builders model, from electricians to data network specialists. As
with so much in life, there are several levels of distribution from bare bones functional to extravagant
touch-panel control, from background music to multi-room discrete surround sound. What you want in
your home will be strictly controlled by the infrastructure you install. Get the wiring right and the rest is
easy.

Music Distribution

It cant get much easier than distributing sound, can it? Its just speakers, right? Oh, if life were so
easy For just two conductors covering a distance of a few feet to a few yards there is much that can go
wrong. Fortunately for us, getting this part right is both inexpensive and easy to accomplish.

Most folks want background music distribution to be relatively inconspicuous. A common desire is to
install in-wall or in-ceiling speakers in one or more rooms, and have the speakers driven from the B
speaker port on an audio/video receiver. The first concern is the in-wall wiring. The National Electrical
Code (NEC) prescribes the properties of the wire to be used as it
relates to the primary goals of the NEC, which are:

Reduce the spread of fire and smoke.
Prevent shock
Comply with other requirements of the NEC

All wiring used behind walls, under floors or otherwise installed as a
structural component of the building must be properly rated.
Speaker wires used for this type of installation are rated as either
Class 2 or Class 3. The only difference between classes is that Class 3 rated wiring is rated for a
maximum of 300 volts and Class 2 has no such voltage rating. Is this important? An audio amplifier
driving a pair of 8-ohm speakers, and delivering 300 volts peak-to-peak will provide an incredible 26
amperes (I=E/R) of current for a total RMS power delivery of something like 5600 watts (P=I
2
R). Since it
is HIGHLY unlikely that you will be driving in-wall speakers with 5 Kilowatts of power you probably dont
need to be concerned with Class 3 ratings!

Now that we know we dont need to shell out extra money for Class 3 wiring, we still need to decide on
wire gauge and conductor count. How do we know whats right for the job? Distance and anticipated
performance are the critical factors. Lets examine each in turn.

The distance from the audio amplifier to the anticipated speaker location is a major factor
in deciding which in-wall wire is the right one for the installation. Every foot of speaker
wire adds a bit more resistance, capacitance and inductance to the performance equation.
While these parameters by themselves have minor sonic effects, the total impedance of
the wiring network has a larger effect especially on the amplifier. The trick is to
minimize the effects of the wiring, so heres a good rule of thumb:

For less than 50 feet to the speakers or volume control, 16AWG is fine
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From 50 feet to 100 feet use 14AWG
For 100 feet or more use 12AWG

Dont forget to account for the expected bass response and volume at which the speakers will be played.
For primary sound where dynamic range is at a premium and full range sound is desired, use more
copper. For background sound you can drop copper. In other words, you are unlikely to compromise the
performance of a pair of 5-inch coaxial in-ceiling speakers placed in the master bathroom by using
16AWG, even if the run is 100 feet. On the other hand you may want to use 12AWG if youre wiring your
main theater speakers - even if the run is only 30 feet.

In addition to considering the gauge of the wire used, it is also wise to consider the conductor count.
Each and every room should have the ability to support a local volume control. This control is best placed
somewhere near the main lighting controls for that room. A 4-conductor cable should be strung from the
equipment closet to the volume control location. A single 4-conductor cable is much easier to run and
less expensive than two 2-conductor cables. 2-conductor cable should then be run from the volume
control location to each speaker location.

Control Systems

In addition to a volume control, which can be mechanical or electrical, each remote
location should provide the infrastructure to support infrared remote control or keypad
remote control. There are many control solutions from manufacturers including
Xantech, Niles, Sonance, Crestron, AMX and others. Some of these are extremely
sophisticated and require professional installation and proprietary wiring. Most,
however, will work well with simple uninsulated twisted pair wiring (UTP). A great
solution is to use CAT5e wiring for the control system.

Composite cables are cable assemblies blending two or more different cable types. One good composite
to use for audio distribution is 14/4 & CAT5e composite. This gives you control capability and speaker
level audio distribution in one easy-to-pull cable. You can also get 14/4 & Dual Cat5e for more
sophisticated systems or in instances where you want to distribute Telco as well as IR and speaker level
audio.

Some systems will benefit from the installation of IR targets or IR repeaters. These
devices allow you to aim your infrared remote controls at a small IR window built into a
cabinet, speaker grill or wall box to relay those commands to the equipment closet. A
single CAT5e run is more than sufficient for most contemporary IR management
systems. Keep in mind that even if you dont plan on installing keypads or IR control
systems right away it is important to include the wiring in your installation. You will not
have a chance to remove the drywall and insulation to do it later!

RF, Antenna and Satellite Distribution

Sending music from room to room isnt enough for most of us. We live in a world of sound and image.
Contemporary systems require audio, control and video distribution of some sort. There are four
variations of video distribution and most systems will use at least one often two or more to fulfill
expectations. Lets start with the simplest first.

RF distribution refers to the availability of antenna, CATV, satellite and local modulated
video content in various rooms and areas throughout the house. RF distribution takes
place on coaxial cable. RG-6u is best, though RG-59u is acceptable. The primary
difference between the two is the high frequency attenuation, as related to the length of
the run, and the quality of the shielding. A good quad-shield RG-6u is the very best
choice for RF distribution.
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There are two ways to handle a simple MATV or CATV distribution system tapped or home run.
Tapped systems have a single trunk line with 75-ohm drops used for each antenna feed location. Taps
have a feed-through port and a drop that costs about 3.5 decibels of signal strength (in this case the
signal is voltage dependent and not power dependent in voltage dependent systems the total voltage is
halved when the signal drops 6dB). Taps are easy to install and will service most simple antenna needs.

Home run systems require that a coaxial cable be run from each antenna location to the equipment
closet. This can be a more flexible system in that IR controls, satellite IF and other signals can be piggy
backed on the RF signal. Also, specific sources can be modulated and delivered to only certain
locations. The disadvantages of a home run are the additional wiring and labor costs as well as the
need for distribution amplification. The use of RF amplification is a subject fit for an article in and of itself
and is a topic we will explore in a future column.

DBS distribution is a bit trickier as it requires sweep-tested components capable of
passing a full 3GHz bandwidth with bidirectional capability. If you plan on installing a
DBS satellite dish make sure you run a MINIMUM of two coaxial cables to the dish
location from the equipment closet. In this way you can utilize a dual-feed LNB system
with a phased array reflector for reception of signals from multiple satellite orbital
locations. This is critical to getting the full measure of local-into-local or HDTV
broadcast programming.

Our next column will explore the basics of composite video, S-video and component video distribution,
line-level audio distribution, and digital signal distribution.