Low voltage wiring powers and connects the vast majority of devices and telecommunication systems in modern businesses. In many cases, business itself has come to rely on structured low voltage cabling simply to function.
That’s why it’s so important to invest in well-designed and robust low voltage infrastructure. Here are five of the most important low voltage wiring best practices to be aware of as you undertake an installation.
1. Plan your installation carefully
When it comes to any type of cable installation, the planning phase carries a lot of importance. In order to be effective over the long haul, a low voltage wiring installation needs to be executed perfectly, and so the first step is to have a roadmap in place that covers project parameters from the outside, and project design from the inside.
When you undertake a low voltage project, consider these factors:
How much can you afford to spend on hardware and man-hours?
What is the best time to conduct an installation that will result in the smallest disruption to your business?
If the project ends up taking longer than planned, how will you adjust?
Infrastructure and obstacles: What kind of structure will the installation take place in, and what obstacles (hollow vs. solid walls; machinery; existing data or electrical cables) might complicate or slow the installation down?
What level of redundancy and/or disaster preparedness do you need in your low voltage wire network? Do you have essential equipment that requires extra redundancies?
Think of the future
Technology changes quickly, and business models change. Take some time to think about what the future might look like for you, and how you can design your current LV installation so that future scalability is as streamlined as possible.
2. Use the right low voltage cable for the right application
There are a lot of cabling options on the market, and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Here are the best practices when it comes to choosing cable for your low voltage wiring project:
Cat 5 or Cat5e used to be industry standard, especially for budget projects, but nowadays this cable just doesn’t have the bandwidth to support the volume of data a business uses in a day. It is technically capable of supporting Power over Ethernet, but it wasn’t developed with this in mind and so the wattages it can carry are so low as to be functionally useless.
Cat5 is thinner than other types of cables, and sometimes installers choose to use it for very short runs in very tight spaces, but as an overall cabling choice, it falls short compared to Cat6 and fiber optic cable.
Make use of Cat6 for cost-effectiveness and low-density environments
Cat6 has largely replaced Cat5 cable as the most cost-effective coaxial cable thanks to its respectable data speeds–10Gb/s up to 120-130 feet, and 5 Gb/s up to 328 feet, which is more than enough for stable internet connection. Cat6 can also easily support PoE. It’s the ideal cable for low density environments that just need a few runs of cable to connect its LAN to the greater WAN, but if you need long runs and high density cables, and if you’re concerned about your project’s future scalability, turn to Cat6A or fiber optic cable.
Use Cat6A for high-density environments
Cat6A cables are, as the name implies, an upgraded, higher-bandwidth, high-wattage version of the Cat6 cable. It can carry 10 Gb/s up to 328 feet, and sometimes conduct up to 90 watts of power. It’s the Goldilocks cable of price and performance, even though it takes some extra time and effort to install properly. If you need low voltage cabling that’s even faster, however, you need fiber optic cable.
Use Fiber Optic for high bandwidth needs
Fiber optic cable is the fastest and also the most fragile of the low voltage cables. Unlike copper-core, coaxial Cat-type cables that lose speed over distance, fiber optic cable carries data very fast even over long distances. Where Cat6A can carry 10 Gb/s up to 328 feet, fiber optic can carry 10 Gb/s up to 900 feet.
Fiber optic is also more expensive and more fragile than other cables, and should definitely not be installed by beginners.
It isn’t the right option for every business, but in some high-density, high-data-requirement, and long-distance applications, fiber optic cable is the best choice.
3. Be religious about cable management
Once you’ve selected the right cable, it’s time to think about how you’re going to manage it. Cable organization is a big part of any structured cabling best practices, because if you lose track of your cables, you lose your ability to effectively troubleshoot problems, do maintenance, and upgrade parts. Here’s how low voltage wiring installers prevent that from happening:
Color-coding cables according to their purposes is the easiest way to visually and quickly differentiate between them. For example, if your low voltage network supports phones, computers, an Internet router, and wireless access points, use a different-colored cable for each of them.
Bundling and stapling
Corralling cables together in bundles and using cable staples to fix cables in place prevents cable cabinets and cable runs from turning into a mess of expensive spaghetti. It also makes it possible to position cables in ways that cause the least inference for each other, and for other elements such as heating, cooling, and electrical.
Label your cables
The terminal point of a cable can be quite far from its origin, so you should always label cables at both ends. This makes it easy to work on the right cable from either end, and to replace a cable if it even becomes necessary.
Be very intentional about where you place your cables. Low voltage Ethernet cables should be placed at least twelve inches away from electrical cables, and as far as possible from heating and cooling elements.
Additionally, cables should be arranged in a way that minimizes crosstalk and interference between the cables.
4. Don’t use WiFi if you can avoid it
It is tempting to use WiFi in any place where wired installation is more difficult. But in many cases, what you save in time and effort, you lose in overall network reliability and stability.
WiFi is a great tool and there are certainly places where it’s appropriate, but when it comes to laying down a solid low voltage network that will give you a good return on investment, hard wiring is the better choice.
5. Research your options and work with a reputable company
Wired installations aren’t easy, and not all companies have the same level of expertise and customer service. And although it’s tempting to do some or all of the work yourself, the truth is that structured low voltage cabling is a technical field where mistakes can be both expensive and difficult to reverse.
Using a company that conducts walk-though estimates, as opposed to over-the-phone estimates, is one of the best ways to determine if that company is a good fit for you. Here’s why:
Over-the-phone estimates are quick and convenient, but ninety percent of the time, they are also vastly under-estimating the actual cost of your project. We recommend only working with companies who base their estimates on a walk-through of the real site, which are highly accurate and also useful in identifying obstacles and opportunities in the installation right from the get-go.
Technicians that are trained in walk-through estimates will have the knowledge to identify obstacles and opportunities in installation that you may have missed. They’ll be able to add to your knowledge of your project and its conditions, and suggest how to move forward.
When you take the time to do a walk-through with a real human, you get a better sense of their level of competency, and thus their company’s. This is a great opportunity for you to ask questions about experience, credentials, and testimonials, which will all help you determine if a company will earn your confidence.