If you dream of having the fastest connection speeds for all of your business network needs, then you’re looking for low voltage wiring. With more and more devices needing to connect to the internet and transfer data, organizations have a greater need for a system that can facilitate their needs when standard electrical wiring and wireless networks fall short. If you’re here, it’s because you already know that the answer is low voltage wiring.
Low voltage wiring (also known as low voltage cabling or structured cabling) refers to an electrical network foundation upon which digital technology and communication equipment functions. This includes:
- Internet connection
- Business telephone systems
- Low voltage lighting
- Audio / Video equipment
- Security system components
- And more
Any cable designed to carry 50V or less is considered low voltage. Low voltage wiring carries less voltage than what is necessary to power most appliances and lights. Those of which are powered by electrical outlets that supply 120V in the United States and 240V in Europe.
You’ve probably found it difficult to find good information online regarding low voltage wiring, which is exactly why we created this guide.
A lot of the information online is incomplete and lacking depth. The only way to fully understand what low voltage wiring is and how to install it is to know it from A-Z.
If this guide gets a bit too technical, try your best to stick with us. If you want to wire a building, it’s important you learn the terminology.
What Is Low Voltage Cable?
Like we said, a low voltage cable is anything designed to carry 50 volts or less. Standard wall outlets carry 120V in the United States and Canada. Most lighting fixtures, electronics, and appliances draw up to 120V.
Voltage classifications can be confusing because definitions vary depending on where the voltage is being used and who you ask. For example, according to the IEC, low voltage is anything less than 1,000V. Moreover, they actually define anything less than 50V as “extra low-voltage”.
Since we’ll be discussing wires that can carry a maximum voltage of 48V, this article will consider anything less than 50V as low voltage.
Typically a home or business will draw power to its main electrical panel from a transformer or overhead wires connected to poles. The transformers and poles get their power from a power company’s electrical station.
The standard circuits in a building are high-voltage, but there are circumstances when low-voltage circuits and devices are better.
Low voltage wiring is also commonly used for doorbells/access control, thermostats, outdoor ground lighting, 5-volt USB outlets.
Later on, we’ll get into specific use cases for low voltage wiring, but first, let’s discuss why you would install low voltage wiring in a building.
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Benefits of Low Voltage Wiring
Even if you think you’ll never use a hard-wired network in your business because you prefer wireless, you should still install the cable if you have the walls open and available. Wired connections are more secure, more reliable, and faster in most cases than any wireless options available.
Having low-voltage wiring is expected in businesses today and can positively affect how well you get business done, the likelihood of a space being leased, etc. Most older buildings only have dial-up connections and telephone connections. Low voltage wiring in today’s world includes voice, video, and data transmission.
Wireless networks are getting faster with each iteration, but there’s simply no way that they’ll compete with the speed, reliability, and security of a wired network with dedicated bandwidth. Wireless networks can easily saturate businesses with large connection needs and workforces. Many buildings without a structured cabling infrastructure experience coverage issues with wireless networks.
Low-voltage cables also offer line-supplied power to devices negating the need for batteries.
Those aren’t the only benefits of low-voltage wiring.
Here are a few more:
- Low voltage wiring is more energy efficient because it draws less power than traditional electrical wiring.
- Low voltage wiring is scalable and more streamlined when installed up-front or with conduit
- Low voltage wiring can be customized to fit the needs of any business or organization.
- Lower risk of electrocution
What types of businesses benefit from low voltage wiring?
Any business that needs fast communication between devices from retail, offices, healthcare, education, hotels, and government buildings. Let’s face it, In today’s world, every business could use a technology that keeps their digital connections communicating.
Low Voltage Wiring Installation
There are three instances when a building will have low voltage wiring installed.
- After a newly constructed property is framed and wired with electrical wiring.
- When a business moves into an existing building that lacks the proper wiring infrastructure for its needs.
- When the wiring in a businesses existing building is out of date.
Just like you install plumbing after framing and before installing the drywall and insulation, you should install structured cabling in this space as well. Pre-wiring a structure allows you to create a solid foundation for your security, networking, and communication hubs.
Low voltage wiring is usually installed after all electrical wiring is in place.
The first step in installing low voltage wiring is choosing a location for your control room or structured cabling enclosure. A structured cabling enclosure is where all of your low voltage cables run to and from.
With a location picked, you can install the structured media enclosure yourself using a drill, screws that come with your kit, wire cutters, and a hammer. This enclosure needs to have plenty of electrical outlets for plugging in your gear and should be in a central location. Most new construction homes house them in the basement.
The type and amount of low voltage wires you wire will depend on your needs. It’s recommended to run at least one data port to each office, TV location, phone jack, or potential computer location.
How Does Low Voltage Wiring Work?
Low voltage wiring runs from a structured media enclosure to a prespecified location within a building. As the name suggests, low voltage cables form their own network using a low voltage (LV). An organized collection of copper or fiber wiring runs through walls, ceilings, and conduits connecting computers, telephones, security equipment, access points, and data networks. These are called “home runs”, with cables in each room connecting to a central distribution box.
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Low Voltage Wiring Basics
When installing low voltage wiring, there are some basic tenants you should stick to. First, low-voltage wires are very fragile compared to electrical wires. Twisting, pinching, and roughly pulling wires can damage performance. In this section, we’re going to dive deep into what low voltage wires are used for, how to keep them safe, and more.
What Is Low Voltage Wiring Used For?
Low voltage wiring is used for a variety of uses from landscape lighting, smart doorbells, thermostats, internet network, WiFi, network data, VOIP, TV, audio systems, and surveillance.
Low voltage wiring is used for both large and small networks, connecting devices to a central hub with a dedicated bandwidth minimizing interference.
Telephone: Most households no longer use wired home phones, but most businesses still rely on telephone outlets. Whether you use a traditional telephone system or VoIP, low voltage cabling can facilitate your entire network allowing quick connectivity between multiple facilities and departments. Most telephone systems work on fiber optics, WiFi, or Ethernet cables. Fiber optics and ethernet require low voltage wiring.
Cable: Many organizations like restaurants, offices with multiple meeting rooms, and hospitals subscribe to cable television across multiple screens. Low voltage wiring can be used to bridge all of your screens and cable base.
Audio: You’ll want to be aggressive because you can put a speaker in just about any room. Other than the obvious places, this may include bathrooms, outdoor patios, and the kitchen.
Security And Surveillance: Many businesses deploy a wireless security and surveillance system, but large buildings (vertically or horizontally), may have range issues with wireless, so it’s a good idea to wire in this system. Surveillance uses Cat6 for IP, network, and analog cameras. Double up wires to every corner so you can put multiple cameras covering blind spots.
Computers: Companies utilize computer networks for more than just filling out spreadsheets. Computers now have the processing power to process payments, communicate with machinery, send data, and even run servers.
Other miscellaneous items like doorbells, fireplaces, and blind controls will all use low voltage controls. Running an ethernet cable to a few ceiling locations is a good idea if you plan on installing a Ubiquiti access point.
Remember this fact, when it comes to low voltage wiring, you’ll never regret running too many cable pulls. Run two wires to each location. If you don’t use the 2nd, you can leave the other in the box for redundancy.
Are Low Voltage Wires Dangerous?
The current that runs through low voltage cabling generally is not strong enough to cause fatal injury, but you still can experience an unsettling shock. This happens when a person comes into contact with a source of low voltage electricity that sends an electrical current through the body. Fatal injury can occur if an installer is knocked off their feet when standing on a ladder. Every person is different and there’s no telling how someone will react to possible electrical damage to the brain.
It’s generally accepted that at least 50V of electricity is needed to cause serious injury, but the lowest reported voltage to cause death was just 42V.
If you suffer from burns, loss of consciousness, numbness, seizures, pain, vision, or speech problems, seek immediate medical attention.
How Long Can Low Voltage Wiring Be?
Low voltage wiring has to reach from your patch panel inside your structured cabling enclosure to its desired termination location. The maximum distance for low voltage wiring like ethernet cable is 100 Meters or about 295 feet.
Read this article to learn more about Low voltage wiring basics
Low Voltage Wire Vs Regular Wire
The biggest difference between low voltage wiring and regular electrical wire is the voltage of electricity that runs through them. 120V in the United States and Canada and 240V in Europe run through electrical wires to cable outlets. Low voltage wiring is designed to carry no more than 50 volts of electricity.
While electrical wires carry electrical transmission, low voltage wiring carries signal transmission. In other words, high voltage wires carry power (outlets, lights, switches) and low voltage cables carry signals and information with a very limited power capacity.
Cat5 & Cat5e
With the introduction of Cat5e, Cat5 is now obsolete because it can’t support the same speed and bandwidth. Cat5 cables can support speeds up to 10/100 MBS at 100MHz bandwidth. Cat5e, the current standard for cabling, can support up to 100/1000 Mbs at 350 Hz bandwidth. Cat5 and Cat5e ethernet cables are unshielded and used to carry video and telephone signals. They have a diameter of 0.204 inches.
To the naked eye, Cat5 and Cat6 cables look the same, but they differ in many ways. Cable twist length is not standardized, however Cat5e usually have 1.5-2 twists per cm and Cat6 generally have 2+ twists per cm. Cat 6 Ethernet cables can support up to1000 MBps or 1GBps speed at a 250 Hz bandwidth. Another upgrade in the Cat6 cables is their capacity to limit crosstalk and system noise. Cables don’t exist in a vacuum, instead, they exist in close quarters each emitting their own signals.
Coaxial cable is a cable used to transmit internet, video, and voice data. It’s made of aluminum, copper, and an outer plastic jacket. The copper core allows coaxial cable to transmit information without experiencing interference or damage from external factors. For this reason, coaxial cable is commonly used in outdoor and underground settings.
C-wire, or common wire connects low voltage heating systems to thermostats carrying continuous power. Most newer HVAC systems have C-wires making them compatible with smart thermostats.
Speaker wire can be used as electric wire for home security sensors, doorbells, and thermostats. However, it’s usually used to transmit sound signals from a receiver or amplifier to a speaker. The smaller the gauge, the bigger the wire and the more power it can handle.
We’ll include Cat1, Cat2, and Cat3 as an honorable mention since they paved the way for Cat5, 5e, and 6.
Read this article to learn more about low voltage wire vs regular wire.
How To Protect Low Voltage Wiring
To protect low voltage wiring, do NOT run them through the same holes as high voltage lines. If they are run parallel, keep that at a minimum of 12 inches apart. If they need to cross, do so at a 90-degree angle. Parallel runs of lines can cause signal interference between electronics and present a fire risk.
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Protecting Landscape Low Voltage Lighting
If you hire a landscaping service, you’ll want to take extra steps to protect your low-voltage lighting. Landscapers make their living through volume, so unless they receive specific instructions to avoid an area, they’re not going to take extra precautions when using a weed wacker.
Here are a few measures you can take:
- Bury the lines and run them through PVC piping or heavy-duty outdoor conduit.
- Keep landscape lighting in an edged bed or add a stone bed around them to keep mowers and weed whackers away.
Does Low Voltage Wiring Need To Be In Conduit?
A conduit is a tube or trough used to protect electrical wiring. There are specific circumstances when low voltage wiring should be in conduit, although you’ll have to check with your local code to know if it’s mandatory for your use case.
Here are a few scenarios where using conduit makes sense:
- If low voltage wiring is being buried.
- If low voltage wiring will be exposed to UV and other outdoor elements when used for outdoor lighting.
- If low voltage wiring will be exposed to being tampered with.
- If you plan to make alterations to your wiring or switch wires out. Running conduit makes it easy to slide wires in and out.
Low Voltage Cable Management
Low voltage cables are terminated in a box called a structured cabling enclosure. Larger low voltage networks will utilize an entire central control room to house the wiring. Inside of the enclosure, the cables will terminate into patch panels, an important piece of equipment for any data center. Patch panels reduce cable clutter, are inexpensive, and are scalable allowing you to add new devices.
Your business may require dozens or even hundreds of cables which can cause a tangled mess. This is why it’s important to keep your cables organized within your structured cabling enclosure.
Here are a few tips to keep your cables organized:
- Label Cables: All cables should be labeled at both ends and along the middle so that technicians (or you) can easily troubleshoot issues.
- Color-Coded Cables: Color-coded cables allow you to identify what type of cable is being run.
- Zip ties: Zip ties allow you to bundle cables going to the same server or rack.
Having a good plan from the beginning allows you to install low voltage wiring faster and saves you time and headaches in the future.
Where Do You Install Low Voltage Wiring?
This question can be answered in two ways. First, where low voltage cabling starts, and secondly where it can end. There are obviously different answers to these questions, but the commonality to remember is that all low voltage wiring runs to and from the structured cabling enclosure.
The structured cabling enclosure will have a cable running to it from a demarcation point, usually on the side of the building. Cable, internet, and telephone wires run from either a local transformer or electrical pole. From there, the wires run underground, through the demarcation point, and into the structured cabling enclosure.
From there, low voltage wiring will run from a patch panel inside of the enclosure to the given room and jack. Patch panels are used to terminate low voltage cables allowing you to label and manage the mass of cables.
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Low Voltage Wiring In New Construction
In 2004, nearly 70% of new construction homes were built with low voltage wiring. Homes have an increased dependence on a dedicated wired network to support the massive increase in devices with a dedicated IP. 30 years ago, did any of us think that our doorbells, refrigerators, and washing machines could talk to us? That’s something right out of The Jetsons!
After framing, installing plumbing, and installing electrical wiring is the best time to install low voltage wiring in a new construction. Since electricians generally aren’t experienced in installing low voltage wiring, they’ll let you install the low voltage yourself, or hire someone else to do it. As you’ve already surmised from the rest of this guide, installing low voltage wiring is something anyone can do with the right knowledge.
Low Voltage Wiring In Commercial Buildings
Low voltage wiring is synonymous with structured cabling, with the latter term being used more commonly for commercial buildings. Low voltage wiring allows businesses to handle bulky technology infrastructures that wireless simply cannot facilitate.
Residential low voltage wiring is DIY possible, but it’s hard to say the same about commercial wiring. In the commercial setting, you’ll have to deal with things that aren’t an issue in the residential wiring such as dedicated telecommunications rooms, entrance facilities, and backbone cabling for multi-floor buildings.
Low Voltage Wiring In A Home
You may be wondering, what if my home is already built, but I want to add low voltage wiring after the fact? Luckily, it is possible to retrofit high-speed low voltage wiring into an existing home. Retrofitting is not an easy task as it involves a lot of stripping, so you may have trouble finding a contractor who will quote you for the work.
Here’s the skinny on how it’s done
Step one is figuring out where you plan to install ethernet outlets. After you’ve done your research, you’ll know how much and what type of cable to buy. You’ll also need connectors, patch panels, and a network rack/structured cabling enclosure. The best place to fit the enclosure is in an attic or crawlspace. From there, you should be able to find places to run wire to every room from existing wire drops and HVAC drops.
Low Voltage Wiring Code
Low voltage wiring is not in the NEC (National Electrical Code). The guidelines for wiring a home or business properly for electrical applications are precise, but not for low voltage applications.
Check your local state or local municipalities (if it’s not enforced on a state level) for your low voltage guidelines. Here are a few of them you may find:
- Most codes require line-voltage wiring to be installed in protected runs with conduit.
- Your city may require a permit for commercial or residential work.
- Most codes require cables to be secured to the building structure and racks must be grounded.
- Some codes prevent you from running low voltage cables through ductwork, although high-quality Cat5 and Cat6 can withstand temperatures up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
- A license isn’t required for low voltage wiring in most states, but again check your local and state codes.
Does Low Voltage Wiring Require A Permit
Most municipalities require a permit if you’re installing low voltage wiring. If you’re not sure if you need a permit, call your local building department to see if they’ll even allow you to pull your own cable.
Does Low Voltage Wiring Need Inspection
If you are creating new construction or adding major modifications to the electrical wiring, you will most likely require an inspection.
Low Voltage Wiring Building Code
It’s your responsibility to research codes to make sure you follow local, state, and national codes. The biggest risk is voltage induction when voltage transfers from one cable to another causing low voltage wiring to receive voltage from higher voltage electrical wiring when it should not be. This can cause a fire hazard or voltage strong enough to cause injury or death. Low voltage wiring may not be dangerous in itself, but it can facilitate a lot of potential disasters when run incorrectly.
Read this article to learn more about low voltage wiring code
Low Voltage Wiring Installation Cost
Your costs are going to be for cable, connectors, keystone jacks, a structured cabling enclosure, and patch panels. Expect to pay between $250 – $500 per 1,000 ft of cable. Always go with higher-quality cables for better performance and longevity. Higher quality cables have better insulation, which allows them to be run in bundles without causing interference.
Low Voltage Wiring Best Practices
The first thing you need to keep in mind when running low voltage wire is that it’s fragile. It cannot bend at 90 degrees and pulling it with more than 25 pounds of force can untwist it diminishing performance.
A good low voltage wiring system will consider heating and cooling, redundancy, choosing the correct cabling, and organization at the termination points.
It’s smart to not do things that you can’t undo, especially if you have long-term plans of staying in a space. Ever stayed in a hotel that has an iPhone speaker dock with one of those old, wide charging connections? Then Apple went ahead and changed their chargers to lightning connections.
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How To Install Low Voltage Wiring
Even if you think you’ll never use a hard-wired network in your business or home because you prefer wireless networks you should still install the cable if you have the walls open and available. Wired connections are more secure, more reliable, and faster in most cases than any wireless options available. Having low-voltage wiring is expected in new homes today and can negatively or positively affect home appraisals.
We recommend that you run a minimum of one data port to each room, TV location, phone jack, and other places you may have a computer. You’ll never regret running too many. All network cables are run point-to-point without any splices.
How To Check Low Voltage Wiring
Occasionally, the wiring to a thermostat or HVAC system will short out. A multimeter allows you to check the voltage coming out of an outlet, breaker, transformer, and or wires. Using the process of elimination, you can go from terminal to terminal to read the voltage and diagnose where the issue is terminating.
The most common issue is a transformer that’s not outputting any voltage. You’ll also want to check for cable failure caused by cable corrosion, insulation splits, moisture on the wires, and cable deterioration.
How To Install Low Voltage Wiring For Doorbell
If you’re thinking about wiring a doorbell with low voltage wiring, it’s because your doorbell will take advantage of the communication capabilities of Cat5/Cat6 cables. The power source can be either a separate cable or batteries depending on the doorbell.
Conventional doorbells have wires that connect the chimes or bell to the button and transform. The transformer converts standard 120-volt electricity down to 10, 12, or 24 volts. If you want to connect low voltage wiring to the doorbell, you’ll have to run a separate cable from the structured cabling enclosure to the front door.
Low Voltage Wiring Connectors
Cable connectors are components attached at the end part of the cable. The cable connectors allow the cable to terminate at the central data hub and into wall mounts at the desired location. There are a few different types of low voltage wiring connectors including RJ45, UTP, RJ11, BNC, and F-type.
- RJ45: Is the most common connector, it’s an 8-pin computer used to connect computers and other network devices in a LAN. It’s used with unshielded and twisted pair cables that fit into the connector.
- UTP Coupler: With a UTP Coupler, you can connect one cable to another to increase your reach without having to splice wires.
- RJ11: This connector is mainly used to connect telephone equipment
- BNC: BNC, standing for Bayonet Neill–Concelman are used with coaxial cables for video and audio transmission.
- F-Type: Used by cable providers to attach to cable modems.
Cable connectors are further categorized in the male and female genders.
Read this article to learn more about low voltage wiring connectors
We did our best to dive deeper into the complex system that is low voltage wiring. There are seemingly infinite factors to consider when installing low voltage cabling from the uniqueness of the setting to your specific needs. If this seems to be out of your scope, hire a low voltage company to handle installing low voltage wiring in your home or business.