What Wire Do I Use?

March 4, 2016 by luis@echoworkshop.com

Atop an 8-foot ladder, I found myself pulling a bundle of cables through a joist I had drilled. I had a conglomeration of copper I was pulling through in many different configurations when my builder walked by and said “I’m glad you know what all that stuff is!” Well here you go guys. I recognize most of you don’t care, so here’s where you can go read that other story about bathroom cabinetry, but for those of you interested enough, here’s the low down on wire… a free education.

Now, we’re not going to get into anything as silly as color because every type of wire comes in almost every color. You’ll have to look at the jackets (the sleeve around the wire) if you want to know what the cable is. They are usually marked once every foot to 18 inches.

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We’ll start with Category Cable. There are several flavors of Category cable (don’t taste the wire), but by far the most popular is CAT5. It’s funny because I haven’t pulled CAT5 cable in ten years. CAT5e, a faster version of the same thing, quickly replaced it. Then there was CAT6, even faster, and now entering the marketplace, CAT6A. There are also shielded and unshielded versions of all of those, but I have to make a conscious decision as to how fast I want you to fall asleep. Along with that there is seemingly endless information about data transfer rates for each of the separate distinctions that is readily available on the web if you want to know that much about it. What you have to know is that Category cable if used for data transfer. We pull it for computer networking, telephony, and control of devices like TVs, projectors, pool controllers, thermostats and various other electronics. We also use CAT6A for video transfer as there are devices that turn video into Data now.

Coax cable also has several classifications. An older one, RG59 is still used today for cameras and non-modulated video transfer. There’s also RG6, no longer used much in residential applications, and RG6Q. The “Q” stands for Quad, or Quad Shielded. The cable actually has four layers of shielding around the center conductor that keep other signals from interfering with the video quality traveling through the cable. This is your television feed cable. It can carry off air HD signal, satellite feed, and digital cable signals. There are other coax cables as well, but these are the main ones used in residential work. Other Coaxes like RG11 are used to carry these signals across the poles in the neighborhood, but you shouldn’t be seeing the stuff in a home.

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As you can guess, speaker wire comes in different varieties as well. It is the norm to pull a 4CON or four-conductor wire for this application, although some providers will pull multiple 2Con to get the same outcome. Four conductors will feed two speakers, a Stereo Zone. The distance we are pulling it regulates the gauge, or thickness, of the wire. Also, a more important part of the equation is the amount of power that will be driven to the speakers. As a general rule, we pull 16-gauge wire in homes below 8,000 square feet, and step up to 14-gauge for larger homes. I have seen other providers use 18 gauge speaker wire while other only use the larger stuff. This can also be regulated by the cost the builder or homeowner is willing to spend for the pre-wire phase.

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There are also great varieties of security wire. In a pre-wired home, you will recognize it as the thin stuff going to all the doors and windows. It is always relatively thin gauge wire and come in varieties of two and four conductors. Most notable is the use of fire rated wire. It has a fire retardant quality about it. This stuff is typically red in color. As the rules state, Fire Wire must be used for any device that may report a fire within the home, therefore you will see it used for keypads, sirens, and reporting smoke detectors.

As my own rule I decided I would write a column without showing any particular product affiliation, therefore it is difficult to cover Proprietary Wire without mentioning any names. There are several companies out there that only want you to use their wire for their products. If you have ever had any of these products placed in your homes, you know these companies well. These are usually companies of a great and admirable standard with such strict tolerances that they only want to work with wire they approve. Without mentioning any names, know that if your low voltage provider tells you they have to order XYZ wire, this is more than likely the reason, and you should know it is a good thing. Even though it may cost a little more, the benefits are worth it.

There it is, your free wire education. You’re ready to wire your own homes, or not. Regardless, next time you see that LV guy up in your joists, you can tell him, “I know what you’re doing to my house” in a very creepy manner.

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