I love network cable, it has a very special place in my heart, and in the church I tech direct at.
Simply put, it’s versatile and inexpensive. You can run digital or analog audio down it with no problems. You can run DMX. You can run network protocols as well, and it can run video too.
When I inherited my position, I found that there was Cat5e already strung all over the church, some of it unused!
Today, we’re going running the cable itself and putting the connectors on.
Does this have a high perceived “geek factor”? Yes!
But, if you want to save time, frustration and money when running this cable – keep reading! It’s easier than you think!
Step 1: What Cable Should I Buy?
If you type bulk network cable into Amazon, you’re going to get about a million results and you might be wondering “What the best is for you?”
There are going to be cheap options, slightly more expensive options, and the latest in greatest heavy-duty tour grade Cat6 cable.
First, let’s talk category. Back in the day, we used Cat5 cable. Cat5 cable is untwisted pair and was commonly used for data and phones… But we don’t see that anymore.
It’s likely you’re familiar with Cat5e.
Cat5e was the most common type of networking cable for a good portion of my life. In theory, it can run 1 gigabit-per-second no problem., which should be fast enough for pretty much anything we’re doing today.
This is also a great place for a short aside – cable speed. The speed listed on any cable is going to be the speed rating at full, maximum length. Any time you’re shorter than that, you should be able to get faster speeds.
Then, there’s Cat6a cable. Cat6a cable is good for up to 10 gigabits-per-second, is a slightly thicker wire, and also has a separator in the middle of the cable.
This separator makes it a little stiffer but helps keep the wires separate so that the data has less interference.
I didn’t talk about Cat6 (non “A”) cable because it doesn’t have much of a speed advantage over Cat5e, though many sources claim it does. If you’re going to go with Cat6, go with a Cat6a variety – otherwise it’s generally not worth it!
At the time of this writing, Cat6a is about twice the cost as Cat5e. But, it’s still relatively inexpensive, at around 20 cents per foot, and it can run a whole lot of data over the long haul!
Now, we also have Cat7 cable. Cat 7 allows you to run and a slightly higher speed and seems to be better with processing a ton of data over time. However, at this point, all the research I’ve done seems to tell me that we don’t need Cat7 cable unless we’re building a datacenter…which I’m not!
Why I Choose Cat6a
I am all about being as future-proof as possible, as long as it makes financial sense.
Yes, Cat6a does cost more than Cat5e. However, it’s not a massive amount more, and when you think about the time it takes you to re-run cable in the future, it makes sense to be as future proof as possible!
I personally am very thankful for the previous Tech director who, in 2002, ran Cat5e cable that I can still use throughout the facility today!
Now, back to the Amazon search. If we type in Cat6a Cable, we get a lot of options. The first thing that you’re going to see is cable that is called CCA, and other cable that is called CMR. This may seem like just a few letters that are fairly unimportant, but it actually really matters.
CCA cable is copper clad aluminum. And well the manufacturers of this cable want you to think that it’s a great cable, it’s really not… Not only is it not listed to go inside walls, but it also can’t do POE, or power over ethernet.
Other people have noted that it also is more likely to break and generally just a bad idea to buy. You might save a little money on the short run, but long-term reliability really matters and I don’t want you to be in a bad place a few years down the road!
So, I recommend going with a good Cat6a CMR cable, but if you can’t afford that, look at Cat5e and see if it meets your current needs. It probably does and that’s a good way to save money as opposed to buying 2nd-grade cable!
At this point, you also want to check and see if you need plenum rated cable.
Basically, a plenum is an area in the ceiling where there’s active air flow through your HVAC system. The big disclaimer here is that I’m not an expert, I’m not an integrator, and I’m certainly not a lawyer.
So, if you’re in doubt, buy plenum rated cable and you won’t go wrong. The area in your ceilings may or may not be a plenum, so do your best to find someone who knows whether it is or not.
Not only is using the wrong wire in a plenum against fire code and therefore illegal, if your local building inspector or Fire Marshal takes a look and finds it, you’re going to have to rip it all out and replace it later…which you don’t want to do!
The last thing we want to look at is STP vs. UTP. This defines whether the cable is shielded, or unshielded.
For general computer networking, analog audio, or DMX, you’ll find that unshielded cable works just fine. Not only that but it’s easier to terminate as well.
Shielded cable, on the other hand, may be required if you’re using it as a digital audio snake or for other applications. So be sure to check the manual of whatever device is your connecting especially when you’re connecting audio equipment. Not using shielded cable, and an audio snake situation can cause some real problems that are very distracting!
Step 2: Running the Network Cable
Now that we’ve bought our cable, it’s time to run it through the walls. Generally, you’ve bought some cable that’s probably in a pull box where you just pull the cable out of the box, and as long as the box is upright everything’s going to work great.
You may have also bought cable that’s on a wooden spool, in which case you’re going to want to find something to hang it on so that spool is able to spin freely as you run the cable. You can often fashion a pretty decent system with a mic stand and 2 chairs…
Regardless, it’s now time to find the best way to get from point A to point B.
You’re going to want to spend some time on this. if you just going a short distance, it may be really obvious what the best route through your ceilings and walls is going to be. But, if you’re going a longer distance, take some time to stick your head up in the ceiling in various places and find the best way to get to where you’re going.
When you’re running cable, you ideally want to stick your head up through as few ceiling tiles as possible, and you want to make as few holes in walls as possible.
I buy them at Harbor Freight and they work great. Plus, if I break them(especially the fish sticks), They’re really cheap so it’s easy to replace.
These tools will allow you to easily fish the tape out, or if you can see in a pretty straight line use the sticks, and then attach your wire with some electrical tape (use plenty!), and carefully pull the wire back through in the direction that you’re going.
Depending on how far you go you may need to pull a bunch of wire and part way, then pull your bunch the rest of the way. This may take some time…
It’s also worth noting that if you think you might run more wire through the same path in the future, also pull a bare fish line.
Nylon fish line like this is really inexpensive, and we’ll save you a bunch of time in the future. Also, if you’re running through a conduit, fish line is a lifesaver!
Get the wire from point A to point B, and leave a little extra at each end for when you go to do the final termination, or putting the plugs on.
Step 3: Terminating (Putting Ends On) the Network Cable
All right, this is the part of the wiring that at first was the most painful for me.
But, when I learned the simple trick from a networking professional, I realize that it’s actually not too difficult.
The question I have for you is this – would you like to line up 8 wires that are really tiny and want to twist in every direction, all at once? Or, would you rather line up one wire at a time, and do it 8 times?
If you’ve ever put the little plastic RJ45 connectors on a Cat5e or Cat6 cable, then you definitely know you’d rather line up one wire at a time!!!!
These have female connectors, which allow you to just simply line up one wire at a time and punch them down. Here’s a link to the tool set that I use which was really inxpensive and has everything you need.
Not only are these connectors easier to terminate than the conventional male connectors, but it’s also a better design. CMR cable is really designed to be in walls and the shield on it isn’t super flexible so, if you move it a lot it may break over time.
Plus, when you’ve got a lot of cables terminating in one place, it’s a lot better organized to just put them into a patch panel!
Even if you’re using volunteer labor to do this, the time saved easily justifies the cost (which isn’t much) in my opinion.
That’s why it makes sense to invest in a patch panel and or Keystone Jacks to go at the end of your cable. I’ve even used these great little Keystone Jacks that are actually built into a box, for situations where there isn’t a wall that you can cut into.
Here’s a link to a video that shows you how to wire these types of jacks. When I realized how easy it was to do, and did it the first time myself, I saved myself a ton of time and frustration!
Last, if you bought a kit as I did for your tools, there will be a tester in that kit.
Now is a great time to grab a couple ethernet patch cables, and test each line that you’ve terminated. Make sure everything works before you plug in anything in, to save troubleshooting time later.
I hope this article helps you the save time, and save frustration next time you’re running cable.
I’ll be bringing more tips and tricks here soon!