How to install low-voltage wiring such as Ethernet or coax cable

When an administrator oversees the installation of low-voltage wiring, such as Ethernet or coax cable, for a company's computer network, it's critical to hire the right contractor.

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Ten common-sense tips
  1. Check the contractor's references, especially those who had similar work done.
  2. Inspect the contractor's facility. If their shop is a disaster, avoid using them.
  3. Make sure they're familiar with the products they're installing.
  4. Ask questions to see if they know what they are doing.
  5. Get the quote in writing. Make sure it's a closed-end, firm bid.
  6. Make sure you understand what each system is designed to do, function and perform. No two systems are exactly alike.
  7. Never tell one installer what another has bid. If he lowers his bid, you're paying for it somewhere either in equipment, time or service.
  8. You're buying a complete product/service/performance package. The lowest bid is not always the best option.
  9. Know which responsibilities the installer is accountable for. Does the quote include system pre-wiring? Documentation? Wiring diagrams? Project meetings?
  10. Get a written inventory of the exact brand, make and model numbers of every product you're buying. Accept no unauthorized substitutions.
Sometimes it's the job of an administrator to oversee the installation of low-voltage wiring, such as Ethernet cable, coax cable, telephone wiring or audio/video wiring. Whether you're having a contractor install your organization's computer network or re-wiring your own home, it's important to hire a qualified contractor who'll get the job done properly, quickly and at a reasonable price.

I favor using a dedicated low-voltage contractor for this work so the job gets done right the first time. But other factors may dictate hiring a non-specialized installer, especially if the person is already working at your location, such as an electrician).

The advantages of hiring a specialized low-voltage contractor/home systems installer are:

1) They have extensive experience in the fundamentals of designing, planning and installing low-voltage cabling and technology for home or business.

2) They have a good grasp on the regulations, codes and standards that apply to cabling and products being installed.

3) They have the exact tools, materials and skills to complete your project and can often produce your desired results much faster.

4) They're more likely to be up-to-date on the latest technologies and products. While their specialty may be cabling, security systems or home entertainment, they often also know about lighting control systems, home management systems and computer networking systems. (Ask your electrician to explain the difference between two networking cable standards and the connection options they offer and you'll quickly understand why having technology knowledge matters.)

5) They'll often take the time to show you how to use the technology. They can explain the care and feeding necessary to keep it going and can provide intimate troubleshooting assistance if they know exactly when, where and how all wiring/technology was installed.

6) They have the skills to understand your needs and complete the project to fit in your budget and time frame. Leveraging the experience they've gained from countless other installations, they can make suggestions for your project that you might have either overlooked, did not realize was necessary or did not even know was available for your project.

7) A home systems installer has all kinds of installation tricks up his sleeve, such as installing wiring in your walls without ruining a paint job or turning a coat closet into a communications closet.

8) They often can provide discounts on the products and materials used for the installation and have sources in which to find you the best deals. If they're also a product reseller (for instance, plasma TVs), they may offer further discounts towards the project's overall cost if you purchase products directly from them or their partners.

There are two drawbacks to using a specialist.

1) You may have to deal with multiple companies for project planning, paying bills, etc., if you have multiple tasks (such as electrical) being performed for your project.

2) Quotes from specialists may be higher, possibly due to not allowing for the same multiple job discounts an electrician might offer if they were contracted for electrical work as well. But you may get further discounts in other areas of the project from the specialist, such as sales of the products you want installed, which balances this out.

Non-specialized installers

The advantages to hiring a non-specialized installer are:

1) You may only have to deal with one company when it comes to project planning, paying bills, etc. That company may offer discounts on the overall project cost, since you're providing more work for their company.

2) They might be able to lower the overall project completion time if they can perform their installation tasks and the remaining tasks which they do not specialize in at one time (for example, installing electrical and low-voltage cabling).

The drawbacks to hiring non-specialized installers are:

1) They rarely have knowledge regarding the specific technologies your project incorporates, especially the proper cabling techniques those technologies require. They may install the wiring/technology incorrectly, using the wrong cabling or fastening the cabling incorrectly, which may drive the project cost and completion time up dramatically. Also, sometimes errors appear after the project has been completed and the wiring has been covered up by drywall, paint, etc.

2) They tend to stick to what they can do quickly and efficiently, so they may not have the experience, vision or patience your installation may require. They often require you to be the expert for installation instructions and tend to offer few suggestions towards improving your overall project.

3) They are often unable to explain how you might use the products/technology you intend on using once the wiring has been installed, leaving you to figure it all out on your own.

About the author: Tim Fenner (MCSE, MCSA: Messaging, Network+ and A+) is a senior systems administrator who oversees a Microsoft Windows, Exchange and Office environment. He is also an independent consultant who specializes in the design, implementation and management of Windows networks.

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This was first published in August 2007

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