Wireless networks may be convenient, but wired networks beat WiFi in every other way. Wired networks are faster, they're always reliable, and they're secure. Unless you're sitting on the couch with a laptop, or connecting a WiFi-only device, such as an iPad, wired ethernet is the better way to go.
But what should you do about the tangle of wires? Homeowners can run cables inside the walls, potentially increasing the value of their house for tech-savvy buyers. I'm making a few home upgrades and began wiring it up for ethernet even before it had a working bathroom. (I have my priorities.) Here's how you can do the same in your house.
Make a Plan
Before you start laying cable, take time to figure out a few things. Where do you need ethernet jacks? Where will your central networking hardware sit? What are your logistical limitations? (If you aren't sure whether you need ethernet, read our "The Ultimate Guide to Home Networking" for tips on determining the right networking technology for you.)
I wired ethernet to six areas throughout my small house: two in my office, one in the bedroom, two in the living room, and one in the kitchen. Each length of cable goes back to a closet containing the networking hardware, in a "home-run" layout.
Since I was committed to doing this project anyway, I decided to overdo it a little, running multiple cables to nearly every location. As a result, I can configure advanced networks, with the ability to do such things as completely isolate certain devices at the same location from each other, or even to directly connect something to the Internet. I put four ethernet jacks at each location in the office and living room, and single ethernet jacks in the bedroom and the kitchen.
My setup is likely overkill for many people. You might prefer to run just one or two cables to each location. If you have multiple devices--such as a TiVo, a PlayStation 3, and an Xbox 360--you can connect a switch outside your wall to add more ports.
Draw a schematic diagram of your house, including each use location, to visualize your plan. Any problems you can solve now will help the process run more smoothly.
How are you going to get the cables to each spot? In my case, I had a few walls open for some remodeling, which helped. But I still needed to run all of the wires up to the second-floor closet (network room) and from there into the attic and down a central wall to reach each destination. Know why contractors start their workdays so early? It's not just to taunt us. Part of the reason is that the temperature in a typical attic (mine) reaches about 120°F on a summer afternoon.
As part of my wiring project, I took a bundle of cables all the way down to the crawl space under the house, going under the living room to reach the other side. Individual situations vary, but attics, basements, air ducts, and crawl spaces can make great conduits.
Order the Parts
Now that your plan outlines where everything should go, order the specific cables and parts you need. I recommend finding a cheap online source instead of trying to pick up these items locally at retail; since you'll be buying dozens of parts, even small savings per unit will add up. I went with Monoprice.com for everything.
Ethernet cables come with different ratings. Pick Category 5e or better, such as Cat 6. Cat 5e wires support 1000Base-T connections (gigabit), while Cat 6 cables can handle 10-gigabit speeds--but most home computers and other devices don't go that fast, so I saved a little money and picked Cat 5e.
For most situations, unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cables will be fine. If you're wiring a huge house or know that you'll have to run the cables next to electrical wiring and other in-wall hazards, consider using the more expensive shielded twisted-pair (STP) wiring to give the connection better insulation. I picked solid-core cables instead of stranded wires because they work better with the ethernet jacks that I chose.
You can pay more for in-wall rated cables, including plenum cables encased in a fire-retardant jacket. Your local building codes might have a preference, but I opted for standard wiring.
Order spools of cable, likely in 1000-foot amounts. Though your whole job will probably come in at less than 1000 feet, I recommend running at least two spools at a time (I used three) to speed up the process by laying out pairs together.
At each outlet, you'll wire each cable into an ethernet keystone jack. This jack interfaces with a modular, keystone wall plate that lets you insert combinations of RJ45 (ethernet), RJ22 (phone jacks), coaxial (cable TV), and other plugs. Figure out how many wall plates and ethernet jacks you'll need, and order a few extra. I picked Cat 5e jacks again, but if you're wiring for Cat 6, buy those instead.
Finally, though you can screw the wall plates directly into sheetrock if necessary, you'll be better off visiting a hardware store and buying a single-gang cut-in electrical box for outlets you're placing in an existing wall. For open walls, just screw single-gang plaster rings into conveniently located studs; afterward, you'll put sheetrock in front.
Plot the Cable Runs
Before you lay the cable, clear the path in the walls. This part of the project is easiest if your walls are already open for other renovation, as mine were in some cases. Drill a path through the center of your studs, headers, fireblocks, and other beams with a ¾-inch or 1-inch paddle bit.
Be careful: A powerful, two-handed Milwaukee A/C drill (like the one I borrowed from a contractor) may make you feel like a big-time operator--but after you try to bore a hole with the drill is set on reverse--and wonder why it's not working--your ego will regain its natural dimensions.
In many areas, I drilled multiple sets of holes so that I could fit multiple bundles of cable. You'll want to keep them close together in most situations, except where doing so might weaken critical structures such as ceiling joists; in such cases, space the holes a few inches apart.
Drilling overhead? It may be hard to look cool while wearing goggles, but it's even harder to do while trying to remove tiny fragments of your house from your eye. Protect your eyes!
Avoid electrical wiring as much as possible. AC cables can interfere with ethernet if you run them together. Also, try to route the ethernet into its own wall bay. If that's not possible, try to keep it 6 inches or so away from the AC wiring. Your cabling will probably have to cross the AC wiring at some point; but in those situations, try to do it at a 90-degree angle.
In places where your walls are closed, you'll have to break into them. You've had your eye on that "Bay Leaf" and "Cornbread" Martha Stewart Living Paint, right?
For plaster walls (which are the type I dealt with), use the claw end of a hammer to score a horizontal line for your path. Use moderate force to chip in; then go back over the path with heavier swings, trying to break just a strip free. In most situations, you'll work near the baseboard, where the outlets will end up.
Underneath the plaster, break, cut, or pry back the lath strips along your path. Doing so will reveal the studs and fireblocks that you'll have to drill through.
For sheetrock walls, use a sheetrock saw to cut a 5-inch strip parallel to the baseboard. (You might be able to cut multiple, smaller holes and then use a hanger to pass the wire along, but in any event you need to get to the studs.) Drill your path through the exposed studs. If you encounter insulation, push it back and work in front of it.
Run the Cables
With the path cleared, run the cables through your house. Organise the spools - preferably you have two of them - so that they're upright and the cable can come out easily. For multiple spools of wire, place the end of the second cable a few inches below the first, and wrap electrical tape around it, thereby bundling them together. Repeat this process with additional cables if needed.
Label everything as best as you can; doing this will save time later. Wrap a certain color of tape around the end of each wire, number it, or identify it in whatever way works for you. Do the same with the box that it spools out of.
Gently pull the cables through your walls. While the cables are resilient, excess crimping and bending can damage them. If you have a helper available, position that person at the spools, so they can guard against snags and kinks as the cable unspools. As you pull out multiple cables, tape them together every 4 feet or so to help keep them untangled.
Leave a couple feet of slack at the outlet end; you can cut that back later. Before you trim the ends at the spools, label the cables once again.
After running all of the cabling, attach everything within the walls. For this purpose, I nailed a Velcro cable tie to the stud, and wrapped it around the bundles. Keep the cables neat and taut, especially if you're attaching sheetrock around them. You don't want the cables to be pinched.
Wire It Up
Next you need to wire the cables. Let's start with the ethernet keystone jacks. Cut the excess slack back to about 1 foot (but keep your labeling system intact).
Strip about an inch of the outer jacket off of the cable. Make a slight notch in the remaining jacket, and tear another inch off, without using any additional tools. If your cables have a pull-string inside, that can help. Trim off that hanging piece of jacket. Your objective is to reveal an un-nicked length of cable. (Look closely at where you first stripped the jacket, and you'll probably see that you grazed at least one of the ethernet wires.)
Untwist the pairs of ethernet wire, and bend them into straight lengths. I like to hold the base in one hand while firmly pulling with the other, sliding the second hand over the length of wire.
Push the wires into your ethernet keystone jack to match the colour-coordinated pattern marked on it. I used the T568B color scheme, which is designed for residential installations. Move the jacketed part of the cable as far into the jack as possible.
Set the keystone jack on a solid surface, and push the wires into place with a 110 punch-down tool. It'll crunch down in much the same way that a stapler does. Some punch-down tools have a cutting edge; if yours does, make sure that it faces out. Otherwise, trim the excess wires, and put caps on the jack as provided. My jacks also included a small zip tie to keep the ethernet cable snug.
If your labelling system has survived this long, you can connect the other ends to your patch port in the network closet. This ethernet box includes the interface for these loose wires and connects to its own built-in jack for each cable; at that point, you'll run patch cables to the rest of your networking hardware.
The wiring process on that end is about the same as for the individual keystone jacks. If you can't identify all of the wires--as happened to me--you might want to start by connecting that end to an ethernet plug, test the circuit, and rewire it wherever you want to put the patch panel.
You can buy an ethernet tester for about $25, but I decided to save a few dollars by making my own, which essentially involved wiring LED circuits to loop through pairs of wires. If each ethernet plug is connected correctly, the four LEDs light up. If any one of the wire pairs is faulty, the corresponding LED won't light up.
After everything is working, patch your walls, touch up the paint, and connect your network. You can turn excess cable--and scraps--into patch cables, so you won't waste any parts. Need help getting your computers to play nicely on your new network? Check out "Set Up Your Home Network, Windows 7 Edition."