Wire This Old House - Part 2

One of the fun things about home ownership is popping off random boards and panels only to discover that your house is full of surprises. Sometimes those surprises are unfortunate, like water or termite damage. Other times, those surprises are awesome, like realizing that your house was already full of CAT5E networking cable. During the house inspection, we pulled a wall panel down and found a zero point (where all of the cables converge to interface with networking hardware) in the laundry room and when I went I checked behind some of the blank plates, I found multiple unterminated connections. You know what this means? Time to terminate! Caveat emptor: I have never done more than crimp a couple of RJ-45 terminations. Punch-down panels and wall terminations were entirely new to me.

Check the Cables

First things first, I needed to know what cables in the zero point went where and how many I had. There was also a bunch of coax and old alarm system wires that I had no interest in using (yet). I ordered a cheap cable tester off of Amazon and pulled off all of the blank plates in each room. Listening to the tones and doing some quick math I quickly realized that only one of the two cables in each room terminated at the laundry room zero point. Further investigation revealed where the other half ran: the garage. I cannot for the life of me fathom why I would want two zero points or why I would want to store networking hardware in a hot garage. There was also one cable that connected the two zero points, so I isolated that one and pulled the rest up through the attic and re-dropped them to the laundry room.

Planning Considerations

The goods.The goods. Now that I knew what cabling I was working with, it was time to decide on equipment. After measuring the hole in the wall, it looked like it was perfectly sawed open to size for a Leviton SMC (Structured Media Cabinet), so I ordered that and a Leviton punch-down panel. I also realized that I needed power inside of the enclosure, so I ordered a Leviton dual outlet panel with built-in surge protection (overkill; halfway through the build, I ended up putting in a Tripp-Lite Uninterruptible Power Supply). There was a light switch just a few inches away with plenty of room on the circuit to wire it in. After reading Lee Hutchinson’s Review on Ars Technica, I decided that this was the perfect excuse to dive into commercial-grade wireless access points; a pair of Wireless AC long-range models (UAP-AC-LR), in this case (overkill, but I like having extra power available, if unnecessary). With that in mind, I also needed a switch that supported PoE (Power-over-Ethernet), so I ordered an inexpensive Netgear ProSafe, though that wasn’t going to be the end of that.

The Leviton SMC and outlet box.The Leviton SMC and outlet box.

The Leviton punch-down panel. It has a great design and is super-easy to use.The Leviton punch-down panel. It has a great design and is super-easy to use.

Building the Zero Point

So many wires... including the power lines. Don’t touch those hot power wires!So many wires… including the power lines. Don’t touch those hot power wires! I pulled the light switch and ran the power cable through first; it was tough fitting all of the wiring back inside of the gang box. Running the wire inside of the wall (even through just a short distance) was a nerve-wracking headache, though at least there was already a hole in the stud from where somebody had a similar setup previously (probably related to the security system wiring).I may have also broken a bit of drywall in the process (not shown), but hey… it’s just a laundry room. Most of the hole was covered by the light switch plate anyway.

As an important note, I’m not a trained/licensed electrician, but I made sure to read up on the local codes and make sure I was using the correct wire, etc. As always, make sure that the circuit is cold before working on it. If you have any doubts, hire a qualified electrician. Also, always check your work with a multimeter:

120(ish) volts... it’s working!120(ish) volts… it’s working!

Wire It Up! Wire It Up!

Ready to terminate!Ready to terminate! Now that we’ve got the power handled, it’s time to get to business. I wanted to keep things as clean as possible, so I took some extra time using zip ties on the security system wiring and coax cable, even though they won’t be used anytime soon. Eventually, I shoved both up as far towards the top as I could to make room for all of the gear I was cramming into this thing. The Leviton punch-down panel has a nice set of hooks on the front that let you hang it inside of the cabinet with the cabling punch-down points exposed.

Getting it all punched down.Getting it all punched down. You may have noticed that all of the cables were already terminated with RJ-45 jacks, but I decided a punch-down panel would be much cleaner and easier to organize, so I clipped those off and set to work.

Looking closer, you can see how nicely-labeled everything is. Whether you go with T-568A or T-568B, make sure you’re consistent. The panel has nice (reversible) labels, depending on which standard you decide on. Just remember, if you mix them, you’ll have some nice crossover cables, but that’s not going to be very useful for most situations. I did buy a decent punch-down tool, but the little plastic one that came with the panel was actually just about perfect for my situation, though the softness of the plastic meant that it was just about totaled by the end of the project; figures.

All done in here... for now. Much cleaner.All done in here… for now. Much cleaner.

Terminating at the Wall.

TERMINATE ALL THE THINGS!TERMINATE ALL THE THINGS!If you’ll recall, all I had at the walls were blank plates hiding unterminated cables (though the coax was terminated, saving me some work), so a quick order to got me a ton of keystone jacks and plates. I also ordered a bunch of short networking cables, because while I don’t mind terminating my own cabling, one-to-three-foot runs are stupid cheap to buy pre-made and save a lot of trouble. The RJ-45 keystone jacks were nicely-labeled, making the terminations a snap, though still a bit tedious.The game room termination looks nice.The game room termination looks nice. Even though I didn’t yet have any plans for them, I still added the coax keystone jacks. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get the urge to add satellite television or something weird. I’d rather do the job right once than have to do the whole thing over again. Eight rooms and some battered fingers later, all of the room terminations were done. I made sure to use the line tester to double-check all of the connections and annotate which punch-down panel spots correlated with which rooms. Later, I’d look to put an adhesive diagram inside of the door (like on a fuse box).

Going Wireless

The Ubiquiti APs all look like space ships.The Ubiquiti APs all look like space ships.Now was the fun part. I learned that hard way that the Netgear PoE switch was the wrong voltage for my Ubiquiti APs (Access Points). Evidently, Ubiquiti often uses a non-standard 12-24 volt PoE, while traditional PoE uses 48 volts. Few companies make 24-volt PoE equipment other than… you guessed it: Ubiquiti, so I picked up a five-port Ubiquiti ToughSwitch. I was able to re-purpose that Netgear switch in my media center, supporting wired connections for two video game consoles, a Mac Mini server, a NAS, and an Apple TV. I know that switches leading to other switches is bad form, but I didn’t feel like it was worth it to run three more drops to the media center just for stuff that’s not really using a lot of heavy simultaneous bandwidth. At most, I might move the NAS (which handles all of the network backups) to a dedicated port.

To clean up my cabinet a bit, I used some of the various (admittedly overpriced) brackets offered by Leviton for their SMCs. Next, I had the AT&T guy come out and “install” the Pace DSL modem (which also begrudgingly handles routing duties on my network). Luckily, I had also identified which piece of networking cable ran to the DSL box on the side of the house and had already connected it. He seemed pretty impressed with the setup after checking a few connections and was gone in minutes.

Alright… now I’ve got real internet. I mounted the APs in their final locations: one in the garage towards the Southeast and the other in the sunroom to the Northwest. I used the short networking cables to bridge the necessary connections between the router, the PoE switch, and the punch-down panel and lo! Everything lit up fine. That said, there was still a lot of software configuration and troubleshooting to be done. Commercial APs like Ubiquiti’s are full-featured and badass, but you’d better feel comfortable talking radios, RSSIs, and band options.

Word to the wise: pushing maximum power over your APs is bad for your signal. I had a lot of noise on the network resulting in significant packet loss and systems losing network connectivity until I dropped the power on both APs and used the band-steering function to push devices over to 5 GHz. Since then, the connectivity has been amazing! Virtually no down-time (even during a power outage, thanks to the Tripp-Lite UPS) and a great signal even across most of our property!

The finished cabinet! GAZE UPON IT!The finished cabinet! GAZE UPON IT!