Installing a 100Mbps Home Network

Wiring a fast link between your home computers is simple when you follow these step-by-step instructions.

Jim Boyce

May 5, 2002

18 Min Read
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What you need to know before you drill

Many existing home networks work at a maximum of 10Mbps. This speed is adequate for most homes at present, given that their Internet connections (even broadband connections such as cable modem and DSL) operate much more slowly. However, if you're thinking of wiring a new network, you should consider nothing less than 100Mbps Ethernet. Pumping up your network can do wonders for large file copies, network games, and even mundane tasks such as printing. If you have a very fast Internet connection, boosting network speed can also improve video conferencing and streaming media. And a 100Mbps network gives you room to grow.

Installing a 100Mbps home network isn't a tough job. Even if you've never laid a cable run or crimped a cable end for a connector before—you can do it if you plan properly and use the right tools. You won't spend a mint on materials or tools, either. If you're lucky, you might even be able to borrow some of the tools from your IT department at work. Doing the job right and planning for the future, however, require some preparation.

Cabling Considerations

Before you buy an inch of cable or a piece of hardware for your new network, take the time to do some serious evaluation and planning. If you have an existing 10Mbps network that uses Category 5 cable, you don't need to rewire—Cat 5 cable supports 100Mbps speeds. You only need to upgrade your systems' network adapters and hub to support 100Mbps.

What about other networking options you might have heard about, such as those that use your home's electrical or phone wiring? These options typically don't exceed 10Mbps. Most current wireless technology is limited to 11Mbps, although a new technology increases that speed to 72Mbps. If these speeds are adequate for you, see the sidebar "4 Other Ways to Wire Your Home," for more information about wired and wireless networking alternatives.

However, if you want 100Mbps and you don't have a Cat 5 network in place, you need to wire one. Several companies, including Cisco Systems and D-Link Systems, have announced 1Gbps technology that works over Cat 5 cabling, so installing a Cat 5 network now will let you upgrade to a 1Gbps network later without the cost and installation difficulties posed by fiber. Current home broadband Internet connections aren't fast enough to derive any benefit from 100Mbps, let alone 1Gbps, and 1Gbps technology isn't very cost effective for home users. However, both of those limitations will change over time, giving 100Mbps Cat 5 copper users a good upgrade path to 1Gbps speeds.

Patch panel with a cable TV and an RJ-45 jack

Your first planning step is to decide where you want your network connections. Put connections in obvious places such as your home office or family room near your existing computers, but also consider connections in rooms where you currently don't have computers. For example, you might not have a computer in your living room now, but down the road, you might want to install a multimedia PC or Web-enabled appliance in your entertainment center and might regret not having a connection in place. Sketch your floor plan and note on your sketches where you want each connection to be. Add rough room dimensions to your sketch for cable-length planning. Remember to include additional length for running cable between floors.

The next step is to decide where you'll locate your hub or switch. You'll install cable the same way regardless of which you choose. I'll assume a hub for now but will discuss the pros and cons of a switch shortly. Each cable run starts at the hub and branches to a computer connection, so choosing a central location for the hub can cut down on the amount of cable you need. However, cable is relatively inexpensive, so don't use cable length as the deciding factor in hub placement. When you're deciding on a location for your hub, keep in mind that the hub will have a cable for each networked device. If you have several devices, your hub can quickly become a real rat's nest. If possible, locate the hub in a closet or in the basement where it will be out of sight. Also keep in mind that the hub needs AC power.

Phone cabling is another issue to consider when planning a network. If you're short on phone connections in your home, you can easily pull a phone cable at the same time you pull the network cable and have a phone connection by each network connection. Extra phone connections are a good idea if your area won't see broadband access for a while and you need to continue to use dial-up Internet access. Having a phone extension near your computer is handy (even if you do have a broadband cable or DSL connection) if you ever need to make phone calls for technical support or just like to chat while you're online. Also consider whether you want a cable TV connection near one or more computers, and run that cable at the same time. You might decide later to add a TV card to a computer, and you'll be glad that you have the cable in place.

RJ-45 jack

RJ-45 jack

After you decide where the connections and hub should go, you can estimate how much cable the job will require. Cat 5 cable is limited to 100 meters (roughly 300 feet) per run (i.e., the distance from a hub to a computer). Unless you live in a mansion, no single run in your house will likely exceed 100 meters, but keep the limitation in mind when planning.

You should consider several factors when determining how each cable run will get from point to point. Avoid running cable near electrical wiring. If you must cross electrical wiring, make the network cable cross perpendicular to the wiring to minimize crosstalk and interference, which degrade network performance. Route Cat 5 cables several feet away from fluorescent lighting fixtures where possible for the same reason. Secure cables with wire hangers, wire ties, or wire staples. If you buy a rack to hold the hub and patch panel, use wire ties to bind cables to the rack and relieve strain on the connections to the hub. If using wire staples, be careful not to run the staples through the cable. You don't need to run Cat 5 cables through conduit, and network cables can run as a bundle without concern for crosstalk between them. Don't run Cat 5 cable through ventilation ducts; the cable insulating sheath gives off toxic fumes if it gets hot enough to burn.

Your home's construction type affects how and where you run cables. If you have a one-story house with a basement, you should have little trouble planning your cable runs. Locate the hub in the basement, run the cables along the floor joists, and drill up into walls to run cables to wall receptacles. It's easiest to run cables up into interior partition walls, which in most cases don't have a load-bearing wall under them in the basement. Running cables up into exterior walls can be a little more difficult because the walls rest on the foundation and the house walls aren't usually as thick as the foundation walls. Just make sure you measure accurately and take wall thickness into account before you start drilling, or you'll end up with a 1" hole in your floor the way I did when I rewired my home. If you're not confident of a hole location, drill a small pilot hole with a long, 1/8" drill bit before you make the final hole.

If you have a two-story home with a basement, consider locating the hub in the basement. Your cable runs will be longer but probably simpler than if you try to centrally locate the hub. First-floor runs can go along the basement ceiling and up into first floor walls. For second-floor runs, use interior walls that run all the way to the second floor, such as wet walls (the walls behind your sinks and toilets). In most cases, you can run cable from the basement up through a wet wall all the way to the attic, then down into the second-floor walls. Temporarily remove flush-mounted medicine cabinets for easy access when running cable through bathroom walls. Measure carefully and use pilot holes before you drill final holes from the attic down into second-floor walls.

If your home is built on a slab foundation, finding places to run concealed cables can be more difficult. In a one-story home, consider locating the hub in a closet and drilling a hole in the closet ceiling up into the attic, then route the cables through the attic and down into walls. In a two-story home, locate the hub in a second-floor closet so that you can run cable up into the attic as well as down through the closet floor to the first floor.

In houses with concrete or block walls, run the cables along the surface of the wall and use surface-mounted raceways to conceal them. In rooms with carpet, you can usually run cables along the base of the wall, concealed between the carpet and the baseboard trim. Carefully poke the cable into place with a dull-edged tool such as a spackling knife. Don't run cable under a carpet except along walls where you won't walk or place furniture.

After you decide where each connection will be, where the hub will be, and how you will make each cable run, you can start measuring to determine how much cable you need. Many home-improvement stores now sell Cat 5 cable by the foot or spool, or you can order the cable from computer-supply companies by phone or on the Web. These retailers also offer raceways.

Choosing and Installing Hardware

After planning your cable runs, you can turn your attention to the hardware, tools, and other items you'll need to actually wire your network. First, decide between a hub and a switch. A hub is a plug-in-and-forget-it device and is less expensive than a switch, but it doesn't offer the same level of performance. A hub broadcasts all network traffic, resulting in packet collisions. A switch minimizes collisions and therefore improves performance but is more expensive and requires more configuration and management. If you typically have multiple computers online at one time, want to maximize network performance, and don't mind the additional cost, a switch is the way to go. If you have only a few computers online at one time, save your money and install a hub. You can always swap the hub for a switch later if you need the performance boost. Whichever device you choose, make sure it supports both 10Mbps and 100Mbps connections. You'll likely need to occasionally connect a 10Mbps-only device to the network. Also, make sure the hub or switch offers enough ports for current needs and future expansion.

Each computer will need a 100Mbps network adapter. Most 100Mbps adapters are dual-speed and can switch between 10Mbps and 100Mbps speeds automatically.

Next, decide how you'll connect the cable runs to the hub (or switch). One option is to crimp one end of each cable into a standard, twisted-pair RJ-45 connector, then plug the connector into an RJ-45 jack on the hub. Crimping cables is tedious, however, so consider terminating all the cables to a patch panel with rows of RJ-45 jacks that have punch-down connectors on the back. You connect the cables to the punch-down connectors with a punch-down (impact) tool that presses the wires securely into place. Then, you use premanufactured patch cables with RJ-45 connectors already at both ends to connect each port on the panel to a port on the hub. You'll need several minutes to make a crimped connection but less than a minute to punch down a connection. Using a patch panel adds the expense of the patch panel and patch cables but is much less labor-intensive. You can purchase a wall-mounted rack to hold the patch panel and hub for a first-class installation.

Punch-down tool for attaching network cables to RJ-45 connectors

You also need to decide how to make the connections to the computers. You could simply pull the cables through the unfinished holes in the wall or raceway, crimp the cable ends into connectors, and then plug the connectors directly into the devices, but I don't recommend that approach. Instead, install wall receptacles for the connections and use premanufactured patch cables to connect the computers to the wall jacks. You can use a standard electrical receptacle box for frame walls. Unless you're installing receptacles in new construction, buy the kind of receptacles designed for existing walls. For these, you cut a rectangular hole in the plaster or sheetrock and secure the receptacle in the wall with tabs at the corners or with springy metal plates that expand behind the hole and tighten against the wall at the back of the hole. Carefully measure and cut the hole so that it doesn't end up so large that a box won't stay mounted in it. For concrete and block walls, use a low-profile, surface-mounted receptacle designed to work with the surface-mounted raceway that you select. You can purchase the receptacles from the supplier that provides the raceway.

Along with each receptacle box, you'll need an RJ-45 jack module that mounts into the box. You use the same punch-down tool as mentioned earlier to attach the cable to the back of the module. If you're installing in one location multiple connections, such as several computers or a computer-phone­cable TV combination, you can purchase a combination connector module.

After you've planned your network and estimated the amount of cable required, it's time to make a shopping list of all the supplies you need so that you can purchase them all at the same time. In addition to cable, you need cable hangers, ties, and staples; raceways (if you have concrete walls); RJ-45 connectors (if you're going to crimp cables); RJ-45 jacks, a patch panel, and patch cables (if you're not going to crimp cables); receptacles; RJ-45 jack wall modules; and more patch cables to connect computers to the wall jacks. If you plan to crimp cables to connectors, get the appropriate number of RJ-45 connectors, plus a few extras—you're bound to make a few mistakes. You can purchase all these items from computer retailers (storefront, mail-order, or Web) and home-improvement stores.

You'll also need to borrow or buy a few tools, if you don't already have them. You'll use a sharp utility knife or wire cutter to cut the cable to the right lengths. You'll need a power drill with a long, 3/4" to 1" spade bit if you'll be drilling up or down into walls. You can use a hole saw on the drill to drill larger holes for running multiple cables, such as from a wiring closet up into the attic. After running the cables, fill in the hole with steel wool to keep rodents and other pests out.

If you'll be running cable through walls, you'll also need a fish tape, which is a coil of thin steel about 3/16" wide in a plastic or metal housing that you use to fish, or pull, cables through walls. You can find a fish tape at any building or electrical supply store. You'll also need a reciprocating saw or hand sheetrock saw to cut holes in walls for receptacle boxes. Start the hole with a drill and finish with the saw. For safety's sake when cutting the holes, don't install receptacles near electrical outlets.

RJ-45 wall module

If you plan to crimp cable ends to RJ-45 connectors, you'll need an RJ-45 crimper. If you do need one, try to borrow it from the IT department at work or a local computer dealer (particularly if you only need to crimp a few connections) because crimpers can be expensive. You'll use a punch-down tool to attach cables to the back of the RJ-45 jacks in the patch panel and wall modules. Try to borrow this tool as well to avoid the extra expense.

You can buy an electronic labeler at most department stores for a reasonable price. Use it to print patch-panel labels that identify the source for each cable; wrap the label around the cable if you aren't using a patch panel.

Another gadget you should try to borrow is a tone generator. This device is optional but can be handy for identifying cables in a bundle. It consists of a sending unit that plugs into an RJ-45 wall jack and a handheld device that emits a noise when it comes into proximity with the other end of the cable. The tone generator will help you easily determine which cable at the patch panel or hub comes from which room. If you can't borrow a tone generator, use the low-tech method: As you run each cable, mark both ends of the cable with a unique number or identifying mark to help you tell at a glance which cable is which.

Inside the Wiring Closet

As I mentioned earlier, when you're using saws or drills, be aware of any electrical wiring in the vicinity to make sure you don't cut or drill through a wire. Keep safety in mind at all times. To start the wiring job, position the hub or switch in the desired location. If you're using a rack to hold the hub and patch panel, mount it. Then, install the wall receptacles. Run cable from the hub location to each receptacle in turn, cutting the cable with the wire cutter and leaving an excess of at least 6" at the receptacle and at least 6" at the hub end or the back of the patch panel. You can always cut a cable shorter, but you can't stretch it.

Before you can attach a cut cable to an RJ-45 connector or jack, you must remove the insulating sheath from the cable end. Use the wire cutter to remove about an inch of the sheath. You'll find a thin cord inside the wire bundle. Hold the wires and pull this zip cord down the cable to strip off another 2" of insulation, then carefully cut off the excess insulation with a knife, being careful not to nick or slice the wires or remove the insulation from them. Don't untwist the wires at all at this point—the twists reduce crosstalk in the wires and untwisting them can result in reduced network performance.

If you want to crimp the connection, cut the wires 1/2" from the insulating sheath, untwist the wires, and match the wires with the pins as Table 1 shows. To locate pin 1, hold the connector with the conductors facing you and the retaining clip on top. Pin 1 will be at the left side of the connector. Insert all the wires into the RJ-45 connector, and crimp. Make sure you capture the insulation in the connector. After crimping about three of these connectors, you'll wish you'd purchased a patch panel.

If you did buy a patch panel with RJ-45 jacks, you can punch down the cable end instead of crimping it. Remove about 2" of insulation as explained earlier. The punch-down posts at the back of the jacks are color-coded. Pick a post to start with, locate the matching wire pair, and spread the two wires of the twisted pair 1/8" or so apart about an inch away from the insulation without untwisting the wires. Slip the spread wire pair over the post, orienting the solid and striped wires as indicated on the posts, and punch the wire pair down with the punch-down tool. Note that one side of the punch-down tool has a blade on it that cuts off the excess wire when you punch it down, so orient the tool properly before punching it down. Repeat the process until you've punched down all four wire pairs. Punch down the remaining cables.

The Finishing Touches

After you've run all the cables, plug them into the hub. If you're using a patch panel, plug the patch cables into the hub or switch and patch panel. Install the 10Mbps/100Mbps network adapters in the computers and connect them to their wall jacks with patch cables. If using a switch that requires configuration, read the switch manual and determine what configuration changes you need to make. Configure the computers with the appropriate protocols and settings. When everything is ready, fire up your computers and start enjoying the performance benefits of 100Mbps Ethernet.

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