A How-to Guide: Working the retrofit market
A retrofit job can actually be performed at less cost than a new home installation. One big advantage of retrofits is that the job schedule from start to finish is usually measured in days rather than months. All materials needed for the job can be ordered at the same time, yet there's no need to inventory parts from the time the rough-in wiring is completed until the walls are finished and trim-out can begin.
The major advantage of retrofit compared to new construction is that retrofit jobs typically require fewer trips to the job site, which means less dead time and greater savings in terms of manpower and equipment usage.
You can often collect full payment for the job within days of starting it, rather than having to wait 30 or 45 days from issuing a bill to a builder like in the case of a new home. This improved cash flow can be a real cost savings.
If an installation will take 24 man-hours, it will likely be most efficient to use a three-man crew and complete the installation in one day with one trip. However, if the installation requires different skill sets or s on a timeline that requires multiple trips, the crew size should be adjusted. Generally, it is most efficient to minimize your trips to each job, to size your crews based upon their skill sets and performance and to minimize unproductive "orphan hours", which are typically one or two hours left in a day that can't be used to start the next installation. In most cases, two or more installers working together on a retrofit job will be much more efficient than a single installer.
Several precautions must be taken at the pre-wire stage. To maintain the high-bandwidth capacity of Cat 5e cables, it is necessary to avoid excessive pulling force, snagging, kinking and sharp turns, and to maintain a minimum bending radius of about 2 inches. Most Cat-type cables have a maximum pulling force of about 25 pounds, but you should always check the individual manufacturer's guidelines.
Signals from electrical power wires can interfere with the signals in the structured wiring cables if they are not separated. Each type should be run through its own holes and pathways and structured wiring should cross electrical wiring at a 90-degree angle if possible.
Although extended faceplates may combine both high-voltage (electrical) and low-voltage (communications) outlets, under no circumstances should electrical and communications cables share a single gang box.
If the wiring retrofit is part of a remodeling job involving open walls, be sure that the wire is protected during the remainder of construction, particularly during the installation of the drywall. Of particular concern is protecting the wires at the outlet locations from the saws and router bits used to cut the outlet openings n the drywall and from errant nails when the drywall is being secured to the studs. If a nail pierces a wire, it will likely cause a short or other performance problem. All excess cables and wires at the outlet, speaker and central distribution-device locations should be neatly secured and protected while remaining accessible for trim-out.
Performance and aesthetics are the primary drivers during the trim-out phase. To ensure the highest level of performance, remove only as much of the outer sheath of the cables as is necessary to terminate the individual wires. Care should be taken, particularly when pushing excess cable back into the wall or outlet box, not to exceed the minimum bend radius of the cable, which may result in a kink or short. The minimum radius is usually 10 times the outer diameter of the cable, or about 2 inches for Cat-rated cables.
All cables should be properly terminated to connectors, plugs or jacks, using the manufacturer's recommended tools. You should not crimp an F-connector onto an RG-6 coaxial cable with a pair of pliers, not untwist the wires or wire pairs more than ½ inch for Cat-rated cables.
The services delivered to most homes that benefit from structured wiring include local phone service, long-distance phone service, high-speed Internet (broadband access), cable television-based services and satellite television. Delivery is accomplished by one or more of the following: wires or cables run to the side of the home, a satellite signal beamed to a receiver mounted on the exterior of the home and broadcast signals that can be received by external or internal antennas.
Regarding documentation, at a minimum, you should provide the homeowner with all of the manufacturer's user manuals and a description of what you installed in the home. Additionally, many installers create their own user manuals to explain how the products and systems work, what custom features and programming may have been installed, how to connect standard devices such as TVs, VCRs, DVDs, and telephones and how to troubleshoot any problems.
THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB
Investment in good-quality tools will be recouped many times over. The exact tools depend upon a number of factors, including the number of installers on the site, whether you are going to focus on new construction or retrofit markets and the types of products and systems that you plan o install.
Start with the basics-for example, some good drills, drill bits, cable strippers, termination tools and testing tools. Plan on spending $500 to $1,000 per installation crew as a start. As your skills and business volume increase, you can add to your tools.
Specialized tools allow you to substantially reduce the time needed to fish and pull the wires in a retrofit installation, and help to minimize the size and number of holes needed in finished walls and ceilings, which have to be patched and repaired in order to finish the job. Good-quality tools are relatively inexpensive and quickly pay for themselves in the time saved on just a few jobs. For example, long flexible drill bits and fiberglass rods-both of which can be extended by adding 4- or 6-foot sections-are indispensable for many retrofit jobs. Callbacks, extra time to fish wires through walls, repairing sheetrock and painting could quickly eat into your profits if you do not have the right tools for the job.
WHAT'S BEHIND THOSE WALLS?
Knowing what is behind the walls requires knowledge of home construction and framing techniques and the observation of visual clues, such as electrical outlets, central-vacuum ports, air handling registers and returns, and plumbing fixtures on floors above and below. It also requires inspection of attics, basements and crawl spaces when available, and the use of electronic scanning tools that can detect studs, metal, live electrical wires and other items that may be present.
Reference points are critical in retrofit installations and are useful during the trim-out stages of new home installations. Reference points are used to lineup wire pulls, ensure that the hole drilled in the attic will access the exact stud cavity where the outlet or speaker is located, as well as ensure that wires hidden behind walls can be easily found. Reference points also are useful in determining which pathways can be used and which ones present obstacles such as plumbing lines and air handling ducts.
It is a good idea to perform basic testing at the completion of rough-in and/or immediately after the drywall is installed. This will verify that the wiring behind the wall was installed properly and not damaged. If a problem is found, now is the best time to fix it. After trim-out, full system testing may be performed, as all connections will be made and no more work will be done on the installed wiring.
If desired, sophisticated testing can be done to document each cable's performance, and printed records can be created to trouble-shoot any problems that may occur in the future.
To not test at all is risky. Just as you wouldn't finish a house before leak-testing the plumbing and fixtures, it would be unwise not to perform at least basic testing on the structured wiring. No installer is perfect 100 percent of the time, and even the best drywall installers miss the studs occasionally with a nail. Testing will provide peace of mind and help to find any problems before the customers do.
Basic testing for shorts, mismatched wires or loose connectors should add little time if the crew is properly equipped and trained. If an extra visit to the house or advanced testing is required, several more hours will be added to the job, and a more highly trained technician may be needed to perform the testing.
STANDARDS OF QUALITY
There is no national certification available today for residential structured wiring installers. Some individual manufacturers will issue certifications for their products, and trade associations will certify that you have received certain levels of training.
The Federal Communications Commission enacted a ruling that became effective in July 2000, requiring that all new installations of residential copper telephone wiring, whether in new or existing buildings, must be installed in a star or home-run configuration, using Cat-type cable (Cat 5e being most commonly used today).
Standards are important because they lead to uniform design and installation practices. While the TIA/EIA-570 standard is not a law or building code, it provides a uniform platform for manufacturers
to design structured wiring, communications devices and electronics. It allows products from multiple vendors to be mixed and matched without degrading system performance, and it allows installation and support personnel to know where to look for things and how to troubleshoot problems. In fact, this standard is in essence a definition of what structured wiring entails.
By following the recommended solution of two Cat 5e cables and two RG-6 quad-shield cables to every major living area of the home, you provide your customers with the foundation and flexibility to accommodate most communications needs they have. The standard also provides basic design guidelines and application performance expectations. You would be wise to ensure that products and installations comply with this standard.