Future-Proofing Your Home – Is it Possible?
By Wayne Caswell
This article was first published in March 2000 at HomeToys.com.
OK, you’re building a new home or remodeling an older one and worry that your pride and joy might become obsolete before your 30 year mortgage is paid for. So, you ask how to prepare it for the future. That’s an especially good question considering how slowly home designs have changed and how quickly technology and digital convergence have advanced. To get an idea of the pace of these advancements, look at the personal computer industry over its 20 years.
A Quick PC History
Technology advancement since IBM announced its PC in 1981 has been impressive enough on its own, but the pace is accelerating, and the technology is finding its way into everyday objects. This trend will continue and will have a profound effect on future home networking requirements.
A Quick Wiring History
Occasionally, older homes have had to adapt to new and disruptive technologies, and that often required fishing wires through walls, ceilings, attics and basements.
Electricity -- At the turn of the century, homes were retrofitted with wiring so electric lights could replace gas and oil burning lamps, and central heating could replace coal-fired furnaces. That wiring was a physical extension of a service provider’s power lines and was terminated with an electric meter at the point closest to the power lines.
Telephone -- The physical wiring for phone service was also an extension of a service provider’s infrastructure. The phone company fed copper wires through a window or wall into the kitchen or living room where the phone was.
Television -- Early TV sets used an external antenna mounted on the roof or on the TV itself. Then to deliver better signal quality and more channels, cable companies fed coaxial cable into the living room where the TV was, initially focusing on geographic markets poorly served by broadcast networks and eventually serving more than 65% of US homes. Today, new homes are pre-wired with coaxial cable in several rooms. This cable can carry 50-100 TV channels, but then along came satellite TV with the ability to broadcast over 200 channels. Since the coax installed for cable TV lacks the capacity to support so many channels, consumers had to run newer and better quality cabling.
A Structured Wiring Experience
It’s not clear that any of today’s advanced wiring systems will outlast a 30-year mortgage, but even if flawed, they can help and are probably justified in new homes.
I thought ahead when my family moved from Dallas to Austin six years ago and built a new home. I tried to follow the wiring recommendations of the CEBus Industry Council and specified the type of wire to be used and the wiring topology, but the builder resisted at first. He didn’t understand the technology, was afraid to let me bring in my own contractors, and worried about home warranty issues and what might happen if the house failed to close.
Today, at least six of the top Austin homebuilders offer advanced wiring systems either as a standard feature or an option. The home systems industry has come a long way since I built my home, and many lessons were learned the hard way.
I look at my experience and the inadequacies of my home’s wiring as an incentive to learn about new technologies that can solve the problems cheaper than digging into walls. No matter how well you plan or what expert advise you get, you “will” make wiring mistakes and your needs will change over time, especially 30 years time. Count on it.
Lifestyles Will Change
Lifestyles change as kids grow older or go off to college, and you may want to move your home office. I moved mine, for example, from one room with more than enough electrical outlets on separate circuits, to another room where I installed new outlets but didn’t install new circuit breakers.
New Device Types Will Emerge
Some new devices have changed the thinking of home networking experts. Six years ago they said to put bedroom phone outlets by the bed and TV outlets across the room. But they didn’t anticipate interactive program guides or NetTV devices that require both a phone and TV outlet. So today they put a phone outlet by every TV outlet. Still, no one can fully anticipate future wiring needs, and that’s the message of this article.
Sensors -- Since the costs of digital signal processors and advanced image sensors are falling so quickly, you may soon want to disperse surveillance cameras, far-field microphones, and other sensors throughout your home. With these devices, intelligent agents could keep tabs on the environment, learn your habits, and act on your behalf. Within 10 years, homes will be able to visually recognize people and respond to their voice commands or gestures. But how will the sensor devices be networked since few people will have run wires to the ceiling corners? They will likely be battery operated and use wireless networks.
Ordinary Devices Will Get Smart and Networked
White Goods -- It’s already happening with the smart refrigerator (by both Whirlpool and Frigidair) and microwave oven (by Panasonic). But just as it doesn’t make sense to run new wires to the washing machine or dishwasher, it won’t make sense to put radio transceivers in appliances with metal bodies that trap the signals inside. And it won’t make sense to put a 2.4GHz radio inside of a microwave oven that would itself cause interference. So, most appliances will probably be networked using electrical power lines that don’t require any special wiring. They will stay plugged in for power anyway.
Smart Toilet -- In Japan, Panasonic sells a very popular smart toilet that learns who you are by estimating your weight and percent body fat and then chemically analyzes your output and reports it to a health monitoring service. If these toilets come to America, they hopefully won’t need A/C power or we might redefine the term “killer app.”
Flat Panel TV -- Even TV screens, which have become larger and are now built into entertainment centers, are changing. They’re getting flat to take up less space or to hang on the wall. You might need to add a coax and power outlet in the middle of the wall for the flat TV. And if we think out 10 years or so, we can expect to see video walls where such outlets would get in the way. So, consider running the wire and leaving it unterminated behind the wall, just in case.
New Wire Types are Expected
Coax – Today’s experts recommended using RG-6 coaxial cable to carry hundreds of TV channels from satellite receivers to each TV, instead of the RG-59 cable once used for cable TV. But since TVs can’t display (and people can’t watch) more than a few channels simultaneously, why do we need the extra bandwidth? We’re moving towards true video-on-demand where you’ll have access to thousands or even millions of video sources and will be able to watch any of them at any time. In that scenario, we’ll need less bandwidth and may not need advanced cabling.
Phone & Data Networking – Most structured wiring systems use category-5 twisted pair phone wiring instead of the older Cat-3. Cat-5 can support Ethernet 100baseT at speeds of 100Mbps. But since a newer Cat-5e and Cat-6 wire can support 1Gbps, I recommend installing this slightly more expensive wire.
Fiber Optic Cabling – It’s recommended by some experts, but not by me because the standards groups haven’t decided on glass or plastic fiber or on which connector to use. And anyway, Cat-5e phone wiring offers plenty of bandwidth for even aggressive 10-year scenarios. To prepare for the longer term, however, I recommend installing empty conduit to make it easily to run new wires later if needed.
Gateways Will Facilitate Convergence
Computer technology is making it easy for service providers to upgrade analog networks to digital, thus improving efficiencies and their ability to carry different types of signals – phone, music, TV and data. But most devices are still analog, so at least until both home wiring and devices catch up and all become digital, residential gateways will be needed to separate the digital services and route them to analog devices over existing home wiring. Gateways can be installed in new homes near the structured wiring hub or where all of the services terminate, but that’s not so easy in older homes. There, phone, TV and electric wiring come in from different places.
Technology Will Come to the Rescue
There are some 100 million old or existing homes in the U.S., compared with just a few hundred thousand new homes with structured wiring added each year. That’s a huge retrofit opportunity for home networking without special wiring. Since service providers don’t want to limit their opportunity to only those new homes, they’re pushing development of home networks based on installed phone wiring, electrical power lines and wireless radio technologies. These new technologies can replace the need for advanced wiring in older homes and can enhance a structured wiring system in newer ones.
Phone Line Networking – The first of these new technologies, HomePNA, inserts Ethernet data networking signals onto the same pair of wires already used for your phone. HomePNA uses a set of frequencies that does not interfere with phone calls or ADSL signals. Today's HomePNA products support speeds up to 32Mbps and are backward compatible with older HomePNA products. The group expects to eventually support 100Mbps over existing phone wires. The downfall of home phone line networking, however, is the relatively limited availability of phone outlets.
Power Line Networking – A/C power line networking holds promise because of the ubiquitous availability of wall outlets and the new HomePlug standard, which supports speeds up to 14Mbps today and includes a future vision of up to 100Mbps.
Wireless Networking – The popularity of wireless networks will increase as prices fall and devices get smaller and more portable. Networks based on Wi-Fi (the IEEE's 802.11b specification) already support wireless data networking at up to 11Mbps. Emerging wireless standards will go even faster, with 802.11a-based products coming to market with speeds up to 108Mbps and future products based on Ultra Wideband going even faster.
Ethernet Networking – Even with the alternative no-new-wires technologies, the fastest, cheapest and most reliable way to network devices is with advanced wiring. Ethernet cards cost less than $20, and it’s easy to run cat-5e wiring around a home office or into adjacent rooms. With structured wiring systems, the entire house can be networked.
It’s really not possible to future proof your home, due to rapid advancements in computing and communications technologies. But there are things that will help you accommodate change, including structured wiring systems and no-new-wires technologies.
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