Does your organization contract out its cabling work, or is most of it done in house? In either case, you should know how to choose the cabling components and tools for any kind of installation. And, while most vendors are trustworthy, it’s important to watch over their shoulders and make sure that the equipment they choose is up to standards and that the work that they do is satisfactory. For that you need to know what to look for and how to choose the right equipment for your infrastructure. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll take a look at some of the components you need to know about.

Key components
While it’s often overlooked as a minor detail, choosing the right components can make a huge difference in your network. The decisions you make can mean the difference between a network that just gets the job done and one that works well today and is also ready for tomorrow.

I prefer to do a job once, possibly paying a little more up front, and not have to worry about it later when I need to upgrade a connection or add a new device to the network. The first rule is simple: the lowest bid is not always your best choice. Even though it’s a cliché, it’s often true: You get what you pay for.

The backbone of a network is built around these key components:

  • The network cable
  • The patch panel
  • The network jack
  • The gang box

Network cable is too complicated to completely cover it in this Daily Drill Down. Instead, we’ll dedicate a separate Daily Drill Down to selecting the proper cabling. For now, let’s look at the remaining components in turn.

The patch panel
There isn’t much to look for in patch panels, but it’s important to check what there is. For example, check the rating. Is the panel rated for Category (Cat) 5, 5e, or the new Cat 6? In today’s networks, you should consider patch panels and remote jacks that meet Cat 5e ratings at a minimum.

Cat 5e rated cabling and components undergo more rigorous testing than Cat 5 installations, such as tests for far end crosstalk (FEXT) and return loss. Another reason to use Cat 5e components, cabling, and installation is because Cat 5e supports gigabit Ethernet applications. With the original Cat 5 standards, the tests that are specific for a cabling plant to be deemed ”gigabit Ethernet ready” are not performed.

While most people associate cable with different categories, all of the components in the overall system must meet the specifications for the entire system to rate a certain category. Your overall network is only as fast as your slowest component. So, if you purchase Cat 5e cable but you only install Cat 3-rated patch panels, your overall network will be limited to Cat 3 speeds—if it will work at all.

Angled jacks are also a good idea in many patch panel installations. You may have seen jacks angled toward the floor in some offices. These types of jacks place less stress on the patch cables that connect to them. As a consequence, they bring greater longevity to the system as a whole, as well as fewer cabling-related problems. Belkin makes a 12-, 24-, and 48-port patch panel system that includes angled connectors.

The use of angled jacks in a patch panel is completely dependent on how you run cabling in your closets. If your patch cables angle downward toward the network equipment, angled patch panels may be useful. If your patch panels go off to the side of the rack and you use cable management to get to the network equipment, then angled patch panels won’t be of much use to you.

The network jack
While it’s important to choose appropriate components at the network center or equipment closets, it’s just as important to choose jacks at the remote end that will help to maintain the quality of your infrastructure. The jacks you choose should conform to the standard you’ve chosen for your overall system.

If you’re using Cat 5e equipment, then use a 5e wall jack as well. While some wall jack components are interchangeable with different faceplates, make sure of this before you buy a lot of both. The jack faceplate will cover the hole in the wall that you make to put up a gang box.

If you decide to run a number of different types of cables to the same jack location, such as telephone and/or video cables, most manufacturers also make RJ-11 or RJ-23 type telephone jack inserts as well as inserts with a cable TV “F” connector, which is the standard cable TV outlet type. If you’re thinking way ahead, you may also be running fiber optic cabling at the same time. You’ll be pleased to know that most manufacturers make matching connectors for fiber optic cables as well.

In addition to the patch panel, you can also get angled connectors for the remote wall jacks, where they’re likely to be more useful. It’s much more likely that the cables in offices will be moved around as people change offices, move furniture, and get new systems, so angled connectors can take some stress off patch cables that see a lot of use.

The gang box/wall connection
Fortunately, there isn’t much to think about when selecting a gang box. A gang box is simply the housing behind the wall where your cabling will go and to which the faceplate will attach. A gang box looks like the housing behind the faceplate on your electrical outlets.

In my cabling jobs, I’ve found it’s normally only feasible to install gang boxes when there’s no drywall up yet. After drywall goes up, it becomes both expensive and difficult to put gang boxes in place. However, almost any electrical or cabling store will have a solution. This solution is basically a piece of metal that bends, or a piece of plastic with teeth. In either case, you simply need to cut a rectangular hole in the wall about the size of the piece of metal or plastic and insert the metal or plastic piece into the hole. With the metal units, you generally bend a piece of the metal around the back of the drywall to hold the unit in place. With a plastic unit, there are three pieces—the first piece is the housing, while the other two are small pieces that you place over the teeth that keep it connected to the wall. The entire purpose of these solutions is to give you something to screw a faceplate to. Without one of these, you’d have to screw directly into the drywall, and that can be problematic.

For the height of the box, it’s useful to know the height of the electrical boxes that surround it. Even if the box is not a standard height off the ground, it will look much better when finished if it matches the height of the electrical boxes near it. To exactly match the height, you can use a tape measure or a tool such as the Siemon Wall Box Locator.

Don’t forget permits and building codes!
In some areas, you need a permit to install network, cable TV, and telephone cabling and components. In most areas, a low voltage installation permit will suffice. If you don’t get a permit and later have a problem or want to sell your house or building, you may have difficulty, so be careful and check this out before you begin. Always make sure your installations meet building codes. This is especially important for liability reasons.

Tools you’ll need
Obviously, if you’re planning to hire a contractor for all of your cabling work, you don’t need any specialized tools. If, however, you decide to do the installation work yourself, or if you just want to be able to quickly and properly run a cable now and then, there are a few tools that can make the job much easier and more likely to succeed. Some of the tools you should have at your disposal are:

  • Hammer:  An essential tool for everything from replacing watch batteries and building houses to dealing with uncooperative coworkers, a hammer makes it easier to nail a gang box to a stud in network installation jobs where there is no drywall present yet.
  • Screwdriver: Used to secure the patch panel to a rack and to secure faceplates to the wall. Also useful when you make a mistake and need to separate one of the RJ-45 snap-ins from the faceplate.
  • 110 punch tool:  While most patch panels will come with a small plastic punch tool, I highly recommend buying a professional-grade unit. It is much sturdier, and it’ll keep you from ruining your fingers when you slip. You can get a decent punch tool for around $50.
  • Cutters: For trimming the ends of cables.
  • Network cable tester: In order to know that your cable plant is going to work, you need to test the cables afterwards, and you’ll need this tool to do it.
  • Cabling certification tool: If you’re a professional who installs network cabling for a living, it’s critical to be able to certify that the cabling plants that you install are up to the job and to be able to prove that it is indeed category 5e and gigabit ready. If you’re managing a very large cabling plant or are a cabling contractor, these are must-have devices.

The 110 punch tool

You may have seen some tools in the list that you’re not immediately familiar with, such as the 110 Punch Tool. The reason for the name ”110” is this—the patch panel that you use in networks uses a 110-type wiring interface. Individual network cables are placed at specific locations and then “punched” into the unit. “Punching” simply strips a small portion of the wire and pushes it deep into the patch panel grooves so that it makes contact with the metal and can transmit an electrical signal. Some punch tools also come with a 66-type punch head, which is commonly used in telephone/voice applications.

For network cable testers, my favorite cabling tester is the Microscanner Pro from Fluke. It’s fairly inexpensive. Besides testing continuity to make sure that all of the cable pairs are intact and working, it verifies the length of the cable to make sure that you’re within specifications. It also includes a wire-mapping adapter that can help you to verify that your cables are wired properly. This unit costs around $350, but it’s worth it because it considerably reduces the time it takes to troubleshoot network problems and test your installations.

When it comes to cable certification tools, the Fluke OMNIScanner 2 is one of my personal favorites. It’s capable of doing basic certification as well as producing reports that you can pass on to your clients. But be prepared to spend some money: These devices start in the low $5,000 range, and you can add options on top of it.

Don’t get tied up in knots about cabling
While you may not actually be installing cable yourself, it’s important to know how it’s done so that you know what things will cost and can monitor contractors’ work. If you do some of the work yourself, you definitely need to know how to do it right. Don’t buy what’s cheapest—buy what’s best for your network and what best meets your needs.