Why Rated Plenum Cabling for Your Office

    Computer network consists of seven layers. At the bottom, providing the foundation for everything, is the so-called physical layer, which means cabling. A good cable plant is a dream. A bad one is a nightmare.

    Cat6 Cabling

    Today’s networks usually employ UTP (unshielded twisted pair) cable. It resembles, but should never be confused with, telephone cable. The tight twist of each pair is tightly spec’d and is what gives it noise immunity. For most data networks, Category 5e or 6 rated UTP cable is used. Our recommendation is that in new construction, all communication cable, whether intended for data or voice, should be at least Category 6 UTP. The cable that’s permanently installed in walls, ceiling, and floors should be solid (not stranded) conductor.

    In special cases, STP (shielded twisted pair) may be needed. In high electrical noise environments, or for vertical runs in tall buildings, or between buildings, fiber optic cable makes sense. Today, short runs of fiber optic cable consist of low-cost plastic (not glass) fibers with low cost light sources, in multi-mode. (The light beam is allowed to bounce around within the fiber; it’s lossy, but who cares, over distances less than a thousand feet?) Using fiber, rather than copper, between buildings eliminates electrical hazards caused by lightning strikes an earth differential voltage between buildings.

    Plenum rated cable

    Regardless of whether you run UTP, STP, or fiberoptic cable in your building, the new cable must confirm to local building and fire codes. This often means that if the cable runs within the space above false ceilings is used to carry return air back to an air handler. In these cases, Plenum rated cable must be used. If your building has separate air return ducts, you may not need to use plenum rated cable; Check with your local building code enforcement authority before buying cable.

    Structured Cabling

    The correct way to cable a building is to install outlet boxes with quad RJ-45 wallplates in each office. Pull all the cables from all offices on each floor back to a central wire closet. (These are called “home runs”.) Number all cables consecutively with several number tags on each cable — especially their ends.

    The closet should contain a 19 inch wide open relay rack with Category 5 or better RJ-45 connector panels. While connectorizing the cables, label each connector with its cable number.

    Within the rack we’ll mount switches and / or routers as needed. The telephone PBX should be mounted in the closet or co-located with the file servers. We’ll use short stranded wire Category 5 or better patch cables between the connector panels and switches and telephone PBX as needed.

    At each quad category 5 RJ45 wallplate, label each RJ45 connector with its cable number.

    The result is that in each office, any of the four RJ-45 connectors can carry anything from the wire closet;

    Inside phone, outside phone, Internet, local area network, data terminal traffic, etcetera. At any time, any of the RJ-45 connectors can be reconfigured just by moving patch cables inside the wire closet.

    Within each office, just use a short flexible Category 5e patch cable to connect the computer, telephone, etcetera to the appropriate RJ-45 connector in the wallplate.

    In practice, many offices will need two or even more quad wallplates, to allow easy movement of furniture in the future. It’s a pleasure to work within a building with structured cabling, because people, computers, phones, and furniture may be moved where needed.

    If your budget is tight, dual or triple (instead of quad) RJ-45 wallplates may be substituted, if some loss of flexibility is acceptable.

    Cable plant certification will certify cable plant to Category 5 or higher standards. They use specialized test sets to perform the certification, which often can produce printed output or talk to PC. I recommend having your cable plant certified, for two reasons:

    • The certification process will find weak spot in the cable run, which can be repaired before they cause trouble.
    • It documents the electrical length of each cable run. If you save this record (perhaps by importing it into a spreadsheet), when you suspect that a cable run has been cut or damaged, you can electrically measure its length and compare you results with cable’s electrical length when it was certified. This will point you toward the cable fault.

    Conclusion

    Pay careful attention to your cable plant: it’s the foundation of your information system. Its cables carry your enterprise’s lifeblood.