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In-wall wiring guide for home A/V

Installing speaker, audio/video, and Ethernet cable

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Installing your own low-voltage in-wall wiring can be a great way to save money and set the groundwork for a good-looking system that blends attractively into your décor. This guide will help you with big and small projects — whether you're planning a whole-house system or just want to conceal your wall-mounted TV's audio/video cables.

In this article, you'll find detailed information to help you wire your home with speaker wire, Ethernet cables and audio/video cables. We'll cover several key topics and offer tips for specific situations, including installing wire in both finished homes and homes under construction.

Additional resources
Our Audio/Video Designers are here to help you plan your installation, and most Crutchfield orders also come with our free tech support.

Also, check out these articles for more details on specific A/V projects:

Before you get started

Can you do it yourself?
Have you ever installed TV cable, security, or other low-voltage wiring? If so, then you probably already have the skills and tools you'll need to install in-wall wiring. In most locales, a homeowner is allowed to install his or her own low-voltage wiring. However, each state has its own code, as do some cities and counties, so check with your local building inspector to be sure.

If you don't have much wiring experience, read this guide thoroughly to get an idea of the steps and work involved. You'll notice that the skills required and the work involved varies, especially between new construction and finished homes, since it's generally easier to install wire before the insulation and drywall go up. Be sure you're experienced in the safe use of power drills, hand tools, and ladders. Also, the process will go more smoothly with two people, so make sure you have a helper for some of the more labor-intensive parts. Finally, if you'd prefer not to pull the wire yourself, or don't have the proper tools, hire a professional. You can still save money later by installing the audio/video gear yourself.

Take a look at the chart below. What kind of installation do you want to do? Do you feel confident about the skills and tools involved?

You should be able to do this... ...if you're comfortable with these household tasks.. ...and know how to use these tools.
Single room runs of wire in new construction  
  • installing new light fixtures or security wiring
 
  • utility knife
  • power drill and drill bits
  • wire strippers
  • level
  • hammer
Room-to-room runs of wire in new construction  
  • installing new light fixtures or security wiring
  • wiring a whole-house computer network
 
  • utility knife
  • power drill and drill bits
  • wire strippers
  • level
  • hammer
Single room runs of wire in finished homes  
  • installing new light fixtures or security wiring
  • patching and repairing drywall
  • touch-up painting
 
  • fish tape (longer runs may require 2 tapes)
  • drywall saw
  • utility knife
  • power drill and drill bits
  • wire strippers
  • level
  • high-quality stud finder
  • electrical tape
Room-to-room or indoor-to-outdoor runs of wire in finished homes  
  • installing new light fixtures or security wiring
  • wiring a whole-house computer network
  • patching and repairing drywall
  • touch-up painting
 
  • fish tape (longer runs may require 2 tapes)
  • drywall saw
  • utility knife
  • power drill and drill bits
  • wire strippers
  • level
  • high-quality stud finder
  • electrical tape

See the chart above to determine which tools you'll need for your wiring project. You'll probably also need a partner to help you with some of the installation steps.

Speaker installation guide - retrofitting

Here are some of the tools you may need for your project: (A) electrical tape; (B) measuring tape; (C) a stud finder; (D) a utility knife; (E) a drywall saw; (F) string (for pulling wire short distances); (G) a fish tape (for pulling wire longer distances).

Safety tips
Make sure that you have a thorough understanding of local building and fire codes. Also read and follow the safety guidelines below and those in the owner's manual.

  • Be sure to use wire that meets local building and fire code. Use UL-rated wire labeled CL2 or CL3 for in-wall installations of speakerand audio/video cables, and CM, CMR, or CMP for in-wall installations of Ethernet cable.
  • If installing in a house under construction, follow the safety procedures set in place by your builder, including those relating to the use and storage of extension cords and power tools. Some sites may require a hard hat or other protective clothing. Remember, you're working on a construction site, so exercise caution.
  • In installing in a finished home, make sure the area behind your wall is clear before cutting (using the techniques discussed in our section on running wire through existing walls).
  • If you drill through a fire block or firebreak, patch it with comparable material. If you drill holes between floors, seal them with fire-resistant caulk per National Electric Code standards.
  • When working on a ladder:
    • Place your ladder in a stable position close to where you're working. Don't reach.
    • Always have one hand on the ladder.
    • Face the ladder when ascending or descending.
    • Don't carry heavy items up the ladder that could cause you to lose your balance and fall.
  • Unplug your components before connecting the newly installed cables.
  • Turn off the power in areas you'll be drilling or cutting to avoid electric shock.
  • When working in the attic:
    • If it's not a finished attic, be careful to walk only on ceiling joists.
    • These areas are often poorly ventilated. Stay hydrated and use a fan to circulate air if you can. Make sure someone knows that you're up there, and take breaks when you need to.
  • It might be tempting to route AC power cables through the wall — to hide power running to a wall-mounted TV or other gear — but those cables aren't designed for safe in-wall use. Hire a licensed electrician to install outlets if necessary.

Choosing the right wire

The type of in-wall wire and cables you use will depend on what kind of signal you need to carry, where you're going to route the wire, and how far the signal will have to travel to go between your gear. Whatever type of wire you choose, be sure to get one that's rated for in-wall use by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL). This is normally denoted with a CL2 or CL3 rating for speaker wire and audio/video cables. Many Ethernet cables are rated for in-wall use, denoted with a CM, CMR, or CMP rating. The UL looks at heat generated from current flowing through wire, how quickly the cable will catch and spread fire when exposed to flame, and the wire's susceptibility to damage from external stresses.

Also look for cable that's rated for your specific scenario. For example, you'll want cable rated CL2P or CL3P if you're placing it in heating ducts, and you'll want cable rated for direct burial if you're running it through the ground to outdoor speakers. Also, be sure to check your local building and fire code and buy wire accordingly.

Speaker wire
There are two main factors to consider with speaker cable: the gauge and the number of conductors.

The gauge of your wire should depend on how far the wire has to travel from the receiver to the speaker. The lower the American Wire Gauge (AWG) number, the thicker the wire. Significant power losses can occur over long runs, resulting in lower performance. While this probably won't be a problem in most single-room setups, it could be an issue for multi-room systems. Use the chart below as a guideline for wire gauge selection.

Distance from speaker to amplifier Gauge
Less than 80 feet 16
80 to 200 14
More than 200 feet 12

Speaker wire

Two-conductor wire (A) is used when running wire directly to a speaker, while 4-conductor wire (B) is often used for runs to volume controls.

You can choose speaker cable with two or four conductors (see photo at right). Two-conductor cable is all you need to wire one speaker. Four-conductor wire is mostly used in multi-room applications with volume controls (it may also be used with stereo-input speakers). For example, if you're going to run wire from a receiver in your living room to a pair of speakers with a volume control in your dining room, you would run four-conductor wire from the receiver to the volume control, and two-conductor wire from the volume control to each speaker. (Of course, if you don't have four-conductor wire, you could also use two two-conductor wires.)

You may see in-wall speaker cable identified in short hand that indicates its gauge and its number of conductors. For example:

  • 16/2 is 16-gauge wire with 2 conductors
  • 14/4 is 14-gauge wire with 4 conductors

Terminating speaker wire
You have two different options for terminating speaker wire: bare wire or speaker connectors. While some folks prefer bare wire as the purest connection, we generally don't recommend it for in-wall installations because of the risk of short circuits and corrosion.

For good, solid connections, use speaker wire terminated with connectors instead of using stripped bare wire ends. There are a variety of speaker connectors available but the most commonly used are pin and banana connectors. You can find connectors that either twist or crimp on to your stripped speaker wire.

If you do decide to hook up your wire without connectors, use a wire stripper to take about 3/8-inch of insulation off the ends of each lead, exposing bare wire strands (be careful not to cut these strands). Twist each lead's bare wire strands tightly, so no stray strands are sticking out. Loose strands could make contact with the cable's other lead and cause a short circuit, potentially damaging your gear. A complete discussion of speaker connectors and terminals can be found in our speaker glossary.

Ethernet cable (CAT-5, -5e, -6)
There are a number of uses for Ethernet cable — like creating a wired computer network, or carrying audio/video and control signals in a whole-house system. This family of cables is often referred to as CAT-5, but these days, you'll likely be installing CAT-5e or CAT-6. These newer cables are able to pass more data, and send that data at a faster rate. CAT-5e and CAT-6 products are backwards compatible with devices designed to work with CAT-5 cable.

The benefits of using Ethernet cable to pass audio/video signals
The use of Ethernet cable for whole-house audio/video systems is growing more popular. Ethernet cables stand up to interference better than audio/video cables, even the common unshielded variety, called "UTP" (unshielded twisted pair). Running long lengths of Ethernet cable can also be more cost-effective than running long lengths of audio/video cable.

There are a few multi-room music and video systems that use Ethernet cable, plus separate devices that you can use with regular audio/video gear called "baluns". These devices allow you to send regular audio/video signals to a different room via Ethernet cable.

Terminating Ethernet cables
Since lengths of Ethernet cable will vary depending on the size of your home and how many rooms you're running wire to, you'll probably be terminating your own Ethernet cables. You'll need RJ-45 connectors for the ends of the cable, and a crimp tool to secure the connection.

When terminating the cables, you'll need to strip the Ethernet cable, and untwist the twisted pairs so that you can insert each conductor into the proper hole in the RJ-45 connector. You'll most likely use the common 568b configuration which places the cables in this order:

  • Pin 1 — white/orange wire
  • Pin 2 — orange wire
  • Pin 3 — white/green wire
  • Pin 4 — blue wire
  • Pin 5 — white/blue wire
  • Pin 6 — green wire
  • Pin 7 — white/brown wire
  • Pin 8 — brown wire

Audio/video cables
Some setups require you to run audio and video cables through your walls. Whether you're working on a single-room system, like running cables from a ceiling-mounted projector to a rack of A/V equipment, or wiring your home for audio and video in every room, there are a couple things to keep in mind.

Long runs of audio/video cable are susceptible to interference, and also tend to be relatively expensive. That's part of why Ethernet cable has become a more popular option.

If you do want long runs of audio/video cables, we recommend using RG-6 cable when possible — it's HD-capable and on the face of it, far less expensive than HDMI and subwoofer cable. You may still wish to perform a cost comparison, keeping in mind that multiple runs of RG-6 may be required between the source and monitor. This is particularly the case when using baluns, since you will need one at each location as well.

Terminating audio/video cables
If you do use long runs of audio/video cable, chances are you'll need to terminate it yourself. (It is worth noting, however, that digital A/V cables will come pre-terminated, so you'll only need to terminate analog cables.) The difficulty of terminating A/V cable will vary depending on the connectors you use. Some require you to strip the cable and crimp on the connector, while others simply twist on to the end of the cable. If you're running multiple cables, it can be helpful to use labels or colored bands to tell the different cables apart.


Planning the wire route

How close can you get to AC power wires
There are a number of good reasons to avoid AC wires. For one thing, drilling and working near AC wires increases the chance you'll accidentally damage them. Also, if you pull your wire through the same hole as AC lines, friction can wear down the AC cable's jacket, which could create a short. If you're running audio/video cables, it's especially important to avoid them, since it can result in performance-robbing interference.

Here are some rules to keep in mind:

  • If AC and low-voltage wires cross, keep them at 90-degree angles.
  • Don't install your wires beside AC power lines for more than 5 feet. When you have to run your wire beside an AC line, keep it a minimum of 1 foot away from the power line throughout the entire run.
  • Never use the same hole to feed both AC wire and low-voltage wire.
Running cables

(A) Running low-voltage cables with power cable may result in poor performance and increases the chances of damaging AC lines. (B) If cables and power cable run parallel, keep them a minimum of 12" apart. If they intersect, keep them at 90-degree angles.

Can I run low-voltage cables together?
Yes, you can safely run audio and video in the same bundle as security, phone, data, and other low-voltage wire. If you're working in new construction, make sure that no other subcontractor is planning to use that hole for their run.

Once you've chosen the locations for your speakers, controllers, outlets, and audio/video gear, you need to figure out how to run the wire. Where you route your wire will depend on a number of factors. Are you working in new construction with exposed studs? If you're working in a finished home, do you have access to crawl spaces and unfinished basements? Below, we've offered some specific tips for both new construction and finished homes.

Wire routes in new construction
Because wire costs money, you'll want each wire run to be as direct as possible. However, in order to avoid AC power wires, or keep from drilling holes through every stud all the way around your room, you'll probably have to compromise. The trick is to minimize your work, not your wire length.

Although it may seem like wasting wire, your attic, basement, or crawlspace can provide you with great wire pathways — where you don't have to drill, you simply hang your wire in clamps and brackets. Plan to use these spaces as much as possible, even if it means a much longer length of wire. The time you save not drilling studs and joists can more than compensate for the longer wire runs.

Wire routes in finished construction
While installing in-wall wire in a finished home can be trickier than in a home still under construction, there are a few ways to make it easier. If you can run your cables in places that won't require drywall repair afterwards, you can save yourself lots of time and effort. Also, avoid exterior walls when possible. These walls have extra bracing and insulation which can make installing gear and running wire more difficult.

We've listed some common options below. Take a look and consider which one(s) would be the best option for your house and setup.

  • inside the wall
  • under your carpet
  • behind a baseboard, door jamb, or crown molding
  • through a heating or air conditioning vent*
  • inside cabinetry, bookshelves, drawers, or closets
  • through a crawl space, or unfinished basement or attic

*Note: Use wire that meets local building and fire code. If running wire in heating/AC vents, use "plenum-rated" wire — CLP2 or CLP3.

Making sure you have enough wire
After planning where you're going to route your wire, calculate how much you'll need. Work your way from point to point carefully, without overlooking anything. You may want to sketch out a wiring "map" — a record of what you're installing in each room and all of the cables, brackets, and other items you'll be installing. If you work from floor plans, use a scale ruler. Better yet, walk through your home, pacing off each run and thinking through where the wire will have to turn a corner or go up or down a wall. Convert your paces to feet and keep a record of each run. Here are five keys to estimating wire runs:

  1. Careful inspection: Make a note of which direction ceiling joists run and where other structural obstacles might lie.
  2. Pace off the entire route: Don't guess, pace off everything. Estimate small runs first and double-check yourself for consistency.
  3. Measure the ceiling height: Don't guess at the ceiling height, measure it. If you "eyeball" a vaulted ceiling, you're asking for trouble.
  4. Allow extra wire for termination and connection to your gear. For example, if you intend to install speakers and volume controls by yourself, allow 4-6 feet of extra wire so you can set the device on a ladder or on the floor while you hook it up. Consider leaving even more wire for an in-ceiling speaker installation, so you can wire your speakers while standing on the floor (instead of precariously balanced on a ladder).
  5. Allow 10 to 15 percent extra: Your planned wire route might be thrown off by an unexpected obstacle. To be safe, buy a minimum of 10 percent more wire than you think you need. Some professionals use a 20 percent fudge factor, but that's easy for pros to justify, since they can use the excess wire on their next job.

Here's an example of how to calculate a wire run from a receiver to a right in-ceiling surround speaker:

Right in-ceiling surround speaker
Slack for speaker installation 6 feet
Horizontal run across ceiling to wall 9 feet
Vertical run down wall to wall plate 6 feet
Wall plate to receiver 4 feet
Subtotal 25 feet
+ 15% fudge factor 29 feet total

The same technique should be applied to a multi-room system. Depending on your setup, this process might be a bit more involved. Here's an example of a wire run in a one-story home, from a receiver in the family room to a volume control and speakers in the home office.

Volume control to receiver, 4-conductor wire
Slack for volume control installation 4 feet
Vertical run from volume control to ceiling 4 feet
Ceiling to first cable hook in the attic 4 feet
Length of attic run 40 feet
Last cable hook in the attic to ceiling 4 feet
Ceiling to wall plate behind receiver 7 feet
Wall plate to receiver 5 feet
Subtotal 68 feet
+ 15% fudge factor 78 feet total

Left speaker to volume control, 2-conductor wire
Slack for speaker installation 6 feet
Horizontal run across ceiling to wall 4 feet
Vertical run inside the wall 4 feet
Horizontal run to volume control 8 feet
Slack for volume control installation 4 feet
Subtotal 26 feet
+ 15% fudge factor 30 feet total

Right speaker to volume control, 2-conductor wire
Slack for speaker installation 6 feet
Horizontal run across ceiling to wall 12 feet
Vertical run inside the wall 4 feet
Horizontal run to volume control 8 feet
Slack for volume control installation 4 feet
Subtotal 34 feet
+ 15% fudge factor 39 feet total

So for this room you would buy 78 feet of 4-conductor speaker wire and 69 feet of 2-conductor wire, or 147 feet of 2-conductor wire.

Many professional installers simply take the longest speaker run (in this case, 39 feet) and use that for both speakers — or for all 5, 6, or 7 speakers in a home theater setup. Why? If the signal travels the same distance to each speaker, it will arrive at each speaker at the same time, which gives you perfectly timed, in-sync audio. However, for relatively small variances in length, most people probably won't be able to hear the difference. Plus, using the longest run for all speakers in a home theater setup could add quite a bit to your wire costs, and leave you with many extra feet of wire to dress and hide inside the wall. For optimum performance, equal lengths of wire are ideal, but you'll have to decide if that makes sense for you.

The rules of routing wire

What are the rules for drilling holes into the structure?
Wood-frame houses are not all built the same way, but it's typical to see 2" x 4" wall studs, 2" x 10" floor joists and 2" x 6" (or larger) ceiling joists. Typically, these are spaced 16 inches apart, center to center. In some new homes, spacing for joists may be 24 inches, center to center. The architect sizes the wooden structural members to compensate for holes accommodating wires and pipes.

You should make yourself familiar with the terms used to describe the structure of your house. Local building and fire codes incorporate the general principles we're going to talk about, but some cities, counties and states restrict and amend these principles because of the risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, snowfall, or tornadoes. Talk to a local building inspector if you have questions about building or fire code. Or, if your house is being renovated or is still under construction, you can ask your builder or contractor for advice.

Holes and notches

In non-bearing walls (left) hole diameter can be up to 60% of the stud width, and notch depth can be up to 40%. In a load-bearing wall (right) holes can't exceed 40% and notches can't exceed 25%.

Studs that support joists are called "bearing" or "load-bearing," and are often (though not exclusively) found in exterior walls. A non-bearing stud is typically found in some interior walls that divide one room from another. Non-bearing stud walls are your preferred wire routes, since they can have larger holes drilled into them. Of course, treat a stud as load-bearing when in doubt.

Here are some general rules:

  • Studs — Drill holes in the center of each stud to better avoid nails. If you notch a stud, use a nail plate.
    • In a non-bearing wall, hole diameter can be up to 60 percent of the stud width, and notch depth can be up to 40 percent. In a load-bearing wall, holes can't exceed 40 percent and notches can't exceed 25 percent.
  • Joists — Keep all holes centered vertically in the joist. Don't allow a hole to be drilled within 2" of the top or bottom of the joist. The extreme ends and the middle third of the span of the joist carry the load, so avoid making holes there if possible.

    You are limited to a hole that is a third of the measured depth of the joist. A 2" x 6" joist actually measures 5-1/2" deep, so you can drill a 1-1/2" hole. You can drill multiple holes rather than one very large hole when many wires need to go one way.

    Engineered roof and floor trusses or wooden "I" beams often have open "web" space for wiring so that you don't need to make holes. Consult your builder for maximum hole sizes, if you need to drill. Generally, for such "TJI®" (or "truss-joist") trusses, smaller holes are allowed near the ends, and larger holes are allowed near the middle.
Speaker installation guide for new construction

(A) Load-bearing walls intersect directly with the floor above. You'll see the wall run continuously up to the ceiling. (B) Non-bearing walls don't intersect directly with the floor above. In this image, there's enough room for a heating duct to run between the wall and the ceiling.

  • "Glue lams" or headers — You cannot make any holes in laminated support beams (glue lams) or headers (the supports over doors, windows, or arches). Your wire routes must avoid these structural members at all costs, even if it means a large detour.
Speaker installation guide for new construction

Glue lams are laminated support beams consisting of many thin pieces of wood glued together. You cannot drill or notch these beams.

  • For your wires to pull easily, the diameter of a hole should be about twice as big as the total diameter of all the wires you plan to pull through it. Since hole sizes are limited, you may have to plan your wire routes to use multiple holes. For example, you might drill a 1-1/2" hole to accommodate a 3/4" bundle of cables.
Speaker installation guide for new construction

To ensure the best performance from your system, be careful not to pinch or sharply bend cables.

  • Don't bend the cable as you run it past the intersections of joists and studs; instead, create a smooth, gradual curve. Also, be careful when using plastic wire ties — they should be snug, but not tight enough to pinch the cable.
  • Don't run it through holes occupied by other cables, unless they're also low-voltage wires, such as security or phone lines, and there's plenty of room to pull you cables.
  • You'll need to install an open-backed junction box (or "J-box") or plaster ring ("P-ring") near your receiver. This is where the wire will exit the wall. The J-box or P-ring will also need a face plate — either with a hole that allows the cable to pass through the wall, or with connectors that link the in-wall cable to the out-of-wall cable.

What if your house is steel framed?
Steel framing is usually found in commercial structures. It normally makes wiring go faster, since steel frames and joists often have large pre-made openings for wire.

You can buy a punch to make more openings. All holes must be in the center of any steel member and cannot be any closer than 1-1/2" to another hole. Holes can be larger than wood framing. However, punching limits you to a fairly small hole size. If you must make new holes, ask your builder to approve a maximum hole size.

The edges of pre-made or punched openings can be very sharp. You'll need plastic grommets from an electrical supply store to fit inside the openings to protect the wire.

Tools and supplies

Common tools for most projects

Hand tools

  • Hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Small level
  • Linesman pliers
  • Wire cutter/strippers (for the wire gauges you'll be working with)
  • Laser level or chalk line

Drills and bits

  • 1/2" or larger electric drill.
  • You'll need a set of spade bits from 1/4" to 1-1/2". (Professional installers use auger and hole-saw bits because they make the job easier. Since these bits are expensive, think twice about purchasing them for one-time use.)

Step ladders and extension ladders
Bring step ladders and extension ladders of sufficient height to reach every wiring location in your home. You'll also need eye protection, good boots, knee pads, gloves, and protective clothing.

Wire labels
Label both ends of the wire before you start pulling, or before cutting another wire. You can use Crutchfield CableLabels™, or simply use masking tape and a marker.

Electrical tape
If you have multiple cables going to the same destination, tape them into a bundle for quicker routing through your walls.

Wire ties and attachments
Wire must be supported every 4-1/2 feet and within 1 foot of a junction box. Wire ties and wire-tie clamps are recommended because the staples electricians use for regular AC wiring may damage low-voltage cables if they're nailed down too tightly.

Nail plates
Whenever you drill a hole 1-1/4" or less from the surface of any wooden part of your house (a stud, joist, plate, block, or brace), or notch any wooden part, you must protect the cable with a nail plate. The nail plate prevents a nail from ever piercing the cable.

J-boxes
"J-boxes" or junction boxes may be used to mount volume controls and other in-wall devices, such as infrared sensors. Look for a J-box that's deep enough to fit your in-wall devices (usually 2-3/4").

Backless brackets/P-rings
When you're simply terminating wires at a wall plate, you don't need the structural strength of a wall box. Backless brackets provide the minimum structure you need for a wall plate.

Backless brackets

Backless brackets provide the minimum structure you'll need to attach a wall plate. If you're installing one to run speaker wires to your receiver, mount it at the same height as AC outlets for a clean, uniform look. If you're installing one for an IR sensor or volume control, mount it at the same height as light switches.

Additional tools and supplies for new construction
If you don't have a battery-powered drill, you'll need grounded extension cords of sufficient length to reach from the contractor-supplied central electrical supply to anywhere you want to drill. You shouldn't join four 25-foot cords to make a 100-foot cord. The wasted power may lower the voltage to a point that your drill could be damaged permanently. Also, keep in mind that some job sites require a hard hat.

You might also consider "rough-in" or "hole-saving" brackets. At the rough-in stage, you can install these brackets for in-wall and in-ceiling speakers and other in-wall components. They save a lot of time, since the drywaller will cut holes for the brackets before hanging the drywall (as they do for light switches, electrical sockets, etc.). You may have to order these separately — they aren't included with, or available for, all in-wall and in-ceiling components. If you're installing a multi-room system, you may be able to purchase specific brackets for that system.

Hole-saving brackets

Hole-saving (or "rough-in") brackets tell the drywaller to cut a hole for the speaker (just like he/she would for electrical outlets and lighting fixtures). This makes your job much easier later on, since it takes the guesswork out of finding your speaker location and wire after the drywall's up.

Additional tools and supplies for finished homes
If you don't have a high-quality studfinder, you'll probably want to invest in one before you begin the installation. Some studfinders can differentiate between pipes, AC wires, and other obstacles hidden behind your walls. You'll also need a drywall saw to cut into your walls, as well as fish tape to help route the wire through your walls.

Fish tape

Fish tape allows you to pull cable behind finished walls, floors, and ceilings. It's sturdier than most wires and cables, making it easier to "fish" through small spaces. In order to pull wire to another location, you'll need to attach the wire to the fish tape: (A) Strip the jacket off the cable. Bend the conductors over the fish hook. (B) Wrap the hook and the cable with electrical tape.

Wiring your home

From here we'll jump into the details of wiring your home. We've found that there are big differences between working in new construction and in a finished home. You can choose to read both sections, or just the one that pertains to your install.

Wiring your new home

If you're working in a new home, you'll need to work your wiring project into your builder's schedule. In this section, we'll offer suggestions on working successfully with your building and provide step-by-step tips on installing cables in your home.

Will your builder let you work on the site?
Don't assume that it will be OK with your builder for you to work on "your" construction site. If you don't have any experience working on a construction site or with low-voltage wiring, your builder might not want to risk potential delays. What if your work is inspected and found unacceptable? All of the other subcontractors will be delayed while you fix your work. Also, some builders may have insurance policies that prohibit unlicensed or uninsured subcontractors from working on sites they supervise.

Speak sincerely to your builder about your determination to do a good job. Some custom builders and a few tract-home builders will allow a home owner to do the work, provided you guarantee you will not delay or interfere with other contractors.

Your role on the construction site
The construction schedule puts your A/V installations in a narrow time frame. In the early stages of house construction, weather can delay a project. Likewise, circumstances may make the schedule go faster than planned. Keep in close touch with your builder to avoid unpleasant surprises. House construction proceeds in stages. Here's how we think you should schedule your work around the builder's tasks (your steps are shown in bold):

  • Foundation
  • Framing and roof
  • Plumbing rough-in
  • Electrical rough-in
  • Audio, video, and Ethernet pre-wiring and rough-in
  • Rough-in inspection
  • Insulation installation
  • Drywall installation
  • In-wall/in-ceiling speaker grilles and frames — install them now if you want them painted
  • Paint
  • Plumbing and electrical trim out
  • Audio, video, and Ethernet trim out — install wall plates, controls, in-wall/in-ceiling speakers
  • Floor installation
  • Final inspection (all holes, boxes, and brackets must be closed)
  • Move-in
  • Install and hook up A/V components

You'll want to install all A/V wires after the electrician has finished pulling AC wires. This is critical, because you should avoid electrical wires as much as possible. After the AC power wires are run, the electrician may still be on-site for a day or two installing switches and terminating. If your builder is on a tight schedule, you may have to work while the electrician is still on-site. Sometimes your builder may be able to delay the next stage until the following week, giving you the weekend to work.

Working successfully with other trades on the site
You will find the subcontractors on the job site much more cooperative if you follow some simple guidelines while you're on their turf. Remember, they make their living by completing their work on schedule.

  • Try to work in rooms and areas where no other work is going on.
  • Keep your tools, ladders, and extension cords organized and neat.
  • Don't borrow tools from subcontractors.
  • Clean up after yourself. Bring a broom and dustpan to sweep up any wood shavings and debris you create.

Pre-wiring your house, step-by-step

Dressing wire

Dress at least 4 feet of speaker wire in a loop at each J-box or P-ring location, securing it with wire ties.

  1. Bring all your tools, parts and wire into a room that's not occupied by other workers. If you're installing cables in a single room that other people are working in, you should wait for them to finish if you can't easily work around them. Try to set up near a hallway or entrance. That makes it easier to measure out your lengths of wire, and tape them into a bundle to pull them all at once, if necessary.
  2. Using a large, bright felt pen or crayon, walk through your room or house and mark the locations of all your rough-in brackets, outlets, and controllers according to your wiring plan. It's important to be thorough and systematic with this step, particularly if you're installing a multi-room system. Start with the most distant room and work your way back "home," to where your main audio/video system will live.
  3. You and your helper can split up and start drilling holes and installing boxes and brackets. Drilling can be tiring, so if you have lots of holes to drill, switch from one task to the other periodically.

    When you have a long run of holes to drill through studs or joists, use a laser level or snap a chalk line against the face of the studs or joists to line up your holes perfectly. As you drill, work backward so that you can always see the holes you just made. Lined-up holes make pulling wire much easier. Always drill in the center of the stud or joist and at least 1-1/4" away from the edge.

    In-wall controls are usually located 44-48" off the floor. They will look best if you measure and match the height of your wall switches. Don't attach low-voltage boxes to light switch boxes. Wall plates and outlets are typically aligned with the AC wall receptacles (12-18" off the floor).
  4. Installing hole-saving brackets for in-wall and in-ceiling speakers and controls saves work later and allows you to position the speakers relative to door and window frames and lights. Using a laser level or snapping a chalk line from light fixtures helps you align ceiling speakers with lights.
  5. Now it's time to measure, cut, label, and pull the wire.
    • Start with the longest runs first, while you're fresh. As you tire, the wire runs will get shorter and easier. On the other hand, if you're unsure about estimating wire lengths, start with the short runs first. As you gain confidence, start pulling the longer runs.
    • Pace out the wire lengths according to your previous calculations, and take this time to double check your measurements. Measure your wire run by pacing it (where one pace is approximately two feet). Count each floor-to-ceiling run as four paces. Allow at least three extra paces at speaker ends, two extra paces at volume controls or wall plates. Total your paces.
    • Pace off the distance from your spools (or coils) of wire and place a marker (you may have to walk out into the yard on long runs). Pull one wire from a spool to the marker, and then cut. Label each end of the wire for source and destination before pulling it, or before cutting another wire.
    • Don't try to pull wire right off the spool. It will not save time.
    • To pull more than one wire through a hole at once, first bundle the wires with electrical tape at the leading end. Stagger the ends, so that the bundle gets progressively thicker.
    • Don't pull too hard. Stretching the center conductor and/or dielectric can damage your wires. Carefully move the wire bundle to the starting point for your run. Have your helper keep the wire from getting hung up as you move it. Feed the wire through the holes and pull it to your destination. Whenever the wire binds, stop pulling, find the point of friction, and ask your helper to ease the wire past that point as you continue pulling.
    • Don't kink the cables or attempt to make your corners tight. Cable should not be bent sharply. Kinks or tight turns can change the electrical characteristics of the cable and negatively affect performance.
    • When running wire in a basement or attic crawlspace, don't just lay the cable on joists. Fix cable brackets or hooks every 4-1/2 feet.
  6. Once the wire has been pulled, you must dress it.
    • Support the wire within 1 foot of a J-box or P-ring. At each bracket, J-box or P-ring, dress at least 4 feet wire, leaving it looped just inside, or secured to the stud or joist.
    • It's better to use wire ties or clamps rather than wire staples, since wire staples are more likely to compress the wire and hurt the performance. Wire ties should not be over-tightened. It's important that nothing you do changes the shape of the wire.
    • The drywall will cover up your wire, so photograph or measure the location so that you can find the wire after the drywall is up.
    • Affix a nail plate to any stud or joist with a wire closer than 1-1/4" from the face of the stud or joist.
    • Wrap the ends of each wire with plastic bags and tape to prevent moisture from entering wires. Wire can rot from paint and plaster moisture. Make sure labels are protected.
    • Inspect every room twice. Drywall installers will cover up everything you've done, so take pictures of any concealed wiring and make careful notes. Clean up each room, check that you have everything you came with, and head home for a well-deserved rest.

Once you've completed the wiring, you may still need to make up to three separate installation visits to your new home over the next few weeks, so stay in touch with your builder. (See LINK your role on the construction site.)

Now, we'll look at what's involved in routing in-wall wire in a finished home.

Running wire through existing walls

Routing wire through walls in a finished home can often be more difficult than working in new construction. But there's a range in difficulty — running short lengths of cable down from a wall-mounted set is pretty straightforward, while running cable for a multi-room system may be more time- and labor-intensive. As you read, think about what kind of installation you're planning, and your comfort level with tackling some of the potential obstacles in your home.

Cutting and drilling into your wall or ceiling

Always inspect as much as possible without making a hole. Explore your crawlspace or ceiling in an unfinished segment of your basement. Try to detect which way joists run and where empty wall space between studs might be. By inspecting from your crawlspace or attic, you can identify which wall locations are empty of water pipes and electrical wires. We also recommend purchasing a high-quality stud finder that can distinguish between different types of obstacles behind your walls, including studs, AC cables, and pipes.

Of course, you can't know what's behind the wall with absolute certainty. You must be prepared to cut and patch exploratory holes. To minimize that work, we recommend drilling small "pilot holes" to explore behind your walls. Use a sturdy piece of wire, like a bent coat hanger, to find nearby obstacles. Be sure to shut off power in the area where you'll be drilling your pilot hole, and use caution so you don't plunge your bit into a pipe or electrical conduit.

Pilot hole

Use a sturdy wire (such as a bent coat hanger) to explore your pilot holes.

Cutting drywall
After you've confirmed that all of your component locations will work, traced the templates, and made any other preparations recommended in the owner's manual, you can begin cutting drywall. If you're creating a rectangular hole, start by drilling two small holes in opposite corners; if it's round, drill two small holes on opposite sides. Next, using your drywall saw, start from one hole, and work around the outline to the next. Use a hand-held drywall saw (not an electric one) and cut slowly. Cut the drywall in one piece, on an inward slant, so that it's easier to patch later if necessary. If you don't need to patch the hole, just remove any excess material before installing the speaker. Be sure you know what's behind the drywall before you cut.

For more information on choosing and confirming locations for your in-wall gear, see our in-wall speaker installation guide.

Plaster and lath walls
If your house has plaster and lath walls or ceilings, installing your own in-wall wiring will be more complicated. Plaster tends to crack and crumble easily, so you should be prepared to do some touch-up work. We recommend running out-of-wall wire, and using carpets, cabinetry, etc. to hide it. See our article on home A/V cable management for more ideas.

Wiring tips and tricks

What if you can't avoid a hidden obstruction?
You'll probably encounter some in-wall obstacles while routing your cables, such as additional bracing or a fire block. If that happens:

  • Use your stud finder to estimate the position of the block behind the drywall.
  • Drill small pilot holes and use a piece of "L" shaped wire to determine the dimensions of the block.
  • Using your drywall saw, remove a rectangular piece of drywall around the obstacle. Cut on an inward slant so that it's easier to patch the drywall when you're done.
  • Notch the block or drill a small hole for your wire. If you notch the block, don't forget to cover it with a nail plate.
Routing wire

To route wire through a hidden obstruction: (A) Cut a rectangular piece of drywall around the obstacle. (B) Notch the block or drill a hole for the cables. Use your fish tape to route the wire through the hole.

Fishing cable through insulation
Insulation is most commonly found on exterior walls, but you might run into it when fishing wire through interior walls too. The key here is not to fish the wire through the insulation, but around it.

Many types of insulation will have a paper or plastic covering. Try to fish your wire between that covering and the drywall. Alternatively, fish the wire along a stud, using the stud as your guide. In this case, if you have fish tape that's wound on a spool, keep the tape curved in towards the surface of the stud, so that it's less likely to stray into the insulation.

You can also check your local hardware store for different kinds of fish tape designed to be more effective with difficult runs like these. Note: Wear gloves and protection for your mouth, nose, and eyes before handling insulation that contains fiberglass.

Routing wire through an unfinished basement

Routing wire through an unfinished basement: (A) Cut the holes where the wire will enter and exit the wall — for example, where a wall plate and in-wall speaker will be installed. Next, drill two holes in your basement ceiling to route the wire. You can either measure the distance to the wall plate and speaker from an adjoining wall, referencing a copy of your blueprints, or measure the distance from a visible landmark that runs straight through the wall to the floor below, such as a plumbing pipe. (B) Once you've drilled the holes, use a fish tape to pull the wire up to the wall plate location. (C) Next, fish the wire up to the speaker location.

Routing wire under a baseboard

Routing wire horizontally along a baseboard: Carefully pry off the baseboard with a small crowbar. Cut the wire channel by scoring and chiseling the studs (be sure that the baseboard will conceal the channel). Fish your tape from one hole to the other and pull the wire through. Tuck the wire into the channel and install nail plates at each stud. Re-install the baseboard ? no drywall patching required.

Routing wire around a door frame

Routing wire around a door frame: Carefully pry the molding away from the doorway using a chisel, small crowbar, or putty knife. Run the wire between the frame and the jamb. (You might need to chisel out channels for the wire in the frame, so that it doesn't get pinched or compressed when you replace the molding.) Reattach the molding, being careful not to damage the wire.

Routing wire horizontally through the wall

Routing wire horizontally through the wall: If you're working with a relatively short wire run, cut a narrow channel of drywall in one piece, using a utility knife. Ensure that the channel begins and ends at a stud, so that patching is easier afterwards. Drill holes in the stud with a spade bit. Pull wire and patch, using the piece of drywall you cut out. For longer runs, cut a series of smaller wire channels, each beginning and ending at a stud.

Routing wire from a J-box to an in-ceiling speaker

Routing wire from a J-box to an in-ceiling speaker: (A) Cut the holes for the speaker and the J-box. Cut two adjoining holes at the wall/ceiling junction, exposing the beams at the top of the wall, or "top plates." Fish down to the J-box and attach the wire to the fish tape. Pull the wire through the hole in the top of the wall, and remove it from the fish tape. (B) Fish from the speaker hole to wall/ceiling hole. Re-attach the wire to the fish tape and pull the wire to ceiling speaker hole. Notch the top plates and insert the wire in the notch. Affix a nail plate and patch the holes.

Drywall repair and clean-up tips

If your hole isn't much larger than the holes you cut for your speakers (roughly 70 square inches), all you'll need is some drywall tape (paper or mesh — mesh is easier to work with), a putty knife, joint compound, and either a damp cloth or some sand paper (60-grain and 100-grain).

  1. Place the piece back in the wall. Cut strips of tape, and apply them to each seam. If you're using paper tape, apply some joint compound to the seam, gently press the tape into it, and smooth it by firmly drawing a clean spackle knife across the compound and tape. Make sure there are no air bubbles. If you're using mesh tape, just apply the sticky side to the seam.
  2. Apply thin layers of joint compound over the tape (probably 2-3), until you have a smooth, flush surface. Let each layer dry before applying the next. Thin layers dry more quickly than thick layers, and will probably require less sanding later on since it's easier to keep them more flush with the wall.
  3. Gently smooth the surface. You can do this with a damp cloth or with sand paper. If you use a damp cloth, make sure it's a smooth, non-textured material. Work in short spurts, then let the joint compound dry and observe your work. If you rub the compound with too much pressure or for too long, you'll have to reapply.

    If you use sandpaper, start off with 60-grain. Sand the compound until you can't see the lines from the putty or spackle knife any more. Next, use 100-grain to get a smoother finish. If you've got a lot of sanding to do, you might consider using a belt sander — but be careful that you don't sand off too much, or you'll have to reapply. Another labor-saving option is to use a sanding block, available from your local hardware store.
  4. If you have primer, apply a coat before applying paint. Then paint the patch to match the rest of the wall.

If you need to cut a new piece of drywall to patch one or more of your holes, you'll need a utility knife, joint compound, and either a damp cloth or some sand paper (60-grain and 100-grain).

  1. If this hole was cut on an inward slant, start by removing any excess material. If it's not a square or rectangular hole, remove material around it in a square or rectangular shape.
  2. Trace the shape of the hole onto cardboard, or measure the length and width of the hole. Trace that shape onto the new drywall piece, then add a 2" border on each side. Cut out the drywall along the 2" border (the larger rectangle).
  3. Carefully score the drywall along the smaller rectangle that you traced (inside the 2" border). Make sure you don't damage the paper on the other side — this paper will act as your drywall tape. Peel or chip away the drywall around the scored square, leaving the 2" of paper on the opposite side intact.
  4. Apply a thick layer of joint compound to the area around the hole, as well as to the patch (on the side where you just scored and peeled the drywall). Use plenty of joint compound to avoid air bubbles.
  5. Turn the patch around so that the intact paper is facing you, and place the remaining drywall rectangle into the hole. Smooth it by firmly drawing a clean spackle knife across the patch. This should be a close fit, but not too tight. If you need some extra room, just chip a little more drywall off of your patch, or expand your hole slightly. Let the compound dry overnight.
  6. Smooth a thin layer of joint compound over the edges. You'll probably need 2-3 layers, or enough that the joint compound fully covers the seams and is smooth and flush with the surrounding wall.
  7. Follow the sanding and finishing instructions above.

If you cut a large hole that will require additional backing to support your patch, or if you're patching a hole in the ceiling, you'll need some wooden slats (2" x 4"), drywall tape (paper or mesh — mesh is easier to work with), a putty knife, joint compound, and either a damp cloth or some sand paper (60-grain and 100-grain).

  1. Do you still have the drywall you had cut out before to use as a patch, or do you need to cut a new piece? See the previous two examples for instructions.
  2. Cut a piece of 2" x 4", about 6-8" longer than the length across the hole (but short enough that you're still able to maneuver it inside the hole). If it's a very wide or tall hole, you might need to cut more than one piece.
  3. Place the 2" x 4" in the hole. Secure it to the existing drywall using drywall screws. Drill the screws in enough to make a slight dent in the drywall paper, but not enough to tear surrounding material. These screws will be covered up later.
  4. Place your patch of drywall in the hole, and secure it to the 2" x 4" with drywall screws.
  5. Apply mesh or paper tape to all 4 seams (see previous instructions).
  6. Using 2-3 thin coats of joint compound, cover the tape and fill in the screw holes. Build up a smooth, flush surface, allowing each coat to dry completely.
  7. Follow the sanding and finishing instructions above.

Additional tips

  • Cover your floor and any nearby electronic equipment or furniture before you begin — spilled joint compound and drywall dust can make quite a mess, and you don't want to have to clean that up afterwards.
  • Joint compound can dry quickly. Wash your tools as soon as you're finished with them, and dry them to prevent rusting.
  • Sanding joint compound with sand paper (instead of using a damp cloth) creates lots of dust. While not harmful, it can be irritating to the eyes and sinuses. Some people might be more comfortable using protective eye, mouth, and nose gear.
  • If you use a damp cloth to sand, work carefully and slowly so you don't remove all your work.
  • Be patient. Joint compound may need to dry overnight before it's ready for another coat or for sanding.
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