Building a New House or Doing a Renovation, with Home Automation in Mind?

Here is what I would set out as a specification for your electrician:

1. Put in the deepest wall switch boxes that are readily available for your wall thickness. Some of the modern Insteon devices are getting quite large now that they contain wireless mesh net antennae ("Dual-band") circuitry, and the Insteon Switchlinc On/Off Relay switch - which you would use for all wall switches that don't require dimming circuitry, are now rated to switch 17 Amps / 1 HP / 1800W. The downside to this high current capacity is that it's supplied with 12 gauge leads - large, require larger maretes to make connections, and less flexible. So it becomes a chore to install these and try to stuff the wires and connections behind it. So - deep switch boxes will make this easier.

2. Always feed the switch box first - and everywhere there is a wall switch control. In my current house - this rule is 75% respected - except for most of the closets, where the circuit is fed from the ceiling light octagonal box, and a two wire 14 gauge cable (14/2) is sent down to the switch box. So - if you want to install an automated switch - you're in trouble because there is no neutral wire in the switch box. There are ways around this - Insteon sells a dimmer switch that doesn't require a neutral wire, but not a relay switch which is required for flourescent fixtures and some LED fixtures.

3. Make sure there are a good number of blank or spare breaker spaces. This makes it easy to add a double breaker to install a phase coupling powerline communications module (for better powerline signalling - e.g. Insteon), and a spare outlet for the installation of your powerline modem (PLM) right next to the panel for the best possible comminications with your Insteon devices located across your house.

4. Have your garage door opener wires - from the door sensors and wall mount controls to the opener location - run in the wall behind the drywall. This will ensure a nice neat setup without any surface mount wires. Have your electrician install an outlet in the ceiling of your garage, close to the opener. If you want to have the lockout limit switch to avoid garage door activation when the door is bolted, you can run those wires behind the drywall also.

5. Wiring for 120V wired smoke detectors - if the code in your area only calls for one smoke detector on each floor of the residence, consider upgrading the wiring to include one smoke detector per floor, plus one smoke detector in each sleeping room. The wired smoke detectors can then be interfaced to your home alarm system and your home automation system using interconnection relays like the Kidde SM120X.

6. Cabling - You can run structured cableways throughout your house for future expansion requirements, which is certainly a good idea, but for some reason the structured cable tubing is really overpriced. For short runs within walls - I've used ordinary shop vac or sump pump tubing - which is about 10 times less expensive, but it is not plenum rated for fire safty - it should not be run within ventilation ducts or in open ventilation spaces above modular ceilings. Here's a short list of cables you may wish to consider running in your walls before closing up drywall:

  • Smoke detectors - 110V with signal wire - every level of the house plus one in every sleeping room;
  • Network Cat 6 cable;
  • Video RG6 cable for classic cable / digital cable / PVRs;
  • Video surveillance. Sure, you can get wireless IP cameras, but you still have to get power to them. Power over ethernet is one option - run Cat 6 cable to camera locations, or plan for regular analog output cameras (which are much cheaper) and run a combination video signal / power cable. Front door, back door, garage, a few eaves of your house to watch your driveway, yard, etc. 
  • Alarm system - see below - panels, keypads, motion detectors, sirens;
  • Automation of roller blinds and shades - run cables to window corners for future upgrades;
  • Telephone (Cat 4, 5 or 6) - plan where your cordless phone base station will be - run a Cat 5 cable to that location, and also plan for a UPS protected outlet at that location so when the power goes out, your cordless phones still work;

7. Alignment of boxes - you can check out my post on Wall Acne - but I would certainly try to plan for and enforce coordination between the various contractors that are installing anything on the walls, such as:
  • Alarm contractor - panels, keypads, motion detectors, sirens, etc;
  • Electrician - lighting, outlets and switches;
  • Network - Cat 5/6 internet cabling, telephone cabling, coax cable, etc. 
  • HVAC - thermostats and controls for ventilation - humidity control, etc. Note that the thermostat has to be placed in a central location in the home, that you`ll need thermostat cabling to the furnace / mechanical room, and also keep in mind that modern intelligent recovery thermostats for heat pump systems require a separate cable running from the thermostat to an appropriate exterior location under a roof eave for outdoor temperature measurement.
  • Other items such as smoke detectors and CO (carbon monoxide) detectors. 
You'll end up with fewer wallplates and wall acne issues if you can use separator plates to double up electrical and low voltage in the same wall box. I've done this to combine telephone / internet cabling with electrical outlets, and wall switches with low voltage ventilation controls. You just need a wall box with a metal separation plate - your electrician will be able to help out with this. The trick, however, is that you'll need to direct your electrician to install the double boxes with separation plates before your network cable and HVAC installation takes place, so it requires some planning. 

Note the metal separation plate running down the center of this box, separating low voltage on the right, from line voltage (110V AC) on the left.
In a retrofit situation, you can add a surface mount media frame next to a standard simple outlet. It takes some adjustment to get the hole centers aligned to fit a double wallplate correctly, but it ends up being neater than having two boxes in close proximity on the wall.
Another example - telephone and internet next to outlet using surface mount media frame

Combination Electrical Box / Low Voltage Media Frame - These are tough to install in a renovation - easier to install in new construction

Venmar air exchanger control on the right, Insteon Light Switch on the Left.


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