If walls could talk, they would reveal the secret inner workings of a house. Many of a home’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are hidden inside walls and ceilings, says Dave Pedigo, senior director of technology with Custom, Electronic Design and Installation Association.
“What’s behind the walls isn’t very glamorous, but it’s what makes the house work,” he says. “Most people don’t think about the things inside a home’s walls until there’s a problem and you have to fix it.”
The web of a home’s mechanical workings contains numerous systems: plumbing and venting; cable television wiring; in-wall speakers for surround-sound; central vacuum; alarm and surveillance; electrical outlets; Internet access; telephone wiring; thermostat/humidifier controls; motorized window treatments; electrical heating and ductwork; natural gas pipes; exhaust fan ductwork and wiring; lighting, and framing for doors and windows.
“It can be crowded behind the walls of a home,” Pedigo says. “That’s why it’s imperative to run conduits that contain the wires, with an access point at which to get to them, should you ever need to.”
A homeowner can aspire to build a top-of-the-line “smart” home, one in which lighting, heating/cooling, computers, entertainment systems and security alarms and/or cameras are automated, and can be controlled by one or more keypads in the house or remotely through the use of cellphones or the Internet. But homeowners who want to renovate and upgrade an existing house can also install luxury system wiring, whether or not they buy the equipment.
“While it’s easier to start building these systems into the walls from the ground up, there are also many experts who are good at fishing wires behind existing walls for new systems,” Pedigo says. “If you’re renovating a home, at some point, you need to discuss with your contractor if it is more cost-effective to tear down interior walls to the studs to run all necessary wiring.”
Pedigo says it is especially cost-prohibitive to fish wires in old homes with plaster walls. “When it comes to wiring behind the walls, drywall is your friend,” he says. “Designate and have wires and cables installed for electronic items before walls go up. Whether you buy the equipment now or later, you have the wiring all taken care of.”
For example, if you’re building a home, have every room in the house wired for cable television hookup. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a television in every room, but it provides options to a homeowner.
Pedigo says when it comes to walled-in systems, there are four types of contractors who install the labyrinth of wires, pipes and ductwork: heating, ventilation and air conditioning professionals; plumbers; electricians, and specialty electrical systems contractors. Generally, as the pipe or wire becomes smaller, those are the professionals who do their work later in the construction process.
But no matter how elaborate a home becomes with automation, Pedigo says always start with the basics. “Building codes dictate a certain amount of electrical outlets and switches. Systems that first go into the wall include heating/cooling, plumbing and insulation,” he says. “After the necessities are taken care of, you move into more luxury items, such as security, surveillance and sound systems.”
Fewer wires may be needed as more electronic components become compatible with wireless equipment and controllers. But, despite dreams to be wire-free, the power for wireless systems still has to be hardwired into a home. And a wireless way of life isn’t without its drawbacks, Pedigo says.
“Hardwiring a home is still the fastest and most reliable way to implement an electronic system,” he says. “While technology is moving toward creating wireless systems, you may experience interference or a disruption of service based on other wireless devices operating on the same frequency in your home or your neighborhood.”
When building a home or renovating an existing one, check references and have specialty contractors install systems within their expertise.
It’s also important to walk through with contractors to ensure all systems are in place, especially before walls go up. “Once the drywall is in place, you can change things, but it takes more time and money,” Pedigo says. “It’s up to you how you want your house to be customized, but it’s better to think about everything you want before the house it completed, rather than after. I’ve never heard a homeowner complain about running too many wires for systems they may use down the road.”