I get asked a lot about how to "Future Proof" a new home. The answer isn't smart wiring, running fancy cables you don't know if you'll ever use or up front installation of the latest gadgets and home automation technologies. It's simple plastic tube - conduit.
The majority of home builders are struggling to figure out what they want their house to have when construction is completed, let alone 5, 10 or 20 years into the future. It's a balancing act of overall budget and making sure you include what you need now, without incurring too much cost in the future to add stuff you might need later (or have no idea you need yet).
If you're planning on building a home and only ever take away one useful bit of information from my blog articles, let it be this - Install electrical conduit to each and every light switch and power outlet. The bigger the better.
Most homes now are constructed with channels carved into the brick which wiring is run down and then rendered/plastered over. This is great from a cost saving point of view during construction. But it means that for the decades to come the only way to run new wires, replace or repair that wiring means cutting that wall again with something like this:
You can imagine the state this leaves your wall in afterwards and the amount of dust it creates.
For those of you building a home with frame/plasterboard construction for your interior walls this advice still applies to you. That hole drilled in the wooden battens that's only big enough to accommodate the two wires to your wall switch? You're not going to be able to make that hole bigger to run a neutral wire for the fancy smart switch you purchased unless you remove the plasterboard or can find a spade bit with a shank that is 1.5m long and get access from the roof space to drill down the entire wall cavity. If you can do that, there's probably a future for you in the Oil and Gas industry.
Size does matter
I'll start with this one as it's an easy case to make. Bigger diameter means you can accommodate:
- More cables
- Thicker cables - long cable runs need heavier gauge wire or shielding.
- Large Connectors on pre-made cables (eg HDMI, USB, Ethernet) especially when there's a bunch of other cables in there already.
- Easier, faster installations in future (you pay Electricians by the hour and they don't come cheap)
So, use 32mm where you can, 25mm should fit just about everywhere and use 20mm only when there's no other option. One day you'll be glad you have a conduit, trust me.
Install conduit even where you've got nothing planned
The simple reality is that during construction may be the only opportunity you have to think ahead and avoid some partial demolition or unsightly workarounds later. Things will be built or constructed that there's no way to go through, around, under or over later. Some examples of traps:
- Vaulted ceilings that effectively divide a house into multiple roof spaces.
- Slabs, footings, driveways, pathways.
- Liquid limestone or concrete around the pool or patio
- Retaining walls
Whether it's power, data, water whatever - conduit is so much cheaper than digging up, drilling under or through this stuff later even if it is possible to do so. Seriously, it's around $1.20 per meter. You don't even have to put wires in them or connect them to anything. Run a length of string through them, put 2 end caps on, mark it on your house plans. Done.
When the day comes and you need to put a cable under the driveway or out to where a spa has magically appeared, dig up the ends, attach your cable to the string and pull it through.
That $5 bit of plastic tube could save you thousands. Think of it as very cheap insurance where you only pay the premium once for lifetime cover.
Run two conduits even, one for power and one for data.
Won't everything be wireless?
Finally an excuse to use one of my favourite Owl Memes.
The dream of wireless electricity probably died with Nikola Tesla so let's put that to rest for anything requiring more than a few milliamps of power. Even though you can charge your phone wirelessly now, let's not forget that the charging pad is connected to mains power by... wires.
I could go on for hours about this, but here's what you need to keep in mind:
- Batteries go flat - and there are some things that can't be practically powered by batteries.
- Radio is affected by interference (especially when lots of devices are trying to use it at the same time).
- Lowest Latency and Highest Bandwidth will always be on the end of a cable, as those trying to play Fortnite or stream Netflix in UHD on NBN satellite or fixed wireless will attest.
- Wireless transmitters and receivers cost more than copper wire (and need power cables anyway).
Your Wi-Fi is a finite resource. Don't underestimate the number of devices you'll be cramming onto your network such as Phones, tablets, laptops (ie, things that are truly mobile). Don't underestimate the number of devices your neighbours will have that are competing for the same radio frequencies.
Use wires where you can and keep wireless for things that really need it, therefore have a plan for some ethernet cabling in your home - or at least put some conduit in so you can add it cheaply later on when your overloaded Wi-Fi network collapses. As a bonus - you can power devices using DC over ethernet cables as well which covers the vast majority of our high tech gadgets.
The Homebuilders Oath - for those who don't heed my words.
I'm not unsympathetic to the challenges people face when they embark on building a new home. It's expensive, and anything you can do to make it cheaper is going to look mighty attractive especially if you can't see the short term need for it. I wrote this Oath for a friend recently, so they can make a conscious decision about where they decide to trim costs on installing conduit:
We, <insert wife's name> and <insert husband's name> being of sound mind and body and possessing a form of clairvoyance, do solemnly swear that in any room where we have opted not to put conduit to the light switch and power outlets will never, ever, in the course of the decades that we may own this home:
- Add a wall lamp or feature lighting
- Install a Ceiling Fan
- Install motor controlled blinds
- Install exterior roller shutters
- Install wall mounted touch displays or controls (including iPads or Android Tablets)
- Decide to split existing lighting circuits into two.
- Install switches with LED light indicators that require Neutral connections
- Install smart switches that require Neutral connections
- Replace a single button dimmer with an up/down button combination
- Consider a skylight with motorised cover
- Install a winder controlled window or vent (either in the roof or wall)
- Upgrade a bathroom to have an integrated Light/Heat Lamp/Fan unit which requires an extra on/off switch
- Contemplate any other modification which results in us saying "Hey, it'd be cool if we could turn this on from where the light switch is".
Failure to adhere to this oath will mean that the $29 we saved on conduit must now be spent on:
- $200 for an electrician to "chase" the wall for a new cable
- $150 for an electrician to replace the old cabling and install new.
- $500 to repair the wall and repaint the room. (And a warning to <insert husbands name> - you know the redecorating won't end there).
- $70 for a carton of Guinness to be delivered to LiveHouse Automation, who, to be fair, told us this would happen.
Signed: <insert wife's name> and <insert husband's name>Date: ____ / ____ / _____
As you can see from the list above, it's not all "Smart Home" technology that drives the need for careful planning of your wiring and calls for liberal use of conduit - it's mostly the same stuff we've been doing to our homes for the last 30 years.
You'd think we'd have learned by now. Well, the builders have. That's why conduit is now on the Extras list, starting at $29 for a $2 piece of tube.
Well played sirs.