Smarthome 102 – Electrical
Following on from my article on Plumbing your smarthome here are my top tips for electrical work when you’re designing or remodeling a home. I’ve bought surprisingly featured homes designed with expansion and maintenance in mind, and also homes that though well built,were not built to be smart, maintainable or upgraded.
Don’t forget that most countries require permits for electrical additions, even if it’s just adding a new outlet so the more you plan ahead, the better use you can make of your electricians time.
1. Run Neutral wires to each switch location.
More common now than a decade ago, but still I see new homes with no neutral in switchboxes. This may seem obscure, but most modern smart switches need live and neutral to operate – but most lighting switches work on live only. Make sure your electrician runs neutral wires to all switch locations so you can add smart switches at some point in the future.
2. Future-proof with conduit
Countless times I’ve wanted to run a network or HDMI cable down a wall, or near an existing outlet, and been thwarted by in-wall blocking, stapled cables etc. If you’re lucky enough to be building new, run conduit!
My advice – wherever you think you might install a TV, now or in the future, run conduit to a blank box – you don’t even need to put wire in it or cut a hole in the drywall – as long as you know it’s there, you can get to it later. In fact, unless you’re SURE you’re going to put the TV up immediately, I would leave the box behind the drywall.
Terminate the conduit either in your system space, or in the attic.
Having a few runs, one to each room, to wherever you might put a TV, or if you have an inaccessible ceiling, next to your speakers etc means it’s simple to run new wire, power, HDMI, fiber, whatever the future creates.
Not running conduit means tearing into walls and redecorating which is harder to fix, especially if you have textured walls.
3. Home Run Cat6 Network
Do you think your future contains more data devices, or less? It’s more obviously and with 4k TV on the horizon, the capacity of current WiFi is just not going to keep up. So, wiring your home for data is going to be essential if you’re considering streaming high definition TV to more than a couple of screens at once.
So make sure wherever you have a wall you might put a TV on, and at least one place in each room you run a Cat6 (or two) – have them all come back to a central point in your home where you can dedicate a small switch and your internet connection.
If your home is sprawling (that doesn’t mean large – just long) you might need wireless repeaters, and these too work best if they are hard-wired back to your switch – so consider a couple of points in your home and one near your garden if appropriate that you can discretely mount wifi repeaters.
4. USB Outlets are convenient, but watch for power ratings
There’s a lot of convenience in being able to just plug your phone into an outlet without having to find the power brick – these combined USB/Power outlets are great – consider where you’re going to park your devices and liberally scatter them about your home.
Keep an eye out for power ratings though – the first generation of these outlets would only slowly charge an iPad, and not two iPads at the same time.
However there’s now “cafe style” outlets with 4A charging – enough for two power hungry iPads at the same time
5. Separate breakers for each rooms lights and outlets
Unless you’re wiring a really small house – I recommend having a unique breaker per room for outlets at least, and for the bigger rooms, a breaker for each rooms lights as well. Some rooms, like your kitchen you’ll need more than one.
Work with your electrician to map things out in your interest – he’s going to want to run the least wire and the least number of breakers, which results in situations like my home where, although up to “code”, I have 22 outlets on one breaker, and plugging in a vacuum causes the lights to flicker (and computers to reboot). Believe me – you don’t want that.
Having separate breakers means if one trips, it doesn’t kill power to more than one room, and of course separating the lights and outlets means at least one will work.
6. Critical Load panel and outlets
Though we’re not quite at the point where every home has central battery backup, if it’s something you think you might get in the future having a dedicated circuit in your panel linked to an outlet in each room means in the future, you can include that circuit in your “critical load panel” – it also means if you need to cut the power for a room, there’s still one outlet you can use for a lamp or power tool.
Make sure there’s one of these outlets placed wherever you think your cable modem/wifi, alarm system and garage door opener etc will be installed.
I recommend installing a different colored outlet for this critical circuit so it’s clearly identifiable.
You can go a step further of course and have a dedicated sub-panel for critical loads, which should include your fridge, the critical outlet circuit, garage door opener, alarm, and all the things you might want always on in the event of a power cut. Installing this panel now makes future solar/battery/generator features much easier to incorporate
7. Washlets Rule, but warm water means electricity.
If you remember my article on Plumbing, I recommended to skip bidets and install washlets – but these require power, so don’t forget to add an appropriate GFI protected outlet close to every toilet.
8. Outside and Holiday Decoration Outlets
If you’re like me and you like to decorate, you probably (like me) hate the rats-nest of extension leads thrown over the lawn etc.
Take some time to power the perimeter of your home so you can plug in a hedge trimmer or decorations without extension cords everywhere. Like spigots, you can never have too many outlets, and having them in flowerbeds as well as on the outside of your home gives flexibility.
Remember, those outlets could easily be z-wave or Insteon controlled in the future.
Outside outlets need to be in waterproof boxes and GFI protected of course and you need to bury the wiring in conduit – again, trivial while you’re constructing, but harder to retrofit without the aid of a trencher.
9. Go overboard with your oven/cooktop power
For those with electric power kitchens, there are some incredible innovations happening around electric cook-tops – Thermador’s Freedom induction to be one example – They take a lot of power though so think about running separate feeds to the oven and cook-top if your kitchen has both. A modern convection/microwave+ oven combo can be 30A, and the cook-top the same – so the traditional minimum code single 40A feed just isn’t enough.
Running a new high amp wire from your breaker panel to your kitchen is likely to be a major job, so do it right at the beginning and plan for more power.
10. Floor Outlets eliminate trailing wires.
If you’re lucky enough to have big rooms – think about some strategically placed floor outlets so you can have a casual lamp on a coffee table without running a wire across the room.
It will take you no effort to install while your house is being built or remodeled – but becomes a nasty chore once the flooring is installed.
What tips do you have for people building their smart homes?