Sometimes the smaller things matter
When it comes to Ethernet wiring, most of us get hung up on the big questions:
Do we need wiring? Why can’t it all be wireless Wi-Fi?
What kind of Ethernet wire should we use?
How can I make my own Ethernet patch cables?
What’s the difference between T568A and T568B?
Where does it need to be? Every room?
Can it be retro-fit in existing homes?
How much is it going to cost?
Can I do it myself?
How hard is it?
I have disappointing news. Although those are all great questions, I’m not going to answer them now. I want to focus on a less strategic, but equally important topic – Ethernet patch cables.
What is an Ethernet patch cable?
A patch cable is an Ethernet data cable for connecting different equipment to each other. It is sold as ready-to-use cable so it has RJ45 modular connectors already installed on each end.
Patch cables are available in many different lengths and colors. Since one is often connecting equipment right next to each other on a table, shelf, or equipment rack, it is convenient to buy shorter lengths of cable so you don’t have messy loops or tangles.
Patch cables may be measured in feet or meters. Common lengths include 1 foot, 2 foot, 3 foot, 6 foot, 10 foot, 25 foot, 50 foot, or 100 foot.
Patch cables are available individually or in multi-packs for convenience. There are many brands, many suppliers, so naturally many combinations of size, quantity, and options.
Colors are completely cosmetic. There are no official building codes or networking standards that require specific colors. Amongst professional installers you’ll find they often have their own color schemes, but you’re free to make up your own.
All patch cables share one very important feature – they are ready to go – Simply buy it, plug it in, and use it.
By contrast, bulk Ethernet cable is sold in large quantity spools or boxes and requires cutting to the desired length, stripping the insulation from the ends, and installing the plastic RJ45 modular connectors using a special compression crimping tool.
The process of turning the raw end of an Ethernet cable into a usable connector is called “wire termination” or “terminating the cable”.
Interconnecting network gear with Ethernet patch cables
As you build up your smart home capability, you’ll have a cluster of devices in the equipment room, router cabinet, or server area of your home.
This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Quite often this is simply a shallow box installed vertically sticking out of your wall in a bedroom, closet, utility room, or garage.
This is where your Internet line (and in the old days, telephone lines) enter your house from the outside. Nowadays, it is typically a coaxial or fiber optic cable from your Internet service provider.
In this area you’ll have an Internet modem, network router, and Wi-Fi equipment. In the simplest case, this will be only one box that performs all these functions. But as you expand your system, is it more likely that you have two or three, or more devices each handling one function.
As you add smart home services such as lighting controls, security systems, and other devices you may have small boxes called bridges or hubs that also need to be connected to your Internet router and Wi-Fi.
So it is easy to end up with 4 or 5 or more devices in this equipment closet.
Ethernet patch cables are used to connect each of these devices to your Internet router. Consumer routers often have only 4 or less Ethernet ports so you might be adding a separate Ethernet switch to add 4,8, or 16 additional ports.
As you can see, that’s a lot of Ethernet cables going between everything. Keep it neat and organized by using short Ethernet patch cables instead of ending up with a rat’s nest of 50 foot cables running only a few feet between the devices with large loops of cable piling up on the floor.
For a professional installation, consider using a compact 12-port CAT 6 patch panel or a full size 24-port CAT 6 patch panel. Connect the Ethernet cables from the wall to the rear of the patch panel and then connect Ethernet patch cables from the front to your network equipment.
Using Ethernet patch cables for distribution
The other common use in our homes for patch cables is for Ethernet distribution within a room.
With the wide use of streaming media, the typical family room or TV entertainment center has changed quite a bit.
Smart tv’s need a network connection for firmware updates and streaming media. Game consoles such as Xbox and Playstation need a network connection. External media boxes like AppleTV, Roku, or Nvidia need their own data connection. Add in smart audio solutions like Sonos speakers or AV stereo/amplifiers and that’s 5 or 6 connections needed.
Of course, you can rely on Wi-Fi, but it’s much better to use wired Ethernet for as many devices as possible to keep that precious Wi-Fi throughput available for your cellphones, laptops, and tablets where using a cable is horribly inconvenient and often just not possible.
Take that single Ethernet jack in the wall, add another 4 or 8-port Ethernet switch, a bunch of patch cables, and everything can be neatly wired together.
An added benefit of hardwired connections is they can be “set it and forget it” without the nagging problems of WiFi wireless connections always acting up as just the wrong time.
What makes Ethernet patch cables special?
Ethernet patch cables are more than just pre-cut, pre-wired, ready to use Ethernet cables. They are a different kind of wire.
Standard bulk Ethernet wire as used for the long runs inside your walls use solid copper wire for each of the eight wires in the cable.
Ethernet patch cables use stranded wire instead of solid copper. Each wire in a stranded cable is actually a bundle of multiple thinner copper wires that make up each conductor.
Side-note: Be sure whatever wire you buy – Ethernet patch cables or bulk Ethernet cable, use only solid core copper wires. There is a lot of cheap wire sold that uses an aluminum wire with a thin coating of copper instead of a solid copper wire.
This copper-clad aluminum (CCA) is terrible. Aluminum is not as good a conductor of electricity as copper and is a bad choice for carrying data. (It’s even a bad choice for electricity – ask your electrician why it isn’t used any more there either.)
CCA wire is cheaper. A lot of the Ethernet wire sold online is CCA. You have look carefully at the fine print and make sure the product description says it is solid core copper and not CCA.
This isn’t just a price thing. CCA wire is not certified for use as network cable. It really should be illegal to sell any Ethernet wire that is CCA but unfortunately it isn’t illegal, just very unethical and very bad.
Solid core copper Ethernet wire, as used in bulk Ethernet cable, is cheaper than stranded Ethernet wire, but don’t try to be frugal and buy bulk wire to make your own patch cables.
Although patch cables are more expensive, there is an important benefit. The stranded wire in patch cables makes them stronger while being more flexible. Patch cables will be bent, twisted, and abused more than bulk wire that is just inside your walls never being disturbed.
Ethernet patch cables tend to be plugged and unplugged more frequently. The stranded wire allows the connector on the ends to be inserted and removed with less danger of breaking the connection between the modular plug and the tiny wires inside.