A structured media enclosure has become standard fare in many new homes, as production and custom home builders are often including technology wiring packages in their base home feature lists, or offering them as upgrades. These in-wall panels are congregation and access portals for various types of so-called structured or home-run wiring, and are typically fitted between wall studs during construction. And largely due to the relatively low cost of installing these panels and associated wiring runs—particularly if there is a desire to install smart-home technology in the future—we recommend you opt for as much of this low-tech, future-proofing componentry as your construction budget can afford.
Although most new smart-home and Internet of Things (IoT) technology will include a wireless networking option, there will continue to be certain devices that will require hardwired connections. For example, internet routers typically call for a wired Ethernet connection to the broadband provider’s equipment.
And then there is the ever-present issue of wireless network security: WiFi signals can be subject to compromise by hackers, whereas Ethernet-connected devices are generally safer. Additionally, the advent of 4K video—manifested as Ultra HD (UHD) on new flat-screen televisions—and the forthcoming 8K video technology standard, beckon for wired Ethernet connections lest they over-saturate your Wi-Fi network. After all, you want to conserve some bandwidth for your mobile devices, right?
Do you already have a structured media enclosure in your home or apartment/flat? If so, it is probably installed in the back of a closet, and enclosed with a cover that is locked down with screws. Most starter technology wiring packages will include a single 14-in. by 14-in. panel, and the enclosure may be crammed with coils of wiring, various types of ports and connectors, and possibly a small Ethernet hub or switch. The wiring itself may consist of CAT5, CAT6, or even CAT7 networking cable, coaxial CATV cable, low-voltage security wiring, and more.
In the event one plans to install a cable modem, a high-end internet router, or expand to a larger Gigabit Ethernet switch, a question then arises: Where does the new device reside? More than likely, there is minimal room inside the structured media panel, and moreover, many electronic devices generate significant heat that can make installation in an enclosure problematic—and may even void the manufacturer’s warranty.
For example, in the case of a cable modem, you may have the option to locate it in your entertainment console, as long as there are Ethernet and coaxial ports pre-wired to that location. And that scenario also dictates your internet router be installed in the same location, as it needs to connect to an Ethernet port on the back of the cable modem. In an ideal connected world, a homeowner would have the flexibility to place networked components where they desire, rather than where wall jacks and wiring dictate.
A Better Solution for the Connected Home
Here at Digitized House, we advocate installing more than one structured media panel if possible, and ideally consolidating as many of the core network devices into a centralized location, such as a mechanical or utility room. For our testing lab environment, which is admittedly architected to enable us to easily and flexibly deploy and test the latest smart-home and energy-efficiency technology, we planned from the ground up to include a dedicated and air-conditioned 7-foot by 8-foot mechanical room.
In this mechanical room—to enable maximum flexibility and future-proofing—we began by installing a pair of 14-in. by 28-in. Structured Media Enclosures from Leviton, and equipped them with the Leviton premium hinged doors. These white metal doors can be fitted with flush-mounted locks if desired, and are also available in a vented version—which may facilitate installation of electronic devices inside the enclosures due to the passive air flow through their built-in vents. Each enclosure was also pre-wired with electrical power, and we installed blue Leviton duplex receptacles with integral surge protectors in the bottom of each enclosure.
Three additional Leviton enclosures were installed in the home, including a 14-in. by 14-in. panel in the great room behind the flat-panel television mount, another 14-in. by 14-in. panel in the craft/utility room to house our eGauge energy monitoring system, and a 14-in. by 28-in. panel in the detached garage to house the powerline networking components needed for the Enphase Energy Enlighten remote console we use to manage our roof-mounted solar photovoltaic system.
Again to enable maximum future flexibility, we interconnected the structured media enclosures and major rooms with so-called futuretubes. For this purpose, we used 2-inch flexible raceway tubing from Carlon, which was purchased in rolls and threaded between the wall studs and above the joists in the sealed attic space. This blue, hard-shell thermoplastic tubing has the capacity to easily carry a dozen or more CAT6 to CAT7 cables, and we can use a standard fish tape process to route additional cables as needed from panel to panel, or from panel to room jack.
Rising Above the Panel with a Hack
When we were ready to install our high-end router—selected from the ASUS RT series line of multi-band routers and equipped with a trio of directionally-adjustable antennas—it was clear this device was not a candidate for installation inside a structured media panel. So, we elected to look skyward and took advantage of wall space above the panel.
Our solution included a racking hack of sorts engineered by using conventional shelving products in unconventional ways. Inspired by information technology network component racks, which are infinitely adjustable and flexible, we sourced our hack components from The Container Store using their Elfa shelving components. We began by installing an Elfa Easy Hang Top Track on the wall above the structured media panel, located about a foot below the ceiling. Then we attached a pair of Elfa Easy Hang Standards to the track, and dropped a pair of 4-in deep by 18-in wide Elfa Utility Shelf/Trays into the slots on the standards. Voila! An instantly adjustable, slim-profile component rack, perfectly sized to hold a router, smart-home hub, or cable modem.
Once the racking hack was in place, we installed a portal in the wall above the media panel to enable us to cleanly and easily thread hidden cables and wiring from the media panels to the racking area. For the portal itself, we found the Cooper Wiring Devices 2-Gang White Standard Single Receptacle Plastic Wall Plate to be a perfect fit.
As we have more networked devices than the average smart home, we installed a 16-port Gigabit Ethernet switch on the wall above the portal. This switch, the Netgear GS116, is also smart enough to power down any ports not actively in use—a nice watt-conserving touch in this zero net energy home.
Then, with the ASUS router in place on the shelf, we interconnected the Ethernet patch panels in our two media enclosures with the Gigabit switch and router via short, carefully arranged CAT6 patch cables. We wrapped up the installation by placing our Wink smart-home hub on the shelf as well.
On the Wall and out of the Way
The end result of this hack is an exceedingly clean yet eminently flexible solution to our ongoing requirement to easily install or swap out networking and smart-home devices, while at the same time ensuring they are getting the ventilation they demand. The slim, wall-hugging profile of this racking setup—which is located near the door of the mechanical room—means it never becomes an obstacle to room entry.
We hope this article inspires you to build upon the already rich benefits of standard structured media enclosures and wiring in your own home. Doing so will more effectively prepare you for the onslaught of internetworked smart-home technology and energy conservation devices that are sure to come.
Editors’s note: This content was revised on 31 August 2018.
Tom Kolnowski is the Chief Content Officer & Founder of Digitized House Media, LLC, the publisher of Digitized House | Guide to the Connected Home. When he isn’t writing about smart home technology, sustainability, and high-performance architecture, you’ll find him exploring faraway destinations with his family.