Low voltage cabling terminology guide

The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Low-Voltage Cabling

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the world runs on the internet. Countless businesses, services, and platforms utilize the internet every day, allowing us to communicate with our friends and family across the globe. Wireless internet has made accessing the internet even easier, allowing all sorts of devices to connect from just about anywhere in the world. Even with all of the advancements in wireless technology, networks still require a hardline (physical connection) to service providers like AT&T and Charter.

That’s where low voltage cabling, or structured cabling, comes into play. There are a wide variety of cables that can be used to connect you to the internet. Each of them has a unique purpose and use within a structured cabling system to ensure your connection is optimal. The type of cable you need can depend on several different things.

  • Cable length – the distance the cable needs to go
  • Transfer speed and bandwidth – how much data you need to transfer across the network and at what speed
  • Device interface – the device(s) you are connecting to with your cable
  • Network complexity – how many devices are there to manage

Cable length

Cable length is pretty straightforward since each type of cable has certain limitations to how far it can reliably transfer data. For example, Cat 5e and Cat 6 cable have a maximum length of 300ft or 100 meters. Data can still be transmitted past that limitation, but it can become pretty unreliable without a cable extender/signal booster. If the distance is much longer than 300ft, a better alternative would be a fiber optic cable that can support several thousand feet of transmission.

Speed and bandwidth

Speed is another important factor when considering which cable to use. Internet speed seems to be something a lot of people complain about for good reason. The speed of a network is typically what bottlenecks most users when trying to download files off the internet, stream videos, play video games, or all of the above.

For most people, cabling isn’t the primary factor of limited speeds. Cat 5e cable can handle data transfer speed of up to 1Gbps at 100MHz, which theoretically could download a full movie in a matter of seconds. Cat 6 is even faster with 10Gbps at 250MHz, meaning you could download a movie or game in a second. Unfortunately, the majority of people won’t ever see speeds that high because there is a lot more at play than just cable speed. Speed can depend on your service provider, the switch or router you use, and the downloading speed of the website or server.

In most cases, Cat 6 will be the go-to cable between your device and the switch or router you are using. Cat 6 provides excellent speed and over double the bandwidth (how much data can be transferred at the same time) as a Cat 5e cable. However, when a single cable needs to support multiple devices then it might be time to start looking at fiber optic.

Device interface

Low voltage cables have very unique connections, so it’s important to take into account the devices that are being hooked up. Cat 5, 6, and 7 cables have the most generic and widely used connectors called RJ45. This is the typical connection you’d find on the back of your computer and on most routers and switches. This is another reason why Cat 5e/6 cables are generally used to connect to end-of-line devices like computers, cameras, and VOIP phones.

Fiber optic cables use several different connector types that aren’t typically found on end-of-line devices. These connectors are most often found on network switches or routers that act as an intermediary between the fiber optic cable and other devices. A Cat cable is then used to bridge the gap from the switch to the end-of-line device.

Network complexity

At its most basic level, the internet is pretty much just a network of interconnected networks. These networks are managed by home/work routers and network switches and then relayed back to the service provider. The complexity of these networks plays a big part in what cable should be used and where. For a typical home, a service provider will usually install a coaxial cable that can be plugged into a modem. From there, the modem connects to the router which then disperses a signal via wireless or Cat 5e/6 cables.

In some larger cities, fiber optic is being offered as an option for some households, but it operates along the same rules and replaces the coaxial cable. In most cases though, fiber optic is used for businesses and organizations because they require much more bandwidth and transfer speed. These types of networks are usually much more complex due to the number of devices. Businesses can also run servers that require much more bandwidth due to the large number of connections made to them.

Low-voltage cabling materials guide infographics

Types of cables

Now that we understand a little bit more about what goes into choosing the right cables, let’s look at the cables themselves.

Cat 5/5e

When the Cat 5 cable was invented, it really marked the start of large structured cabling systems within businesses. The cable provided increased speed at a reasonable price. It also coincided with the need for expansive networks due to the growth of computers and the internet.

Cat 5 was made obsolete with the invention of Cat 5e; it provided a speed of 100Mbps while Cat 5e can reach speeds of up to 1,000Mbps or 1Gbps. Cat 5e remains quite popular today and works well for basic applications that do not require too much bandwidth. Cat 5e provides a cheaper solution than Cat 6, but lags behind in the speed and bandwidth Cat 6 can provide. Cat 5e is limited to a maximum range of 100 meters or about 300ft.

Cat 6/6a

Cat 6 was a revolutionary design that increased the speed of category cable by ten times. Cat 6 boasts an incredible 10Gbps and 250Mhz which is 2.5x the bandwidth of Cat 5e. Bandwidth dictates how much data a cable can transfer at once, so this means that Cat 6 can transfer over double the amount of data at the same time. The catch is that Cat 6 can only maintain its high speed of 10Gbps within roughly a 50-meter range, it can only guarantee 1Gbps beyond that.

Cat 6a was designed to eliminate the range limitations of Cat 6 and can provide a speed of 10Gbps across the full 100-meter length. It also boasts an incredible bandwidth of 500Mhz, double that of Cat 6.

Cat 6 is the most popular cable to use in a wide variety of installations. It’s used to bridge the gap between a switch or router and an end-of-line device like a computer, camera, or wireless access point. While Cat 6a can provide better performance, it still remains significantly more expensive than Cat 6. The speed and bandwidth it provides is only needed in special cases, such as data centers or high-demand pathways.

Cat 3

Cat 3 cable is another cable quickly becoming obsolete. Cat 3 is a low voltage cable used for analog phone lines. It typically comes in large bundles of 25, 50, and even 100 pair which allows for telephone lines to be established in bulk. However, with the increased popularity of voice over IP phone systems (a system that utilizes the internet to transmit phone and voice signals), Cat 3 has found less use in newer installations. Service providers themselves have begun forgoing phone lines altogether and simply converting phone lines into digital signals when needed.

Cat 7

Cat 7 was an interesting invention that never found popularity like Cat 6. This was primarily because it didn’t conform to several standards set in place by the institutions like IEEE who set and test standards rigorously. It also stepped away from the standard RJ45 jack and tried establishing its own connector which didn’t make it very functional for most uses. The cable itself provided a solid 10Gbps and 600Mhz which was excellent performance at the time of its creation. Unfortunately, because of compatibility issues and the lack of an official stamp from the IEEE, its acceptance floundered.

Coaxial Cable

Coaxial cable is an entirely different cable type than the category cables. Rather than being made up of pairs of copper, it uses a solid copper center with a dielectric insulator and metallic shield. Because of this design, coaxial cables can transmit more data over a greater distance. This is why most service providers use a coaxial cable to bring the internet into your home.

Coaxial cable provides excellent protection against any possible interference which is why it’s commonly used in A/V (Audio/Video) installations. It can provide a clean and crisp signal without having to worry about disruption from electromagnetic interference. However, because of the unique connector types it uses, it isn’t optimal for going direct to devices like computers or phones.

Fiber optic

Fiber optic cabling is an entirely different type of cabling as opposed to the copper conductors we spoke of earlier. Fiber optic cabling actually uses glass to transmit light to transfer signals further and faster than copper conducting wire. This makes fiber optic cabling perfect for long-range use as well as situations that require the transfer of massive amounts of data.

Fiber optic cabling has quickly become the go-to cable for service providers like Charter and Time Warner. Because light can travel considerably faster than electricity, fiber optic cable can provide some pretty incredible speeds and bandwidth. There are a wide variety of fiber optic cables, but seeing speeds of 100Gbps is quite common.

Because of its high performance, fiber optic tends to be used when connecting networks together. Cat 6 cable has no problem providing enough speed for a few devices on a single line and feeding it back to a network switch. However, when multiple devices are connected to a single network switch, you are probably going to need a fiber optic cable to handle all of that data.

Since fiber optic cable is still relatively new to the scene and its manufacturing process is pretty intricate, it tends to be rather pricey. Therefore, it’s typically used in business settings or situations that demand long-range signals.

Terminations

Another important aspect of low voltage cabling is the connection or termination. Connectors provide a way for cables to interface with a wide range of devices. One of the most popular connectors is the RJ45, which is widely accepted as a standard for twisted pair cable like Cat 6. It goes by a number of different names including ethernet port or internet jack. It can be found on devices ranging from computers to routers, even security cameras and phones.

The terminations at the end of a cable can come in a number of different flavors including a wall plug or loose cable.

Brush plates

Brush plates are a type of faceplate that allows loose cables to come out of the wall and connect with your devices while still maintaining a clean and finished look. The faceplate is installed on a wall and the brush allows easy access to cables within the wall while keeping them from view.

Wall plugs

Wall plugs or “jacks” are faceplates that can have a number of different connections built directly into them. This provides a clean look while providing easy plug-and-play access to the cables behind the wall.

Patch panel

A patch panel is a collection of jacks all lined up in a row for easy access. This will typically be found in an IT closet often known as an MDF or IDF. The use of these panels makes it much easier to organize and connect to a large number of cables. Patch panels maintain a clean look and provide an easily accessible way to manage many different cables in one place.

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The simple low-voltage cabling guide

There’s a lot to take into account when it comes to low voltage cabling. With numerous options to choose from, there is more than likely a solution that can fit your needs perfectly. Each cable has a unique use and purpose, and it can be difficult keeping track of them all while finding the most cost-effective solution. That’s where our experts at Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy can help. We have the expertise and experience to help ensure you get the solution that suits your needs without compromise.

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