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Tracking the Mega Job: Part 4: The Prewire

Earlier this year, my custom installation company—Custom Theater and Audio—landed the biggest job in our 18-year history, both in the physical size of the home (21,500 square feet under roof on one floor sitting on four acres of property) and in financial scope of the job. I decided to chronicle the project over the course of our design and install.

Bringing you up to speed…

Earlier this year, my custom installation company—Custom Theater and Audio—landed the biggest job in our 18-year history, both in the physical size of the home (21,500 square feet under roof on one floor sitting on four acres of property) and in financial scope of the job. I decided to chronicle the project over the course of our design and install, detailing the decisions I made in system design, proposal process, prewire, trim out, and installation.

Back in April I posted Part 1 of this saga where I discussed The Spec Out. If you missed that, I went over my thought process on coming up with the system for this job; how I tackled the size of the job, and figured out the best way to handle audio/video distribution and control as well as my choices on selecting the system components.

In May I posted Part 2, where I discussed The Setup, detailing how I presented the items I was planning on using to the husband and wife builder team running the project. Prior to giving them the proposal, I wanted them to understand what each component was, why I selected it for the install, how it worked and fit into the overall scope of the job.

In October I posted Part 3, The Pitch, where I went over creating and presenting the proposal to the builders to (hopefully) secure the job. (Spoiler: we got it!)

So now we come to the part where our company was actually ready to begin doing some work on the job. (In real-world time, this would have been the middle of April of this year.) Typically, we view prewires as a sprint; we fall out on them with a full crew, drop into our rolls of putting up speaker brackets, nailing up wall boxes, determining and then drilling holes for wiring routes, and then pulling wiring in earnest. And I’d say that our company finishes about 80 percent of the prewires we do in a single day, and rare is the prewire that lasts more than three days.

Obviously this job was more a marathon race than a sprint, so before we started on the job I met with all of my techs and we came up with a game plan on how we would tackle the wiring on this project. The first thing I did was mark up three different sets of blueprints:

Not only did this help me to visualize what needed to be done and to see the distribution of signals around the house, it also made it much easier to have wiring teams focus on specific tasks, and to be able to cross them off as they were completed. As this job spanned multiple weeks, keeping up with what we had done and what still needed to be done—especially as the bundle of wiring and trunk lines grew and grew—became something we really needed to manage.

One set of prints had the cabling going to each TV and electronics’ home run area. Another showed all the speaker sizes, types and locations, and local in-room HDMI and AV runs. Another had all the dual and triple runs of Cat-6 and Control4 touchscreen locations. When the security system grew to 32 external video cameras, another plan showed each camera location and the field of view it would cover. My business partner, Allen, was handling all the Lutron HomeWorks wiring and he had separate plans marked up for our techs to pull wiring to the Vareo locations and for the electrician to pull to each of the power panels.

Nearly every TV in the home has a combination of dual RG6 coax cabling and between three and four Cat-rated wires. TVs that are getting HDBaseT baluns for video distribution have Cat-6—along with the network runs between the main Pakedge router/switch in the rack and the smaller switches in each sub-system—with Cat-5 being used for controlling the TV via the Control4 system.

The day of the prewire looked like we were establishing a mini Liberty wire distribution warehouse in the garage as we brought in spool after spool of cabling.

Before we started pulling any wire, our team walked through the house and determined the best routes to establish our wiring trunk lines and finalized location of in-wall controls and homeruns for each bedroom suite system and speaker frame locations. Then working in pairs, we drilled a probe bit down into the basement to make sure our route was clear before drilling out the hole large enough to accommodate each wire run.

As mentioned in previous posts, this home boasts an enormous full basement, with six-and-a-half foot ceilings running the entire length and breadth of the home. Besides greatly cutting down on the length of many runs, having a basement gave us the ability to set up two different prewiring stations, one in the AV closet and one right below it in the basement. This let two different wiring teams work literally right on top of each other without being on top of each other.

In the closet we set up our dual Cat-6 pull station:

And in the basement we had this rig set up:

It was also nice because we could leave these wiring rigs set up over multiple days, and not having to lug all of that wire in-and-out each day saved several hours of time.

Having the techs work in pairs, someone managed the wiring coming off the spools while the other pulled and routed the cabling, and then the spool-man headed over to pull the wire up (or down) into each room. The pairs would then work and ziptie the wiring slack back to the spools and label and cut off the runs. Here’s a shot of one of our basement trunk lines:

The family room and indoor and outdoor kitchens all have massive concrete block fireplaces that needed to have cabling surface run in flex conduit, so my lead tech, Tom, handled getting the conduit in place and screwed it to the fireplaces and then ran the wiring through for the 80-inch TV’s video, control, and audio. Also, the family room’s massive ceiling height—around 35-feet at the peak—required a lot of work off a ladder on top of a scaffold or some seriously sketchy crawling around on the rafters.

Since all of the exterior walls on the home are built using Insulating Concrete Form (ICF), routing wiring up or down these walls required drilling out the top/bottom plate and then channeling out the Styrofoam that covers the concrete. We used to use this heat iron tool to cut a channel into the foam, but it was a fairly slow process. So several years ago we switched to using a small electric chainsaw to quickly slice a track for our wire to slip into. You can just ride the blade along the concrete and quickly cut a path. This is fast (though messy) work, but you have to be careful that you don’t get too zealous and get all Texas Chainsaw Massacre and accidentally slice through some any other trade’s wiring.

And in case anyone ever forgets whose wire belongs to whom…

Because the home theater was my special baby, I handled wiring that myself. We used all 12-gauge Liberty cabling to each of the theater’s 11 channels (front L/C/R, front height, two pair of side surround and surround back) and Monster sub cable to the two front sub channels. The front wall is a double-stud construction to help isolate sound from the adjacent bedroom, and had to be reframed slightly to accommodate the precise placing of the massive Monitor Audio Platinum-in-wall front channels and height channels.

When we finished up, our main wiring closet looked like this (all the RG6 for cable TV and Cat-5 for telephone are routed into the wiring can):

We spent several hours trimming all the wiring back, relabeling it, sorting and bundling it into “like” type so that it would be easier to route into our rack later.

To allow any wiring additions or upgrades or servicing that need to be done down the road, we installed a 3-inch conduit that runs from our main AV run up into the attic and down into the basement. Since each suite has its own “mini system,” getting from the basement to these racks would be a pretty easy process. So, the home should be squared away for years to come, able to update as technology and their needs change.

By the numbers, we spent 23 days on the prewire, totaling 504 man hours and pulling almost nine miles of cabling throughout the house. That included: 9,068 feet of RG6, 7,290 feet of Lutron light/shade control wire, 13,050 feet of Cat-rated cabling, 9,505 feet of 2 and 4 conductor speaker wiring, 7,168 feet of security wiring, plus a host of Redmere enabled HDMI cables and local analog audio cables for the Control4 Wireless Music Bridges.

In Part 5, I’m going to tackle the fiber optic starlight ceiling we installed in the media room!