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Wiring for a Green Home

There has been a lot written about the Green Life Smart Life home integration project in Rhode Island, because of its goal of combining digital and green lifestyles in the most ambitious way possible. The project also happens to be the brainchild and passion of one the CEDIA channel’s most respected public relations professionals, Kim Lancaster Hageman, who knows a thing or two about promoting cool technology. RS wanted to cover the GLSL project from a unique angle, so we asked Kim’s ESC, Jeff Mitchell, to write this article about his involvement on the project, from a strictly “green wiring” standpoint. Here is his story.

When Kimberly and Joe Hageman approached me to work on their Green Life Smart Life project, they told me their goal was to show how green lifestyles and digital lifestyles could happily coexist. Immediately, I immediately thought of lighting control and HVAC control, which together account for around 90 percent of the energy consumption in an average home. Traditionally, custom integrators have focused on the ease-of-use and convenience that lighting and HVAC control systems can provide. My thoughts turned to shifting the focus of these subsystems toward enabling energy-efficient operation of lights and climate control. Kim and Joe agreed, but they wanted to go further. They wanted a green infrastructure, too.

Wiring for a green home essentially meant using fewer cables, but there was more to it than that. Here, lead tech Carl Myllymaki, of Robert Saglio Audio Video Design, pulls a bundle.

Now here was something I’d never encountered, but it made me realize for the first time that installing a system in a green home isn’t started by making “green” product choices. It starts with the home system’s design. It requires careful planning and coordination with the homeowner, the archi•tect, the interior designer, and the other trades before a single wire is run. With full knowledge that a possibly arduous path lay before us, the Hagemans and I set out to devise a green wiring solution. These were new criteria that I hadn’t worked with before. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the custom business, it’s that you need to be versatile, able to make changes on the fly and, most importantly, be willing to accommo•date each project and its unique requirements. This was just another in a long line of curveballs I’ve encountered throughout my career, and it’s always rewarding to put the barrel on the ball.

First, we examined our traditional solution approach and determined the environmental impacts. This was a highly useful exercise because going forward I’ll know what impact my most commonly used products and materials will have in a green installation.

We investigated “green” cabling, which uses halogen-free plastic jackets that are still not terribly earth-friendly, but are a bit less harmful all the same. Turns out, the Europeans like these cables, but you can’t get them in America.

So we came up with another solution: using as little cable as possible. That meant both fewer cables and the shortest possible runs.

“Fewer cables,” of course, runs counter to the time-honored custom integration strategy of installing more wire than is necessary to ostensibly future-proof a system (and to cover your bases in case an unexpected change in the installation arises after the cabling has already been installed). I was lucky in this instance; unlike many clients, Kim and Joe, not only are no strangers to technology, but they also are passionate about it and knew pretty well before construction started what they wanted in each room and location. We just ran whatever the expected hardware in each location would require and nothing more.

We had another trick up our sleeves when it came to wiring: conduit. We ran Carlon Resi-Gard to our critical locations and just enough cable through the conduit as we thought we needed. And if we needed to run more cable later, we would-n’t need to tear open the walls; we could just snake it through the conduit. Essentially, the conduit makes the system inherently future-proof and cuts down on unnecessary use of cable. Additionally, you’re not going to be in a position where you need to cut into drywall later to add wiring. An empty (or semi-empty) pipe is as good as it gets.

The downside to conduit, however, is that it’s expensive and somewhat difficult to install. You need bigger holes, and it’s not as flexible due to its larger minimum bend radius.

This brings me to my next point about green wiring (and, in fact, any wiring job). Establish your cabling pathways as far ahead of actual construction as you can. In a green home, chances are your client will be thinking about these things further out, because every bit of material used in the home can positively or negatively affect its LEED for Homes (or competitive equivalent) rating. The other tradespeople will appreciate it as well, and you can build more solid relationships and channels of communication with them.

This was especially important in the Green Life Smart Life house in terms of assuring the shortest possible cable runs. Because we were involved so early in the process, we got preferential treatment for locating the head-end of the system. After evaluating the placement of the entertainment systems, we located a spot in the basement that would be the shortest distance from all points. As a result, our racks are located directly below the main entertainment area, which is directly below the master bedroom. Everything shares a common wall.

Another happy circumstance from both a green and an interior design perspective was that we didn’t have any local entertainment equipment, aside from displays. We centralized content and control in our head-end equipment room. This cuts down on the cabling required and makes the interior designer happy, as well.

I was intrigued to find that the most significant impact we were able to make on this project in its course toward a more sustainable guide was in the planning. We saved nearly half the amount of wiring materials we would normally allocate to a project this size, by thinking about how we could take the most conservative approach.

My involvement in the Green Life Smart Life project was a terrific experience, because it allowed me to re-examine the way that we make decisions and re-value the criteria on which our projects and process are based. Going forward, what I learned on this project will inform all of my future installations, and not just the green ones.

Jeff Mitchell is director of projects and systems for Robert Saglio Audio Video Design in Carolina, Rhode Island.