Wiring an old house for Ethernet can be challenging but offers real benefits. Wired Ethernet is faster and more reliable than wireless, so devices that have a wired connection can take advantage of it. Having wired connections also allows you to distribute wireless access points throughout your house for better, faster coverage.
So you even if you’re a heavy wireless user, there’s a lot to gain from having good wired connections. Believe it or not, you can do it with simple tools and very little tearing into your walls.
What you’ll need
- Bulk cable or long pre-made cables (long enough to reach from each room to your central switch)
- Keystone jacks (if using bulk cable) or keystone couplers (for pre-made cables)
- Keystone wall plates
- Low voltage old-work electrical brackets
- Several coat hangers
- Drill with a 1/8-inch bit and a 1-inch spade bit
- Drywall saw and/or an oscillating tool
- Stud finder
Wiring an old house for Ethernet
Here’s how to wire your old house without hiring an electrician and without spending a week doing it.
I’ve wired several older houses. All were single-story houses built in the 1950s or 1960s with unfinished basements or drop ceilings in the basement. This arrangement makes it easy to drop wires down into the basement, where I could connect all the wires to a single switch connected to a cable or DSL modem.
Making it easy on yourself
I do not assume you are an electrician, a network professional, or anything else. This is the lowest-effort approach I know given materials available in 2016.
Punching down network connections is a skill, but not everyone has it. I’ve tried, but many of my connections wouldn’t work at full speed. I hate that. So I recommend using pre-made network cables (25 feet is a useful length) and keystone couplers. With this approach, a guy like me can wire a room in about half an hour. It can easily take me 20 minutes to wire just one end of a cable.
If you can wire connectors well, and have the right tools, go for it. For the rest of us, keystone couplers are great. The couplers are more prone to fail than a properly wired connection, but swapping them out only takes a minute or two. I can’t remember having had one fail, although some Monoprice customers report they have.
Keystone jacks and premade cables are more expensive than buying 500 feet of bulk cable and the connectors, but once you factor in the tools, my approach may be cheaper. Even if it’s not, it’s worth a couple of bucks per port to me to not have to punch down cables.
But if you can punch down cables quickly and do a good job, more power to you. You have a skill I don’t have.
The other half of the equation are some tricks I learned from professional installers. I can’t find these tricks anywhere else online, so I’ll share them here.
Ethernet cable is limited to 328 feet in length, which won’t be a problem in these kinds of homes. CAT5e is cost effective and sufficient for 1 gigabit connections; if you need 10 gig, use CAT6. In 2016, most of us don’t need 10 gig yet. For the foreseeable future, CAT6 is overkill for home use, let alone CAT7 and CAT8.
Before you run cables, test everything first. Plug your long cable into your coupler, plug a shorter cable into the coupler, plug one end into your switch, and plug the other into a computer. Make sure it syncs up at gigabit speed. Here’s how to check your network speed in Windows 10. Mark any defective cable and exchange it–though defects are unlikely.
Test everything again after you run each cable, of course.
Drilling and cutting
Find a place at least a foot away from your electrical outlets. Electrical wire interferes with networking, so you want to avoid crossing the two types of wires.
Next, use a stud finder to find the studs in the walls. Mark the locations with a pencil. Cut a 3×2 opening in between the studs at the same height as your nearest electrical outlet.
The easiest way to do this is to hold the outlet box against the wall, mark the four corners, and connect the dots. Then drill small holes in the corners, then cut along the lines with your drywall saw or an oscillating tool with a cutting blade. An oscillating tool makes the work go much faster.
Save the piece that you cut out, in case you make a mistake and need to match the paint.
The trickiest part is finding the space between the walls where you drill for the cable. Here’s a shortcut. Take a piece of coat hanger wire and chuck it into your drill. Push the wire down behind the baseboard near your new opening, then drill straight down into the floor below. Go down into the basement, and you’ll be able to see the coat hanger wire poking down from the ceiling.
Repeat on the other side of the wall if you can.
If you can’t drill on both sides of the wall, Keep in mind the wallboard is about a half inch thick on each side, and the plate is between 1.75 and 2 inches wide depending on the age of the house. Measure back about an inch from the wire and drill there.
Rather than going straight to the 1-inch spade bit, I recommend using a smaller drill bit, having measured wrong and drilled into the wall itself before. Smaller mistakes are easier to patch. Check the location of the hole from inside the room, then drill a one-inch hole with a spade bit.
From the basement, thread an Ethernet cable up into the hole. But before you do that, tape a string to the cable that’s at least a couple of feet long. Thread the cable into the hole. Tape it in place if necessary. Then come upstairs, grab the cable from inside the opening in the wall and pull it up. If you want to run another wire, tie it to the string, pull the cable up, and grab the additional wire and untie it from the string. Plug the other end into a keystone coupler.
Always attach string to at least one of your cables. Someday, you’ll want to run another cable into that room, and having that string there will make it really easy to do.
Place the low voltage box in the opening and tighten the two screws to clamp it into place. Next, plug keystone couplers into the cables, then snap the couplers into the wall plate, then screw the wallplate to the box.
The result looks more professional than some installations performed by real professionals.
Covering your mistakes
If you mar the wall, don’t worry. You can patch walls easily with common spackle. Get a fresh can of it if the spackle you have is dry and crumbly. Good spackle has a consistency somewhere between bread dough and pancake batter.
Save the cutouts from your walls. If you don’t have the paint anymore for the room, take the cutout to a paint or home improvement store and they can match it. You’ll probably only need a pint, so it will be inexpensive. Use this for touchups and you can disguise any mistakes you made easily.
A shortcut for adjacent rooms
If you’re wiring two rooms that are adjacent to one another, you can run your network connections to opposite sides of the same wall. Just cut an opening into the other side after you finish cutting your first, and run a second set of wires.
Applying this to other types of houses
In a house without a basement, you’ll have to go up into the attic instead of down. The same principle should work, but you’ll be drilling into the ceiling and you’ll need to patch it when you’re done.
Two-story houses will be trickier, since you can’t gain access to the top or bottom plate from the adjacent finished floor. You’ll have to cut your hole, then use a flexible drill bit to drill from the finished area. It should be doable, but I haven’t done it.
If you don’t have easy access to parts of the house to make it easy to run cables through the walls, you can also consider powerline networking. If it takes a combination of Ethernet, powerline, and wireless networking to get the coverage you want, that’s OK.