Reducing and Centralizing Wiring for a LEED Home

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, my mind focused on lighting control and HVAC control, which together account for around 90 percent of the energy consumption in an average home.

Leviton structured wiring boxes

Leviton structured wiring boxes

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 towards 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.

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 systems’ design. It requires careful planning and coordination with the homeowner, the architect, 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 accommodate each project and its unique requirements. This was just another in a long line of curveballs I’d encountered throughout my career, and it’s always rewarding to put the barrel on the ball.

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

We investigated “green” cabling, which uses halogen-free plastic jackets that are still not terribly earth-friendly, but a bit less hostile to the earth all the same. Turns out, the Europeans like it, but you can’t get it in America. Believe me, we looked, and no warehouse we could find carries it.

So our attention turned to another requirement: 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 in order 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 no strangers to tech but also passionate about it, 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.

Centralized wire runs

Centralized wire runs

We also had another trick up our sleeve: 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 wouldn’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.

Which 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, since every amount and type of material used in the home can positively or negatively impact 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 key 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 figured out 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 and adjacent to the main utility room where all of the electrical boxes and lighting control system would be housed. Everything shares a common wall.

Usually, we’re the last ones in, we run our cables after all the other trades’ wiring, venting and pipes are installed, and we have to take what we can get in terms of placing our gear. In this case, however: paradise. Because we are professionals and try to be as courteous to the other trades as possible, we made sure our impact was manageable for the other trades.

Another happy circumstance from both a green and an interior design perspective is that we don’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 eliminates excess heat generated from typical AV equipment into a finished room (which has dual benefits since we are directing the heat into the generally cool, unfinished utility space and the living spaces do not have to compensate with cooling for the equipment heat).

Lutron lighting control panels, centralized to hub

Lutron lighting control panels, centralized to hub

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.  I was truly amazed that when we tallied the completed wire runs, and compared it to both similarly sized homes and similarly sized projects with home control and entertainment systems, we reduced the amount of wire installed on the project by 52%. By thinking about how we could take the most conservative approach, the application of a well thought plan was the most powerful thing we could do.  I was inspired to learn more about the principles of “green” design.  The project itself exposed me to the application process for LEED® accreditation, and through it, the instrumentation and measurement of the gains realized by good design.  Myself, I’ve taken an interest in the process, and l am beginning to appreciate the value that could be held as a building and energy analyst. 

My involvement in the Green Life Smart Life project was a terrific experience because it allowed me to reexamine the way in which we make decisions and re-value the criteria on which our projects and process are based. It’s certainly affected our typical project. Going forward, what I learned on this project will inform all of my future installations—and not just the green ones. This was a highly rewarding exercise and I’m happy to share what I learned with the custom integration community. Our last step, we are going to submit this plan for a LEED-H Innovation and Design point. This has no precedent so it has to be evaluated, but we will let you know the findings.

By Jeff Mitchell, Robert Saglio Audio Video and Lead Integrator for Green Life Smart Life. Jeff is a CEDIA certified installer and a member of the CEA TechHome. He has been with Robert Saglio AV for more than ten years.  Follow Jeff on Twitter : @audiojeff

 

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