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I know I want to future proof my new construction by installing conduit instead of trying to guess what wires I'll want in 50 years.

But I want to understand the cost of conduit vs. non-conduit, at time of construction (before the drywall goes up).

EDIT An important bit of context here: I plan a concrete slab under the floor, and unconventional exterior walls that are nearly impossible to fish through later. So getting conduit right is particularly important.

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4 Answers

Running conduit now is definitely cheaper than fishing behind drywall later. It requires a lot of holes in drywall to fish wires, and then each hole needs to be patched, painted, etc. It's also a difficult and potentially time-consuming job, as existing wiring, plumbing, etc gets in the way.

It also depends on how much conduit you're installing of course - you can go overkill and that obviously costs more. Typically in a retrofit, the hardest places to get cables are outside walls (due to insulation/vapour barriers), and walls where there is no unfinished access above/below. It's pretty easy to get wires into first floor walls when you have an unfinished basement or drop ceiling.

Running cables now is not totally future proof, because you can spend a ton of money and run every cable imaginable, and still end up not having the one you need 10 years from now (because it doesn't exist today).


Here are some general tips:

  • If you know you will want to run cables in the future, and you're finishing the basement, make sure you use drop ceilings in your basement to access the 1st floor - the attic can provide access to the 2nd floor.
  • Optionally, Run some short conduits to boxes on exterior walls (and put blank faceplates on for now, if nothing else) just so you can easily get wires to them from below.
  • Utility pipe works great as conduit, and is pretty cheap. 1/2 or 3/4" will work well, though you may need to go bigger if you need to fish wires with connectors attached. Don't put any sharp bends in conduit runs, or you'll have a difficult time fishing later.
  • You can get signal extenders for many things that use Cat5e/6 wiring. For example: Audio, VGA, HDMI (note this uses two cables), and USB.
  • Great source for wiring, patch cables, panels, wallplates etc, is Monoprice. I have no affiliation, but I've purchased several times - they're cheap, great quality, and have a huge selection. You can get utility pipe at any home improvement box store.

Here's what I would recommend as a balance:

  • Run conduit to strategic locations: basement to attic; from your main wiring location to an yplaces you will end up putting a home theater system
  • Use Cat5e or Cat6 for all your network/phones. It's pretty safe bet that this stuff will be around for a long time, and continue to be useful.
    • Install at least a couple Cat5e cables to every room, and bring them all back to a central location. Use a patch panel to terminate them, as it's then very easy to re-purpose any individual jack for any purpose
  • Install speaker wires now for anywhere you're going to put surround sound
  • If you know you are going to require certain things, might as well run that cable now (eg, in my basement office/TV room, I have an HDMI cable going from where my desk is to the receiver on the other side of the room so I can put my computer screen on the TV).
  • If you're putting in a projector, run a conduit between it and your home theater gear.
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I can see that I was unclear. I have edited the question. I'm convinced that I should use conduit, but I'm trying to find the right balance. –  Jay Bazuzi Nov 20 '10 at 11:22
    
I would run wires for what you know you need now or in the immediate future, and just run conduit to strategic locations. Use cat5e for all your telephone/network, and only use RJ45 connectors (compatible with both). –  gregmac Nov 21 '10 at 1:42
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I agree with a lot of what gregmac is saying. My real question to you is what kind of wiring are you really thinking about for the future? Keep in mind that the trends are moving quickly to wireless technology and simple modulated (multiplexed) digital signals over existing conventional wiring systems. Today cat5 is used a lot, but I can see it giving way to fiber optics as the price falls and multiplexers are being coupled to computer automation for everything from remote lighting controls to energy monitoring systems. My son was telling me about a new virtual technology that they are testing at Micro Soft where actual wall coverings are interactive monitors and control panels.They actually have working displays there in Redmond. He is a computer engineer there and says to hang on to your hats, some of the new stuff is gonna blow you away. The current trend is moving towards low voltage for many applications as well. So i guess it is really hard to anticipate needs for 10 years from now, let alone 20 years. If you decide that conduit is really a good investment, (I seriously dough it however) be sure to check the most recent electrical codes if you are going to run any 120/240VAC in them, or if you intend to mix AC with any low voltage or data. RF interference is a valid concern. Also, improperly installed conduits can be a serious fire danger if not terminated properly in boxes etc. open ended pipes that run between floors, basement to attic for example, can be a direct path for fire to travel through a structure quickly. The other disadvantage of hard tubing is placements. Modifying locations of outlets or boxes of any kind after your walls are covered is much more expensive and difficult than with regular NM wire or cat 5 cabling. i know this probably doesn't really answer your original question, or what you may be hoping to hear, but I figured some of this might be food for thought. Good luck.

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I personally can not advocate running (mostly empty) conduit all over your unfinished house. The costs will add up to hundreds and hundreds of dollars, and could add several man days of labor. Then, when you need a new outlet, what are the odds that there will be conduit in the spot that you need it? What do you do if there isn't? Then you're back at the original problem.

Realistically, the odds that you will need additional cables run in the house someday are pretty darn good - however, the odds that you will need additional cables run in any one spot in your house are pretty darn low. Why waste the time and money when it's really not that much trouble to run cable through finished walls anyhow?

I'd say the exception might be for some low voltage services, say, if you've got a drop in each room for cat5/coax/component in a keystone plate or something. That is, a situation where any new runs you would want going to the same plate. In that case, you know where your hookups are going to be, and you'll never want any anywhere else, so putting in a hundred or so feet of conduit in the whole house would (potentially) wind up saving you a pile of hours when you do upgrade.

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Yeah, I know, it's not an answer, but it's really too long for a comment ...

Basically, conduit makes it faster to run cables later, but depending on what exactly you're doing, it might not be that fast -- if you don't know where you're going to need the cables to go to, and you don't have the necessary junction boxes to be able to re-route everything, it's not really going to solve anything.

Most of the problems with running cables are when you have to run them through, rather than parellel to wall studs, or trying to run cables in walls packed with insulation.

Because of the insulation issues, I'd be inclined to run conduit in those walls if the walls are open already, to the existing wall boxes, with the assumption that I could always either add a few more items to a given plate. (I tend to use quad leviton blanks, but could swap 'em out for the 6-hole ones, to give me a couple more items to fit in there).

But I wouldn't run them horizontally -- I'd run them vertically to either the attic or basement (if you're lucky enough to be in an area with basements), and bring them to where I could then run them through a larger chase. For interior walls, I'd just be concerned with knowing where the walls are in the attic, basement, crawl space, etc., so I could get into the wall cavity to add more cables down the road. (see my comment re: running wiring through a crawl space)

The only time you really have problems are on houses on slab that are 3+ story houses (can only really handle the top and bottom floors easily), or 2 story houses on a slab (can't run the lower floor to the basement when there's no basement). In those cases, it might be worth running conduit to a central location (eg, the attic), so you can then connect any two points in the house, even if it's a more circuitous route. But, as @shirlock homes pointed out -- these sorts of runs require capping or similar due to fire codes.

The only other times I can think that I might run conduit is if I were to have a wall that I couldn't patch easily down the road (maybe real wood paneling, or tile walls?), or if I had to run an outlet to somewhere in the ceiling, as it's harder to snake cables through the ceiling than it is the wall.

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