How important is it that you leave your installation nice and clean?

Let’s all pause for a moment while the more anal retentive members of the crowd admire the lovely order of these cables. I took this photo myself at DIRECTV’s Los Angeles Broadcast Center. This is a facility with easily 50,000 wires and cables and each is beautifully wrapped and labeled. It’s a fair bet your home doesn’t look like this.

But how important is that anyway? Does it really matter if your home theater install is perfect in the way it looks? I think it really does matter in commercial installations because you never know who is going to be maintaining them. Order and labeling and clarity are extremely important there. At home, maybe not so much.

There are some people who go really crazy with the zip ties and label every single thing as if they were in a nuclear facility. And then there are people who just let the cables fall into a heap on the floor. Personally I think I’m more in the middle, although I tend a bit more toward organization.

The real trick when you’re doing an install is that it’s neat enough to know where everything goes but not so nailed down that you can’t fix something that needs to be fixed. Tying everything into little pigtails is nice but if it keeps you from swapping out a piece of gear, that’s a problem.

I’ve seen this before, in fact I’ll share with you an experience I had about a decade ago. I had a computer with a RAID, meaning that there were several disks and one could fail while the others kept going. That’s what happened — one of the five drives failed. The problem was in order to get at them, even though they were hot-swappable, I had to cut about seven zip ties because the computer was locked so tightly into the rack that you couldn’t get at the hatch that let you take out one drive. It took me about three hours to do what should have taken three minutes, and I had to take the computer off line when it should have been an easy fix.

There’s always this tendency at home to neaten up the parts of your install that are visible to others. Of course we all want a nice clean looking home theater and clean wires are part of it. Just remember that if you do tuck something in, untuck it and if you do tie things down, make it easy to untie them. I use velcro cable ties, or if I have a lot of things to tie down I will actually use the velcro training tape that’s designed for outdoor plants. It comes in a roll and you can cut what you need.

My solution for home installs is to leave plenty of room behind furniture where you can coil and store extra cables. It makes it easy to pull those extra coils out when you need them and put them back when you’re done. I try to make sure I’m leaving three extra feet of cable whenever possible so it’s easier to move things as needed. I also try to avoid leaving extra cables in an install if I can help it, the exception being anything in the walls. If it’s going in the walls I almost always fish a second one for a spare because it’s such a pain to fish things through the walls.

So yes, I do think it’s important that you leave your installation as clean as you can, but you need to balance that with the ability to repair or upgrade. Don’t paint yourself into a corner, because it’s really annoying to paint yourself out.