Cat 5 Cable – How to Test the Quality

If you’ve participated in building a new home, office, church or pretty much any other type of building in the past five years you have probably noticed that one of the staples is networking cable, or Cat 5 cable. Even if a resident doesn’t plan to use a network in their home, this is an easy, cheap way to “future-proof” any building.

What is Cat 5?

Cat 5, commonly known as networking cable, is basically just the wire that makes it easy to network multiple computers or ensure that all of the computers in your home can access the internet. Wifi may be more convenient initially, but the speed is never as fast as good old-fashioned wires and it introduces a whole host of security issues (imagine your next door neighbor intercepting your credit card number while you’re making an online purchase).

Cat 5 is so common that it is available now in bulk spools of 1000′. This sounds like a lot, but consider that even if you have a small house you will be running through and around walls and around corners. The price of bulk cable is also really good – the only thing to keep in mind, though, is that you will be responsible for terminating the cable. This isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds and a good crimping tool isn’t expensive at all (be sure to buy some heads, too).

Quality concerns

The most expensive ingredient in any networking cable is the copper – when copper prices go up, the cables naturally become more expensive. While manufacturers have to adjust to these price shocks quickly (they usually buy their copper in the spot market), consumers aren’t quite so flexible. Imagine walking into a store and seeing a price that is twice what you saw in the same store last week. What manufacturers do instead, to avoid sticker shock from consumers, is they use less copper and throw other metals in, resulting in a copper clad aluminum alloy, also known as CCA.

Be careful when you hear the term “CCA” that you don’t throw it all into one bucket. There are good CCA cables that rival bare copper cables and there are bad ones that have so little copper that they just can’t perform basic networking duties. Here are a few ways that you can distinguish good CCA cable from bad cable:

  1. Make a kink in the cable – continue working this around in a loop. If it breaks within the first 15 loops, it is bad cable.
  2. Strip the jacket off the cable. Take a knife and whittle the copper off – if within one stroke the cable turns aluminum-colored, it is too thin. It should take 2 or 3 strokes to get to the aluminum core with good cable.
  3. Weigh the cable – decent CCA weighs at least 15 pounds for a 1000′ spool – if it is less than this it does not have enough copper to be a good cable.
  4. Do a speed and distance test – try to connect two computers over 500′ of the cable and see if it works – the bad stuff won’t, the good stuff will. (Note, you will need to either inverse the termination to make the cable a crossover cable or use a hub between the computers).

Another thing to be careful for with cheap Cat 5 cable is the jacket quality – when you are bending the cable if the jacket splits you have a low quality cable. This is at best a bad cable, at worst a serious fire hazard waiting to happen.

Don’t take any chances with the wires you are running through your home – make sure when you select Cat 5 cable that you get something that will get the job done at a reasonable price keeping safety in mind. Always remember to test a cable before installing it behind a wall – getting it out can be difficult or impossible depending on your configuration.