Once upon a time, I had a writer come to me
to propose a cover story for the magazine I was editing: "Cabling," she said. "Everybody needs it."
"Next!" I replied.
But, you know, she was right. We don't think about the wires that bind our gear together, and we should. The result of ignoring your wiring setup can be a rat's nest of cables under your desk that, at the most benign stage, proves a productivity sink when you need to do any maintenance. At worst, poor cabling actually can be dangerous: overloaded power cables can get hot and cause problems up to and including fires; loose cables trip people. I haven't had a fire yet, but I have tripped over wires, cursed at tangles I couldn't figure out, and wasted a lot of time figuring out just which wire under my desk belongs to which device.
Here are some cabling sins I have committed and how I promise to never sin again:
Not labeling the cabling
Most cables are fairly distinct: an Ethernet cable can't be mistaken for a power cord, for example. So if you're like most people, when you need to move a piece of equipment, the first thing you do is unplug all the wires and drop them on the floor or desk. But when the time comes to reinstall the gear, you may find that you have multiple cables that look the same--maybe an unused network cable lying alongside the live one, or two phone cables for different lines that you can't tell apart. Now you'll have to trace the wires back to their other end to find out what goes where, and this can take a while.
The easiest way around this frustration is to label each cable, at both ends, when you install it the first time. There are fancy cable labels you can get at RadioShack and other locations. I make my own labels with masking tape and markers.
Shorts are good
Whenever I used to install a new piece of equipment that had to be connected to another one, I always got the longest practical cable I could, thinking, if I have to move this thing later, I'll just pull the cable along with it.
Have any cabling disasters to share? How about your own tips and tricks to tame the tangle?
This was a mistake. I ended up with tangled spools of wire under my desk. They got in the way and made running new wires difficult. Furthermore, extra wiring, especially if it's looped into a bundle, radiates electrical noise, which can affect the performance of the cable itself or interfere with wireless devices.
Now I use the shortest cable I can, plus a foot or two of grace for moving equipment around. If I need to move a gizmo farther than that, I get a new wire for it.
Dark fiber in the office
The telecom industry talks a lot about using "dark fiber" for new projects. Dark fiber is fiber-optic cabling that's been installed in the ground when the opportunity was there to lay it down but that isn't being used. However, in the small office, unused cabling is not an asset. I used to leave old cables running around the edges of my office when I pulled equipment out, thinking that I might need it in the future. Once again, I was wrong, and the old unused cabling only gathered dust. Now, whenever I remove equipment, I pull up the wires as well. It's a hassle, but it pays off in neatness.
Bungling the bundling
The easiest way to make your life miserable, when it comes to wiring, is to just drop the bulk of your cables behind desks and equipment when you plug them in. Not only does this leave you with an unsightly mess, it makes figuring out what goes where very difficult. The solution: Wrap related cables together every few feet. The cheapest solution is to use twist-ties that you have lying around (they come with garbage bags and are also wrapped around the cables you get with new gear), but a more elegant and still very inexpensive solution is to purchase packs of cable wraps at Office Depot (or equivalent). Bonus: these are also great for keeping the power cords on your laptop power brick neat when traveling.
Those plastic Zip ties are an even cheaper way to bundle cables but are murder to undo; you need scissors or a knife to open them, and if you cut a cable by mistake, you will be a very unhappy camper. Use them for permanent installations only, or as ad-hoc handcuffs, like the cops do.
You can also get tubes that snap around wires. These make things look superneat, but I've found them to be a little hard to manage, although not as bad as Zip ties.
Seduced by the hype of wireless
On my desk, I have three so-called wireless devices: a keyboard, a mouse, and a cordless phone. But the desk is still a mass of wires. There are two monitors, each with signal and power cable; three speakers (left, right, center); the control pod for the speakers; the power cord for the phone's base station; a videoconferencing camera; and the wire for wireless keyboard and mouse radio receiver (I put it on the desk so that I can see the status of the Caps Lock key). The upshot: the wireless desktop and mouse didn't save me much in terms of neatness, but they do cost more than wired versions, and I have to replace the batteries from time to time. The wireless mouse is also heavier than the corded version, and that's not good for your wrists. While the best keyboards and mice today are wireless, on one of my machines I use a corded mouse (the wired version of Microsoft's Intellimouse Explorer 4.0), and I find it easier going than the wireless version.
Not taking care of my warts
Almost every piece of new electronic equipment these days comes with a power adapter, or wall wart. These bulky devices take up extra space on your floor and usually monopolize your power strips. There is a clever solution that makes it possible to reduce a power strip's footprint, which saves one from having to run multiple power strips with a lot of unused sockets: ultrashort extension cords allow power bricks to rest alongside power strips, so the bricks don't take up more than one outlet.
Manage the endpoints
At some point, perhaps when you get a new computer, monitor, or other component, you'll have to pull up cables you've laid down. So if you make sure the wire is disconnected on both ends and start to pull it up, what will happen? It'll snag on something. You'll have to dive under the desk to unhook it from, most likely, another cable. One way to reduce these snags is to use cables that are pull-up friendly. You can remove the screws from the plugs of monitor and printer cables. And if you have the opportunity, buy networking and USB cables that have smooth boots over the ends. They'll come up easier this way.
I still don't think cabling is worthy of a magazine cover. But it's something we all have to deal with, and with a little advance planning, you can make that rat's nest of cables behind your desk a bit less of a disaster. It'll save you time and a lot of aggravation.