Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Good Duct Hunting

December 2000

By Mike Gould

I'm not a carpenter, and I don't play one on TV, but sometimes I have to pack up my tools and do home handyman behaviors at other people's houses. I had such an occasion recently when I had to install a router so that a client could share her cable modem connection with her daughter's iMac, located on the second floor of their recently-purchased house. How to extend the connection 100 feet away and one floor up?

Ducts in a Row
(This is going to be one long, extended duct joke. But you knew that.) You may recall from last month's article that I recently got 3 requests in one day for router installation, which allows several computers to share a cable modem connection. This was my first such install, and since some distance was involved, I had a pre-production meeting with the client to scope out the situation.

The house involved was about 10 years old, but woefully under-wired in the communications sense. There was but one phone line, and that in an inconvenient place. The MediaOne folks had pulled in their line to the first floor office and set up the client's G3 Mac with a cable modem.

And now the daughter on the second floor wanted in on the action. AOL Instant Messenger just isn't fast enough on a 56K modem, I mean, reeeely! (I can hear the anguished wails now: "Jeeez, mom, I don't BELIEVE you like, bought a house that didn't have Internet in every room...")

Duct Crossing
So how to accomplish this? The point is to conceal the wire, for safety as well as aesthetic reasons. For short runs, you can conceal the cable in wall-mounted stick-on conduit, or just leave it on the floor, tucked under carpeting where the floor meets the wall. But this wasn't going to work over such a distance, down stairs, and around corners. An inside job was called for. The astute out there have by now probably figured out the punch line I have been telegraphing here: pull the wire down the cold air return duct work.

There was such a return in the room; a straight shot to the basement. From there I could run the cable across the basement ceiling, and back up to the office using the cold air duct there. And that's what I did.

Happy returns
I had the client drop a weight on the end of a rope down the cold air return, and bounce it up and down off the bottom of the duct so I could figure out which pipe in the basement was the correct one. Using a cordless drill with a nut driver on the end, I was able to disconnect the duct, providing an outlet to the basement. We fished the entire 100 feet of wire down the duct and were on our way. Getting the ducts back together was another story; I had to bend the pipe a bit to leave space for the cable, and the tight fit of the pipes made re-connecting them complicated. If you are contemplating performing this at your house, make sure you: wear gloves (the ends of the ducts can be sharp), wear a cap (this is pretty dirty work), and wear goggles to keep the dust out of your eyes.

Duct soup
By the time the ducts were back together, there were gaps in the joint caused by my wrestling with it. The usual fix is: that's right, duct tape! Wow, used in its proper context for the first time! Except I forgot to bring any with me. Fortunately, my client was getting ready for some winterizing and had some expandable urethane foam; a few judicious shots of this and we were resealed and ready to conduct some cold air. And Internet. (Make sure you are wearing eye protection if you are messing with foam; it can be nasty on skin and eyes, and tends to get on clothing.)

I had brought a heavy-duty stapler with me, and used it to attach the wire to the joists in the basement, being careful to avoid putting a staple through the cable (or my thumb). I then improvised a cable-puller out of a coathanger, and pushed it through the area between the return and the floor in the office. Back in the basement, I taped the cable to the end of the coathanger wire. Running back upstairs to the office, I gently fished the cable out - I had to bend the return metal slightly to get the plug through, but, success! Bedroom to office with no holes drilled and no injuries. (Except for the foam I dripped onto my new tennis shoes, but I've managed to scrape most of it off.) The cable fits under the cold air return cover nicely, as it sits on carpeting.

The handyman bit done with, I plugged in the router and the two computers, and settled in to chat with the nice folks at MediaOne. 15 minutes later we had the router MAC numbers registered and both computers were online. Total time of installation: 2.5 hours.

Duct Migration
The router company had told me that Ethernet is good for a maximum of 300 feet. Unsure of the total distance, I had brought additional short cabling, and couplers that can be used to join pieces together. But 100 feet of cable was sufficient, and is now running AOL chat to the second floor.

So that's how you can deal with wires if you are in a home or office with duct work. If you have steam heat, you may need to deal instead with drills and fish wire. But that's a different story (and a different set of jokes).

(No routers, installers, or ducts were harmed in the preparation of this report. Well, one duct was bent up a bit, but we foamed it back to full functionality.)

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