Of Cables, Conduits and Labels

Warning: Rant coming. It might be best to get the kids out of the room for a minute.

One thing I've discovered in the last 20 years of doing church tech (and other tech for that matter) work is that in any given cable installation, over a period of time, the once neatly installed cables degenerate to a mess resembling a big old plate of over-cooked #11 Vermicelli. I don't know if there is a roaming squad of cable trolls who tangle it all up or what, but it's been true of nearly every installation.

So last night I decided to pull all the cables in our youth ministry center and lay it out again. I wasn't surprised that all the cables were twisted up, and that a bunch of stuff was not connected correctly. What really aggravated me was that I found a bunch of cables that were laying in the cable tray under the counter with no labels on them. There were RG-59's that disappeared down a conduit without a trace of where they may go. I found cables running up to our RF DA in the ceiling without a single flag of tape as to which one was input and which were outputs (after toning them out I found out the input cable was connected to an output terminal, explaining why the system didn't work…). I found eight 1/4" lines also laying in the tray, with no idea where they go.

I've done a lot of wiring in my life, and I've learned a few things. One is that putting a label on a cable end doesn't take that long, and it makes troubleshooting a lot easier. I've learned that in a month, I will not be able to remember where all the cables go. I've also learned that I will not be the last person working on the system. And this is where the aggravation comes in.

If you start running cables all over your church to connect rooms or booths or TVs or whatever, and none of them are labeled, at some point, something will get disconnected and someone will have to figure out what goes where. If everything is labeled, it's a whole lot easier to track it down, especially in a large church. We have 5 theaters that are all inter-connected by unlabeled wires. Which makes the wires in the conduit useless. At some point, I will have to spend the better part of a day toning these lines all out and figuring out what goes where. That's a huge waste of my time, and it could have been avoided by putting something other than a flag of red tape on the end of a cable.

I like to label everything. We have one of those nice label printers with a QWERTY keyboard on it, and I personally have gone through at least four 50' rolls of label tape in the last year. I label connectors with the tape, and put clear heat shrink over the label (a cable tray full of labels that dried out and fell off is almost as frustrating as unlabeled cables).

While were on the topic of labels, make sure you label it so someone else can understand it. "To Lobby TV" might be a great label—if your church has one lobby and one TV in said lobby. However, when you add on in 3 years and have another lobby with another TV, things will get confusing. For runs that leave the room (whatever room they originate in), I suggest some type of code to go along with the label. If you have all your rooms connected with RG-59, perhaps tag each end of the cable with a serial number, like "RF-1," "RF-2," etc. You can also put something on there like "To Min Cntr" so that someone has an idea where to go look for the other end of "RF-2." Same goes for audio tie lines.

I even label cables in equipment racks and behind soundboards and the like because eventually, it will need to be unplugged. Who can remember what gets plugged into where? If the connector is big enough I'll label it with where it goes, "To Projector," and what it gets plugged into, "Octo Output 1." If it's a small connector, I'll just call it what it is, "RF Mod In." The idea is that one person should be able to unplug everything, and someone else could plug it all in correctly, and without tracing lines all over the place.

Next time you're about to string some cable over the ceiling, or push it into a conduit, think about putting a label on it. It takes just about a minute to do it, but I can almost promise you will save someone a lot of time trying to trace it out later. You can get a label printer just about anywhere; clear heat shrink is cheap insurance and available here.

If you happen to be the one who ran cable all over Crosswinds with no labels, I hope I didn't offend. Perhaps you can come in some Saturday and help me track them down and we'll label them together.