Fish tapes are some of the most commonly used tools for running home alarm wiring in existing construction. Without a good tape, and the skill to use it, most hardwired alarm installations would require lots of drywall repair.
If you’re installing a do it yourself home alarm, or if you work in the alarm business as a security technician, you’ll need to be familiar with how to use and take care of this tool.
Tapes are available at most home improvement centers, as well as online. See 50-foot fish tape at Amazon.com.
In use, the end of the tape is sent up into the attic through a hole drilled at the alarm device location. Then, a wire is tied onto the end and pulled back down. The alarm equipment can then be connected to the wire and mounted.
Hardwired home security systems require a physical electrical connection
to each alarm device. Home security devices can include door and window
switches, motion and glassbreak sensors, keypads, sirens, smoke
detectors, and more.
Besides the fish tape, there are other tools available for fishing wires. I've also used glow rods, and long drill bits which can be sent up shaft-first. These work fine when there is plenty of attic clearance above them, like in the middle area of a typical ranch-style home. This is where keypads, sirens, and motion detectors are often located.
Toward the outside walls though, the slope of the roof pitches
downward. In many attic spaces, there are only a few inches between the
top of the wall and the roofline. Once a glow rod or drill bit hits the
plywood sheeting of the roof, it can go no further.
This means that whoever is in the attic must crawl out to the very edge of the house to attach a wire. With the slope of the roof, this is the tightest area in an attic. Getting to these spots can be difficult or impossible due to duct work, plumbing pipes, and other obstacles. Even when you can reach the outer areas, you’ll be crawling face-first through itchy, dusty attic insulation.
Using a fish tape, plus some skill and luck, you can save a lot of time, effort, and discomfort.
Fish tapes come in many sizes, often in 25 foot increments. I’ve
found the 50-foot length to be best for fishing alarm wiring, as it
allows you to easily spin and steer the tape as you send it into the
Larger tapes are heavy, hard to control, and unnecessarily long. Save the longer fish tapes for pulling extended wire runs through conduit.
Shorter tapes leave you no margin for error. The next-shortest standard length below 50 feet is 25-feet. If the fish tape ever becomes irretrievably jammed (and eventually it will!), you’ll have to cut it off. This would then leave a 25-foot tape too short to use effectively.
Check the shape of the steel blade. Some inexpensive tapes are made
from soft, flat steel. These tend to be too flimsy to push through
insulation, and don’t spring back to their original shape very well.
Better quality tapes tend to be almost oval in cross-section. These are made from “springier” steel, and will bounce back after being bent.
So, look for a 50-foot tape with a high-quality steel blade, 1/8-inch wide. This size will easily fit through the 3/8-inch holes commonly drilled for alarm wiring, even after a hook is bent in the end of it.
Installing alarm wiring is best done with two people, who I’ll refer
to as the “ground guy” and the “attic rat”. If you’re only pulling a
wire or two, you can do both parts by yourself. Climbing into and out of
the attic over and over, along with crawling to find the fish tape each
time, is very tiring.
Doing all the runs yourself, you’d probably be exhausted after 4-5 pulls, unless you’re an Ironman competitor. So, what’s the solution?
Getting a friend or co-worker to help you is usually the best way to go. Universally accepted currency for this assistance may include pizza, beer and other beverages, and of course, good old cash. You may also be able to trade for your help on one of his projects.
Choose your help wisely. An “attic rat” with a slow, clumsy “ground guy” will be in for a very long day. And of course, if it’s your house you’re working on, you’ll be the one in the attic.
So, what’s involved? Basically, three things have to happen:
The first part, fishing the tape into the attic, is done by the ground guy.
The second chore is left to the attic rat. He/she has the dubious honor of crawling through insulation, finding the end of the blade, and tying wires to it.
If you’ve cleverly located the alarm panel next to an attic access point, or scuttle hole, you’re nearly done with the third step! Just gather up all the loose ends, wrap them into a bundle with electrical tape, and fish it down and out of the hole where the main panel will be mounted.
The factory-formed eye or hook that comes with new fish tapes may
last awhile, but it will eventually break. You’ll have to bend a new
hook in the end in order to attach wires easily.
The easiest way I’ve found to do this is using a pair of wire strippers having a wire-bending hole. The popular T-Strippers made by Ideal are my favorite.
You can also use regular needle-nose pliers to do this, but I’ve
found that I need all my grip strength to do the bending. Pliers require
you to also squeeze the handles together, just to hold the end
of the tape. The T-Stripper eliminates that part, since the tape is held
securely by the hole.
The strippers will only curl the end so far, until they hit the main portion of the tape. At that point, switch to regular slip-joint pliers, or better yet, channel-lock pliers. This will allow you to close the hook up nearly all the way.
Before bending a new hook, clean up the broken end of the tape. If necessary, cut it off square using bolt cutters or lineman’s pliers. Then, use a flat file or grinding wheel to smooth off the sharp edges.
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