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Choosing Fish Tapes for Home Alarm Wiring

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

Fish tapes for home alarm wiring

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.

Security system diagram, run alarm wiring using a fish tape

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.

Choosing Which Tape to Use

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 attic.

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.

Plumbers fish tape, cheap steel tape, high-quality steel fish tape

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.

Cross sections of various steel tapes

Using Fish Tapes

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 end of the tape must be snaked through each of the holes drilled up into the attic
  • A wire must be attached to the eye and pulled down at each device
  • The other ends of all the wires must be cut from their spools or boxes and be pulled down at the alarm panel location

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.

Bending a New Hook in a Fish Tape

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.

Ideal T-stripper tool

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.

T-strippers used for bending fish tape
Hole in jaws of t-stripper for gripping wire
Bending fish tape into a hook

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.

Finish forming an eye hook in fish tape
Eye hook for fishing and attaching wire
Filing sharp edges off of cut end
Linesmans pliers, wire strippers, flat file

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.

If you haven't done so already, get a few Free Home Security Systems Quotes from companies in your area.

This will give you a good idea of what it would cost to have a system installed, as well as how much you could save by doing it yourself.

Related Articles

Fishing Wires for a Home Security System

Using a Fish Tape to Install Home Alarm Wiring

Return to Home-Security-Systems-Answers from Choosing Fish Tapes for Home Alarm Wiring

Return to DIY Home Security Systems from Choosing Tapes for Home Alarm Wiring

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