Q&A: Is Cheap Ethernet Cable OK to Use?  What is "Cheap"?

Q&A: Is Cheap Ethernet Cable OK to Use?  What is "Cheap"?

Don: Hey there, everybody. Thank you again for attending our Low Voltage Low Down! Today, Dave Harris and I are going to be talking about a question that comes up quite a bit and has to do with cheap Ethernet cables. Are they okay to use? What is cheap? Keep reading to find out more! Alternatively, you can listen to the podcast below.



Let's get to it, shall we?

How do you Identify a cheap Ethernet cable?

Don: We need to kind of separate what cheap is from inexpensive. When we mean cheap, I'd like to set a couple of ground rules as to what cheap is. When we say cheap, we mean Ethernet cable that does not meet the industry standards, a.k.a  ANSI/TIA-568.2-D. That's a mouthful, but that is an industry standard that sets the performance requirements for Ethernet cable and some boundaries on physical construction as well. It doesn't just tell you how to design an Ethernet cable specifically, but it does give you a very extensive list of performance requirements. So if it doesn't meet the industry standard for construction or performance, then we would call that cheap. If you purchase a patch cord from a large online retailer like Amazon and it has poor terminations on the end, for example, we would consider that to be cheap as well.

This ties in with the next point: if the Ethernet cable receives poor or no quality testing at the factory where it's made, then there's no guarantee that quality will be the same from spool to spool or patch cable to patch cable. This would be a strong indication of poor quality. Lastly, If you have cable that you have properly installed and it won't field certify, for example, on a DSX 8000, then we'd call that cheap too.

But cheap isn't just about the actual product. Cheapness might also include a lack of proper documentation. For example, specification sheets are really important to determine what kind of connection hardware will fit your cable? That's really critical if we're talking about 8P8C or RJ45 connectors and can become even more important when talking about keystones and even ANEXT. A lack of proper documentation surrounding these areas is a real good sign that you've got a cheap cable on your hands.

Another issue is the failure to meet safety regulations, specifically those set by UL or cETLus. These regulations ensure that the voltage and flame resistance of the product are up to standard. Additionally, if the cable used in the product is plenum cable and emits toxic gases, this also violates safety standards. All this to say: if a cable is specifically sold to you as suitable for a particular application, like outdoors, and it falls apart outside, then we'd call that a cheap cable too.

What can inexpensive mean for an Ethernet Cable?

Dave: It doesn't have to do that much with the quality of the cable; it has more to do with the cost, and a cable that costs more isn't necessarily better. A cable that costs more may not be a "better" choice because a cable can be inexpensive and still meet all of the ANSI/TIA-568.2-D standards.

That's all to say, if your cable meets these standards, you're not going to find us calling it cheap. A cable can also be affordable and meet not only those standards but also the specific requirements of the installation. For instance, security cameras usually only require Category 5 cable to meet their performance needs, and Category 5e cable is less expensive. It's more flexible. It weighs less, and you can fit more cables in the same piece of conduit than you can in higher categories. Is it cheap? Is it low quality? No. Because it meets the standards.

What are some common misconceptions about Ethernet cables?

Don: A lot of the information on the internet is not exactly correct. I mean, it may not be flat out wrong, but it's not exactly correct. One of the biggest ones is that shielded cable is better or somehow of higher quality than unshielded. That is absolutely and completely untrue. It is quite possible to have a shielded cable that does not meet what you're looking to do with it and costs more than an unshielded cable that does exactly what you want it to do. It might meet all of your performance requirements. It might be built better, and it might cost less. Shielded cable is designed for certain types of installation environments. It doesn't mean that automatically picking shielded cable is better because shielded cable does not make your cable faster by default.

Most installations don't even require shielded Ethernet cables. In fact, if you improperly install shielded cable, you can actually cause yourself more problems than you were looking to avoid in the first place. Interference, ground loops, you name it: larger bend radius, can't turn it as tight, more difficult to terminate. So yeah, shielded cable has its place in the world. However, it is not accurate to simply claim that it is superior.

Another misconception is that plenum cable, which is used in commercial buildings in spaces like the air handling area between a drop ceiling and a raised floor, is automatically of better quality compared to general cable jackets called CMG or CMR (riser). Again, this is misleading. The truth is that the effectiveness of the cable depends on the installation environment. It is possible to invest a significant amount of money in plenum or CMP rated cable and not gain any advantages from it.

Plenum-rated cable can also not be used for outdoor purposes as it is designed for indoor use only. Personally, I've never come across a plenum-rated outdoor cable. Therefore, plenum-rated cable should only be utilized in situations where it is explicitly required, such as for commercial installations. You'll see this in institutions like hospitals, government buildings, and things like that. But if you're using it in a non plenum rated space, you really don't have any benefit from it.

The third point I'd like to address is one of the biggest misconceptions: that you must purchase CAT6A or higher to obtain a high-quality Ethernet cable. However, this is usually not true. There are a few exceptions to this, though. You should buy the cable category that matches your current LAN speed needs, considering future compatibility with Cat8 is not necessary.

Take Cat7, for example, which is not even an official standard set by the Telecommunications Industry Association and is just as impractical as Cat8. The reason for this is that Cat8 is essentially the same as Cat6A, except that at distances shorter than 98 feet, it can transmit data faster. Beyond 98 feet, it reverts back to being Cat6A and performs accordingly. Therefore, it is more logical to focus on Cat6A instead. Unless, of course, your particular situation could utilize a different category of cable. For instance, if you have a wired printer that only requires a connection speed of up to 100 megabits per second, using a Cat5e cable would be more than sufficient.

The last point to consider is the misconception that a thinner Ethernet cable is always of lower quality. While this may be true when comparing cables of the same type and specifications, it is not always the case. Cables can be manufactured with different conductor gauges and may lack certain features, like a spline, depending on their intended category rating. Therefore, the thickness of an Ethernet cable alone does not necessarily indicate its quality.

Thicker cables may include additional components like water blocking tape, which is designed for specific purposes such as direct burial. However, the presence of these components does not make a thicker cable inherently better than a thinner one. It simply means that the cables serve different purposes. 

With these misunderstandings cleared up, let's proceed to discuss some general truths with Dave.

What are some common truisms about Ethernet cable?

Dave: I have some facts to share about the conductors in Ethernet cables. One thing to be cautious of is copper clad aluminum, often abbreviated as CCA. Unfortunately, CCA can still be found in conductors on the American market. This is concerning because it is a low-quality and inexpensive cable. It is strongly advised not to purchase it, as it will result in a loss of performance during data transmission, voltage loss, and excessive heat generation. Additionally, CCA is not recognized by any American standards body, and in certain jurisdictions, it may even be illegal to install. Therefore, if you are considering buying it (which you shouldn't), it is crucial to consult with your inspector beforehand. Furthermore, if you do end up purchasing a box of cable or unrolling a cable and discover that it weighs only about a third of what you expected, be very cautious: it is likely made predominantly of aluminum.

The second thing to talk about when it comes to conductors is stranded versus solid copper conductors. Both have their place. It's not a question of quality. It's a question of application. Solid copper cable is preferred for permanent installation in structured cabling.

On the other hand, stranded cable or stranded conductors in cable are used where flexibility is required. Like a long, portable rollout reel that gets reeled up and rolled back out on a daily or periodic basis. Solid copper cable won't hold up to that working and reworking over time, but stranded conductors are built for it.

You'll also find stranded conductors in patch cables for the same reason: flexibility. It's not a question of quality. Stranded cable is not higher or lower in quality than solid cable or solid conductors. It's just a difference in application.

Don: Yeah, no problem, Dave. I just wanted to add that, you know, if someone out there decides they want to, you know, play roulette and go grab some copper clad aluminum cable and install it, we stand ready to help you get the right stuff when you decide that, inevitably, you're going to need to replace it.

And that's a wrap! Hopefully, by now, you know the difference between cheap and inexpensive Ethernet cables and how to choose the right one for the situation. For more information on Ethernet cables and patch panels, please visit our cable academy at truecable.com. We have close to 200 blogs with embedded videos as well as new patch panels that you'll definitely want to check out. We'll also be putting out more information on how to properly install and use patch panels in future Q&A sessions and podcasts. Thanks for reading, and happy networking!

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