Estimating IP Camera Cabling Costs
Cabling is a fundamental, yet often overlooked, component of any surveillance project. Indeed, often estimating cabling costs can be more difficult than camera pricing as cabling frequently faces difficult to detect challenges. In this report, we explain how to estimate cabling costs and recognize various issues in surveying cabling layouts. This report is targeted at the introductory level, focusing on basic and intermediate level issues.
For users seeking expertise in cabling design and expertise, we recommend BICSI's TDMM [link no longer available] (and associated RCDD credential program). In the cabling industry, BICSI is practically the only source for standards and certification.
To start with, one must choose an estimation approach. Common approaches include: square footage, unit and detailed estimates. Inside, we focus on the detailed approach.
Since millions of cables are installed each year, significant historical information exists on typical labor expenditures. Inside, we explain how to use labor and material factors to estimate larger projects in a straightforward manner.
Clearly, a fundamental component of estimating cable installs is the length of the run. A number of important factors impact the length beyond the obvious one of point to point distances. We examine these factors and provide guidance on how to estimate them.
Even when using UTP, the most common type for IP cameras, a number of options exist including Cat 5e and Cat 6 as well as plenum vs non plenum cabling. Inside we provide guidance and estimates on cost and choice with these options.
Cable runs can be very difficult and be impacted by numerous factors including wall construction, ceiling construction, height of ceilings, building accessibility, safety concerns and local regulations. Any of these can turn a simple pull into a significant project.
First, lets distinguish different estimating types. There are three typical ways by which estimates in the construction industry (which includes all trades) are created:
- Square Footage - the least precise and the one we least recommend
- Unit - good for ballparking 'standard' tasks based on historical experience
- Detailed - the most precise but most time consuming
Square Footage: This type of estimate is created by finding the total square footage of a facility, and multiplying by a specific dollar amount per square foot factor to arrive a total estimate. Obviously, this type of estimate ignores pretty much all unique factors which affect other types of estimates, and is normally used simply as a rule of thumb, or to provide a very rough budgetary estimate. With security systems varying so much, it's difficult to boil them down into a single factor, therefore we recommend that square foot estimates not be used in security systems.
Unit: This type of estimate is at a level of detail midway between a square foot and detailed estimate. A per-unit estimate uses labor and material factors which are multiplied out against the number of devices required. For example, if an IP camera typically costs $1,000 in material, and takes four hours to install, 32 cameras would cost $32,000 in material, and take 128 hours to install. This results in a more detailed estimate, than square footage, while still ignoring some unique issues in the field. Factors are often customized, however, so an indoor camera mounted in drop ceiling would have different labor and material factors than an indoor camera mounted in a solid ceiling. This method is often used when site conditions are "standard", as it allows the number of devices to simply be counted up and multiplied out, without much extra work. As an example, we recently asked members [link no longer available] for a unit price estimate to pull a non-plenum Cat 5e cable drop. With more than 25 responses, the consensus was $125 - $175. Members also raised legitimate concerns about the precision of such an approach, which brings us to the detailed estimate.
Detailed: The most accurate, as well as time consuming method of estimating, the detailed estimate takes exact condition for each individual device and its unique location into account. In this method, all cameras and other devices are counted, cable distances exactly measured, and all factors are individually considered. Each component in the project has a unique labor factor, per device or per foot in the instance of cable, which is multiplied with the total count or measurement to arrive a total. This method is preferred in most cases, as it provides the most accurate cost estimates.
While all three of these methods may be used at certain times, we recommend less experienced estimators use detailed estimates, which we will base our discussion in this report. Once experience and history are built, unit estimates may be used with care to speed the process.
While the most accurate data to base estimates on is history, new estimators or those looking at tasks they have never done before may turn to industry cost data. This data is released semi-regularly (some more regular than others) by a few organizations. BNi's NEC Cost Book [link no longer available] and NSCA's Labor Installation Standards [link no longer available] (available to members only) are two of the better sources, and good starting points. These sources provide labor and material factors which are multiplied by the quantities required to arrive at total costs.
For example, a commonly accepted labor factor for pulling a single UTP cable is .008 hours per foot. So to account for a 100' run, we simply multiply 100 x .008, and we arrive at .8 hours, or about 48 minutes. If we're installing ten 100' runs, or 1000' of cable, we come up with a total of 8 hours. This number does not include termination, mounting of cable support or conduit if required, or other factors.
Cable Run Distances
Estimating cable distance is, on the surface, very straightforward. One simply measures the length of the run, either on-site or using scaled plans, adds all of these runs together, and this is how much cable is needed. However, three things to consider when completing these estimates, which are easily forgotten:
- Cable runs are not simply horizontal: The easiest thing to forget when measuring cable distances is that cable runs are not two-dimensional. The cable begins at a patch panel or switch, goes up, runs horizontally, and comes back down to the device location. If installing to BICSI standards, slack loops should also be left at either end of the run, adding an additional 4m to the total. Forgetting these factors can lead to a shortage of cable, and unexpected cost.
- Cable isn't pulled as the crow flies: Cable runs should be measured, and consequently installed, using 90-degree turns from the head end location to the device, in almost all instances. For example, if a facility is perfectly square, with the head end in one corner, and the camera in the opposite corner, cable should not be run at a 45-degree angle across the building. Instead, it should be run along the outside of the square, take a 90-degree corner, and continue on to the camera location. This is done to reduce the number of obstacles encountered in a run, since areas along the walls are normally easier to access, and to make it easier to service.
- Cables aren't usually pulled one at a time: When estimating cabling, it's easy to take the total lengths of all runs, add them together, and use this raw total for the amount of cable needed on the project. However, this does not take into account that multiple runs may follow the same path, and be pulled simultaneously, which reduces the total time required to install these cables. Estimators should look for groupings which can be pulled at once, and expect that cables will be pulled this way. While there is labor savings in pulling multiple cables together, it typically applies more to the data cabling industry, where large bundles are pulled at once. In the security industry, users will not see substantial savings.
As an example, if we measure 100' directly from the recorder location in a manager's office to a camera location up the hall, we should account for approximately 150' of cable: 100' horizontally, plus 25' (25% of 100') to account for horizontal turns we may encounter, plus 25' to account for ups and downs. Note that some of this cable will be wasted, as it's trimmed during termination, but some waste is normal, and preferable to risking cables being too short.
Cable Types Required
This seems obvious, but when putting together an estimate, the contractor must be aware of what type of cable is required. However, it's not uncommon for an integrator to base an estimate on Cat 5e components when Cat 6 was written in the specifications, and simply overlooked. Additionally, if a facility's ceiling plenum is used as an air return, plenum-rated cable must be used, instead of CMR (riser-rated) or CM/CMX (general use) cables.
Cable prices vary widely depending on manufacturer and market prices for copper. Manufacturers also offer minimally compliant cable (just meets standards), as well as cables which exceed standards, providing extra bandwidth and headroom, but adding cost. There are some rules of thumb for cable estimating, however:
- Cat 5e Non-plenum: $0.15-0.20 USD
- Cat 5e Plenum: $0.25-0.30
- Cat 6 Non-plenum: $0.20-0.25
- Cat 6 Plenum: $0.35-0.40
Of course, these numbers are US based. Pricing will vary by region and overtime. However, you should consistenly expect to pay more for Cat 6 than Cat5e and Plenum vs Non-Plenum cable.
A Basic Example
Given the fundamentals above, let's look at an examples:
A facility is installing sixteen cameras, with an average measured cable length of 175'. Adding 25% to account for horizontal turns, and 25' to each for vertical runs, we get a total of about 244' per run. This totals up to 3,900, which we round up to 4,000, since cable is sold in 1,000' quantities. Using a labor factor 0.008, a labor rate of $45/hour, and $0.25 per foot of plenum Cat 5e, we can use the following example.
- 4,000' of Plenum Cat 5e = $1,000
- 4,000' x 0.008 labor factor = 32 hours
- 32 hours x $45 = $1,440
- Total: $2,440
On a per camera basis, this works out to $150 per camera. However, this assumes a fairly straightforward installation. Other factors may come into play
In the second section of the report, we introduce some of the most common 'advanced' factors that might increase cost and complexity:
The factors which influences estimates the most are undoubtedly the conditions on-site. It goes without saying that construction varies considerably from building-to-building. Most facilities today are built with drywall on metal studs, but contractors will still run into concrete block, brick, plaster with wood or metal lath, wood paneling, tile, and more. Each of these has their own trick to working with it. Some of these wall types may require the use of surface raceway, since cables cannot be fished down their interior. For wall types aside from drywall, an increase in labor factors of up to 50% may be normal.
Like walls, ceilings may be constructed of a wide variety of materials, and must be accounted for in the same way. Ceiling height is also a key factor. Normally, work is performed from a six- or eight-foot step ladder. Work performed on ladders taller than this, including extension ladders is slower, due to the extra care that must be taken ascending and descending.
If ceilings are especially high, such as in warehouses and high-bay garages, lifts may need to be rented. Some end users will allow contractors to use their lifts, if they have them on-site, but this may be prohibited for insurance reasons. The main considerations in estimating for lifts are height and type. Scissor lifts are most commonly used, but in active facilities, may be more difficult to manuever into tight areas, making a boom lift a better choice, allowing working to be completed more quickly. Lifts generally cost between $350 USD for a small (20' scissor lift) to $1000+ for high-reach boom lifts, not including delivery, which may also cost a few hundred dollars.
If the building is to be occupied during installation, the estimator should consider what impact staff will have upon installation. Installers may have to wait for areas to become available, or even make return trips, adding unexpected time to the installation. Shifts outside of the building's normal operating hours are considered in some cases, to alleviate this issue.
In some occupied facilities, special protocols must be followed when doing any installation work. For example:
- Safety training and checks: Some facilities, especially chemical facilities, will require all staff who will be on-site to attend a safety training course prior to work commencing. Others, such as corrections facilities, require a check of toolboxes at entry and exit, to make sure prohibited items aren't left in the building. Both of the circumstances can add an hour or more of time per day, and must be accounted for in estimates.
- Special installation requirements: Some facilities will not allow any cabling to be run in free air, instead requiring all cables to be installed in conduit. Many low-voltage contractors are poorly equipped to run large quantities of conduit, so hiring an electrical contractor may be recommended in this case.
- Infection controls: Many hospitals mandate that no more than one or two ceiling tiles be open at any time, and specialized tents be used to capture any dust created. These tents can cost thousands of dollars and double or triple the time needed to install cable.
If any of these are unaccounted for in an estimate, it can easily lead to cost overruns. Estimators should inquire with the end user as to whether any special protocols exist.
In many areas, low voltage cabling does not require a license to install, and is much less regulated by code officials than other trades. In most cases, since security is not a life safety system, it does not need to be submitted to the local authority for approval. Some municipalities may also accept follow more stringent codes than others, or more strictly require UL listings on all products. Therefore, before completing any estimate, contractors should be familiar with local codes.