Cable Labelling Best Practices

Author: Brian Rhodes, Published on Jul 22, 2012

Labelling cables can save a lot of money and headaches. While it is easy to overlook, taking time to label runs during installation significantly speeds up troubleshooting processes afterwards.

In this note, we examine this practice and the ways that it is accomplished, and then analyze the financial case for making it a part of every cable job.

Code Basis

While no 'comprehensive' standard exists mandating the requirement to label cables, it is widely considered to be a best practice. Despite lacking a hard requirement, many installers and end-users make cable labeling mandatory. The guidelines they draw from can be found in the following industry-specific codebooks:

  • NFPA 72/76: Loosely defines labeling requirement as "must permanently and clearly mark all low voltage or data cabling" for telecommunications systems.
  • ANSI/TIA/EOE 606-A: Describes guidelines of color coding cable jackets based on purpose for clarity, and recommendations of cable labeling. No specific format is provided and no requirement is made, beyond citing cable labeling as 'best practice'.
  • BICSI: The most widely recognized standard organization for the cabling industry recognises TIA/EOE 606-A as the baseline standard for cable labeling.

Integrators draw on these resources for general guidelines, which include these four attributes:

  • Permanent: Labels markings cannot fade or smear, and must be clearly printed.
  • Easy to Read: Labels must be large enough that they can be read by the human eye.
  • Both Ends or Better: At a minimum, both ends must be marked, but marking cables at common access points is encouraged.
  • Standard: Label format should be standardized and applied in the same way to every cable.

Common pieces of information included in cable labels include wire number, port or device termination ID, and IDF location. If a label is a composite of several pieces of data, then a legend explaining the nomenclature used should be hung at access points and MDF/IDF locations. An example format standard commonly used by US Department of Defense looks like this:

"The 606-A Standard allows administrative flexibility to accommodate variations in naming conventions format (Sections A2 and A5), such as alpha designations for floors. Alphanumeric designations for spaces, though not addressed in 606-A, are a US DOD specific expansion of 606-A to accommodate existing US DOD spaces with alphanumeric identifiers. Brackets identify expansions to the ANSI/EIA/TIA-606-A Standard.

f = [alpha] numeric character(s) designating the floor

s = alpha [numeric] character(s) uniquely identifying the telecommunications space

a = one or two alpha characters uniquely identifying the patch panel

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n = two to four numeric characters designating the port"

Methods

In the section below, we examine the most common methods used to mark cables:

Sharpie Method: The cheapest method, but most prone to sloppiness, is using an indelible ink pen to handwrite labels to cable jackets or paper tags. With the variation in handwriting quality, some marks may be suitable but others may be illegible, and tags can be torn or removed. Given the manual nature of creating these tags, this method takes the longest amount of time, but is the overall cheapest method in terms of tools and materials. Markers and label stock can be purchased for under $5. The image below shows an example of this method:

Number Tabs: Small pre-printed hard plastic or sticker tabs have been a mainstay method in the alarms industry for decades. While tag sequences require setup time, once dispensers have been properly configured and loaded, sequential number labels can be applied very quickly. This product was the primary method of professional tagging before the widespread availability of machine printers, but many installers still prefer this method for its speed and inexpensiveness. A sleeve of thousands of tabs can be purchased for under $20. The image below shows an example of this method:

Machine Printers: Commonly called 'label makers', this method uses a handheld device to generate small stickers that can be affixed to cable jackets. These machines are valuable for their speed and clarity in generating cable labels, but the drawback is they are more expensive than the other options. A high-end machine thermal labeler and print stock can be purchased for under $95. The image below shows an example of this method:

Cost/Benefit Analysis

Given the labeling's low cost, even relatively small projects can pay back the investment in a single troubleshooting incident. For instance, in a 16 camera project, labeling cables cost ~$25 USD, a small sum:

  • $0.05 per label + 30 seconds of labor (0.5 minute * $90/hr = $0.75) = $0.80 per label
  • 2 labels per cable = $1.60
  • 16 cable x $1.60 per cable = $25.60

At this rate, a single service call of even 20 minutes pays back the $25.60 spent on labeling. Considering that technicians can spend many working hours maintaining systems of this size, this effort may save money after one service call. Certainly, the effort pays for itself over the span of 5 years by saving technicians from hunting down elusive cables.

Indeed, in larger deployments with hundreds of cameras are more, the benefit is even greater and becomes essentially a 'no brainer.' As the number of cables increases, the time and cost of finding an unmarked cable rises disproportionately, making the business case even stronger in larger projects.

3 reports cite this report:

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