Organizing Phone Lines In An Old Home

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These days most new construction has well laid out voice, data and video lines but in older homes things can be a bit messy. I recently worked on a small phone project and thought I'd share some tips.

I've helped a family member run some new phone lines a couple of times over the years. The last time being a couple of weeks ago. That's when I was reminded about what a mess some of the phone wiring was which caused us some problems running the wires.

Back when this house was built there where usually only one or two phone jacks installed. One in the kitchen and one in the master bedroom. Over the years as phones became cheaper more rooms started to get phone jacks and eventually it was common for homes to have multiple lines.

As new phone jacks were added it was common to just run a line from a nearby phone jack to the new location or even just splice an existing wire in the middle of a run.

It was just easier to run phones in series like that. The problem is, just like Christmas lights that are wired in series, if ones line goes bad all of them could, or at least all the ones that follow after the problem and it's difficult to figure out where the problem is.

These days it's recommended to have all wires start from a common point with a single wire going to each jack without running cables one jack to another or splicing the wire in between jacks. This is referred to as a star topology and makes it easier to troubleshoot and repair bad lines in the future.

You have your incoming lines from the telephone company enter your home and connect to a device like a 110 or 66 block then you'll run your phone lines to each phone jack from there and make connections between the incoming lines and the lines to the jacks.

Sadly, this can be quite difficult to do in an older home without tearing through some existing walls. Luckily for us most of the jacks were wired in a star topology with only a couple of jacks upstairs running off of the only line that ran upstairs from the basement. We could keep that for now.

The big issue though was that there wasn't a 110, 66 or similar device installed that was capable of handling that many connections. To my knowledge, these types of telephone hubs aren't very common in older residential phone installations.

Instead there was just a standard telephone wall jack used to make all the connections as a sort of junction box. It was bad enough there were so many wires that it was difficult to keep them secured on the screw terminals while attempting to add more lines but the installer never even bothered to attach it to anything. It was just floating in between a couple of floor joists in the basement. Adding a new phone line usually meant disturbing an existing one and sometimes the wall jack would get jostled while using the storage shelf below it and some of the wires would get knocked loose.

I had originally planned to install a 110 block but since this was a very simple phone system with only one line I opted to go with a Leviton 47689-B 1x9 Bridged Telephone Module (with bracket).

It's a simple device that consists of 10 110 punch down connectors that allow you to connect up to 4 incoming phone lines to up to 9 phone jacks. It's also smaller and easier to use than a 110 or 66 block. All you have to do is punch down the incoming phone lines and the lines that lead to the phone jacks without worrying about making connections between the two.

Looking at the back of the Leviton 47689-B  we can see that it's just 10 110 punch down connectors mounted to a circuit board with each pin of the connector connected to all of the other pins with the same color of the other connectors in series using traces.

This is designed primarily for residential phone systems and fits into Leviton's structured media cabinets. You don't need a structured media cabinet to use it though. There are 2 black push connectors that are used to attach it to the cabinet but I removed both of them carefully with a pair of pliers, leaving 2 holes that I could use to screw the bracket down pretty much anywhere I wanted.

Telephone Wire Color Standards

Over the years the standard wire used for telephone installations has changed. The original wire installed was the old 4 conductor (green, red, black and yellow) that was a fairly thick gauge. This wire is called JK or quad cable and sometimes referred to as Christmas/Haloween cable because of the colors.

Some point later another jack was added using a thinner gauge JK cable. After that the standard wire used for phone installations changed to unsheilded twisted pair (UTP). A couple of runs of 3 pair Cat3 and one run of 4 pair Cat5e were used, a couple of which I helped install.

Cat cable uses a different color scheme. Each pair consists of a wire with the primary color and a second wire with the secondary color striped with the primary color. For example line 1 is a blue wire paired with a white wire with blue stripes. One thing that hasn't changed however is that each phone line still only requires two wires, a tip and a ring.

There are a couple of options. You can try to replace as much of the old JK wiring with Cat5e wiring as possible. Category (Cat) cable is preferred because it can reduce unwanted noise from interference and crosstalk (where you can hear the conversations on one line when connected to a different line.

If you have multiple phone lines or use ADSL you should try to replace as much of it as you can with Cat cable for better quality in your phone service. In our case, we only had one line to worry about so we opted to save the hassle of pulling new cable. Some of it would have been easy since we could just use the existing cable to fish the new cable up to the jacks but there's always a risk of something going wrong that would require us to get into the walls which we didn't want to do.

As long as we followed the color coding standards we could we would be fine.
LineCat colorsOld Colors

With that knowledge in hand I was ready to start wiring up the new panel after mounting it to a wall.

Do one cable at a time

I thought it was a good idea to identify and label the cables while we were working on them again. Some of them seemed obvious but there were some surprises so I'm happy we stopped to do that.

I would cut one cable from the wall plate that was used as a junction box then we'd check to see which phones stopped working and make a label. We repeated this until we had identified all the lines. We did the incoming line last as we were fairly certain which one that was.

Telephone Wire Splicing

There was one more small problem.. The older, thicker gauge JK wire I believe was thicker than the 110 connectors were designed to accept. I did manage to punch down one of the thicker wires (and the phone worked) but I decided to splice a short section of thinner gauge Cat5e cable onto the other thick JK cables just to make things easier.

I used these Gel Splice UY 2 Port Wire Connectors to splice each wire from the old JK cable to the new Cat5e cable following the color conventions above. These wire connectors work great. You don't need to strip the wires. Just slip one wire from one cable in on one side, the corresponding color wire from the other cable, make sure they're in all the way then squeeze them with a pair of pliers to make the connection and secure the wires.

(Ooops I just noticed in the photo that the first connection I made on the right I mixed up the tip and ring. It should be green, red, black yellow from top to bottom. I'll fix that later. The phones on those lines still work well though as modern phones aren't too picky when it comes to polarity of the tip and ring wires)

Making the connections

Once you know how to terminate cables on a 110 connector it goes pretty fast.

  1. Trim off a few inches of the outer cable jacket at the end you are going to terminate but do not cut any of the wires
  2. Grab the string you see mixed in with the 4 pairs of wires and pull it down to make a slit in the outer jacket a couple more inches down the outer jacket. Peel back and trim off the excess jacket and string.
  3. Without untwisting the pairs too much and trying to keep as little of the unsheathed pairs showing, Start placing the wires into the grooves in the connector. The connector has colors that tell you which wire pair to insert in that spot to help guide you. The white color goes on top, followed by the primary color cable. So from the top of line 1 down the Cat cable wires should be white/blue, blue, white orange, orange, white green, green, white/brown, brown. Or in the case of the quad cable, green, red, black yellow and white  and blue for line 3 if there are 6 wires.
  4. Do one connector at a time and after you place the wire in the slots with your fingers, use a punch down tool to seat the wires in the connector. As you seat the wires, the connector makes a small slit in the insulation which is how the wire connects to the connector without having to strip any of the insulation off before making the connection. If you don't own a punch down tool a small plastic one is included with the panel but it lacks a cutting side that trims off the excess wire as you punch it down so you'll need to trim the wires some other way.
One more time here are the colors and how they are inserted in the 110 IDC.

It doesn't matter where you place the incoming phone company line as long as you put all the wires in the correct spot in the connector according to it's color code but I like having it at the end so it's easy to identify. Also, if you have multiple lines you don't have to punch down all the wires in each conductor if you only want some of the lines going to certain rooms.

Finished Panel

Now this isn't the prettiest wiring job I've ever seen, or even done but now it's a lot easier to find which wire goes where, add on additional runs easier and best of all the connections are more secure and the static that used to be on one run is now gone.


  1. This is very informative. thanks

  2. tom, just saw this, very nice. i have the leviton, but need to add some more panels. like the gel splice connectors. can i ask: where did the labels come from? kitchen, etc etc. they would be great to identify my rat's nest. thanks, ron

    1. Hi Ron,

      See my post on Organizing Cable Clutter for info on the label maker I used. I'm redoing my phone, data and video cables and using different labels that I'll be reviewing soon so keep an eye on my Structured Wring posts. Have some instructions on other types of telephone wiring blocks too. I'm using a 110 block in my new wiring.

  3. Ohh, this is really nice. Cable clutter is no fun. Tnx for the idea!

  4. What does the other side of a cat5 connection at the phone end look like? How is that wired for a single line phone? Is there a special jack or do you use RJ-45 in place of an RJ-11?

    1. Other side goes to a phone jack. These days it will typically be a keystone type jack that goes into a faceplate that can accept multiple keystone jacks. You can put a 6p6c (or 6p4c or 6p2c) telephone jack or a regular 8p8c (ethernet RJ45 type) jack. TIA recommends terminating in a RJ45 type but I still it makes more sense to use an 6pXc type jack for phones still. Otherwise you need to use some sort of break out adapter if you use more than 2 lines and the phone plugs can sometimes bend the conductors in an RJ45 plug even though they fit.

      Check out my post on residential keystone wallplate configurations

      and how to make a break out cable

      As well as some of my other posts on structured wiring.

      Should have one that more specifically addresses your question at some point.

  5. Very informative post, thanks Tom.

    One more question, apologies if you covered it already, but if I have two lines from the cable company going to 5 jacks, would the Leviton 47689-B board allow for the two lines to transfer to all 5 telephone jacks? Then I would just program each 2-line phone accordingly?

    1. Yes that will work provided you have analog phone lines coming from the cable company. I guess there's some type of VOIP adapter that has 2 voice jacks, one for each line or something like that? I have a couple of VOIP lines and I have the outputs of my voip adapter going to a 110 block but same should work for the Leviton bridge.

      Just punch down the incoming lines on pairs 1 (blue) and 2 (orange) for line 1 and line 2. It doesn't really matter but it's more organized if you have the incoming lines on one side. Then you punch down your 5 station cables to 5 of the other posts.