How FlatWire Works


FlatWire is thinner than the typical business card.
FlatWire is thinner than the typical business card.

You've seen the commercials: a guy walks into an electronics store, asks about the latest in flat-screen televisions, makes a purchase and hurries home. Before you know it, the happy owner is sitting on his couch watching his television, which he has mounted perfectly on the wall. There's not a cable, cord or wire to be seen.

But in reality, that television would require several cables to work the way it does in the ad. It would need a power cord, at the very least. Other cords might include a coaxial cable, an HDMI cable, component or composite video cables and an audio cable. How do you hide all these cables from view so that you have the same picture-perfect setup that you see in commercials?

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One solution is to run wires through the walls of your home. That can be expensive and difficult -- you might want the help of professional installers for that kind of job. And while wireless technologies are a possible solution, there simply aren't enough wireless options on the market to set up the ultimate home theater system. But one company has another alternative: wires that are flat instead of round.

­The company is Southwire. It specializes in creating thin, flat wires and cables that you can glue to a wall and either paint over or coat with a concealing material to blend it into your wall. Once you've installed and concealed the FlatWire, you can have that clean, cable-free look that you see in the advertisements.

­Southwire currently offers several FlatWire products for audio, video, data and low-voltage wiring solutions. Future FlatWire products will include 120-volt alternating current (VAC) electrical wiring, HDMI cables and a cat-6 cable emulator. All of the products are flexible and are about as thick as a sheet of paper.

FlatWire and Electricity

This FlatWire is ready for the mesh tape and concealing compound treatment.
This FlatWire is ready for the mesh tape and concealing compound treatment.

FlatWire comes in several different types. The speaker wire and low-voltage wire products look like a pair of copper strips encased in a transparent film. The other FlatWire products have narrower bands of copper encased in film. Depending on the wire's function, there may be one, two or three separate bands of copper. These narrow bands aren't straight sheets of copper in a film -- they look like waves or a series of peaks and valleys.

Copper is a conductor -- that means electricity can flow freely through it. Copper's atomic structure is what makes it a good conductor. The electrons in the outer energy level of a copper atom repel one another and are relatively free. If you introduce a flow of electrons into one end of a copper wire, these valence electrons pass from atom to atom. The result is a domino effect of electrons moving from one end of the copper wire to another. The flow of electrons is what we call electricity.

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Each band is actually several layers of copper sheets separated by an adhesive that acts as a dielectric layer. We call a material dielectric if it doesn't conduct electricity but does support electrostatic fields. In other words, it's an insulator. We use the term dielectric when we're dealing with materials that prevent conductive surfaces from coming into contact with one another, usually in a capacitor.

The number of layers in each copper band depends upon the purpose of the FlatWire. While it's possible to create a multipurpose FlatWire that can meet multiple needs, Southwire elected to design specific wires for specific uses. The company did this to make installation easier and safer for the average consumer -- there's a smaller chance that a consumer will ­damage his or her electrical equipment or suffer an injury.

Southwire's proposed 120 VAC FlatWire would have five layers. Think of the layers like a sandwich. The central layer is the hot layer. This is the layer that carries electrons from a power source to a device. The layers on either side of this central band of copper are the neutral layers. These provide electrons with a normal pathway out from the device. The outermost layers are the ground wires. The ground wire prevents electronic devices with metal casings from becoming shock hazards -- the ground wire connects to the metal exterior of the device on one end and the ground on the other.

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FlatWire Connectors

A little concealing compound and some paint can hide FlatWire from view.
A little concealing compound and some paint can hide FlatWire from view.

Most people eventually ask the same question about FlatWire: how do you hook it up to power sources and devices? If the wires come in a flat, wide form, how do you attach a connector? Southwire answers that question with a collection of custom connectors.

­Most of the FlatWire speaker wires require the installer to use a guide Southwire calls the FlatWire Ready Strain Relief. This is a guide that you adhere to the section of FlatWire you need to trim. The guide shows you where to cut along the wire. Then you can peel back the polymer film and expose the copper. The guide also acts like a clamp on the end of the FlatWire so that the polymer film doesn't peel back further than necessary.

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The speaker FlatWires require some work on the part of the installer. For speakers that use banana plugs or pin connectors, Southwire offers roller connectors that fit directly on the end of the wire. FlatWire speaker wires have two parallel strips of copper -- one is the positive connection and the other is the negative. You insert the end of each wire into its respective adapter. The adapter has a plastic sleeve that rotates, allowing you to wrap the copper around the pin inside the sleeve. This creates the connection necessary to conduct electricity.

Another option for speaker cables is to use Southwire's wall-mountable box. The box has speaker wire jacks on the outside and a pair of gold spring contacts inside. To attach the FlatWire to the box, you need to use a Strain Relief guide to peel back the polymer coating on the FlatWire. You fold the exposed ends of the FlatWire over the back of the guide, place both the guide and the FlatWire inside the wall box, make sure the wire touches the gold spring contacts and seal the box.

FlatWire cables like subwoofer wires come with custom connectors that have a special tab with a clear plastic section that lays flat against the wire. You can slide these connectors down the wire to adjust to the length you need. The copper in these wires is in a special wave pattern -- in order for the wire to work the wave must align with the respective circuit board. You have to make sure the copper band in the wire lines up with the window on the connector before clamping the connector and cutting the wire. Otherwise your wire won't carry a signal properly.

Installing and Concealing FlatWire

Southwire says that the average consumer can install FlatWire without the need for any special tools or training. Here's what you need to install FlatWire:

  • A marker
  • A spray adhesive
  • A plastic squeegee
  • A drill or electric screwdriver
  • Scissors
  • A clamp if installing any FlatWire that requires custom connectors
  • Mesh tape and a concealing compound
  • Sandpaper
  • Paint

First, measure the distance between the power source and the respective device. Southwire recommends that you add 8 inches (20.3 centimeters) to both ends to be on the safe side.

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Next, use the marker to draw the path the FlatWire will take. You may not have a perfectly straight path from the power source to the device. You can bend FlatWire 90 degrees with a simple fold. Keep that in mind as you draw the pathway so that you can keep the folds to a minimum.

If you're installing speaker wire, you'll use the spray adhesive to attach the FlatWire to the wall. The adhesive allows you to make adjustments before it tacks. Smooth out the FlatWire with the squeegee to get rid of any bubbles or wrinkles. You'll need to mount the anchors or wall boxes with a drill or electric screwdriver. Now it's time to trim the end of the FlatWire to the right size. Then you can attach FlatWire to the appropriate connector or wall box and you're ready to plug in your devices.

If you're installing a data, video or subwoofer wire, you'll need to mount your wall boxes first, plug the FlatWire in and test it, then adjust the length of the wire using the custom connector. Determine how long the wire will need to be and use the guide on the custom connector to align the connecter with the pattern on the wire. Snap the connecter shut to hold it in place, use a clamp to secure the connector, gently break the guide away from the connector and cut the wire to the right length.

Now you can glue the cable to the wall the same way you would with speaker wire. Then you coat the wire with mesh and then the concealing compound. Once the compound is dry, you sand it smooth and then paint over it. Your wires are now practically invisible.

FlatWire Safety

The thought of bands of copper attached to a wall conducting electricity might worry some people. How safe is it? What are the chances it will short out? What happens if after you accidentally drive a nail through a wire while you're trying to hang a picture?

The good news is that Southwire has already taken these issues into consideration while designing FlatWire. Southwire coats the copper bands in FlatWire with an insulating film that doesn't conduct electricity. That means FlatWire is safe to touch even when a current is running through it. The film acts just like the insulating coating on a normal wire.

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If you install FlatWire correctly, it can be safer than normal wires and cables. Because you can trim FlatWire to the right length, you don't have to worry about slack coils of wires and cables. And because you can lay FlatWire almost flush with any surface, you can avoid creating a tripping hazard. You can even run FlatWire on your floor and lay carpet on top of it.

If you were to pierce the FlatWire accidentally while it conducted electricity, you'd create an electrical short. The piercing object will cause the ground and neutral layers to make contact with the hot layer. This causes a short circuit -- the electrons flowing through the hot layer will flow back through the neutral and ground layers.

The short circuit immediately trips your home's circuit breaker and current ceases to flow through the wire. All of this happens at an incredible speed. From the point of view of the person putting a nail through an active FlatWire, it's instantaneous.

At the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, Southwire held several demonstrations showing that driving a nail through the wire would cause a short and trip a circuit breaker. At the time of this article, Southwire is awaiting certification from the Underwriters Laboratory for its 120 VAC electrical FlatWire. Southwire has secured approval from the National Fire Protection Association. Low-voltage FlatWire products are already on the market.

To learn more about wiring and electricity, take a look at the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Bender, Hal. "Valence Electrons." Clackamas Community College. 2002. (Feb. 2, 2009) http://dl.clackamas.cc.or.us/ch104-06/valence_electrons.htm
  • Eastman, Abraham et al. "Device and Method for Connecting Wire." U.S. Patent 6,688,912 B2. Filed Feb. 14, 2002 and issued Feb. 10, 2004.
  • Elert, Glenn. "Dielectrics." The Physics Hypertextbook. (Jan. 30, 2009) http://hypertextbook.com/physics/electricity/dielectrics/
  • FlatWire Ready. (Jan. 29, 2009). http://www.flatwireready.com/
  • Hyperphysics. "Electricity and Magnetism." Georgia State University. (Jan. 30, 2009) http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/emcon.html#emcon
  • McCurdy, Michael W. et al. "Non-uniform Transmission Line and Method of Fabricating the Same." U.S. Patent 6,774,741 B2. Filed May 28, 2002 and issued Aug. 10, 2004.
  • Sexton, Robert Jay. "Flat Surface-mounted Multi-purpose Wire." U.S. Patent 6,492,595 B2. Filed Feb. 14, 2001 and issued Dec. 10, 2002.