Patch panels are simple pieces of equipment designed to house a large number of jacks. Typically, they are mounted onto rack or cabinets. The panels themselves are easy to install, but there are a few details to know before getting started.
Horizontally, patch panels are 19 inches (the industry standard size). Vertically, patch panels are measured in rack units (RU). Patch panels are rectangular and secured with four screws, one on each corner. A single RU is the amount of space one row of jacks will take up on a unit (1 RU = 1.75 inches). Typically, a maximum of 24 ports can be squeezed onto a single RU.
There are two main types of patch panels, pre-made and keystone.
*If you need help installing a patch panel onto a rack or cabinet, please see the article here.
Pre-Made Patch Panels
Pre-made patch panels are used for ethernet and telephone connections. This type of patch panel is built with the jacks already installed. Ethernet patch panels feature punchdown on the back for wiring directly into the connectors. They even feature charts with wiring schemes on the back to help during installation. Ethernet panels are available for the various types of ethernet (Cat5e, Cat6, etc.).
Telephone patch panels are also called Telco patch panels. From the front, they look very similar to ethernet patch panels. On the back, a port is available to plug in a Telco cable. This allows for a simple, easy install in data closets and similar environments. There are different types of jacks available on these panels with different positions (P) and conductors (C). For example, regular phone lines may need 6P4C while a VOIP phone could need 8P2C. There are more options besides those two, so see what your phones will need to make an appropriate selection.
Pre-made patch panels have a few advantages over their keystone equivalents. Not having to install keystone jacks is a bit of a time saver. If you know ahead of time you will need the whole panel to use the same type of jack, this can be convenient. The panels may also come with additional features, such as status lights that indicate when a cable is plugged in and active.
Backside of a pre-made Telco patch panel
Keystone Jack Patch Panels
Keystone patch panels require a bit more set-up than pre-made panels but are much more versatile. Essentially, keystone patch panels are pieces of metal with holes cut into them. The jacks are inserted into these holes, where they snap into place to hold themselves steady. A simple release tab allows them to be easily removed if necessary. These jacks are what give keystone patch panels their key advantage: customization.
Keystone jacks come in a few different varieties. Most of the formats they cover are various types of voice, data, audio, and video connections. For voice and data (telephones and ethernet), users have the option of using punchdown or coupler keystones. Punchdown jacks are similar to the pre-built patch panels; bare cable is wired directly into the back of the jacks. Couplers allow cables to be plugged into the back of the jack, the same way cables plug into the front.
Audio and video keystone jacks include 3.5mm, BNC, F-type, HDMI, RCA, S-Video, Optical Toslink, and Speaker Wire jacks. In short, smaller types of connections are available as keystone jacks. Larger types of connections such as VGA or DVI simply take up too much space to work as a keystone. Audio/video keystones are only available as couplers (except for speaker wire jacks; more details on the different types of speaker connections here).
It is important to note that there are different versions of keystone jacks. If a name or description just says “keystone”, that means it is a standard keystone jack. Some manufacturers will make keystone jacks in different, non-standard sizes. Oftentimes these jacks are downsized, allowing more to be squeezed onto a single patch panel. The downside of these is being forced to stick with that specific type of keystone for any future installations or modifications.
For example, say you purchase a High Density Keystone Patch Panel made by ICC. You would have to buy High Density Keystone Jacks to go with it; any other type of keystone would not fit the panel. There are other types of keystone jacks besides High Density that use non-standard sizes as well, such as Panduit’s Mini-Com Jacks. For the most part, these alternate jacks are only available for ethernet and telephone connections.