Wi-Fi is great, and for most people it’s the easiest way to provide Internet access to every room in a house. But in large houses with thick walls Wi-Fi may not reach everywhere, and sometimes a wired connnection is just better.
So it’s a good idea to run wires to every room in your house, but if you don’t feel like taking your walls apart, powerline networking is an awesome alternative.
The idea is simple: instead of running wires through your house, you use the electrical wires already in your walls as a sort of improvised network. Numerous devices do this for you, and they’re perfect for:
- Extending the network in homes where a single Wi-Fi router isn’t enough.
- Connecting devices that don’t support Wi-Fi, like smart TVs or game consoles.
- Providing a faster network connection to rooms where running an ethernet cable isn’t practical.
If this sounds useful to you, here are a few things you should know before diving in.
1. Starter Kits Come in Packs of Two
Think of powerline adapters as a way to extend your network from Point A to Point B, wherein each point is an electrical outlet around your house. Because of this, powerline ethernet devices typically come in starter kits of two, as a single device is useless on its own.
You can purchase more to extend your network around your house – just make sure all of your devices are compatible (more on that later).
Generally you’ll be plugging one of these into the walls near devices that need a connection, and one near your router.
2. They Need to Connect to a Router
If you read our complete guide to home networking, you know that every network needs a router. Powerline ethernet devices are not an alternative to a router: they’re just a different way to connect devices to that router.
Powerline ethernet devices don’t do the things that routers do, such as assign IPs. This means that, for your powerline ethernet devices to be useful, one powerline adapter needs to be connected to your router.
Basically, you can think of powerline ethernet devices as an extension of regular ethernet cables. Connecting one computer directly to another isn’t going to be useful. The router is what grants Internet access to the computers.
3. They’re Really Easy to Set Up
Setting up powerline ethernet couldn’t be simpler: the devices are almost always plug-and-play. Plug them into the wall, connect the ethernet cables, and generally you’re good to go.
Some devices include security functionality that requires you to press buttons at the same time to “sync up”, but exact methods vary depending on the specific devices.
4. Cheaper Than Cables Through Walls…
Unless you plan to remodel your house soon, running cables through your walls usually isn’t practical. As of this writing, a powerline ethernet starter kit (two adapters) capable of 500 Mbps costs less than $40, which is certainly cheaper than taking your wall apart to run wires.
5. But Not Quite as Reliable
Browse the reviews of any powerline ethernet device and you’ll see a few people complain about random disconnects and slow speeds — though you’ll also see a lot of 5-star reviews raving about an easy setup and great speeds.
In some cases, this may be a defective device. A lot of the time, however, the electrical wiring in the house just isn’t ideal for powerline ethernet. Maybe there’s too much distance between two plugs, or maybe there’s interference on the line. Or maybe it’s aliens.
It’s almost impossible, without consulting an electrician, to know how well powerline ethernet will work for you. Even if your house is ideal, the result probably won’t be as fast or as stable as plugging straight into your network with an ethernet cable.
It’s a compromise: likely better than Wi-Fi, but a compromise nonetheless.
6. Connections Are Limited to Your House
Worried about security? Most powerline ethernet devices offer some form of encryption, so make sure you use that. But in most cases, the signal won’t make it outside your home.
If you own your own house and pay your own electrical bill, know that your neighbors can’t use your connection even if they buy a compatible device. This is because the signal from powerline adapters is scrambled by transformers, and there is almost certainly one between your house and the outside world.
If you live in an apartment, however, there’s a chance your neighbors could pick up a signal, so make sure your adapter supports encryption — and that you turn that functionality on.
7. Surge Protectors Mess With The Signal
Surge protectors can protect your computer, but they also scramble powerline ethernet signals. Plugging a powerline ethernet device into a power bar with surge protection will severely limit your potential speed, if not stop the device from working altogether.
For the best possible connection, plug all adapters straight into the wall.
8. Brand Compatibility Isn’t Guaranteed
Though several companies make powerline adapters, they don’t all play nicely with each other. If you want to ensure complete compatibility, including the use of all security functionality, it’s simplest to buy the same make and model every time.
There are specifications, however, meaning it’s possible to get powerline adapters from different companies to work with each other under some circumstances. The two major specifications are HomePlug and G.hn. Generally, if you have two adapters using the same specification, they should work well together (though the security protocols might not work).
Really old devices (such as HomePlug 1.0 devices) will not work with newer ones, though the really old devices are generally so slow that they’re not worth bothering with anyway. Be sure to research compatibility before buying two different kinds of adapters.
What Else Would You Like to Know?
Before I take off, here are a couple more things to keep in mind:
- Powerline ethernet should not be confused with Power Over Ethernet, which uses ethernet cables to power devices. It sounds similar, but is a completely different technology.
- There are plenty of ways to test your home network speed after setting up powerline ethernet.
I hope all of the above was useful to you.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below. I’ll be around to answer them for you. I use powerline ethernet every day, and love it, so I’ll try my best to help.