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No Wi-Fi at that Corner? Get a Pair of Powerline Adapters!

In Powerline networking, adapters come in all shapes and sizes. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

When it comes to extending a network, you should always use network cables. Connecting an access point to an existing router via cable, for example, is the best way to extend your Wi-Fi network without losing performance.  But running wires can be hard, sometimes not even possible. And that’s where Powerline networking comes into play.

What is Powerline networking?

In a nutshell, Powerline networking turns existing electrical wiring into that of a computer network. In other words, apart from bringing power — electricity, that is — from one wall socket to another, the wiring behind the wall now also carries network signals. As a result, you can quickly extend your network to wherever there’s a wall outlet. It’s quite smart if you think about it! In every house, the electrical wiring is already there, so why not take advantage of that, right?

Powerline networking requires a pair of adapters to create the first connection. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Pros and Cons of Powerline networking

Like everything else, Powerline has its pros and cons. It’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t work in every situation.

Pros of using Powerline

The primary advantage of Powerline, clearly, is the convenience. You can extend your wired network in a matter of minutes without running any cables. It’s as easy as plugging a couple of adapters into wall sockets.

For example, if you have a basement with thick concrete walls that Wi-Fi signals can’t reach, Powerline is so much easier than digging and drilling to run an actual network cable there.

Cons of using Powerline

Unfortunately, this list is rather long:

Some Powerline adapters have a pass-through socket.
Some Powerline adapters have a pass-through socket. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech
  • Not available in all homes: In my experience, though rare, Powerline doesn’t work in some old houses, those built decades ago. It’s likely because of the type of electrical wiring used at the time.
  • Direct plugging required: Powerline adapters don’t work well, if at all, with surge protectors or power strips. They need to plug directly into a wall receptacles to work, and therefore, you lose one power socket for each Powerline adapter you use. Since most adapters are rather bulky, you might have to sacrifice the adjacent outlets too, unless you get adapters with a pass-through socket, but this means the adapter itself will be extra bulky.
  • Limited distance: The distance between two adapters needs to be less than 900 feet (300 meters). Keep in mind that this is the length of the wiring behind the wall. Electrical wiring tends to snake around the house and can easily be longer than the actual distance between the sockets. For comparison, a network cable can go on for miles without affecting the speed.
  • Slow speeds: This is one of the most significant shortcomings of Powerline compared to network cables. Keep in mind that no matter how fast the Powerline standard is — you’ll find plenty of them boasting 1200Mbps or even faster speeds — at best its actual ceiling speed is that of the network port the adapter, which currently caps at 1000Mbps (1Gbps). In real-world testing, generally, you’ll get somewhere between a third to a half of the Gigabit standard, even in ideal conditions. The fastest Powerline connection I’ve seen is around 500Mbps, just half of a real Gigabit connection. For the most part, though, they are speedy enough to deliver a residential Internet connection in full.
  • Interferences: A Powerline connection is susceptible to interferences from appliances such as washers, dryers, ceiling fans, refrigerators, and so on. When these devices are in operation, your Powerline connection’s speed might suffer. Furthermore, circuit breakers and lousy wiring can also adversely affect Powerline’s performance.
  • Bad compatibility: Adapters of the same Powerline standard are supposed to work with one another. In reality, though, getting adapters of different vendors to inter-operate, though possible, can be challenging. You’re better off getting all the adapters you need from the same vendor.
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The Comtrend PG-9172PoE is one of a few power-line adapter on the market that support power-over-Ethernet.
The Comtrend PG-9172PoE is one of a few Powerline adapters on the market that supports power-over-Ethernet. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

How to use Powerline adapters

Now that you know what you’re getting into let’s find out how you can set up a Powerline network. This process is generally the same for all makes and models of Powerline adapters.

Most Powerline adapters take the shape of a wall plug and have at least one network port to connect to a router (or switch) or a wired device. Generally, you’ll need a pair of adapters for the first connection. However, a few routers, such as the ARRIS SURFboard SBR-AC3200P, have built-in Powerline support, in which case you can skip the primary adapter.

The general Powerline setup process

  1. Connect the first adapter to the router (or switch) using a network cable and plug it into a wall socket. (Skip this if you have a Powerline-enabled router). After this, all other outlets in the house are Powerline-ready.
  2. Plug the second adapter into a wall socket at the far corner of the room you’ll be using it in, and that’s it! The two adapters will turn the electrical wiring in between them into a network cable.
  3. Connect a wired device, like a printer or a desktop computer, into the second adapter’s network port, also using a network cable — that device will now be part of the network. By the way, each device that connects to the network via a Powerline connection is called a node.
  4. After the first connection, you need another adapter for each additional node, repeating step #2 but at a different wall socket. That said, the rule is: you need three adapters to connect two wired devices, four adapters to connect three, and so on. Generally, you can add from 6 to 64 nodes in a Powerline network, depending on the Powerline standards.
  5. By itself, Powerline doesn’t include Wi-Fi. That said, to bring Wi-Fi to the far corner, connect a Wi-Fi access point to the Powerline adapter at that location. Alternatively, you can also get a Powerline adapter with a built-in Wi-Fi access point, like the Netgear PLPW1000-100NAS.
A Powerline adapter at work.
A Powerline adapter at work. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Powerline networking: Privacy concerns

Since Powerline uses the electrical wiring to deliver a network signal, will your neighbors be able to tap into your network by using an adapter of their own? The answer is: this depends.

If you live in a residential single-family home, there’s no need to worry since Powerline signals can’t cross a transformer, which separates the power connections of different houses on the same street.

However, if you live in a condo, there’s a chance of exposing your home network to other condos when using Powerline adapters. That said, though, most adapters have encryption you need to configure — via pressing a button — before they can work together. If you buy a kit of two adapters, chances are the two adapters are already set up to work only with each other.

So make sure your network is secure: always use Powerline adapters with encryption turned on.

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About the Author: Dong Ngo

Before Dong Knows Tech, I spent some 18 years testing and reviewing gadgets at CNET.com. Technology is my passion and I do know it. | Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook!

2 Comments

  1. From experience a couple added notes…
    1. if you have two different models of Powerline adapters, even from the same manufacturer) always use the one with the latest/highest spec/speed at the primary router.
    2. If you want to hardwire more than one device in one location, you can either get Powerline adapters with dual Ethernet ports (TP-Link makes some, probably others), or connect a Gigabit switch to the adapter. At one point I had 3 computers and two VOIP phones connected to an 8-port switch that was on the other side of a chimney 40 feet from my main router. Now I have the VOIP phones (1 ObiHai, 1 Ooma) hardwired at the router but still have the ability to connect computers out on my porch, and I am preparing to move an AIMesh node into my detached garage so it gets a good enough signal to install a smart garage opener.

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