Down to the Wire

Home Automation requires a solid home network foundation to work properly. There are a range of conflicting hardware technologies and software systems used by today’s smart home products. When reading product descriptions or specifications on retail boxes or websites, you’ll come across many different buzzwords and acronyms, some or all of which may be unknown.

At the risk of boring or confusing you, some of the hardware terms you may see include Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, BLE (bluetooth low energy), Zigbee, Z-Wave, or RF (radio frequency). Software terms include TCP/IP, UDP, HomeKit, API (application program interface), Skills, & Thread.

I won’t even try to explain all of these and you shouldn’t have to learn them either. The important thing is that sooner or later, all smart home devices must be interconnected to your home network. As the foundational backbone for your home automation system, it is very important to have a stable and reliable home network. If your network doesn’t work, then none of the devices connected to it have a chance of behaving properly.

A network within a home or office operating over short distances is called a local area network, or LAN. Ethernet is the most common hardware used for LANs so you won’t find any competing technologies to worry about. Ethernet runs over telephone-style wiring commonly called twisted-pair cabling and the ends of the wires have modular telephone-like jacks called RJ-45 (they are just a little bigger/wider than regular telephone jacks to accommodate more wires in the cable).

Because of the cost and complexity of running wires all around a house, and the inconvenience of being plugged into an actual cable, wireless LAN networking using the Wi-Fi standard has been widely adopted. Wireless networking uses radio waves to send and receive data through the air without any cables. Like any radio, Wi-Fi networks are subject to distance limitations. Radio signals work best in open space and whenever they pass through walls or other obstacles the signal strength is reduced and the range is affected. The quality of Wi-Fi in your home is greatly affected by building materials, physical home layout, and other radio devices nearby.

In a small home or apartment, your Wi-Fi may work perfectly, but in many homes, there will be parts of the house where the signal is weak or nonexistent. If you are working on your smartphone or laptop computer, you’ll just move to a different spot in the room or house to fix the problem. (If you have big gaps in coverage, you might install multiple Wi-Fi radios (access points), or even step-up to the new “mesh Wi-Fi” systems that work much better.)

The important thing to keep in mind is that when you are installing a smart home device such as a light dimmer, appliance controller, or other product, you have to put the controller where you need it. You can’t move the lamp because the automation device is getting bad Wi-Fi reception in that particular corner of the family room!

Before starting a home automation project, take the time to walk around your home with your laptop and see where you have poor Wi-Fi reception or dead spots. You really want to take the time to do a thorough analysis and resolve any problems you find. With an Apple iPhone, you can use the free Apple AirPort utility to measure Wi-Fi signal strength even if you don’t own an Apple AirPort Wi-Fi system. With a laptop, there are several good programs you can get that will help you measure your Wi-Fi network and build a map of coverage (some are free, some are paid).

Keep the following rules of thumb in mind:

Wired Ethernet is always the best solution. If possible, try to have most, or all of your computer devices connected via RJ45 wired Ethernet, if at all possible. Some homes are pre-wired with Ethernet jacks in most rooms. If your home is not, strongly consider installing Ethernet wires yourself, or hiring a professional electrician or network wiring expert to do it for you. Don’t forget that high bandwidth devices such as media servers (Apple TV, Roku, or other streaming boxes), IP cameras, and of course computers will work much better and more reliability with a wired connection.

If your Wi-Fi coverage is poor or weak, upgrade your Wi-Fi network by installing a Wi-Fi router or access point that supports the latest/fastest standard which is 802.11ac. I strongly suggest looking closely at the new mesh Wi-Fi systems such as Eero. Although you may have some sticker shock with the higher cost, you will be able to solve even the most difficult range and speed problems. At a minimum, avoid using any of the older Wi-Fi “extenders” - they really don’t work as they immediately cut your throughput in half and most are unreliable and can’t maintain a permanent connection.

If you don’t have wired Ethernet throughout your home there is an in-between option of using conversion technology that can send Ethernet through some of the existing wiring you may have in your house. The two most popular methods are MoCA (multimedia over coax) which uses your existing cable TV (coax) wires, and powerline, which uses your actual high-voltage AC power lines. I won’t go into detail here, but it is good to be aware of these options.

In the past MoCA and powerline have been useful options, but the newer mesh Wi-Fi technology is easier and often a faster solution so if you still want to pursue these options, it is important to understand the tradeoffs involved before making a decision.

Lastly, I want to mention something that is often overlooked - Wi-Fi performance depends not just on the equipment, configuration, and setup that you do. It is also affected by other radios transmitting in the same area.

So even if you are meticulous mapping out the dead spots in your home, installing the latest mesh Wi-Fi access points, and getting everything running perfectly, a few days or weeks later, it might have problems. The reason? One of your neighbors installs their own Wi-Fi network for the first time or upgrades their network with more powerful access points.

That’s why I strongly recommend running wired Ethernet everywhere you can - even if it costs money to have it installed for you. Once installed and working your network will perform consistently over time. The only changes that affect it are the things you change yourself.

How is your Wi-Fi network working in your home?

Let me know what your most common problem is and whether you have been able to fix it.