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What is powerline networking?

By Phil Wilkinson-Jones | Wednesday, September 30th 2020

Powerline networking is one of a number of ways you could potentially improve your home network. But what exactly is it? And is it going to solve all of your connectivity issues?

In this guide, we'll explain what powerline networking is, how it works, and talk you through the pros and cons you need to know if you're going to make an informed decision. We'll also have a look at some of the powerline options out there on the market, so you can start to familiarise yourself with the available brands.

What is powerline networking?

Powerline networking is a way of connecting a device to your router using the mains electricity wiring of your house to send and receive signals to and from your router. It is an alternative to using wifi as a way of connecting a device to your home network.

How does it work?

A starter kit consists of two powerline adapters and two short ethernet cables. The two adapters plug directly into electrical plug sockets – one near your router and the other near the device that you want to connect it to (for example, a TV, PC or games console in a different room to the router). The ethernet cables connect each device to the adapter.

Instead of sending a wifi signal to your chosen device, your router will now use the ethernet cables and adapters to send signals through the electrical wiring in your house. Clever, eh?

Why use powerline networking?

Powerline networking provides a good solution to one specific problem. You have a device that needs a wired connection to your router but you don't want to pull up carpets, drill holes in walls or trail ethernet cables around skirting boards. Some powerline adapters also include built-in wifi enhancers so if your device is positioned quite far from the router and the wifi signal is weak, you can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. It's also pretty reliable and secure, as it's not going to be easy for someone to hack into the actual wires in your house.

The other big plus in favour of powerline networking is that it is very easy to use. There's no faffing about trying to get adapters to sync up. As soon as everything is plugged in, connected and switched on, the adapters detect each other automatically and those sweet internet signals start flowing immediately.

What features to look for

While not exactly brimming with features – these are quite simple devices after all – there are a few features it's worth looking out for when browsing powerline adapters.

Pass through powerline adapters

Pass through adapters allow you to keep using the plug socket for other devices. Many of us only have a limited number of plug sockets in the house so this is a very useful feature.

Powerline wifi extender

As well as providing you with a wired ethernet connection to one particular device, a powerline wifi extender also gives your wifi a boost wherever you choose to plug it in.

Gigabit ethernet ports

With broadband speeds getting faster all the time, it makes sense to give yourself the best chance of getting the best possible speed, while future-proofing your home network at the same time. A gigabit ethernet connection does just that.

The imitations of powerline networking

We've waxed lyrical about the benefits of powerline networking so far, but it is not the solution to all of life's problems. The technology does have its limitations and it would be remiss of us not to talk you through them.

Powerline networks lose speed

If you think about, it's inevitable that an internet signal being sent through a household electrical mains circuit is going to lose some speed. Whether or not a specific powerline connection is going to lose more or less speed than a wifi connection between the same two devices depends on quite a few variables, including the positioning of the devices in question and the layout of your home.

When browsing powerline adapters you'll notice that they all include a top speed. Take these with a big ol' pinch of salt, as the speeds you're likely to see in real life are likely to a fair bit slower.

Devices have to be on the same electrical circuit

In order to use powerline adapters, you will need a basic knowledge of how your house is wired up. That's because your router and the device you want to connect it to need to be on the same electrical circuit in order for powerline adapters to work. If you're unsure whether you have a separate circuit upstairs, for example, a trained electrician will be able to tell you.

Electrical interference

As they are piggybacking on an electrical circuit, powerline adapters are susceptible to electrical interference from household appliances such as fridges, washing machines and so on. Most adapters have an indication light that will flash red or orange if there is interference and you could find your speeds affected. Surge protectors have also been found to interfere with the signal on powerline networks.

Socket locations

By their very nature, powerline adapters are limited by where the plug sockets are located in your home. They work best when plugged directly into the mains socket, so using an extension lead isn't really going to solve the problem – you'll be running the risk of ending up with a very slow connection.

Low frequency RF pollution

A bit of a niche one this, but worth mentioning. Amateur radio enthusiasts have reported that powerline networking causes electrical circuits to emit low frequency radio waves, which can interfere with their broadcast signals.

Who makes the best powerline networking kits?

These are some of the biggest names in powerline adapters, as good a place as any to start the search for your latest bit of tech.

  • Devolo – According to reviews, Devolo's Magic 2 Wifi powerline adapters are the best you can buy right now. They offer decent speeds, mesh wifi and an integrated power socket
  • TP-Link – Devices like the TP-Link AV2000 include wifi boosting technology and promise speeds up to 2,000Mbps although as we've said, that's just not a speed you're likely to see once the kit is installed in your home
  • NETGEAR – Another name you may well recognise as they also make routers, NETGEAR has a range of powerline adapters including the PLP1000. This won't break the bank but includes a gigabit port and a power socket
  • BT – The UK's biggest broadband provider also dabbles in the additional equipment you might need to make your network, well, work. Its mini connector kit includes built-in power sockets and gigabit ports

Frequently asked questions

What is Homeplug AV2?

Homeplug AV2 is an industry standard for powerline adapters. It requires adapters to be capable of gigabit speeds (theoretically at least) and for adapters to be backwards compatible with older models.

Can I use a powerline adapter on an extension socket?

You can, but you probably shouldn't. Powerline adapters work best when plugged directly into a mains socket and even then you'll lose some speed compared to the speed at the router. Plugging a powerline adapter into an extension socket means you're likely to lose even more speed.

Can powerline adapters cause electrical interference?

It's more likely that your powerline adapter is affected by electrical interference from other household objects such as your fridge, washing machine or dishwasher. Powerline adapters are known for causing interference to short wave radio reception.

Why is my powerline connection so slow?

Powerline networking tends to give a pretty stable connection, but doesn't always give you the fastest speeds. There is always going to be some loss of speed as the signal travels through an electrical circuit.

What distance do powerline adapters work up to?

Powerline adapters generally work up to a distance of 200 metres, but both ends must be connected to the same electrical circuit.

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