Is Home Mesh Wifi the Answer?

June 5, 2022

I’m continuing to ride the wired versus wifi theme as over the last few weeks I’ve been covering pros and cons of each. Doing a deeper dive into mesh wifi made sense as I’ve briefly mentioned it a couple times in my previous post Why Does My Home WiFi Stink? Debbie and I currently have an Eero Pro mesh system — it was an upgrade to the wifi router we had previously. I recommend them where there isn’t existing Ethernet cabling (or any plans to install any) as they’re easy to set up and have improved coverage capabilities over routers, especially in larger homes or apartments. They can be pricey though. I recently installed an Eero Pro 6 (3 nodes) in a friends home as a replacement for an old router. They really like the improved coverage, especially for better streaming of content on wifi-enabled smart TVs.

Purchasing a mesh router system was only half of our upgrade process though. If your mesh node placement is poor, you’ll never realize the full benefits of a mesh system. There are some common pitfalls new mesh wifi owners fall into, as placement is key and very different from a traditional router solution. If you’re looking to upgrade to mesh wifi or don’t think you’re getting the full benefits out of the mesh solution you have, there are some common mistakes you want to avoid.

When you buy a new mesh router system, it’s a perfect time to reassess the placement of your router.

Usually people have their traditional wifi router in some out-of-the-way location. This location is usually dictated by where the utility line from their internet service provider (ISP) enters their home. This was the case for our home in Minnesota. For all the details on this, see my post Our first “Smart Home” …

As the cabling in the house all terminated in the basement along with the internet and cable TV I had two levels to cover. And to complicate it further the location was not centrally located. So I needed a robust router to get wifi throughout the entire place. After some research I went with the Netgear Nighthawk X6 AC3200 Tri-Band Wifi Router.

This was the best case solution at the time as mesh wifi didn’t exist yet and I didn’t have Ethernet cabling in the walls. Needless to say, it worked but there were areas of the house where wifi was weak either due to distance or interference — reference Why Does My Home WiFi Stink? for more detail on that.

Other common locations for routers are in living rooms where the original cable service entrance was. This is due to installers simply boring through an outside wall and placing the router near a power outlet and TV. Better than basement placement but still not ideal.

While you’re setting up a new system, is a great time to consider moving your router to improve wifi coverage. As technology has changed it doesn’t make sense to keep your router in the same place as it’s always been in so don’t think it has to stay there. Moving your mesh router to a central location in your home will make it easier to effectively place the other nodes and get better whole-house coverage.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but you can also place mesh nodes too close together. Devices like your smartphone are improving all the time but putting nodes close together creates an unnecessary burden on both the mesh system and the devices connecting to it.

You don’t want to create radio congestion by putting nodes too close together and you don’t want your devices to have to constantly reassess which node to connect to because it’s unclear which offers the best connection at a given moment.

It can be tricky to assess too close together however. Obviously, you don’t want two nodes in the same small room or right on opposite sides of a wall, but both the layout of your home and the material it is constructed with play a role in determining node proximity.

You might think it would be immediately obvious if you placed your nodes too far apart. Wifi isn’t as simple as either on/working or off, however. And there isn’t a standard number of feet from the router and the ‘signal doesn’t work,’ rule.

Instead, the signal degrades over not only distance but everything in between the mesh node and its nearest node neighbor. Ideal node placement is where each node covers a maximum amount of area in the house with just enough overlap between one node and the nearest node so the two units can communicate with minimal interference and a strong signal. What that looks like in your home is highly dependent on many other factors like where the main mesh router is placed and the configuration and construction of your home.

In general, a good rule of thumb is to place the node roughly halfway between the mesh router and the area of your home where you get a really weak signal. The goal is for the node to pick up the signal from the router and carry it forward, not to have to be so far away it strains to connect properly. If the nodes are too far apart, devices in the semi-dead spots between them will have slow load times, stuttering, and other connectivity issues. That’s a good sign you need to move one or more of the nodes (or add another one to the system). Any kind of wifi is an inexact science and often will require a little trial and error effort to maximize results. I good place to start is logically looking at the floorplan of your home but also adjusting for interference like water heaters and fish tanks as well as density like bookshelves.

Regarding placing mesh nodes too far apart, one common mistake is router placement (mesh network or otherwise) against an outside wall — unless the goal is to provide coverage for an outdoor patio as well as the house.

If you actually want that coverage that’s fine. But if the mesh node is hugging an outside wall that borders a space you don’t use, then you should reposition your mesh node so the signal is better aligned with the spaces you do use.

Wifi radiates out of the router or mesh node in a fairly uniform shape. The shape depends on the type of antenna, but most coverage tends to be shaped like a donut, dome or sphere. More specialized, highly focused directional antennas have the ability to produce ‘lobes’ of coverage that can be aimed at certain locations or directions. If you place your mesh node against an outside wall then obviously up to half of your signal is going to radiate out into your yard or a neighboring apartment.

As I mentioned earlier, you can go a long way towards improving the placement of mesh nodes if you think about your home in terms of what materials exist between one node and the next. Look at the floorplan layout and look for everything between where you plan to place the main mesh router and where you’ll place the nodes. What is between the node and the base if you draw a line through the air and the intermediate structures of the home? Does your line pass through a mirror, fish tank, bookshelf or appliance?

Refrigerators and other large appliances, cast iron bathtubs (and metal plumbing in general like big cast iron drain stacks), concrete walls, old plaster walls with metal lathe, steel studs, and anything else with metal and/or high-density composition absorbs a lot of wifi signal. You might not think much of a large bookcase or an entire wall lined with books, but you should keep it in mind. While a single book isn’t going to do much to block a wifi signal, hundreds of them stacked together absorb quite a bit of signal.

There are some materials that absorb so little Wi-Fi signal they might as well be open air. Windows are practically invisible unless they are tinted with metallic film. Drywall interior walls with wood studs absorb a little but not too much.

Sometimes simply moving a mesh node from one corner of a room to another is sufficient to help the signal project past all the obstacles and get a direct ‘line of sight’ through the floor or walls.

Very often people place their mesh nodes in locations that are too low for optimal signal dispersion. I never thought about it until I started really looking into home wifi coverage but the density of any given room in your home is heavily weighted towards the floor. Furniture sits on the floor. All the objects in the furniture (like books, decorations, etc.) are closer to the floor. Our bodies block wifi to a certain degree too — remember, we are 45–75% water depending on gender, age and other body composition — and we’re walking around and living our lives in the lower half of the room.

There’s a reason when you’re at a stadium or arena for an event that the wifi access points are mounted up high. Putting the access points above the users ensures that all the bodies and structure in the space don’t block the signal. Take a cue from those environments and move your mesh nodes as high up as practical (or acceptable to your interior design) in your own home. Moving your mesh nodes from table height to ceiling height gets them above all the stuff in the room that blocks their signal.

This is something Debbie and I are addressing in our new home build from an aesthetics perspective. As I have roughly determined where the wifi access points for our system will be placed on ceilings, I also have to be cognizant of the overall look. In some cases I have the flexibility to move them a few feet, like into hallways or closets. Otherwise we’ll get more creative with potentially placing above drywall ceilings or designing wraps or painting to match placement.

It’s worth noting that the majority of consumer mesh systems on the market are designed for horizontal surface placement. The antennas inside the node are positioned as if you’re going to set the node on a table, shelf or other horizontal surface so that the radio signal radiates out around the unit with a slightly weaker signal beneath the unit. Under real-world conditions the difference between mesh wifi nodes sitting flat or oriented 90 degrees in a wall mount bracket is negligible but the signal will generally be stronger on the ‘top’ of the unit.

With that in mind, if you do wall mount the unit it’s worth keeping it horizontal or selecting the wall for vertical mounting such that the ‘top’ of the unit points inwards towards the most important areas of the house — not out into your yard. All things being equal though, you’d probably be hard-pressed to notice a difference between the two orientations.

At this point, I want to emphasize practical placement over optimal placement. I don’t want anyone reading this and thinking they have to go and change everything about their mesh network layout. Before moving everything around look for easy wins like simply putting the mesh node on top of the bookcase instead of buried in between the books on the shelf or changing which corner of the room a node is in so it can communicate in a straight line to another node without the stove and fridge in the way.

Obviously a lot to think about here, but nothing you can’t figure out using a little trial and error. The results can be significant however with just a little forethought and effort.

Have you thought about replacing your router with a mesh wifi solution? If you already have mesh, what system are you using? Would you recommend it? Has this post made you think about potential issues with your mesh solution or ways to optimize it? Have you resolved mesh wifi issues with any of these methods? Have you tried others?

Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails as we really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’ Until next week …

SmartHomeOnTheRange.com

SmartHomeOnTheRange.com

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Tod Caflisch

Smart Home technology visionary with passion for out of the box solutions for home technology integrations, focusing on efficiency, safety and sustainability.