Why Does My Home WiFi Stink?
May 22, 2022
I hadn’t planned to write a follow up to last week’s post Wired vs Wifi: Skip Wifi in Favor of Ethernet Where You Can but I didn’t anticipate the feedback and questions either. Of all the things I covered regarding the advantages and disadvantages with wired and wireless home internet the last thing I expected was the reaction to how WiFi is affected by aspects of people’s homes, especially water sources. Density and distance make sense but signal refraction due to water heaters and aquariums is a surprise to many homeowners who ask me about Wifi issues.
Those aren’t the only factors however. There are a surprising number of things in your home, from the type of material your walls are made of to the kind of things you decorate your home with. They can all degrade your WiFi signal. So thanks to those of you who reached out after last week’s post, this one’s for you.
But before I address all the usual things that can affect the WiFi signal in your home, I want to start off by talking about WiFi in general and router placement.
In my years of working in sports technology I’ve come to realize that nobody designs stadiums or arenas for WiFi — shocking as they’re regularly filled with people with thousands of mobile devices. And the density of the structural steel and concrete just adds to the challenge. Sadly, home design and construction hasn’t overcome any of the same problems.
Nobody’s home is ideal for WiFi signal because of design and homeowners have stuff, including yourself and your family. Using an improved understanding of how WiFi works, researching best solutions and choosing locations optimal for your WiFi router/mesh nodes in your home will provide you the best coverage.
To visualize how WiFi works, think of your router as a light bulb that radiates WiFi into your home like a lightbulb radiates light. If you think about why lights are placed on the ceilings of rooms in our homes, it’s because that’s the most practical place to put a light bulb to produce the most light to reach the most area of the room without being obstructed by anything. And when we use lighting elsewhere, like a table lamp, we don’t put them behind large objects like appliances or furniture. We put them where the light can fall where we need it.
The location of your router can be critical as well. Mesh WiFi solutions have made coverage easier when it comes to this as not everyone has a central location to place a router. As I haven’t really covered Mesh WiFi solutions yet I’ll be putting that on my list for a future post.
Routers are generally located in rooms with an outside wall as this is usually the easiest way to get signal into homes, especially older ones and apartments. This design tends to have weaker or no WiFi coverage at the opposite side of the house due to the walls, bookcases and appliances it encounters along the way. Let me add that this is a critical area to consider when building a new home. Your WiFi plans — centralized router, mesh or distributed — will determine best placement.
Simply put, centralized routers generally cover best when in the middle of the spaces requiring internet access. Mesh solutions give more flexibility with coverage as nodes can be placed in specific places to cover needs. Distributed solutions are best for whole-home coverage but require additional equipment and cabling.
Knowing that, you might think that the center of your home is the best place to put your WiFi router, but that isn’t accurate for every home. If a living room, kitchen and garage comprise the central part of your home, sticking your router in there might provide more coverage in your garage rather than the areas you use most. The kitchen could be detrimental, as appliances can interfere with WiFi signal.
It’s also helpful to consider what you tend to do in a given room, but also the devices that are used there. But caveat that with interference concerns due to proximity as I’ve seen many people who have their WiFi router sitting in their living room next to their big screen TV, cable box, Xbox and Blu-Ray player.
While WiFi in the garage might not be necessary for some people, if you have a smart bridge for the garage door, a stable connection is something you need. A WiFi garage door opener might not need the fastest speed but knowing a WiFi device needs a stable signal can influence router positioning.
Ultimately, your router needs to go in or near the center of the most important area of your home, wherever you want the fastest speeds, aim for the center of that location.
As you run through all the different objects and materials below that can impact your WiFi signal, think about ways you might be able to move your WiFi router or adjust the location of your WiFi mesh nodes to avoid the materials that block or absorb the signal.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, fish tanks are a great addition to home décor but you should keep your WiFi gear away from them. Water, surprisingly is excellent at blocking WiFi signals. Putting your WiFi router right next to a large fish tank is like putting a dampener on it. Water heaters as well. You’ll get a fine signal on the side of the tank where the router is located, but you’ll notice a degraded signal on the other side. On a side note, the water factor is taken into consideration when planning WiFi for stadiums and arenas. As the human body is 70% water there is a high degree of WiFi signal absorption with row after row of people sitting side by side. This is always a consideration in high density areas.
Another of the more surprising things that can degrade your WiFi signal is the decor. We tend to think about stuff like concrete walls or other large and weighty things when we try to plan WiFi solutions, but there are some interesting examples of decor that impacts signal.
Books are another consideration. They can be quite dense and, if you put enough of them together, like lining an entire wall with bookshelves, you’ve effectively built yourself a nice big signal dampener. This one was a surprise to me but makes sense. And also introduces a new home design challenge for Debbie and I as we have a lot of shelving planned — and a LOT of books. It’s best not to put a router or mesh node on a bookshelf at all, but this is especially true if the place you need a strong signal is at the opposite end of a long run of shelves.
Mirrors can also interfere with WiFi signals. The coating that changes a sheet of glass into a mirror is metallic. Large wall mirrors have a bigger impact than smaller mirrors and older mirrors affect WiFi more than newer ones. Older mirrors contain actual silver in the backing where newer ones have less expensive backings.
Televisions can affect WiFi, like mirrors, but not fo the same reasons. It’s the giant metal shield inside. If you were to take your flat-screen TV or computer monitors apart you’d find that a metal plate covers almost the entire back. That metal plate serves both as an electromagnetic shield and to reinforce the display’s structural integrity. It also interferes with WiFi signals passing through that space so don’t place your router around those devices.
Speaking of metal, metal decor can also interfere with your WiFi. Metal wall art, tin ceiling tiles, etc. can impact your signal. Ironically, many people and even ‘professionals’ will install WiFi routers in metal boxes installed in a wall to organize or hide their equipment. The WiFi signal is effectively trapped or reflected toward wherever it can escape to (remember the light bulb example above). In this example the router has been effectively surrounded by an accidental Faraday cage.
As Debbie plans her new kitchen, she’s very excited about all the fancy appliances she’ll be installing. This is another area that requires special WiFi planning as we all have appliances, and appliances are huge obstacles when it comes to impeding WiFi signals. A giant fridge is great for storing snacks, not so great for WiFi.
In the kitchen, the refrigerator, dishwasher, stove and even microwave oven are large metal objects that effectively block WiFi. When thinking about the layout of your home and the relationship of the router to the devices that need WiFi, don’t overlook how much radio-wave absorbing mass is in a typical kitchen.
Your washer and dryer are equally dense metal objects that are not WiFi friendly. And although they aren’t usually thought of as an ‘appliance,’ your furnace and water heater impact WiFi signal strength too. As I’ve referenced the water heater before, it’s not just a giant metal cylinder, but it’s also filled with water.
For folks with the laundry, furnace and water heater tucked away in the corner of the basement, that’s not likely much of a concern. But, if you have a first-floor laundry and utility room, then you’ll obviously want to consider your router’s location in relation to it.
Brick, steel and concrete make for interesting modern living spaces, but terrible WiFi signal strength. Everything else I’ve covered so far is relatively easy to deal with. Moving a router from next to a giant aquarium or realizing you’re getting interference from your kitchen is trivial compared to dealing with the actual construction of your home.
From a WiFi signal transmission standpoint, wood-stud and drywall-covered interior walls are the best. Drywall is practically invisible to WiFi and while wood does absorb some of your WiFi signal studs are fairly small and widely spaced. Stick-and-drywall type homes tend to have the best WiFi signal transmission range among all other kinds of home construction.
If your home has steel-stud construction, the steel studs interfere with the signal. Similar problems exist if you have an older home with lathe and plaster walls. The metal wire used to reinforce the lathe can function as a primitive faraday cage as described above. The more metal there is in the walls of your home — steel studs, wire lathe or even the foil-lined insulation that was popular in home construction a few decades ago, the more signal challenges you’ll have.
Thick concrete walls and concrete floors aren’t particularly common in most residential construction, but there is a trend toward homes constructed with insulated concrete forms instead of stick-built construction. Having solid concrete exterior and even interior walls is great for energy bills and surviving severe weather, like tornados and hurricanes. But it’s terrible for WiFi transmission. Cinderblock walls aren’t much better, although they don’t dampen the signal as strongly as solid concrete.
Although concrete and steel construction is still fairly uncommon in single family US residences, it’s pretty common in newer condos, townhomes and apartments. If you live in a relatively new multi-family residence, there’s a good chance it’s built with steel and concrete. So be prepared to try a few places for your router for the best coverage.
In multi-story homes or homes with basements, don’t forget to think about the floor itself. If you have poured concrete floors you have the same problem you’d have with concrete walls. Foil insulation layers in flooring can cause problems too. The wire grid pattern found in under-floor electric radiant heat and the mass of water found in radiator-based systems can also cause issues. Often, such systems are embedded into concrete floors or just above them which just compounds the problem.
Unlike some of the situations I mentioned earlier, like you unknowingly putting your WiFi router too close to your fish tank, it’s a bit tougher to deal with the physical structure of your home. You can’t just replace concrete walls with wood ones or change brick to drywall.
In those cases, your best bet, besides paying close attention to your home’s layout and aiming for optimum placement, is to upgrade your router. My recommendation would be to move to a Mesh WiFi system where you can place multiple nodes throughout the home to increase the overall coverage. This is what Debbie and I did a few years ago but we’ll move to a distributed solution when we build our new home since we will be able to install cabling all over to support it and other smart home devices.
Obviously a lot to think about here. But nothing you can’t figure out using a little trial and error if you’re having WiFi problems. The potential issues can be pretty apparent if you know what to look for. Hopefully this has given you a better framework to troubleshoot your router placement.
Have you run into any of these issues in the past? How did you resolve them? Have you run into other coverage challenges that I haven’t covered here? What’s your preferred solution? Would you recommend the solution you’re using?
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 …
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