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When Is Using Powerline Adapters in a Business Setting a Good Idea?

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Powerline adapters are devices that pass computer network signals through a building’s electrical wiring. This technology is typically deployed in a home network as a way to extend a local area network (LAN) connection without tracking lots of Ethernet cable across a living space. Manufacturers claim that powerline adapters achieve throughput levels that Wi-Fi® technology can’t match—which is true, but it is imperative to understand that certain wiring conditions need to be in place to make the network reliable enough for business use.

In a typical business operation, especially one where any kind of production is involved, you would be hard-pressed to find any IT professional that would pick a powerline network over a traditional wired Ethernet setup. This is not because the powerline adapter technology is bad or unreliable—it’s that the issues that crop up usually involve a building’s internal wiring, which are difficult for an IT person to troubleshoot in a timely fashion, if at all.

With that in mind, powerline adapters are best suited for atypical business setups that hinder Wi-Fi deployment.  An example might be a large showroom floor or a basement office—basically any indoor situation where a Wi-Fi network does not provide the connectivity you need, and you can’t extend Ethernet cables to connect the computers to the access point. If set up properly, a powerline network can do the trick in these types of places.

Picking a Powerline Adapter

Choosing a powerline adapter—whether you spend $40 or $100-plus—depends on throughput specs and number of Ethernet ports it has. The most recent HomePlug AV2 specification supports Gigabit-class broadband speeds, and have a 600 Mbps data transfer cap—fast enough for Internet video, multi-room Internet Protocol television (IPTV), voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), online gaming, HD audio and other high-demand networking uses. The more expensive models have up to four ports. If you need more ports than that, it is advisable to purchase a network switch.

AV2 models with the highest NeweggBusiness customer ratings include:

TP-LINK TL-PA6010 – 600 Mbps cap with one 10/100 Ethernet port
ZyXEL PLA5205 – 600 Mbps cap with one 10/100 Ethernet port
There are, of course, other models to choose from.

The Easy Part: Initial Setup

The best part of powerline networking is that it is literally plug-and-play. Powerline adapters are sold in kits of two. The first adapter is plugged into a wall socket, and connects to a router or a switch, via its network port. The second adapter is plugged in to an electrical outlet near where you have the Ethernet-ready device that you wish to connect to your LAN. Once both powerline adapters are plugged into a wall socket and to their respective devices via a short Ethernet cable, the network is extended through the building’s wiring to the device and in most cases you’re ready to go.

The Trickier Part: Optimization

It is critical to understand that powerline network performance depends largely on the wiring of the building you are in. This is why actual performance speeds are usually significantly less than the data transfer cap of a powerline adapter. In many instances, a building’s wiring will make or break a powerline network. Some general guidelines about powerline networks pertaining to wiring:

  • Do not plug a powerline adapter into a surge protector. Surge protectors block out the signals adapters use to operate.
  • Adapters perform best when on the same phase of a building’s circuit breaker.  Most homes have two phases, usually denoted by L1 or L2. An office building may have more. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a properly labeled circuit breaker, take advantage of that knowledge when installing powerline adapters.
  • Powerline networks are affected by other electronic devices operating on the same alternating current they are using—particularly anything with a motor, like a fan, sump pump, microwave, or space heater.  These devices will slow data transmission.

Network Security: Make Sure to Change the Name of Your Network

The HomePlug standard has encryption features built in to it. It is critical to take advantage of these features especially when you share wiring with a neighboring office—if they are using powerline technology as well, you are essentially sharing networks, which brings up all manners of security and privacy issues. Most devices have a group or security button that allows you to change your network’s name and set a password. Make sure to consult the instruction manual for your device.

Taking into consideration factors affecting powerline network performance and taking advantage of network security features, powerline adapters can work in an atypical office setting where traditional networking infrastructure might be unavailable.

Let us know in the comments below—how well did powerline adapters work in your office environment?

 

Photo by Adam Dachis, taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Adam Lovinus

Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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