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Ethernet Over Power?! A Complete Guide to Powerline Adapters

Learn about Powerline adapters and how they can solve your connectivity problems. How do Powerline adapters compare to Wi-Fi and other solutions?

Powerline Adapter Kevin Jones / TechReviewer

Last Updated: December 28, 2021

Written by Kevin Jones

What Are Powerline Adapters?

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A pair of Powerline adapters allows you to use AC wiring for Ethernet communication. Powerline adapters behave like an extension for an Ethernet cable. You can create an Ethernet network by simply plugging a pair of Powerline adapters into your wall outlets. Powerline adapters can communicate over the same wires as you use for AC power transmission.

Check out my Recommended Powerline Adapters below.

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Use Cases for Powerline Adapters

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  • Use existing home wiring as a replacement for Ethernet cables.
  • Extend wireless coverage.
  • Backhaul for a Mesh Wi-Fi System (i.e., a wired backbone for the Wi-Fi satellites).
  • Get Internet access into hard-to-reach places in your home.
  • Use wired connections to avoid Wi-Fi interference from neighbors.
  • Avoid the latency of Wi-Fi while playing games on consoles and computers.
  • A secure alternative to Wi-Fi.

Pros and Cons of Powerline

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Pros:

  • Easy wiring using existing power outlets (connect an Ethernet cable)
  • Low cost (compared to MoCA adapters)
  • Encrypted (some products)
  • Up to a 300-meter range
  • Some models have built-in Wi-Fi
  • Plug and play setup (no configuration required)

Cons:

  • Often a lower connection speed of around 150-350 Mbps compared to the advertised 1-2 Gbps
  • Powerline devices need to be on the same electrical circuit
  • May cause noticeable electromagnetic interference with some devices such as speakers (static sound)
  • Power strip, GFCI outlets, and AFCI circuit breakers may degrade Powerline network signals
  • Some models block an outlet when connecting directly into a wall outlet

Powerline vs. Alternatives

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Ethernet Cable & Alternatives Setup Complexity Supported Speeds Supported Distance Latency Reliability
Ethernet Cable - Ethernet over Twisted Pair (e.g., Cat 6a) Excellent Excellent Good Excellent Excellent
Powerline - Ethernet over Powerline Excellent Fair Good Fair Poor
MoCA - Ethernet over Coax Good Good Good Good Good
Wi-Fi - Wireless Good Fair Fair Poor Fair

MoCA

Suppose you're looking for an alternative to Ethernet cables and Wi-Fi. In that case, we believe that MoCA (Ethernet over Coax) is the clear winner compared to Powerline due to the faster speeds and better signal quality. However, there are still some use cases where Powerline may be the best solution. Powerline is a little easier to set up than MoCA. MoCA adapters require coax cabling in your rooms, which may not exist in your case.

Suppose your Internet speed is less than 200 Mbps or your devices on the network do not support gigabit Ethernet. In these cases, Powerline adapters may be the best of the two options for you, as they offer a lower price point.

On the other hand, MoCA adapters are a better option when you want to fully utilize a higher-speed Internet connection and have existing coax cabling between rooms.

You could also consider using both! For example, MoCA adapters might work great for connecting an upstairs and downstairs via coax. At the same time, Powerline adapters would be great for getting Internet to a garage that has no coax line available.

Learn more about MoCA adapters in my article, Ethernet Over Coax?! A Complete Guide to MoCA Adapters.

For even more alternatives, check out my article, The 6 Best Ethernet Cable Alternatives for Home Networks.

Are Powerline Adapters Good for Gaming?

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Powerline adapters will work for providing high-speed Internet to your gaming computer or console, but they are not your best option.

Powerline adapters have lower latency than Wi-Fi, which is good. However, they do not have the same reliability or speed compared to their alternatives.

Suppose you have coax cabling in your home. In that case, MoCA adapters are a better option, as they provide faster speeds and better reliability.

Ethernet cables (e.g., Cat 6a cable) will always provide the fastest, most reliable, and lowest latency solution.

Do Powerline Adapters Need to Be on the Same Circuit?

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Most Powerline adapters indicate that they will only work when connected to the same circuit. Let's dig into the details of how this works.

How Electrical Panels Are Wired

First, let's discuss how home electrical panels are wired in North America.

Three lines run from the power company's transformer (the thing that looks like a can on a power pole) to your home: a neutral and two hot leads (line 1, line 2).

There are 120 V between line 1 and neutral and between line 2 and neutral.

There are 240 V between line 1 and line 2.

Circuit breakers are labeled for various rooms or appliances on your electrical panel. Circuit breakers limit the current from exceeding the desired threshold to ensure that your wires don't melt.

Lights and outlets in rooms need 120 V, so circuit breakers for those rooms connect to neutral and either line 1 or line 2.

Larger appliances need 240 V, so those circuit breakers connect to line 1 and line 2.

Each row in an electrical panel alternates between line 1 and line 2. Because 120 V breakers only need to connect to either line 1 or line 2, but not both, they take up a single row of an electrical panel's left or right column.

Here's an example electrical panel layout:

Line Left Column of Electrical Panel Right Column of Electrical Panel
Line 1 Circuit Breaker 1 Circuit Breaker 2
Line 2 Circuit Breaker 3 Circuit Breaker 4
Line 1 Circuit Breaker 5 Circuit Breaker 6
Line 2 Circuit Breaker 7 Circuit Breaker 8
Line 1 Circuit Breaker 9 Circuit Breaker 10
... ... ...

Note that lines 1 and 2 may not always be the same for an electrical panel's left and right columns. For example, whether breakers 1 and 2 both use line 1 will depend on the manufacturer.

Similarly, 240 V breakers need to connect to both line 1 and line 2, so they use two rows of a column of the electrical panel.

Legs and Phases

Each of the lines described above is considered a circuit or leg.

With North American "split-phase" electrical systems, communication between legs would go through the power meter and transformer. Going through these hurdles makes communication difficult.

In some countries, where "multi-phase" installations exist, communication between legs is even more problematic.

Powerline Compatibility

Powerline technology is not able to communicate well across legs. The performance impact will be considerable if attempting to communicate across legs. The connection may be intermittent, if it works at all. Communication across phases or legs is often the cause of slower than expected speeds.

Only rooms on the same leg will communicate at high speed via Powerline.

This requirement means that in some cases, you may only be able to use powerline adapters between particular rooms, depending on your home's wiring.

How to Use the Same Circuit

For North American installations, you can use the table above to determine if rooms will be able to communicate. For example, Circuit Breakers in positions 1 and 5 should be able to communicate because they both use Line 1.

However, keep in mind that the same may not be true when comparing the left column to the right column of an electrical panel. Whether breakers 1 and 2 both use line 1 will depend on the manufacturer.

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How to Set Up Powerline Adapters

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Powerline adapters can be very simple to set up. Conceptually, you can think of a pair of Powerline adapters as an extension for an Ethernet cable. More than two Powerline adapters behave like an Ethernet hub combined with Ethernet cables.

Most Powerline adapters are configured similarly.

To set up Powerline adapters:

  1. Plug one Powerline adapter into a power outlet and connect it to your Internet router via an Ethernet cable.
  2. Plug one or more additional Powerline adapters into power outlets in rooms where you want Internet access. Connect them to computers or other network devices via Ethernet cables.
  3. Pair the Powerline adapters by holding down the button on each adapter for a few seconds.

That's it! Your devices should now be on the network and have Internet access.

Will a Powerline Adapter Work With an Ethernet Switch?

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A Powerline adapter will work with an Ethernet switch. Using an Ethernet switch, you can connect as many devices as you want to your home network.

Ethernet switches, also called network switches, connect multiple devices via Ethernet cables. Ethernet switches are different from routers. An Ethernet switch connects multiple devices within your local area network. In contrast, a router connects your local area network (LAN) to the internet's wide area network (WAN). Routers with multiple ports or Wi-Fi support are logically three separate devices: a router, a switch, and a Wi-Fi access point.

Will the Powerline Network Be Slower With an Ethernet Switch?

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Suppose you use an Ethernet switch at least as fast as the Powerline adapter and the rest of your network adapter speeds. In that case, adding an Ethernet switch will not reduce the overall network speed. Using a 1 Gbps switch should be adequate for most use cases.

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  • The TL-SG108 is a well-known and reliable network switch.
  • I own this exact switch model and have been using it without any problems for many years.
  • It supports Ethernet speeds of up to 1 Gbps.
  • Due to the fanless design, it is silent.
  • It uses solid capacitors, which means that it should last a long time.
  • It's an unmanaged switch, meaning that it's plug and play, and no configuration is required. TP-Link TL-SG108 - 8 Port Gigabit Unmanaged Ethernet Network Switch TP-Link TL-SG108 - 8 Port Gigabit Unmanaged Ethernet Network Switch Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

Building Your Network

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If you want to learn more about internet equipment, networking, wiring, or troubleshooting, check out these articles:

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