I was pretty stoked when I bought a Ring security floodlight to go above my garage. It turns on the lights as soon as I hit my driveway so I never need to struggle with putting my lights on a timer or try to park in the dark.
There was just one problem.
My new Ring camera couldn’t connect to my WiFi even though it should have been easily inside the range of the access points.
I’m about as tech-savvy as you can get. I’ve got gigabit Ethernet from my cable provider and a wireless mesh-network system through Eero that I thought was tweaked pretty well.
But my garage was a dead-zone where nothing could connect. I needed to figure out why the WiFi in my garage sucked so bad.
Here’s what I found out.
Why you need better WiFi in your garage
Not everyone has a wireless security camera like the Ring or Nest, although I highly recommend them.
Maybe you don’t have an Alexa or Google Home in your garage either. Or even a TV streaming Netflix.
You might not have a Sonos or other wireless speaker connected to your network so you can play Spotify playlists while you’re working.
But wouldn’t working in your garage be more enjoyable if you had?
The bottom line is that our homes are getting smarter. At the very least, we’re adding more and more connected devices to our network.
We’re even seeing network connectivity in devices that didn’t used to have it. I just bought a new stereo receiver that has an Ethernet port and wireless antennas. It brought the total wireless devices on my network up to thirty-two, which just seems insane to me.
WiFi access is becoming more and more mainstream, and eventually it’s going to make it into your garage too.
The WiFi basics you need to know
I’m going to assume that you have a basic understanding of how a WiFi router works. If you need a refresher course, MakeUseOf.com has a good overview article that I recommend. So if I’m using terminology that isn’t familiar to you, go and check it out.
For this discussion, all you need to know is that modern day WiFi runs on an 802.11 wireless protocol on either the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) or the 5.2 gigahertz radio frequencies. 2.4 GHz generally has longer range while 5.2 GHz has a higher top speed.
The antennae matter
Depending on your specific router, you can have either internal or external antennae. Almost all will have what’s called omnidirectional antenna.
To understand how a router antenna works, let’s start with the basics.
A directional antenna needs to be pointed in the direction you want the signal to go (like a DirecTV satellite antenna).
By contrast, an omnidirectional antenna will transmit the signal in all directions at the same time, but usually that signal isn’t as powerful as a directional antenna.
The catch (because there’s always a catch) is that WiFi antennae only transmit their signals on a single horizontal plane.
If your router is downstairs and you go upstairs and stand directly above it, you won’t get as strong a signal as you would if you stood the same distance away on the same floor.
It’s critical that you aim your router antennae correctly to send your WiFi signal where you want it to go.
Why your garage WiFi sucks
The trouble with getting a good WiFi signal in your garage is that your garage is one of the most hostile environments in your home because there is so much interference.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) describes interference as anything that disrupts the radio signals of your television, phone or other devices.
There are two ways interference can kill the WiFi signal in your garage.
Physical Interference (e.g. stuff in the way)
In theory, a 2.4 GHz signal can reach a maximum of around 300 feet. A 5.2 GHz signal only goes to about 100 feet. The farther away you go, the weaker the signal and the slower the speed that you can transmit data.
Radio waves (including WiFi signals) have trouble going through solid objects. The thicker the object, the harder it is for that signal to punch through. So concrete stops more of the signal than drywall would.
Metal works a bit differently. Since metal is an amazing conductor of electricity and magnetism, it partially absorbs radio waves as well (source). This means any conduits and piping in between your router and where you want the WiFi signal to go will dampen your WiFi strength.
Device Interference (e.g. other stuff on the frequency)
At the end of 2017, it was projected that there are over 9 billion WiFi devices in the world and growing exponentially.
There are only so many different frequencies for all of those devices to use, which means that you’re going to have a lot of cross-talk.
Think of it like trying to have a conversation at a party. If there are only two people talking, it’s pretty easy. But when more people are added to the conversation, it gets harder and harder to get a word in edgewise.
In this example, each person is another device trying to send information back and forth to the router.
The 2.4 GHz signal is used by WiFi, Bluetooth, cordless phones, microwaves, car alarms and even some video devices. In theory, the frequency is broken down into smaller ‘channels’ that try to limit the amount of interference. In practice, the more devices we own (and our neighbors own), the higher the potential for interference.
How do you get better WiFi in your garage?
Now that you know what the challenges are, how do you get better WiFi signal in your garage?
I’ll list off a couple of different tips to help maximize your WiFi signal with whatever your current setup is. Then I’ll talk about some additional small tweaks that you can make with some new hardware.
Finally, I’ll give a brief description of the new hardware that I’m looking to install soon to maximize my home WiFi.
Move your router
This is probably the easiest and cheapest solution. Assuming you have a cable modem, that cable comes into your house at a single point, but you can put your cable modem anywhere there’s a coaxial cable.
Since your router and cable modem need to be next to each other, it makes sense to move them to where you need them the most, or in a central location where they can cover most of your house.
Aim your antennae correctly
If you have a standalone router (most common), it will have external omnidirectional antennae that need to be pointed perpendicular to the direction you want the signal to go.
I see so many of my friend’s routers with the antennae angles off in different directions. It may look cool, but it’s sending the WiFi signal someplace that you don’t need it.
Keep the antennae straight up and down whenever possible.
Use Ethernet whenever possible
A wired Ethernet connection will always be consistently faster than a wireless connection, so it makes sense to use a wired connection when you can.
In my home, all of our televisions, media streamers and the desktop computer in my office are hard-wired to Ethernet cable. In newer builds, internal walls don’t usually have insulation so it’s really easy to run Cat-6 cable through your walls.
Not only will those devices get more consistent faster network speeds, but they’ll lessen the traffic on your network so your wireless devices can have more bandwidth.
Add a network switch
Just because your router only has four wired Ethernet ports doesn’t mean you’re limited to four devices max.
Sticking with the Ethernet theme for a second, consider adding a small network switch to increase the number of wired connections you can use.
My downstairs television has the TV, an NVIDIA Shield and an Xbox One all connected to the one Ethernet port. How? By adding a small, four-port Ethernet switch to the mix.
Think of a switch like a cable TV splitter to enable more devices to access the signal at the same time.
Extend your WiFi range
There are several ways to extend the range of your existing network without buying up to a new mesh-network system.
Repeater: A wireless repeater goes in between your router and the device you want to connect to. All it does is read the existing wireless signal, amplify it and send it back out again. There’s a bit of a speed penalty, but it’s the easiest way to increase your range.
Access Point\Range Extender: A wireless access point is similar, but it’s hard wired to your network instead of just being wireless. This increases your range without sacrificing any speed. If you have the option and performance is a priority, go with an access point.
Powerline Adapter: A powerline adapter uses the wiring in your house to also transmit computer signals. They’re not nearly as fast and there are some security concerns, but they’re a good, cheap alternative if you can’t get a WiFi signal where you need it to go.
Upgrade to a mesh network
You might have heard of a mesh network before. Basically it is a router like the one you currently have, paired with one or more wireless access points to create a seamless mesh network.
A mesh network creates several overlapping wireless zones in your home so you can stay connected as you walk from one end of your house to the other. The device you’re using will automatically switch to whatever access point has the strongest signal without any input from you.
In my home, I use this to extend my router’s range to cover my entire house – no dead spots!
Extend your WiFi outside or to a detached garage
If you have a detached garage, it’s a little harder to get WiFi to it. Most networking equipment is designed for indoor use.
But you still have some options.
Direct bury Ethernet cable: Even though your garage isn’t attached to your house, you can still hard-wire it with Ethernet cable by running a standard cable through a conduit and burying it in the ground.
Outdoor wireless access point: Some companies like Ubiquiti make an outdoor wireless access point. The principal is the same as an indoor access point, but it’s weatherproof to stand up to the elements better.
My future setup
I’m a computer geek at heart, so I’ve done a lot of research on my network setup. It’s important for me, not only to get good WiFi in my garage, but great performance all throughout my house.
My next upgrade is from a company called Ubiquiti, which is one of the few companies that makes products for ‘prosumers’ – people who want better performance than the stuff you’ll find at your local Best Buy.
It’s not cheap, but it’s extremely flexible and lets me expand my network as I need and control it from anywhere.
Here’s a brief overview of the individual components:
Security Gateway: ($139 MSRP) Security is critical. This device acts like a router and hardware firewall.
8-port powered switch: ($199 MSRP) I’m going with an 8-port Ethernet switch that also transmits power over Ethernet. I’ve got security cameras in my house as well so this lets me skip the AC plug and just connect them to Ethernet. Less wires!
Wireless Access Points: ($149 MSRP each) The UAP-AC-PRO is the best usable performance access point for the price. It’s indoor\outdoor rated and can be powered via Ethernet (from the switch above) for a clean installation.
Remote management: ($179 MSRP) Ubiquiti has a remote management device to act as the brains of the entire network. You can skip this and download the management software on your PC, but I’d rather have a dedicated device to take care of it.