How to Improve Your Wi-Fi Signal at Home
In a wirelessly connected world, keeping a strong Wi-Fi signal feels like a problem for the ages. Homeowners set up a router in an ideal part of the home and expect it to work well no matter where they are on the property. In practice, this is not often true. Wi-Fi signal can be cut in half - or even worse - depending on a variety of factors. Putting the router in the wrong spot or even using too many devices on the same frequency or channel can leave people with the inability to establish a solid connection. Sometimes, rebooting the router or disconnecting the device temporarily solves the problem, but other times it does not.
Although a perfect Wi-Fi connection is nearly impossible to achieve, improvements are usually available. People may be able to make a significant difference in their Wi-Fi connections by moving the router to a different location, adding an extra antenna, or installing additional equipment to extend the distance the signal can reach. Small increases can add up when they are used together, and they do not necessarily require a complex or expensive solution. These tips help homeowners identify what may be affecting their Wi-Fi signal, with a variety of ways they can avoid or solve those problems.
Table of Contents
- What's Blocking Your Wi-Fi Signal?
- Simple Solutions to Boost Your Wi-Fi Signal
- Advanced Solutions to Boost Your Wi-Fi Signal
- Get Connected
- Sources and Further Reading
What's Blocking Your Wi-Fi Signal?
There are a lot of things in the home capable of blocking a Wi-Fi signal. Homeowners do not have to live in a bunker underground to experience many of these. A variety of building materials can slow down or reflect the waves coming from the router, resulting in a weaker signal. The most common obstacles to Wi-Fi signal in the home are:
- heavy furniture
- metal doors
- water, such as an aquarium
Some barriers are less common. For example, dense foliage surrounding the home may impede the signal outside the walls. The neighbor's Wi-Fi signal strength can also make it difficult to maximize a person's own system.
For people to understand the sources of the problem, it helps to think of the waves more in terms of sound than sight. It is true the best way to ensure a strong signal is to place it in a spot with a direct line of sight to the device. However, simply being able to visibly glimpse the router does not improve the signal. This is why windows and water are common barriers. The waves have to move through a solid surface. In the case of windows, they reflect some of the waves back toward the router. Newer windows may have special coatings to increase the likelihood of this reflection.
In most cases, people are dealing with a combination of problems. If one wall affects signal strength, trying to connect through several walls or windows will weaken it even further. Homeowners often can only do so much to manage these, as it is not realistic to tear down walls to improve signal. However, this can guide placement and help people determine where to focus their efforts toward a solution.
Homeowners should keep in mind there is a difference between signal strength and network speeds. While the Wi-Fi's signal strength can be hindered in several ways, upload or download speeds may be a unique factor causing different problems. For example, someone who is using an old router or has service with slow speeds is going to experience issues no matter what their signal strength is. People need to confirm they understand the primary causes of both weak signal and slow network speeds before they attempt to solve them. In some cases, fixing the Wi-Fi signal can make network speeds worse.
Simple Solutions to Boost Your Wi-Fi Signal
Since a lot of the barriers to a strong Wi-Fi signal are fixed and permanent, homeowners may only have so many choices to improve it. Fortunately, there are several options that can make a difference and do not require a lot of work, time, or money. Homeowners may want to start with the easiest solutions and work their way up. A good Wi-Fi signal is a subjective term, which means what is ideal to some may be adequate to others. These changes range from quick and immediate to something that may take a few hours to implement.
Place Your Router in the Perfect Spot
The most simple solution to boost Wi-Fi signal starts with the correct placement. Although people may have limited options for the spot of their router, this choice can make it stronger or weaker. As a general rule, homeowners want a clear spot not too close to appliances or other electronics, close to the center of the home. While putting the router in a corner away from other things may seem like the best place to keep it out of the way, this increases the likelihood people will face a weaker signal.
Instead, homeowners should evaluate the home and where the bulk of the devices stay. The ideal spot may not be the exact center of the home, but rather the center of the need for connection. People who do not want a strong signal in a remote part of the basement may not need to target their router in that direction, to avoid wasting their efforts. By comparison, homeowners who want better Wi-Fi in the garage or driveway may need to consider that distance in their choice of a router location.
Although the kitchen or dining room might seem like the perfect place, this is often counterintuitive. The modern kitchen has several devices that may need Wi-Fi, like the family computer or even a smart refrigerator. As a result, many homeowners choose to place the router there for the best signal. However, the kitchen is often full of metal equipment to block waves, along with appliances that do the same. This can weaken the signal to other areas of the home.
Most of the time, people will get a better signal if they follow these rules for router placement:
- several feet away from any devices or equipment
- in the center of a large room
- near the center of the home
- away from heavy wood or metal furniture
- high up, possibly on a higher floor
Multiple floors might require people to consider their needs at the farthest points of the basement or higher floors. Homeowners who have routers with multiple antennae should confirm they are pointed in the right directions. Antennae can be easy to move by accident and this can significantly affect the signal, particularly if they are directional antennae. People might prefer to try a few different locations for the router before making a final decision.
Replace Your Antenna
Choosing the right antenna makes a difference. Most routers rely on omnidirectional antennae to convey the signal throughout the building. This means the signal strength is more or less the same in all directions, assuming there are no barriers nearby. Unfortunately, omnidirectional antennae offer a signal strength that lasts about 100-150 feet. People who have homes with a footprint larger than that may notice the signal gets weaker for devices placed further from the router.
By comparison, directional antennae focus the signal in one direction. It allows the signal to extend further and with greater strength than an omnidirectional antennae. This type has uses in radios and satellites, which means the technology is well-developed. However, it is not always practical for homes. Routers are designed to work in a variety of contexts, many of them commercial. This means a high-gain directional antennae could have the ability to extend out for several miles. Most homeowners do not need a signal this strong, barring certain environments in which people have a large property and need Wi-Fi in the furthest corner of the lot.
Homeowners should be careful when considering different types of directional antennae. Significantly extending the signal strength can create problems at the same time as solving them. Since the Wi-Fi signals of the neighbors can interfere with others, making the signal much stronger increases the likelihood of this problem. In addition, people may want to confirm they preserve the security of their router if it is easily accessed by others nearby. If a lot of people try to crowd onto the same Wi-Fi network, this can slow network speeds.
Many routers feature the ability to add or replace an antenna. Homeowners should decide whether they want to replace or add another one. Like other technological devices, routers are proprietary and may not work with all antennae. Some may be much larger than others, which may not work as well depending on the router's placement. In the case of a directional antenna, people probably want to add instead of replace, since replacement would weaken the signal in other directions. If the router is on the newer side and generally in good condition, this may be a way to get better output without having to replace it.
Test the Aluminum Foil Theory
Since metal can be so effective at reflecting the Wi-Fi signal, many homeowners choose to use it to their advantage. Even a thin piece of metal can partially block a signal, so aluminum foil may be a good choice. This project does not take much time and might make a minor improvement in signal. In some cases, people may want to use this as a way to decrease signal strength in other areas. For example, someone who is having a lot of trouble with signal interference from the neighbor may want to place the foil behind the router pointed in the opposite direction.
People should start by looking at the wireless device speeds before they make changes. This will help them determine how well this attempt works. There may be products available for purchase that aim to accomplish this, but they may or may not be better than just using foil. Homeowners should keep in mind this foil trick is not likely to dramatically increase signal or network speeds. If speeds or connection seems far below standard, there may be other issues involved.
Using foil to improve Wi-Fi signal is fairly simple. People should take a piece of foil and curve it around a large can or water bottle. Once they unwrap it, they will have a slightly curved sheet. They can place it behind the router, confirming it is not impeding the antennae in any way. Some advice guides recommend cutting open a can and unfolding it, but this can create sharp edges and gouge furniture or put children at risk for injury.
Homeowners who try such simple tricks should make sure they do not inadvertently make the problem worse instead of better. A curve of foil placed behind the router may be effective at focusing the signal in the correct direction. However, it must stay in the right place in order to work. If it falls back or forward, covering an antennae, Wi-Fi signal could decrease significantly. For this reason, people may want to use more than one sheet of foil so it is less likely to fold, or create a stand to keep it upright. Taping or nailing it to the wall behind the router may help if the device is located near one.
Add a Wireless Range Extender
Since there is a lot of jargon involved with devices used to improve Wi-Fi signal, it is important homeowners understand the difference between them. For example, a Wi-Fi booster is not a unique device but may refer to a repeater, a range extender, or a network extender. The product needed depends on the problem. In many cases, repeaters are not as useful as extenders. Any solution tacked onto the existing router and devices is probably going to work at a lower level of efficacy than a custom-designed system.
Wi-Fi repeaters are older technology than extenders, which means they may not be as effective. A repeater picks up the signal and sends it on to a place where the router may not be able to reach in one shot. Homeowners who only have a few devices using the router may find this helpful. However, those who have a lot of computers, televisions, or other equipment using the same channel might have problems. Since the repeater uses the same channel, it can slow down network speeds.
Comparatively, a range extender uses a different channel to extend the Wi-Fi signal. Correct placement of this device is also important. If it cannot pick up the signal from the router, its connection to other devices will be weak. Since this device uses a different channel, homeowners who want to use it for mobile devices may need to change their connection as they move throughout the home. As a result, this approach can often be better for stationary devices, like televisions, which use Wi-Fi but stay in one location of the home.
These systems are meant for a generally strong Wi-Fi setup that simply needs a longer reach in one direction. Repeaters, since they operate on the same channel, will not make it easier for homeowners to add more devices. Range extenders can solve this problem to a certain extent by relying on a different channel, but they do not improve network speeds. For a comprehensive solution designed to fit a home with lots of devices or heavy use of bandwidth, people should consider something like a wireless access point or mesh-based system.
Try a Wireless Access Point
Wireless access points seem to function similarly to a repeater or range extender, but they are quite unique. These systems tend to be more involved and more appropriate to larger homes and businesses. The major problem with repeaters and extenders is they are dependent on the strength of the router's signal. This can be interrupted, slowed, or blocked by walls, furniture, and other things in the building. They can also slow network speeds. In a home where there are several upload-heavy or streaming needs, this may be insufficient.
A common solution in this case is a wireless access point. Although the terminology implies this connection is wireless, the access points use wires. In most instances, people take a router and place it somewhere in the middle of a building. They attach an ethernet cable to the router and connect it to several wireless access points throughout the building. The router usually acts as a wireless access point, as well.
People who find this concept difficult to understand might think of the way they use Wi-Fi in a public place or outdoor space. For example, a city with a public Wi-Fi hotspot probably relies on wireless access points from several nearby buildings. The ethernet connection makes the signal stronger. This way, people can move seamlessly throughout the space without needing to change channels or switch to a different Wi-Fi connection.
To implement this system, homeowners need ethernet access at each spot where they may place an access point. Most homes may not have these connections automatically, requiring a professional to run the wires through the walls to different points. For someone who works from home and uses a lot of bandwidth or streams for their business, this may be a necessary upgrade. The wiring ensures the common barriers to Wi-Fi signal are irrelevant. Once connected, the strength of the signal is determined primarily by the device's proximity to the access point.
For a building needing several wireless access points, channel selection is key. Choosing the same channel used by landline phones, microwaves, and the neighbor's Wi-Fi can make a weaker signal. This tends to be a marginally higher-level solution, simply because homeowners need to be able to pick a channel with less interference.
Upgrade to a Mesh-Based Wi-Fi System
The problem most homeowners encounter when trying to improve their Wi-Fi signal is the system is not designed to work with the home. A mesh-based Wi-Fi system assumes there will be certain barriers to the signal, and designs a solution from the top-down. This way, homeowners are not stuck trying one thing after another to see what works. Instead, they know the Wi-Fi will operate optimally because they will build it that way.
Simply put, a mesh-based Wi-Fi system takes the concept of the wireless access point and builds it into the design of the home's internet connection. Instead of using ethernet, it uses dedicated wireless channels. In this case, the router is not usually the source of Wi-Fi. Instead, it feeds several wireless access points placed strategically throughout the home. From there, residents can receive the signal. It is like setting up a home entertainment system with speakers placed in the right spots for listening. Everyone gets a better experience because the system is created to achieve it.
This system tends to work better than other piecemeal approaches like an extender because it is intended to overcome common problems without waiting to see if they present an issue. The typical issues homeowners face with their Wi-Fi signals are:
- structural barriers, like metal, drywall, or concrete
- interference from other devices running on the same frequency
- router placement too far from the site where connection is needed
Mesh-based Wi-Fi is often called whole house Wi-Fi because it aims to correct all of these issues before they arise. Homeowners can start by identifying the existing spots on the property where Wi-Fi connection is weaker than it should be. This will help them figure out how many access points they need, and where they must be located. A mesh-based system makes it reasonably simple for homeowners to set up, with mobile-friendly guides to direct people during installation.
Although the system is designed to work seamlessly from day one, most options also allow for changes over time. For example, someone who needs to add another access point may find it relatively easy to do so. Since every piece is meant to work together, most systems require specific components for best use. This means people may not be able to buy a router and then shop for different wireless access points. They should confirm they understand what is included with the purchase before they buy, so they know if they need to purchase more for their system.
Use New Hardware
If all else fails, replacing the router is certainly a practical choice. Like other pieces of technology, routers become outdated quickly. They can work well for over a decade, but they may not keep up with improvements like speed. People who would not think twice about replacing a smartphone or computer once every couple of years may still be using a router several years after purchase. Periodic firmware upgrades help, but they can only do so much.
The age of the router affects the wireless standard it uses, which can determine how it approaches the connection. Standards change about once every four to five years. This means a router five or more years old may be running on a standard two years behind the current. Standard is not the only determiner of a router's quality, but it is the primary one. When selecting a new router, homeowners should keep the following in mind:
- budget, as a new router typically costs over $100
- maximum ISP speeds to confirm the new router supports them
- distance needed to cover, which may require additional solutions
- whether the modem needs an upgrade as well
Skimping on a cheap or retired product may mean it is operating at a lower standard, which can compromise effectiveness.
Homeowners can see which standard their current router uses by looking at the device, in most cases. For example, 802.11ax is the most recent. This standard allows the router to run at different frequencies at the same time. Many current home routers use the previous two standards, which are called 802.11ac and 802.11n. The standards have different names, which may be easier to remember. The most current standard, 802.11ax, is commonly called Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 5 refers to 802.11ac, and 802.11n is Wi-Fi 4.
The difference between these routers can be significant. Specifically, 802.11n was designed to work with 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz frequencies, but not simultaneously. This means homeowners who had a device running on 2.4 GHz would not be able to get the higher connection. By comparison, 802.11ac can match the frequency to the device. The most recent upgrade, 802.11ax, has the ability to make a connection without keeping the device awake and active the entire time. This can extend the battery life on devices that need a Wi-Fi connection but do not need to use it constantly.
Advanced Solutions to Boost Your Wi-Fi Signal
At times, homeowners need to evaluate solutions beyond the router they use or where they place it. Advanced options give people more choices in the way they configure the router or how it is used, but they are often not simple steps to follow. In some cases, people may need to hire an expert to set it up or troubleshoot. Homeowners with moderate technical skill should be able to attempt at least one or two of these. In all cases, people should confirm they know what to do, and what to avoid. Taking the wrong actions may result in a broken system and require repair.
Assess Your Frequency
Homeowners should keep in mind connection speeds depend on the internet service provider, as well as the equipment in the home. Older routers rely on the 2.4 GHz connection, and this may also apply to several devices in the home. This means the ISP may offer connection at 5 GHz, but people will not have access to it if the router cannot connect at that frequency.
It may help people to think of these frequencies as two different paths they might take to get to the same place. One of them, 2.4 GHz, has a lot of devices on it. This increases interference. Homeowners can select a different channel under the same frequency, but this is like choosing a different lane of the same road. It all depends on how many devices are connected on the same channel.
Homeowners cannot necessarily choose their frequency as easily as they can choose a router standard when they make a purchase. Frequency relates to the ISP and devices as much as it depends on the router. Devices running on a lower frequency need a router that can work with them. Newer pieces of technology, which are more likely to run on a 5 GHz frequency, must have a router meant to operate on that frequency.
A higher frequency does not automatically turn into a better signal. It depends on the way people use it. Lower frequencies have an easier time passing through walls and other barriers. This means a 2.4 GHz signal will usually reach farther than a 5 GHz signal. However, if connection speeds are paramount, 5 GHz typically offers a better signal closer to the router. People with a lot of equipment running on 5GHz, which is not uncommon at present, may want to consider more access points to keep the signal at ideal levels.
The latest standards, commonly listed under the heading of Wi-Fi 6, may refer to a different frequency: 60 GHz. For many homeowners, this connection is more theoretical than practical. Many devices are not designed to take advantage of it, which means having the capability does not translate into actual use. The ISP must also be able to connect at that frequency, as well. Routers running on this frequency tend to be more expensive, but can often increase access to higher network speeds.
Choose the Right Channel
The combination of channel and frequency can make a significant improvement in a homeowner's Wi-Fi signal. Most routers automatically select channels depending on the frequency and current signals available. People can change these settings, depending on how much they are willing to invest into learning which ones to choose. Since the signal relies on radio waves, it may encounter interference from other devices on the Wi-Fi. It can also lose signal strength from other equipment that uses radio waves but is not Wi-Fi dependent, like a microwave or a baby monitor.
It may help people to understand how channels work with signal by imagining a two-way radio. People who are trying to talk to someone a short distance away using the radio need to select a channel not already in use. Otherwise, they will encounter interference. Wi-Fi channels are not limited to one user at a time, but too many devices or users on a single channel can cut the signal strength or slow connection speeds.
Although devices have to be on the same channel in order to communicate with each other, this does not mean every device has to operate on the same channel. Homeowners dealing with interference may have this problem because the channels are too close to each other. Channel 1 overlaps partially with Channel 2, and Channel 6 overlaps with Channel 5. On a 2.4 GHz frequency, channels 1, 6, and 11 are the only ones with no overlap. Most devices start on Channel 6, but this can lead to co-channel interference. This means there are too many devices on the same channel. However, this tends to be less problematic for homeowners than interference from adjacent channels.
Simply changing the channel of one device may not work. As with a two-way radio, devices need to be on the same channel in order to communicate with each other. Mesh-based systems try to avoid this issue by placing similar devices on the same channel. For example, they may use one channel on a higher frequency for the wireless access points to communicate with each other. That leaves other channels more open for devices to operate on a lower frequency.
With a lot of devices trying to operate off the same Wi-Fi, quality of service makes a significant difference. Sometimes, homeowners have to adjust which devices are given higher priority in order to ensure they do not lose a connection or experience slower speeds on the most important devices. For example, a phone call or streaming video over Wi-Fi may need to take precedence over a file download.
The age and quality of the router can determine how easy it is to maintain these priorities. Quality of service describes the way the router classifies and handles different types of data. As it comes in, the router typically classifies it into one of four categories:
- general traffic
- background jobs, which do not need consistent bandwidth
Traditional quality-of-service routers assign a priority based on the type of traffic. Some of these require a unique IP address for the device, while others do not. These routers still help to manage bandwidth by prioritizing important data transfers. However, they may not always be able to distinguish between the importance of each device on the system. As such, their capability may be more limited than the most advanced routers on the market.
By comparison, intelligent quality of service features a dynamic approach to prioritizing how the traffic and devices are managed. It may include changes in priority based not just on the data, but where it is going and which device needs more support. For example, a single household might be streaming video to an HD television and a smartphone at the same time. In this case, an intelligent QoS system may prioritize the bandwidth to the television, because losses in quality would be easier to notice on that device.
Experts claim this is a benefit of using open-source firmware for a router. Setting priorities based on the source of the data as well as its type requires attention to changing technologies. People using a router that assumes technology for 2010 would be wildly inadequate for the streaming uses of the present day. A firmware receiving regular updates may be better able to manage these changes in a seamless way. This also underscores the importance of seeking regular updates for routers of all kinds. Current software may have faster and more accurate solutions to something that would otherwise act as a bandwidth hog.
Update Your Router Firmware
At least once a year, homeowners may want to update the firmware for their routers. Firmware is the software that operates the router. Periodically, manufacturers will release updates, which include improvements to performance, security, and other aspects of router function. Some routers offer the ability to update the firmware automatically. Most of the time, people need to update it manually. Although updates may come on a variable basis, people should check at least once every three months.
In order to update the firmware, homeowners will need to access the firmware's IP address in a browser and be prepared to reboot it afterward. People may need to search the page for updates once they successfully log into the device. Each manufacturer keeps an individual design for the router management pages. The terms for each one may differ slightly from others. Since most people use a web browser for this update, they should confirm they are on the right page before they begin any downloads.
On a Windows machine, homeowners can update the firmware by following these steps:
- Identify the router's IP address, which may be located on the side of the device.
- Search for network status to find the IP address, as needed.
- Type the IP address into a standard web browser.
- Enter the username and password, which may be easy to find online if it was not changed during installation.
- Look for a section on the page describing administration or maintenance.
- Click on the link to check for new updates.
- If applicable, download the new file.
On a machine running macOS, people should take these steps:
- Locate the IP address for the router.
- Search through system preferences for the IP, if necessary.
- Enter the IP address using a web browser like Chrome or Firefox.
- Type in the device's login and password.
- Find the area of the page relating to updates.
- Confirm there is a new update for the firmware.
- Download and open the new file.
Although most routers will permit firmware upgrades over Wi-Fi, some do not. In this case, homeowners would need to connect to the router using an ethernet cable.
Look Into Your Router's Operating System
People who find the current firmware is not meeting their needs may consider changing the operating system they use for the router. This is not a solution meant for homeowners with little technical experience. In many cases, people would need to hire a technology professional to switch to a different operating system.
As with other technological devices, digging into the software often voids the warranty. As such, homeowners may want to wait to try this until they have exhausted all other possible solutions. The ideal Wi-Fi signal is not always something people need to achieve. Sometimes, close enough will have to be sufficient. People should investigate whether they are willing to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars into a single solution before they proceed.
The primary benefit of shifting to an open-source operating system like DD-WRT is because it offers more options to configure the router. This requires a higher degree of technical skill, which means it may not be accessible to everyone. However, in exchange for the investment, people may be able to get a stronger transmission. For example, a standard router firmware will have a set amount of energy dedicated to a particular antenna. Altering these settings can allow a higher quantity of power to the antenna, strengthening its signal or extending its reach.
Although DD-WRT comes standard on some routers, others may require a specific upgrade. This is due largely to a distinction among manufacturers related to the accessibility of the code. Open-source code is available to virtually anyone. This means developers can take the code and adapt it to suit their own needs, or to solve problems within it, which often translates into a shorter interval for firmware updates. It may help improve performance or add other benefits, like increased security.
Homeowners who are looking to take their home networks to the next level may need to think about something like this. For example, most routers will support a virtual private network (VPN), which people may want to have at home to protect their information security. However, if they want complete control over how they configure it, DD-WRT may give them more freedom to do so. People with technical skill who are operating on a tight budget may be able to convert a cheaper router into something that provides better performance.
With devices used for streaming at home for work or play, having a strong Wi-Fi connection is increasingly important. The problem, of course, is there are so many barriers to a strong Wi-Fi connection. Some, like the metal appliances in the kitchen or the drywall in every room, are harder to remove, and therefore must be managed. Others, like the router's hardware or firmware, need to be replaced on a regular basis. The ability to maximize options depends on needs and commitment to finding a solution.
These solutions vary from the quick and easy to the devilishly complex, and it all relates to what homeowners expect from their Wi-Fi. Someone with a reasonable signal who wants it to be a bit better may not have to work as hard as a person with a constantly weak signal. In most cases, homeowners will get the most benefits if they consider and try out more than one option. Taking the plunge into a more modern system or design may ultimately make the internet experience better, which can save people a lot of time and stress.
Sources and Further Reading