Designing a Network for New Home Construction

December 31, 2020

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

In building a new house, there are pivotal windows of time where it’s possible to make a change or add a feature at a huge discount. Perhaps the most pivotal is just before drywall is installed. When that happens, the price of making systemic changes, like plumbing and electrical, goes up.

When we did our electrical plan, we added little icons for network connections around the house as placeholders. We knew we’d have good wifi and figured that we’d decide about the wired network later. As the electrical rough-in was almost complete we had to make a decision: wired network or not? Wifi would probably be enough. But adding a network, at that moment, was priced at a discount that would soon disappear forever.

Before pulling the trigger, we considered using a mesh wifi system with plug-in satellites that extend the range from a primary access point. We’re currently using Orbi and it works fine. Something like Eero or Nest Wi-fi could do the job. But would we regret not having taken the opportunity to build network infrastructure?

I talked to some of my geekier friends who said I wasn’t likely to regret having ethernet built-into the house. We’ll have a fiber optic internet connection for a house that’s under 2,500 sq/ft and a single story. We work from home and most of our evening entertainment will be web-based. We decided to add the wired network and I started to learn how it all fits together.

Designing the Network

First, we had to think about the overall design of the network. We’d need a home base where everything connects and then ethernet cables that extend the internet to locations of our choosing. For example, we want our TV to have a wired connection to the internet via the network. This means an ethernet cable had to go from the wall behind the TV to the home base where it connects to the internet. The same is true with the network connections in our kitchen and garage. This was the basic idea of our network and it was an empty vessel without an internet connection.

The Basic Network

The property had a fiber connection when we purchased it and once the construction started, an orange tube stuck out of the ground, waiting for a house to appear. Our future network would be powered by the wire inside that tube. To do that, it needed to make a few jumps.

First, we needed the fiber optic cable in the tube outside to breach an exterior wall and connect to our office. Our service provider did this work and left behind a modem that connects to the internet and makes wifi available. This was the first jump: into the house. The blue tube at the bottom of the box below is the fiber arriving in our office and home base. At the top are ethernet cables arriving from across the house.

Our Network Box

Getting Connected To The Internet

By connecting the modem to the fiber connection, we could have wifi. This is the second jump: into the room. We could stop there, but we have a network and want to put it to work.

Our modem/router (above) has ports on the back that can be used for connecting the ethernet cables for our network. But it’s the most basic version possible and there only a few ports. If we’re investing in a network, I want it to be useful, powerful, and manageable.

This is where things get interesting. We have relatively simple needs and the challenge was cutting through all the complexity and identifying what products would be best for us.

Learning About Ubiquiti and Unifi

I saw a couple of friends recommend a company called Ubiquiti and the company’s line of products called Unifi for people in my position. As expected, I went to the website to learn more and quickly felt buried in confusing terms and acronyms. There are just so many options. After a couple of research sessions, I started to get a handle on what we might need.

One of the reasons people like Ubiquiti is that it’s an ecosystem of devices that work together seamlessly across internet, security, and entry access. You can start with a device or two and then build-out if needed. The more I learned, the more I liked the products and started to formulate a plan.

One of the most interesting discoveries was PoE (power over ethernet) devices. PoE means you can add devices to the network that don’t require a separate AC electrical connection. The power comes through the ethernet cable. I had no idea!

This was a pivotal because it meant we could add access points throughout the house that could make our wifi more bulletproof. The key is understanding the difference between wired and wireless access points. Wireless products like Orbi or Eero have a router and wireless “satellite” access point that plug into AC wall outlets. These devices extend the network from a single source.

Wireless Mesh Network

PoE devices are wired and create multiple sources and better coverage.

Wired Network of PoE Devices

This kind of product represents the third jump – across the house. Using PoE devices, meant the network could be modular and grow as needed. In fact, I found that Ubiquiti makes access points that fit nicely into outlet boxes and have their own ethernet ports for connecting another device.

Wired Network of PoE Devices Extending the Network

For us, this means the network connection behind our TV can be a wifi access point and a wired connection to the TV. If we need more wifi coverage, we could always use a wireless access point that plugs into the wall.

Home Base

With the internet connection in place and the network set up, I was confident that we’d have the wifi coverage we’d need. Next was figuring out how to manage and monitor the network. Until recently, this often meant using separate devices that serve as gateways, switches, etc. I dreaded this phase.

Eventually I discovered the Unifi Dream Machine, which is an all-in-one product that’s designed for people like me. It has a gateway, switch, and a wifi access point in one device. It also has ports for connecting the ethernet cables. This is what brought everything together; the home base of the network. The Dream Machine comes with software that provides for setup and network monitoring via a free app. We’d still need the modem, but the Dream Machine would be our router.

So that is our plan. The fiber connection will connect to our modem, then the Dream Machine. The Dream machine will serve as our wifi and wired network controller, including access points that are powered over the ethernet connection. My plan is to start with the Dream Machine and test the coverage, then add access points as needed. Easy scalability FTW.

In learning about how this works, I used the Ubiquiti design center to get a feel for how the devices would perform. This version is probably overkill, but shows how the signals work with our floor plan and multiple access points.

Note: I have no relationship with Ubiquiti or any other company mentioned in this post.

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