Wifi vs Walls: Why Historic Homes Have Terrible Connections and How to Fix It

Design

If you live in an old or historic home, you may have noticed it can be difficult to get a WiFi signal, or certain rooms have almost no signal at all. This may be true in rooms located far away from your WiFi router, but in some historic homes, it’s often difficult getting a signal just down the hall.

If you’ve ensured your router is in working order — and your internet isn’t otherwise down — the culprit may not be your internet connection at all; it could be your home itself. The reality is, old and historic homes tend to have poor internet connections due to the materials that were used to build the walls.

While every material can block a WiFi signal to some extent, homes built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are built from much sturdier (and less economical) materials than today’s homes. Modern homes are also designed with wiring in mind, which makes it easier to install home internet connections like cable internet or even fiber-optic internet.

If you’re fed up with your poor WiFi connection in your older home, you don’t have to sell it to solve the problem. Luckily, there are a few solutions you can implement to fix the problem.

What’s in your home’s walls and why it’s disrupting your WiFi signal

Certain types of materials used in the construction of older homes are particularly non-conducive to WiFi signals.  While many homeowners know that there will be issues with buying homes built in the 1800s, not everyone is aware of the effects that building materials have on WiFi signals.

For example, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Board of Fire Underwriters led a campaign in the 1900s and 1910s that “encouraged development of new materials and products treated or made with asphalt, metal, gypsum, plastic and asbestos.” In the 1920s and 1930s, “New products included batt insulation (some with aluminum or copper reflective faces), advanced plastics, perforated acoustical tiles, and Plexiglas.”

Unfortunately, many of these types of materials have had the added effect of disrupting WiFi signals. If you don’t know what materials were used to build your home, reach out to the previous homeowners or the realtor who sold you the home to learn more.

Here are some of the most common materials found in an older home that disrupt WiFi signals — and why.

Metal Plaster Lath

Metal lath is a type of mesh formed by expanding a perforated metal sheet (sometimes chicken wire is used in its place). In older homes and in some modern ones, it was used in plaster to support and act as a framework for interior walls. It was also sometimes used to pour concrete ceilings and floors.

Unfortunately, this metal lath acts almost like a shield, disrupting high-frequency radio signals (WiFi). If your interior walls include this material, you may have trouble finding a WiFi signal in rooms that are separated from your WiFi router.

As we will see, metal is perhaps the most disruptive home building material for WiFi. Metal conducts electricity and magnetism, and it absorbs radio waves.

Metal Stucco Lath

Stucco systems are often used for exterior walls, and the same metal lath system might be used as a framework or support. Like the metal wiring used in plaster lath, the metal wiring in stucco lath can also block wireless signals.

Foil Insulation

Foil can make a good insulator because of its reflective properties. This is part of the reason why NASA uses so much foil on its spacecraft. But as an insulator, foil has fallen out of favor for more affordable options like fiberglass, cellulose and foam.

Along with its reflective properties, foil can also disrupt a wireless signal. Foil could be your problem if you’re having trouble getting online in your historic home.

Steel Girders

Steel girders are most often used to build large structures like bridges and skyscrapers. They may also be present in old apartment buildings and condos. Nonetheless, they are also used in residential properties as support beams, and some mid-century modern (MCM) buildings incorporate them into their design aesthetic.

Like other types of metal, steel girders and beams can disrupt WiFi signals.

Metal Ductwork

Metal ductwork is used in HVAC applications. That is, they are a permanent solution for transferring hot and cold air from one place to another. They may also be used for exhaust purposes, such as if a property has a wood stove.

Metal ductwork can interfere with WiFi, just like other metals. Furthermore, air conditioners and other motored appliances can interfere with a WiFi signal as well.

Steel Reinforced Concrete

To reinforce concrete, a steel skeleton is laid down before the concrete is poured, so the two materials act together in resisting forces. Because of its durability, steel-reinforced concrete is most often used in the construction of bridges and large buildings, but they may be present in some homes or apartment buildings.

The steel skeletons used to reinforce the concrete can disrupt WiFi signals, just like metal lath.

Water or Other Liquids

Not many walls are made of water (unless you have a particularly large fish tank in your home), but water running through pipes can sometimes interrupt WiFi signals as well. Other water features, like swimming pools, may also prove troublesome to your WiFi signal, depending on where they are located.

How does the era of the home impact your internet signal?

You don’t need to take a sledgehammer to your walls to find out what’s inside of them. Contacting your realtor or a previous homeowner is a good idea, but you can also estimate which materials were used based on the era in which your home was built.

Homes from the Antebellum and Victorian Eras may not include many metal components — unless they’ve been retrofitted with them. But during and after the Edwardian Era, you can expect more homes to be outfitted with wiring and other metal mesh products.

The Antebellum Era

1815 – 1861

In America, the Antebellum Era was a period before the start of the American Civil War in 1861. According to the Chicago Tribune, Antebellum homes “were built with walls that were four to six inches thick, offering substantial insulation.” Palatial plantations of this period were often built with wood and brick, adding to the thickness of the walls. The brick and thickness of the walls could significantly impact WiFi signals.

The Victorian Era

1837 – 1901

Victorian-style homes were most often built with brick and mortar and included plank or slate roofing.  While thick brick walls can drastically reduce a WiFi signal, so can lath, which was used extensively during this time. Victoria-era homes were often constructed using lath made from wood and chicken wire, a metal material that can also interfere with a signal.

The Edwardian Era

1901 – 1910 (or 1914)

Although the Edwardian Era was short, it led to some significant changes in homebuilding. This was the era in which new buildings in urban areas began to be outfitted with electric wiring and plumbing. This meant more metal components were being used in Edwardian homes, in addition to traditional materials like brick, mortar and cut timber.

The Modernist Era

1918 – mid-20th century

Modernist building materials are similar to the ones you might expect to find in a home today. Concrete, glass, steel, and aluminum were all characteristic of this period. Unfortunately, many homes built during this period contain materials that can disrupt the WiFi signal. During the 1950s and 1960s, foil-wrapped insulation was used frequently when building homes. The heavy use of foil can drastically affect the strength of a WiFi signal.

Placing your router to get a better signal

If you don’t want to rip apart your home, you can try moving your router to a better spot.

Some people don’t realize that where they place their router plays a big role in the strength of their WiFi signal. Your router broadcasts the signal in a radius of about 100 feet or more. The further away you are from it, the weaker the signal will be.

If possible, place your router in the room where you are most likely to use the internet. If you use your WiFi signal in multiple rooms, try to place your router in a central location — like a foyer — so the signal reaches every room equally.

One strategy you could try is to place the router in your basement, so it only needs to penetrate wooden floors. However, according to CNET, “routers tend to spread signal downward, so it’s best to mount the router as high as possible to maximize coverage.” You could, therefore, place your router on a wooden bookshelf or cabinet, away from any metal objects, to get the best signal.

Research your router to determine just how far it can broadcast. You should also look at documentation about your internet service provider and your internet package.

If your internet is slow, it may be related to the type of internet you have and the package you’ve purchased. Satellite, wireless and DSL internet are typically much slower than cable and fiber-optic internet, and cheaper plans usually come with slower speeds. If your internet services aren’t meeting your needs, it may be time to switch to a new provider with a reputation for fast speed and reliability.

Other options for extending your WiFi signal

If moving your router doesn’t suffice and you don’t want to renovate your home, invest in technologies that enhance or extend your WiFi signal. Here are a few of the tools you should consider:

Wireless Repeaters

Wireless repeaters rebroadcast an existing WiFi signal to a small area with the same level of quality. They’re perfect if you just want to extend your WiFi network to a single room. However, they tend to increase the time it takes for your WiFi network to respond to a request (latency).

Wireless Range Extenders

A range extender works similarly to a repeater. However, it broadcasts on a different wireless channel than your router, essentially creating a new WiFi network. Some extenders work with electrical sockets, sending your internet signal over your home’s own electric wiring, from the router to plugged-in extender.

Wireless Network Extenders

An extender is the most reliable type of WiFi booster. Instead of using a signal or your home’s wiring system, it plugs directly into your router to carry your WiFi signal to a different location. Unfortunately, this also means you may have an unsightly wire extending through your home.

Hiding Your Technology

Some of these devices are unsightly, but there are a few tricks to keep them hidden. Small devices like repeaters can be hidden in cabinets, under desks, or on top of bookshelves. You could even place your router inside fake books to keep it hidden. Otherwise, consider concealing your technology with houseplants or furniture.

What to consider when renovating

If you’re considering a renovation of your home, you may have an opportunity to remove or replace some of the materials that are blocking your WiFi signal. You may be tempted to do the renovation yourself if you have the skills. Before you start, there are a few things to consider.

First, a large-scale and structural renovation — including taking a sledgehammer to your wall — may require an inspection of your home before and afterward to ensure it’s safe. You’ll also need to comply with local laws and ordinances, or even zoning laws if you intend to make additions to your home.

When handling wiring, fiberglass insulation or other dangerous materials in your home, it’s best to work with a professional. It may even be required by law in some cases.

Minor renovations, like removing superficial objects like cabinets or railings, can typically be done by anyone. But if you’re attempting to boost your WiFi signal in an old home, you’ll likely need to go into your walls.

Wiring your old house for WiFi

Just because you live in an old house, doesn’t mean you have to settle for a poor WiFi signal. While renovations and re-wiring may not always be realistic, you can boost your WiFi signal by implementing some of these tips and tricks. If all else fails, don’t hesitate to contact a contractor to help you optimize your home for WiFi.

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