This is an extremely complex issue. There are lots of forums online asking whether powerline adapters can work across different circuits or phases, and the terminology itself can be confusing.
Moreover, the actual accounts of user’s experience with getting powerline adapters to work in this way differs greatly – some people can get powerline adapters to work fine everywhere they try and them and others struggle.
In this article I will try to give as detailed and thorough answer to the question as possible, covering all the possible angles and scenarios, so users can make an informed decision as to whether powerline adapters are their best option.
Let’s first give a bottom line summary answer to the question:
Powerline adapters can work across different circuits/phases of the same residence, but this is not guaranteed in all cases. Moreover, if they do work, there will often be a drop in performance (speeds) every time they cross over into a new phase.
For the sake of clarity, I’m defining a circuit as the totality of the wiring within a single residence – all wiring, panels, sockets etc.
I’m defining a phase as a separate ring, leg or loop contained within that whole circuit eg. an upstairs/downstairs ring, or a left side/right side of house ring. I am treating the phrases phase/leg/ring/loop as equivalent – some portion of entire house circuitry that is separate from other parts.
So when people ask whether powerline adapters work across different circuits, I will primarily assume that they mean across different sections of the circuitry within a single home, though I will also address the issue of branching between entirely distinct and separate circuits in different homes as well.
One of the reasons this article was so difficult to write is because people use different terms for circuitry. Nevertheless, I’ll try to define what I mean and cover as many different scenarios as possible to capture all the different searcher intentions for this particular keyword phrase/problem.
When Powerline Adapters Will Not Work Across Circuits
Let’s firstly cover the more clear cut cases of when powerline adapters will probably or definitely NOT work across different circuits in the sense of totally separate residences and dwellings.
By this, I mean installing one adapter on one circuit in one residence, and trying to connect it to another adapter connected to a different circuit in a different residence or dwelling.
This is more clear – most or all of the time, this will not work.
Let’s break down a couple of examples:
1. Different houses – Powerline adapters will almost always not work across different homes, even if the houses are right next to each other. There are exceptions but this is extremely rare and due to lax wiring.
2. Different apartments – Powerline adapters will mostly not work across different apartments that are contained within the same building, as long as each apartment has it’s own meter/feed. Again there are rare exceptions, but mostly not.
3. Separately supplied circuits within a house – This refers to parts of a home like annexes and extensions, and other outdoor detached buildings, which may technically belong to a single residence, but may also be fed by separate meters/feeds. In these cases, powerline adapters will mostly NOT work if each adapter is installed in parts of a residence that are fed by totally separate meters/feeds. These cases are comparatively rare.
Bottom line – If the two places where you have each adapter have separate feeds/meters, then you likely WON’T get powerline adapters to work. If both places run off the same basic feed but on different phases/rings/loops/circuits/subpanels, then you may or may not get them to work and each case will differ. We’ll cover this more in the next section.
There are some rare exceptions of people who have got powerline adapters to work in these cases listed above. It is usually because of lax wiring and circuitry setup – there are meant to be shunts and other devices that in essence separate certain circuits from others between dwellings that, for whatever reason, are not always installed and may allow adapters to communicate.
House circuitry is sometimes split up into subpanels, which are fed by the main panel
Powerline Adapters Across Different Circuit Phases (Theory vs Reality)
The differing accounts on this left me completely confused, since some people were complaining on forums that they couldn’t get powerline adapters to work across different phases, whilst others (myself included) have never had any problems using them in different parts of multiple houses.
The theory on this is quite simple – powerline adapters should not work across different phases of the same circuitry. Even TP Link’s own page on this says they can’t.
But in my experience and others, they do work across phases/rings! Theory was not matching reality, so I needed to ask an expert.
This is why I decided to contact someone with more knowledge of this, to ask him simply – why is it that powerline adapters should in theory not work across circuit phases, yet in many people’s experience, they do?
Here is the answer I got:
The reason it seems that Powerline Adapters appear to work “across Circuits” (on different Phases) is because almost every home has at least one 230v appliance where the breaker crosses both legs/phases and bridges the Red and Black side of the Panel.
Since there is a bridge across both Phases, with rare exception, unless a very large house with multiple panels and lots of Circuits, a Powerline Adapter will work.
If you have more than one Panel and they have separate feeds from the Utility company, as in two 200amp Service Panels that have Independent feeds to the Utility pole – and probably separate meters – the Powerline Adapter most likely will NOT work. The “bridge” would have to be at the pole transformer and usually there are shunts to prevent this type of bridging – but not always.
Powerline Adapters may or may not work if the Circuit is on a Sub-Panel from the Main Panel
I’m an not an expert on home electrical wiring, but I think what is being said here is that it is possible for the data being send over the wiring to “hop” over from one phase/ring to another (eg. from the downstairs to upstairs circuit ring) by using another appliance in the house which crosses over between different phases/legs/loops of the house circuitry, as an intermediary “bridge”.
So if you are not able to get powerline adapters to work across different circuit phases, then it is likely that the condition quoted above is not being met – you don’t have a suitable appliance whose breaker crosses over between different phases/legs/loops of the entire house circuitry.
If you’d like to explore if there are any ways to modify the circuitry to correct this, then I recommend consulting a qualified electrician.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a licensed Electrician nor an Electrical Engineer. The material in this article is my own thoughts based upon my own personal reading and understanding of the subject matter. Never work with LIVE Electricity unless you are properly trained and have the appropriate safety gear. Always consult a qualified electrician before dealing with any house circuitry.
This is why powerline adapters can in fact sometimes work across different circuit rings/phases when the strict theory on this suggests they should not.
However, it is important to note that if you do get them to work across phases, there may be a drop in throughput (delivered speeds) each time they cross over into a new phase.
In other words, if you were getting speeds of 50Mbps using powerline on the same ring, you may only get 40Mbps using them across different rings (this is just a hypothetical example). Again, this may not always happen either, since there are so many variables at play here and every home is different, but you can often expect a drop in performance of the adapters.
My Own Experience With This
This is what prompted me to write this article, since I kept hearing that powerline adapters don’t work across different circuits/phases, but I’ve never had any unsolvable issues using them within one house, even when my receiving end adapter is either on a different floor or different side of the house to the router end adapter, which theoretically should be a different “phase” or “ring”.
This is likely because what is stated in the blockquote above – the adapters were using another appliance in the home to “hop across” from one phase/ring to another and were therefore able to connect up despite being in opposite corners of the house.
I’ve never had any deal-breaker problems getting the adapters to pair up and work, even when at opposite corners of the house. The only problem I did notice once, was that the receiving end adapter did not work in one wall socket in a particular room, but did work when I moved it to another wall socket in the same room. Puzzling!
Whether this was due to the phase circuitry, or the wall socket itself was simply poorly installed or faulty, I am not sure. But moving powerline adapters around to different sockets/rooms is the first thing to try if you are having problems with them.
Also be sure to move them away from any high energy consumption devices like washers, dryers, electro-motor devices and so on. They also sometimes don’t like being plugged in next to phone chargers. See our full troubleshooting guide for more tips on this.
The Only Way to Find Out is to Test Them
I don’t want to be accused of misleading readers, so let me say very clearly that it is unfortunately not possible for me or anyone else to provide a rock solid guarantee to anyone that powerline adapters will or will not work in their home.
Because every house and every circuit is different, with different quality and configuration of wiring, panels, circuits, phases, RCDs, meter/feeds and so on, it is impossible to give a one-size-fits-all-answer.
Therefore, the only real way someone can find out if powerline adapters will work, is to simply get a pair and test them out. This is understandably a bit annoying when people have to pay for something which isn’t always guaranteed to work.
However, all large retailers, including Amazon, have a clearly defined refund policy, where you can return items that are not fit for purpose for a full refund if you find they don’t work. No reasonable retailer is going to refuse this, especially with powerline adapters, whose performance does depend on so many variables that is impossible to 100% predict before buying them how well they will work.
Another option if you are not sure is to borrow a pair from a friend or family member and see whether they work as expected.
The bottom line reality is that in most modern and semi modern homes, where you are confident the house is wired pretty normally and in good condition, you are going to be OK with powerline adapters, getting either reasonable or very good performance.
That does not however, mean that everyone will get them to work. It’s just the nature of house wiring that in some homes you may struggle to get them to properly pair up.
Alternatives to Using Powerline Adapters
For those users that can’t get powerline adapters to work across their circuitry, let’s quickly run through some alternative home networking solutions to spread better internet coverage across a home.
1. Long ethernet cables – Not the most elegant solution, but can work if you don’t mind a bit of DIY or trailing long cables through the house.
Click the links to view 10m and 20m ethernet cables on Amazon.
2. Wi-Fi Range Extenders/Boosters – These are single plug adapters that are simply installed in a wall socket and capture and amplify the existing Wi-Fi signal from the router and spread it over a wider area. Do not depend on house circuitry. Can work very well in some cases, but also not so well in others, especially when more distance is involved.
See our article which compares Powerline adapters to Wi-Fi extenders in more detail.
3. Wi-Fi Mesh Systems – A more advanced (and expensive) form of the simpler range extenders. Mesh systems consist of a kit of 2 or 3 nodes or pods which are placed at certain points in the house to amplify and spread wireless coverage. They work on the same general idea as the simpler Wi-Fi extenders, but use more nodes and more advanced technology to deliver better performance. They are more expensive as a result. Also do not depend on house circuitry. Can be useful for larger homes where Wi-Fi coverage is preferred and needed over a larger area.
See our full article comparing Wi-Fi Mesh systems to Powerline adapters for more detail.