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Ethernet Based Smart Plugs: Possible, Pointless or Useful?

Smart plugs are an interesting item in the world of smart home devices. They have the potential to become extremely useful, but there are some major questions that need to be answered before you can plug a smart plug into every socket in your home.

Smart plug technology is facing off against one of the major problems that are around the corner for nearly all of our smart devices: Wi-Fi. Limited bandwidth, connection issues, and security threats are causing more people to explore Ethernet as an alternative.

Whether or not Ethernet is a viable option for smart plugs remains unseen. There are no commercial options for Ethernet-based smart switches that work as such, but there is a lot of potential and more than a few work around. If you’re looking to replace Wi-Fi with other means of connecting your smart plugs, you’ve got options.

What is a Smart Plug, Anyway?

Philips Hue smart plug box - front view
Philips Hue smart plug box – front view

Smart plugs are more than just gimmicks. They are converters that transform normal electrical sockets into integrated smart home technology. With a smart plug in place, you can turn on, or off, the power from your connected devices.

Want to turn on your lights while you’re on vacation to scare off any would be burglars? How about having easy and fine tuned control over your electronics? Just want to be able to turn on your power strip without pressing a button? Smart plugs can help.

The biggest downside to smart plugs is how they connect. Let’s take a look at why people are searching for the Ethernet alternative.

Why Are People Searching For Ethernet Options?

Wi-Fi is a wonderful technology, but it has its limitations. These are less flaws with how Wi-Fi works and more of inherent tradeoffs that have made people want to search for an alternative.

At the end of the day, Wi-Fi is a radio technology and like all radios it can be jammed, intercepted, and otherwise messed with. This means that everyone from cyber security buffs to regular users who want a clean experience are searching for alternatives when it comes to the Internet of Things.

Here are three compelling reasons to start exploring alternatives to Wi-Fi.

Overcrowded Wi-Fi Networks

A diagram showing the various parts to a home network which doesn't reply on PoE - i.e. an internet supply cable brings internet to the router, which then mainly 'speaks' to the smart components over WiFi. Various power supplies are then required.
A simplified smart home network.

Yes. You read that right. Wi-Fi is, essentially, a radio. It used to run on the crowded 2.4 GHz band, and how many routers offer 5 GHz Wi-Fi (prompting people to ask whether you can get smart plugs that support 5 GHz).

That magic technology that connects everything from our local coffee shops to the phone in your pocket is powered by a technology that is very similar to what Reginald A. Fessenden discovered when he became the first person to send audio via wireless radio waves in 1900. Little did he know, but that was step one in creating IoT and smart homes!

Like all radios, you can mess with Wi-Fi signals to disastrous effect. When it comes to smart outlets, the risks are substantial.

Overcrowded Wi-Fi networks can cause connected smart devices to fail. This means your Wi-Fi powered smart plug could decide to deactivate on its own. This could be a nuisance if it shuts off your TV right before the touchdown pass completes or seriously dangerous if this shuts off much more vital technology.

Think about how many outlets you have in your home. That’s that many tiny Wi-Fi enabled devices to manage. This is a large portion of the reason why people are looking into alternative technologies.

Security Threats

All smart devices come with security concerns. Wi-Fi devices are easier to hack into than physically connected devices. An easy way to think about this is that wireless devices can be hacked wirelessly. Physically connected devices can only be hacked physically. That is to say a hacker that wants to get at your Ethernet enabled smart technology needs to be able to physically connect with your system.

Wireless smart plugs can be hacked just like any other devices. These hacks can accomplish a variety of malicious attacks. Most IoT hacks are either after your data or they want to send you spam. These are annoying and potentially risky, but smart plugs feature some more serious vulnerabilities.

Depending on your brand of Wi-Fi enabled smart plug, hackers can use your device to start a fire. This is a serious concern that has driven many people to search for alternatives.

A Changing Smart Home Ecology

The world of smart technology is changing.

When IoT first got going, it was mainly focussed on devices you can add to your home. Think of all of the stick-on switches, screw-in lights, and replacing appliances with smart ones. Those are quick and easy changes that can be made without too much cost or work.

However, there’s another approach to smart home technology that is taking a hold. Wiring homes with Ethernet cables allows users to integrate smart home tech right into their very walls. Think of having your smart lights, switches, and plugs as part of your home’s essential infrastructure rather than just an add on. This could be the next wave of smart home tech and smart plug users are searching for a way to integrate these devices with Ethernet connections.

With all this said, can you even get Ethernet smart plugs?

Are There Any Ethernet Smart Plugs?

Yes and no… but mostly no (sorry!).

If you think about it, smart plugs are designed to plug into a wall outlet. Therefore unless you have a RJ45 (Ethernet) socket nearby, your Ethernet-based smart plug would be useless.

Having said that, there are options out there for people who are looking to try out Ethernet plugs before they become a standard infrastructure choice. However, most of these options are either risky DIY hacks or devices that weren’t built with everyday users in mind.

When it comes to smart plugs, you don’t have many options for Ethernet enabled devices. If you are hoping to free up bandwidth on your Wi-Fi signal, here are two options you can explore.

The “This Can Mostly Get the Job Done, Sort Of” Category

There are several industrial devices that can technically achieve what a smart plug can, just with a few extra steps. These technologies are built with more advanced users in mind and they are definitely not as simple as the plug and play devices you might be used to.

A great example is the WebRelay by Control by Web. This is, technically, a smart plug that can control the power to a device it is connected to. The company bills it as being useful for everything from gates to lighting and security. It certainly can be, but you would have to be a bit more experienced when it comes to connecting this thing to a power supply. This “sort of” Ethernet connected smart plug doesn’t have conventional outlets, but rather wires directly into your devices. It’s a high bar for DIY knowledge that requires some experience working with electrical wires.

If you want to be less of an early adopter and more of an innovator, these technologies might be your best way of getting the Ethernet smart plug experience before they become widely available. However, make sure you read up on your electrician 101 first.

DIY or Please Don’t

There are a few cases where the phrase “DIY or die” becomes a little too literal. While it is possible to rig up a DIY smart plug that uses Ethernet and lives inside your wall, you might want to leave this one to experienced electricians.

There’s a reason why electricians don’t put communication wiring and power outlets in the same box: it can start a fire. While there are specialty plates that can allow you to bypass these restrictions, this arena is best left in professional hands.

You can find plans online for DIY Wi-Fi smart plugs that use a combination of 3D printed parts and an ESP8266 to get the job done. The ESP8266 is the DIY smart home fan favorite for Wi-Fi chips. In theory, these plans could be adapted to use Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi, but again unless you are a working electrician this is probably more risk than reward.

Another option is to use a Raspberry Pi to act as a remote smart plug. Tom’s blog (an awesome resource which I’ve referenced previously) shows how to do this for a light switch, but the concepts are similar for a smart plug – especially since both light switches and plugs have a binary “ON” or “OFF” state.

What About Other Options?

Now we turn to other ways around the Wi-Fi problem. Since Ethernet is more myth than reality for smart plugs at this point, we are going to have to look elsewhere for our solutions.

This brings us to two smart home favorites: Zwave and ZigBee.

Zwave and ZigBee

Both Zwave and ZigBee, like Wi-Fi itself, use radio waves to transmit data. There are smart plugs that operate using either standard, such as the Philips Hue Smart Plug that supports Zigbee (and Bluetooth):

Philips Hue smart plug box - side view
Philips Hue smart plug box – side view

In order to get them to replace your Wi-Fi enabled smart plugs, all you need to do is connect them to a hub which can then connect with either Wi-Fi or Ethernet to your devices. These solutions are readily available and you could get them going in an hour or two max.

There are a few things to consider when making the switch.

These two technologies are generally weaker and have lower range than Wi-Fi. So if you have a large house and you’re hoping to have your Zigbee Hub on one side of your house and a Zigbee smart plug on the other side of the house, you might have connectivity issues.

One benefit of both Zigbee and Z-wave, though, is that each new device acts as a signal repeated – meaning that if you have a bunch of Zigbee (or Z-wave) devices throughout your house, the network becomes much more robust and has a better range.

Until Ethernet enabled smart plugs are a workable reality, ZigBee and Zwave are your only real choices for wireless alternatives.

Finally, if wired connections really are important to you, the KNX standard may be suited to you since it was specifically designed for home automation. Gira make a few KNX-compatible smart plugs which could be worth checking out.

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