A Cautionary Tale of Meshes & Networks

ubiquiti amplifi 300pxEveryone wants great Wi-Fi. That much is a given. Our homes occasionally make achieving this difficult, either by way of their sheer size or manner of construction. This is a cautionary tale about a project I undertook around our home, and its unexpected impact on our Wi-Fi.

In recent years wireless mesh networks have become quite fashionable. And why not? Providing reliable coverage in a large home may require multiple wireless access points. Pulling Ethernet cable to each of those locations (yeah, baby!) is beyond all but the most ambitious of DIY homeowners.

For the average Joe installing one central router, then plugging in a couple of more distant wireless repeaters seems so much easier. That’s a Saturday morning chore that might well ingratiate you with the family.

So now we have wireless mesh offerings from the likes of Google, Ubiquiti, Eero, Orbi, Luma, Linksys and OpenMesh…just off the top of my head. They all promise widespread Wi-Fi without major installation hassles.

We don’t use any of these systems. This is not a story about that sort of mesh. This is about a more traditional mesh. The sort that is found in window screens.

Craftsman Cottage Frontal 600px.jpg

We live in what’s known as a Craftsman Cottage. Built around 1920 it has a particular set of architectural features. To the extent that we can, we try to preserve these aspects of the house.

For example, the house has all original double-hung windows. Single pane windows, predating float glass. They’re monstrously energy inefficient, but part of the “charm” of the house.

A few years ago I decided that we needed window screens. The original windows screens were in unusable shape, and I felt like taking on a woodworking project. I’m about half through that project. Each screen takes me about 12 hours.

broze mesh.jpgIn selecting material for the window screen I tried to stay true to the original Craftsman Cottage style. I found a great local hardware store that had a large roll of bronze window screen. It was costly, but had a lovely tarnished gold hue, and being more-or-less dimensionally stable, is a lot easier to work with then the modern plastic and fiberglass window mesh.

I was really very pleased with myself when I had the first five new window screens on the front of the house. That inspired me to refit the screen door with the same bronze mesh. At first, the bronze screens looked like just so much bling, like fancy wheels on some ancient Cadillac. Over time they weathered nicely, which made them less overt. We’re pretty happy with the result. Nice curb appeal.

TinyCam Monitor Pro on Nexus 7Then one day I was installing surveillance cameras in the front yard. I’ve mentioned these before, they’re a pair of Grandstream cameras that feed an NVR in my wiring rack.

To aim the cameras I was using tinyCam Monitor Pro on my Android tablet. That process was made more challenging by the fact that the tablet was struggling to stay adequately connected to the wireless network.

With a little experimentation I found that if I propped the screen door open the tablet worked well enough to let me complete my task.

The access point, at the time a Ubiquiti Power AP-N, was not more than 16 feet from the front door. There should be no issue with Wi-Fi access. However, the combination of century old tongue-and-groove heart pine walls and bronze mesh over the windows proved insurmountable.

Clearly the new window screens were blocking the Wi-Fi. The “Bronze” mesh is actually 90% copper and 10% zinc. It seems that I had inadvertently constructed a Faraday cage. Like a tin foil hat for the house.

We’ve since replaced the Power AP-N with a Ubiquiti Unifi AC Pro. It’s located in the central hall, a little closer to the front door. Nonetheless, the Wi-Fi reach into the front yard remains limited. On the front porch the Wi-Fi coverage is sufficient to check email or write this blog post, but it isn’t up to delivering any form of streaming media.

In truth, this a rarely a problem since we seldom need wireless access to streaming media in the front yard. Music playback on the front porch is provided by a Squeezebox and amplifier located in the hall, literally right beside the Wi-Fi AP. Only the Definitive Technology AW5500 speakers are actually on the porch.

This little misadventure, admittedly  from a few years ago, floated to top-of-mind when last weekend I decided that I needed to tweak one of the surveillance cameras.Perhaps I should do something about it? Nah. Another day.

First, I should build the remaining windows screens, completing our household Faraday cage. That way we’ll be safe when the scanners come looking.