Electrical Issues In Ethernet Networking

If you wire your house with Ethernet, you'll have a houseful of computers, all connected to the power system, and all connected to each other through the Ethernet network, and through the electrical system ("mains"). This is an obvious, but not trivial, issue.

With all computers connected within the same building, it's not a major issue. All computers are connected to the same main power supply, fed through the same power feed from the electric company, and grounded at the power distribution panel (electric meter et al). All computers, on properly maintained electrical and Ethernet networks, should have the same ground potential.

If you're lucky enough to have a large property, maybe you have a garage or shed out back of your house, with a separate electrical feed. If you decide to install a computer out there, networking that computer won't be a trivial issue. Getting past the issue of running cable between the two buildings (bury it, and risk underground problems), or string it through the air (and risk birds and other wildlife damage), you have a major code and safety issue.

Two separate buildings will have different ground potentials, amplifying the damage from lightning strikes. To fulfill electrical code requirements, you must ground electrical feeds, to separate buildings, separately. If you run Ethernet cable between your buildings, and lightning were to strike one building, the lightning would possibly travel from one computer to the other, through the Ethernet cable, and eventually to ground at the other building.

If you were unlucky enough to be working at either computer when this happened, you'd probably not live to worry about it. If you were lucky enough to not be in front of a computer, you could at least kiss the computers goodbye.

Even ignoring the possible damage from a lightning strike, a computer network with different computers connected at different ground potential won't do much for network stability. A properly functioning network depends upon ground at every network point having the same (identical) voltage level. Any variances, as can happen between any two separately grounded objects, will cause chronic and intermittent packet loss.

The bottom line? If you can't ground both ends of the Ethernet cable very securely, fiber or WiFi is a much better choice for connecting two separate buildings. Fiber-Optic cable doesn't conduct electricity, just light. And WiFi isn't a physical media at all.

If you have 2 buildings, limit the dangers of lightning to each building alone. Don't tie the two together, inadvertently.

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