A remote Ethernet device needs two things: power and Ethernet. You might think that this also means two cables, a beefy one to carry the current needed to run the thing, and thin little twisted pairs for the data. But no!
Power over Ethernet (PoE) allows you to transmit power and data over to network devices. It does this through a twisted pair Ethernet cabling, which allows a single cable to drive the two connections. The main advantage of using PoE as opposed to having separate lines for power and data is to simplify the process of installation – there’s fewer cables to keep track of and purchase. For smaller offices, the hassle of having to wire new circuits or a transformer for converted AC to DC can be annoying.
PoE can also be an advantage in cases where power is not easily accessible or where additional wiring simply is not an option. Ethernet cables are often run in the ceiling, while power runs near the floor. Furthermore, PoE is protected from overload, short circuiting, and delivers power safely. No additional power supplies are necessary since the power is supplied centrally, and scaling the power delivery becomes a lot easier.
Devices Using PoE
VoIP phones are becoming increasingly prevalent as offices are opting to provide power for phones from a central supply rather than hosting smaller power supplies to supply separate phones. Smart cameras – or IP cameras – already use Ethernet to deliver video data, so using PoE simplifies the installation process. Wireless access points can be easily connected to Ethernet through a main router, which is more convenient than seeking out separate power supplies.
Other devices that use PoE include RFID readers, IPTV decoders, access control systems, and occasionally even wall clocks. If it already uses Ethernet, and it doesn’t draw too much power, it’s a good candidate for PoE.
On the supply side, given that the majority of devices that use PoE are in some form networking devices, it makes sense that the main device to provide power to a PoE system would be the Ethernet switch. Another option is to use a PoE injector, which works with non-PoE switches to ensure that the device is able to receive power from another source than the switch.
How it Works
Historically, PoE was implemented by simply hooking extra lines up to a DC power supply. Early power injectors did not provide any intelligent protocol, simply injecting power into a system. The most common method was to power a pair of wires not utilized by 100Base-TX Ethernet. This could easily destroy devices not designed to accept power, however. The IEEE 802.3 working group started their first official PoE project in 1999, titled the IEE 802.3af.
This standard delivered up to 13 W to a powered device, utilizing two of the four twisted pairs in Ethernet cabling. This was adequate power for VoIP phones, IP cameras, door access control units, and other devices. In 2009, the IEEE 802.3 working group released the second PoE standard, IEEE 802.3at. This added a power class that could deliver up to 25.5 W, allowing for pan and tilt cameras to use the technology.
While further standards haven’t been released, proprietary technologies have used the PoE term to describe their methods of power delivery. A new project from the IEEE 802.3 working group was the 2018 released IEEE 802.3bt standard that utilizes all four twisted pairs to deliver up to 71 W to a powered device.
But this power comes at a cost: Ethernet cables simply don’t have the conductive cross-section that power cables do, and resistive losses are higher. Because power loss in a cable is proportional to the squared current, PoE systems minimize the current by using higher voltages, from 40 V to 60 V, which is then converted down in the receiving device. Even so, PoE specs allow for 15% power loss in the cable itself. For instance, your 12 W remote device might draw 14 W at the wall, with the remaining 2 W heating up your crawlspace. The proposed 70 W IEEE 802.3bt standard can put as much as 30 W of heat into the wires.
The bigger problem is typically insufficient power. The 802.4af PoE standard maximum power output is below 15.4 W (13 W delivered), which is enough to provide power for most networking devices. For higher power consumption devices, such as network PTZ cameras, this isn’t the case.
Although maximum power supply is specified in the standards, having a supply that supplied more power is necessary will not affect the performance of the device. The device will draw as much current as necessary to operate, so there is no risk of overload, just hot wires.
So PoE isn’t without its tradeoffs. Nevertheless, there’s certainly a lot of advantages to accepting PoE for devices, and of course we welcome a world with fewer wires. It’s fantastic for routers, phones, and their friends. But when your power-hungry devices are keeping you warm at night, it’s probably time to plug them into the wall.