The Complete Guide to Boosting Cell Signal in Your New Home
While location, location, location may be the most important thing to consider when choosing a new home, a close second is quickly becoming whether or not that new home has good cell phone reception. If you're moving out to the country, or even in many urban areas, the odds are likely that the answer to that question may be no.
For some people, that's a deal breaker, and it's heartbreaking to walk away from your dream home just because you can't receive a call or check your email on your phone.
Fortunately, there's a solution to this problem, and it doesn't involve petitioning AT&T to put in a tower closer to your home or having a landline physically installed. It's called a cell phone signal booster, and it can turn a weak outside signal into a strong signal throughout your house.
In this guide, we'll walk you through everything you need to know, including what causes poor cell phone signal, what a signal booster is, how to choose and install one, and finally how to troubleshoot any issues you might run into.
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1. What Causes Signal Problems?
There are three main causes of signal problems: distance from your carrier's cell tower, large obstructions, like trees, buildings, hills and mountains, and local obstructions, typically the construction material of your new home, such as brick, block, metal, wire mesh, radiant barrier, and window coatings. These issues can also work together to compound the problem.
The first main cause of signal problems, distance from the tower, is going to be most often experienced if you're moving to a new home in a very rural area. Typically, in this situation, there may only be one cell tower in the general vicinity that your carrier is using to service the area, so the further you are from that tower, the worse your signal is.
It's also important to note that communication between your phone and the tower goes both ways, so if your phone isn't able to broadcast its cell signal all of the way back to the cell tower, you won't be able to make and receive calls.
The second main cause of cell phone signal problems are large obstructions between you and the tower. These large obstructions typically take the form of trees and buildings, although hills and mountains can also play a significatn role, depending on your geographic location.
Trees, or any other plant life, are comprised of a large amount of water, which can hinder cellular signals as they pass through the branches and leaves, so during the summer especially, you'll find that your signal is worse than the fall and winter, when the leaves are off the trees. In this case, a stronger cell signal is needed to penetrate through the trees and plant life to the tower.
Buildings, mountains and hills, as well as if you're in a canyon, all present the same type of problem, which are obstacles that prohibit a direct line of sight from the tower to the cell phone, and thus require the signal to bounce off of something before it can be received. In this situation, you typically experience erratic signal that fluctuates up and down, since the signal is bouncing around in order to reach you.
Finally, the last cause of poor cell phone signal is the material that your new home is constructed with. Solid materials, like brick, block or metal (especially for a roof), block most of the signal coming into the home, so even if you have strong signal outside, it may not penetrate into the center of the house. In addition, building materials like radiant barrier and energy saving window coatings will also severely impede the signal coming in, causing weak signal and deadspots inside of the house.
Now that you have a better understanding of the reasons that most people have poor signal in their home, let's look at what we can do to overcome these obstacles.
2. What is a Cell Phone Signal Booster?
A cell phone signal booster, also known as a cellular repeater, is a system that takes an existing outside signal, brings it inside of the house, boosts up the power of the signal, and then broadcasts it to part or all of the house.
A signal booster is made up of the following items: an outside antenna that communicates with the local cell towers, an amplifier that boosts the cell signal both to the tower and to the inside of the house, an internal antenna that broadcasts the boosted signal and communicates with the mobile devices inside of the house, and cable to connect all of those components together.
3. How a Cell Phone Signal Booster Works
A Cell Phone Signal Booster works by having the external antenna mounted outside, typically on the roof, and that receives the existing outside signal from the nearest cell tower. The antenna passes that signal inside the house to the signal amplifier via a cable. The amplifier receives the signal and boosts it significantly, and then passes it to the indoor antenna via another cable. The indoor antenna broadcasts the boosted signal to part or all of the inside of the house.
The system also works in reverse by boosting the signal that originates from a mobile device inside of the house out to the carrier's cell tower.
While that might seem somewhat complicated, the design of the signal booster system actually does a lot to solve the problems that cause poor signal to begin with.
The high powered antenna on the roof allows the system to receive the best possible signal in the area. If the signal is very weak due to distance or obstructions, then a high powered directional antenna can be used to make sure that the signal is received. If the signal is fluctuating due to signal bouncing off of the terrain or large obstructions, then a powerful omnidirectional antenna will allow the system to receive the signal, irrespective of the direction that it's coming in at.
By using a cable to bring the signal into the house from the outside antenna, the system is bypassing the construction materials of the house that typically block the signal from entering.
Finally, by using a signal amplifier in the middle of the system, the signal that is passing through the system can be made much more powerful and distributed throughout the inside of the house, as well as out to the nearby cell towers.
4. How to Tell If a Signal Booster Will Work For You
As you've learned, a signal booster needs a small amount of outside signal in the location where you mount the external antenna in order to operate properly, so you'll need to determine whether you have enough signal available.
In order to get the most accurate type of reading, we recommend putting your phone into field test mode, which is a numerical representation of the actual strength of your cell signal, rather than the dots or bars that you usually see on your phone. Please read our comprehensive guide on what field test mode is and how to enable it on your phone.
Once you're in field test mode and you're seeing the signal for your carrier's 3G network, then you're ready to go outside and take some actual signal readings.
The ideal place to take signal readings that is on the roof of your house where you plan to mount the external antenna. If you're able to climb up on the roof (please be safe), then you'll want to walk around the perimeter of the roof and record signal readings in as many locations as possible. You're looking for the best signal, which is the lowest decibel number or the most dots/bars, that you can find, as that will result in the most coverage from the signal booster that you purchase.
If you're not able to climb on top of the roof, then the next best option is to walk around the outside of your house with your phone, and take signal readings at ground level. You can usually assume that the signal strength you'll be getting on the roof is going to be as good or better than what you receive on the ground.
Once you know your outside signal strength, then the next step is to select the right booster for your situation.
5. Choosing the Right Signal Booster
Now that you've measured the outside signal strength, the next step is to choose the right booster for your situation. There are two main things that you need to think about when choosing a booster: the size of the area inside that you need to cover, and the networks on your carrier that you need to be boosted.
Inside Coverage Area
The outside signal strength that you recorded in your site survey is what determines the size of the coverage area from each booster. Basically, a more powerful booster can cover a larger area with boosted signal, while an entry level booster is going to cover a smaller area.
We measure the coverage area size in square feet, so the first thing to do is to determine how much of the house you need to cover. If it's the whole house, then that would be the total square footage of the house. If it's one floor, such as the basement, then you would need to determine roughly how large that is in square feet.
Once you've determined the square footage that you need to cover and know the outside signal strength, then you'll want to narrow down the boosters that will work for you. Navigate to the Signal Boosters for Home & Office category on UberSignal.com, and scan through the coverage area charts for each product. You'll want to narrow your search down to products that cover the area that you need with the outside signal strength that you have.
For example: If you have a medium outside signal strength (-90 dB) and need to cover an area that is about 2,500 sq ft in size, then you would want to look at the weBoost Connect 4G Signal Booster Kit, which can cover that area and possibly a bit more with that outside signal strength.
Now that you have the boosters narrowed down by coverage area, the next step is to make sure the booster you choose will boost the networks that you need.
Networks and Carriers
All of the carriers in the United States and Canada have three main networks: 2G, 3G and 4G LTE (some also have 4G HSPA+, which falls under the 3G category). The 2G and 3G networks are currently used for voice calls and 3G data, and the 4G LTE networks are used for fast data (like streaming videos on your mobile device), though the carriers are already starting to release phones that will use the 4G LTE networks for voice calls too.
Our rule of thumb is that if you plan to operate your booster for more than a year, then you should choose a signal booster that will boost the 2G, 3G and 4G LTE networks. The only time that you wouldn't want to go that route would be if you were boosting signal in a very remote location that did not currently have 4G LTE, and there were no plans by your carrier to roll out 4G LTE there in the foreseeable future.
If you have any questions when selecting a booster, please do not hesitate to contact us and we'll be happy to help you select the right booster for your situation.
6. A Quick Discussion on Antennas
Most of the consumer signal booster kits that we sell come with a directional outside antenna (an antenna that you mount on a pole on the roof and aim towards your carrier's cell tower) and a panel inside antenna (a flat square that broadcasts boosted signal out of one side). For most situations, these are going to be the best antenna types, but there are a couple of scenarios when you may want to choose a booster with a different outside or inside antenna type.
While most booster kits only come with a yagi directional outside antenna, there are a couple that have an omnidirectional (omni) outside antenna option, which looks like a vertical rod that you mount on the edge of the roof sticking straight up and down. Unlike a yagi directional antenna, an omni antenna will send and receive signal in all directions at once, so it can receive cell signal no matter the direction it's coming in at. The downside is that it's not as powerful as a directional antenna, so the inside coverage area that you receive from it is not going to be as large as with a directional antenna.
An omni antenna is going to be a good option for you if you need to boost signal in an area where the outside signal strength fluctuates up and down a lot. This typically happens when you don't have a direct line of sight to the tower, such as when you're in a mountainous or hilly area, or if your home is located in a valley and the signal is bouncing off of the terrain before reaching you. In that case, an omni antenna should help receive that signal, no matter what direction it's coming from.
Most of our booster kits only come with a panel inside antenna, since it is the most versatile type of antenna and can cover multiple floors at the same time. That said, a few of our kits also offer the option of a dome inside antenna, which is meant for boosting signal on a single floor and is designed to be mounted directly to the ceiling in the middle of the space that needs boosted signal. Typically dome antennas are used with drop ceilings, so they are common for booster installations in office buildings, but are rarely used for home installations.
7. Signal Booster Accessories
While the cell phone signal booster kits from UberSignal come with everything that you need to setup and start boosting signal, there are a couple of accessories that we do recommend.
Lightning Protector Kit
The lighting protector kit is a surge protector for the amplifier that sits on the cable coming from the outside antenna and prevents any surges of electricity from traveling down the antenna cable and frying the amplifier. It is highly recommended for use with all signal booster kits.
The yagi directional antenna that comes with most of the signal booster kits is meant to be mounted on a pole on the roof of the house. If you don't have an existing pole on the roof already, like an old television antenna, then a pole mount will provide you with a short length of pole to mount the directional antenna to.
For most homes, a single internal antenna should be sufficient to provide boosted signal throughout the house, but there are some situations which may require you to add a second inside antenna to the booster, such as if the house is a non-standard ship (L shaped or has an open couryard inside), or if there are walls or floors made of concrete, brick, block or metal, which prevents signal from passing through. In these occasions, you may need to add a second internal antenna to the booster to better distribute the signal throughout the space.
8. How to Install a Signal Booster in Your Home
Once you've selected and purchased your new cell phone signal booster system and accessories, then the next step is to install the booster in your home.
We recommend that you perform a soft install first by loosely running cables through open windows and temporarily placing components before drilling any holes and permanently installing the system. This will allow you to troubleshoot and optimize the setup of the booster first without having to move components if the initial setup is not ideal.
Typically, the best way to set up a cell phone signal booster in a home is to mount the external antenna on the roof of the house, and then locate the rest of the equipment in the attic. We'll walk through that installation here and then cover alternative installation methods afterwards.
- We're going to start the installation with the external antenna and work our way into the house. The first thing you're going to need to do is climb up on the roof and walk around to determine the side of the house that is receiving the best initial signal (you may have already done this during the initial signal reading step). Knowing which side of the house to mount the external antenna on is important, since it ensures that a directional antenna will be pointed away from the house, rather than across the roof, and that the external antenna is receiving the strongest possible signal.
- Once you've found the side of the house that has the strongest signal, you'll want to mount the external antenna as high up as possible. If the roof has a peak on that side of the house, then mount it there. If you're using a yagi directional outside antenna, then you'll want to loosely attach the antenna to a vertical pole and point it away from the house (we'll precisely aim it later in the installation process).
- Next, you'll want to run a cable (usually the shorter of the two that came in the booster kit) from the outside antenna into the attic of the house.
- If you've purchased the lightning protector kit, then you'll want to screw on the lighting protector directly to the cable, and then connect the 2 ft cable that came with the kit onto the other end. Finally, connect the other end of the 2 ft cable to the outside antenna port of the amplifier. If you are not using the lighting protector kit, then connect the cable from the outside antenna directly to the outside antenna port of the amplifier.
- Locate the amplifier in an out-of-the-way place in the attic near a power source, such as a standard wall outlet or within reach of an extension cord.
- Connect the other cable that was included in the booster kit to the inside antenna port of the amplifier and run it to the center of the attic, then connect the panel antenna.
- Lay the panel antenna face down (with the mounting bracket facing upwards towards the roof) in the center of the attic, which should also be the center of the house. The panel antenna will broadcast boosted signal downwards into the living area of the house below.
- Plug the power adapter from the amplifier into the power source, and the lights on the amplifier should light up, indicating that it's powering up.
Aiming a Yagi Directional Antenna
If you're installing a signal booster with a yagi directional outside antenna, then the last step you'll need to do is aim the antenna. We have a comprehensive guide on how to aim a yagi directional antenna, which we recommend reading, but here is the short version of those instructions:
When aiming and mounting a directional antenna, make sure that the antenna is parallel with the ground. Do not aim it up at the sky or down at the earth.
- Make sure the booster is turned on and have a person in the house stand in front of the inside antenna and take a signal reading with their phone in field test mode.
- Rotate the outside antenna 45 degrees (1/8th of the way around) and then pause for 60 seconds. After the pause, the person inside should take another signal reading from exactly the same spot, record it, and then repeat the process.
- After you've gone all the way around, mount the antenna facing in the direction with the strongest signal (decibel signal reading will be closest to 0) that you recorded. If possible, mount the antenna on the side of the house so that it's pointing away from the building and not over the building.
Alternative Installation Options
While the easiest and most efficient way to install a booster is in the attic of a house, there are many situations where that might not be possible. In those cases, you can mount the panel antenna either on a wall aiming across the floor where you need boosted signal, or mount it on the ceiling on the highest floor that needs signal, and broadcast it downwards through the floors below.
Please note, you do not want to angle the panel antenna, such as mounting it on an angled cathedral ceiling, as the the signal won't spread out properly and you'll still have dead spots.
If you're using an dome inside antenna, then you'll want to mount that to the ceiling in the center of the space that needs boosted signal and have it broadcast in all directions across the floor that is located on.
Problems and Warning Lights
There are two main types of problems that may arise when you turn on your cell phone signal booster for the first time: overload and oscillation. Each problem has a different warning light combination that will show on the amplifier (you'll have to consult the booster manual to confirm the issue you're seeing). We'll discuss each problem type and how to fix it here:
Overload happens when the outside antenna is receiving a very strong signal from a nearby cell tower, which may or may not be from the cell carrier you're trying to boost. If the amplifier receives too strong of a signal, then it will first try to deal with it by reducing its boosting power, and if that doesn't work, by shutting that frequency band down entirely.
There are two ways to handle overload. The first, assuming you're using a directional outside antenna, is to re-aim the directional antenna so that it is not facing directly towards the nearby tower, but rather aimed slightly off from it. This way the antenna does not receive the full blast of signal, but rather a portion of it, and the amplifier is able to do the heavy lifting there. When re-aiming, it may also possible to aim in a completely different direction where another distant cell tower for your carrier may be located.
If re-aiming does not solve the problem, then the next step is to install a series of attenuators on the cable coming from the outside antenna to cut back the amount of signal before it reaches the amplifier. This will reduce the same amount of signal from all carriers on all frequency bands, so for any weaker signals that are being received by the outside antenna, those will be reduced as well, and the coverage area for those networks will be smaller.
Oscillation happens when the boosted signal that's being broadcast from the inside antenna reaches the outside antenna, and causes feedback in the system. The best way to fix this problem is to increase the separation between the two antennas, which typically means moving the inside antenna further away from the outside antenna. You should also try to have as much vertical separation between the two antennas as possible, which may mean raising the outside antenna up on a pole to get more elevation.
The antenna direction is also important when trying to fix oscillation problems. The outside antenna should be pointed away from the house, and not across the roof, otherwise it will pick up any boosted signal that is radiating out of the roof. The inside panel antenna should ideally be pointed down and away from the roof, or if its on a wall, away from the side of the house that the external antenna is located on. Increasing separation and adjusting the direction of the antennas should solve any oscillation problems you may be experiencing.
9. Need Help?
Hopefully this guide has helped to explain what cell phone signal boosters are and how to choose one for your new home, but if you still have any questions or need assistance with anything, please do not hesitate to contact us: