Home automation offers fantastic opportunities to make your life and your home safer, more convenient and more fun. But it is a new area of technology and can appear a little daunting. In this series of blogs, we, therefore, cover some of the key terminology and usage cases around home automation so that you can get ideas, get setup easily and start benefitting from your smart home really quickly. We previously covered how to choose a smart hub, and then some practical guides on setting up a DIY home security system, saving energy, and even making your kitchen easier to use. In this article, we cover the differences between Zigbee and Z-Wave, what exactly these protocols are and why we need them, and then finally look at what the most important things are to consider when creating a smart home, besides Zigbee and Z-Wave.
Why do we need Zigbee and Z-Wave?
Zigbee and Z-Wave are ways that devices send information to each other and communicate over the air (or wirelessly). Think Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G, NFC, and even your TV remote.
To answer the question of why we need them, we can perhaps think about the answer to why we need any of the different wireless methods/protocols we use. All these protocols are designed to do one thing at their core: send data between devices wireless, but – as with anything that needs to be accomplished in life – people have different opinions on how things should be done and like to compete with each other.
But that is only half the story. People don’t only create different ways to do things to annoy each other and compete, they do so because it is necessary. Motor vehicles like cars and trucks are different sizes because they have different usages – from carrying steel to make a building to getting a single person around town. The same is true for wireless standards or protocols. 3G and 4G are designed to enable you to get the Internet outside seamlessly wherever you are. NFC is designed to transmit data extremely securely over a short distance. WiFi, on the other hand, is designed to spread the Internet over a home or office area.
Why WiFi isn’t suitable for many smart home gadgets
We all like to multi-task and consume lots of data. The WiFi chip in your laptop or phone needs to be able to handle you watching several movies at the same time while surfing other web pages and tapping to watch video clips on your social networks. That is a serious amount of Mbps to make sense of so obvious a WiFi chip needs to be sophisticated and powerful, the downside of which inevitably is more expensive and a bigger drain on the battery.
Now smart home device chipsets – with the exception of cameras – do not need to be able to handle video. In most cases, they are sending basic bits of information back to your phone, or to each other, like the temperature, or instructions like, ‘turn off’ or ‘sound the alarm.’ This is generally very small bytes of information not megabytes. At the same time, they should only consume very small amounts of power because sensors are battery powered and those batteries need to last a long time – You don’t want them to run out when your house is on fire. Finally, the prices of sensors are also in 10s of dollars so it is too expensive to integrate a WiFi chipset.
Hence, there is a need to create a new standard for smart devices that specifically addresses the way they will be used and communicate with each other: Zigbee and Z-Wave.
So what are the differences between Zigbee and Z-Wave?
This comes back to the first point above about people not agreeing on the best way to do things. In terms of product features, there is little difference between them.
- They are both use mesh technology which means that if your sensors are spread out over a large distance in your house they can communicate and piggyback the signal across each other and back to the hub. Devices which don’t use mesh need to send the signal directly to the hub making the distance the signal is able to carry in one hop crucial.
- Zigbee operates in 2.4 GHz range compared to the 908 MHz of Z-Wave which means that Zigbee can handle slightly higher rates of data transmission (9.6 – 100kbps compared to 40 -250kbps), but can’t transmit as far (100 feet compared to 35 feet). But neither of these factors is crucial as smart devices are not transmitting large amounts of data and they are mesh networks so the data can hop from device to device to cover the longer distance.
- Finally, for security, they both have AES 128 encryption.
Zigbee and Z-Wave: price, range of products available, and reputation
If you are comparing a couple of standards or systems and they seem to have roughly the same features, you will probably next look at the price of products using them, the availability of products with that standard, and then other reputation factors that help to reassure you that the standard will still be around in the next few years.
Value is in working together
Firstly, perhaps we need to explain why it is important to know what and how many devices are available for these protocols. After all, if you buy a microwave you just use it as a microwave; all your home gadgets might be from different manufacturers.
Zigbee and Z-wave are communications standards so that devices can talk to each other to enable home automation. Not only do you want to control any one device through your phone you also want to create automation between devices. The idea is that when a door sensor is triggered, it sends a message to your phone and also tells your alarm to go off. When you set up home automation you will want the flexibility to have door, window, flood, smoke, alarm, temperature sensors, but also you might want a smart refrigerator, washing machine, oven and eventually one-day toothbrush. In which case, you need to know that if you choose a standard the full range of devices are available and there is competition so that you have more choice, and the price is kept down.
Number of devices available for each standard
- Z-Wave has roughly 350 manufacturers signed up and 1500 products, while ZigBee has around 1,000 products from 425 companies.
- 9 out of 10 insurance companies in the USA use Z-Wave.
- But Zigbee is used by important brands like Philips, Lutron, Samsung, etc.
The result is that for both standards there is actually a full range of devices available. In fact, many manufacturers make devices for both standards.
Business model and reputation
This means with Z-Wave there is more compatibility between the devices based on the certification, but the compatibility issues are usually solved for Zigbee because it is in the interests of all parties to cooperate to make it happen. A Zigbee sensor manufacturer knows that his sensor is useful unless it can connect to a hub and others Zigbee devices. This adds a layer of work as the hub and sensor manufacturers have to find each other and work together to verify a product, but then as the standard is open it has lower licensing and manufacturing costs.
In addition, Zigbee is cheaper and easier to scale for manufacturers as the standard is global meaning they can make once and sell everywhere – whereas, Z-Wave has different frequencies for different areas of the world. As a consumer you will be affected if you move to another country as your Z-Wave devices might not be compatible.
What you really need to care about when setting up home automation?
When you want to set up your smart home it is important to think about what kind of sensors and devices you want to add to your home, but you should first understand the important role a smart hub is going to play.
The role of the smart hub/home automation hub
Unfortunately, Zigbee and Z-wave chipsets don’t come built into our phones or laptops and will not do so for a long time. It took a very long time for Bluetooth to become standard in phones because manufacturers care about the universality of a standard and while there are still two, they won’t invest the money to put it into our phones. The upshot is that you need a home automation hub to convert the signal from Zigbee or Z-Wave into WiFi so that it can be viewed it on your phone or laptop.
The smart hub does more just convert the signal, it also enables home automation between your devices. Zigbee and Z-Wave are just the languages that these devices use to talk to each other, but if they are going to tell each other what to do – for example, when the lights go on or the sensor picks up motion, being able to tell the alarm to sound or the thermostat to set the temperature – you need an extremely powerful software automation platform to make that happen. These devices can’t do it by themselves.
Key home automation hub features
So the smart hub is crucial but not all smart hubs are created equal therefore you have to pay attention to the following things:
The platform must provide a sophisticated automation engine that is easy-to-use and learn with apps available for key platforms. It should have services focused around DIY security and also innovate around different ways to turn on your devices like smart buttons and voice activation.
As I mentioned above, even though Z-Wave and Zigbee have certifications, there can be compatibility issues. As a consequence, you should look on the automation hub providers website for a list of devices they have personally verified. The larger the number of different devices and brands – not just their own brand – the better it is for your choice and bank balance.
In addition, some devices are not Z-Wave or Zigbee and have their own certification procedures requiring the automation hub provider to do a lot of extra work. Nest, the famous thermostat brand, uses WiFi and you have to connect with their cloud.
Commitment to the market
The smart home market is in its infancy and standards are continually being updated and new devices emerging. It is important therefore that the smart home provider is always updating its platform so you can keep improving your smart home without buying a new hub. Take a look at what new products they are adding to their ecosystem. How they are approaching new trends like voice activation. And what they are doing to help secure their hub against the ever-increasing problem with botnets taking over IoT devices.
How many protocols does the hub support? Almond 3, for example, comes with Zigbee inbuilt but full support for Z-Wave through a dongle so you can not only have both kinds of devices in your home but also include them in one seamless set of home automations.
Smart hubs mean an extra device taking up space in your living room and it is also another expensive. Look at the smart hub brand and see what they are trying to do to reduce device clutter in your living room by combining with other devices – like built-in sirens. And also what they are doing to provide extra functionality and reduce your costs.
You can read more here about the full range of features a smart hub can provide.
For the consumers, it is a good idea to have an understanding of the differences between Zigbee and Z-Wave, but there is no need to focus too much attention on choosing one over the other: both are likely to exist for quite a while yet, there is no clear winner between the standards, and a full range of devices are available for both. In fact, most smart hub manufacturers support both technologies. Perhaps the more important thing when you are planning to set up a smart home is to take a look at the smart hub providers and understand what they are providing to help you accomplish your smart home dreams.
Almond Smart Routers
The Almond series of smart routers are award-winning WiFi routers with integrated smart hubs. As well as Amazon Alexa support, they deliver unique features only possible because they have control over both your WiFi network and smart devices. Learn more here.
This article was first published on November 14th, 2014, but has been thoroughly updated to take account of new developments in the smart home area and a number of new sections.