When it comes to automating your home, your choice of protocol — the type of language your devices use to “speak” to each other — might just be the most important decision you make. It determines network speed, compatibility with other devices, length of signal range, battery life, among so many other things. And there is a lot to choose from — the market is flush with protocols that have varying strengths and weaknesses.
While the amount of information out there may seem intimidating, ultimately it comes down to choosing the set up that best fits your home and lifestyle. We prepared a breakdown of three of the most widely used protocols based on key features to help you determine your ideal smart home set up.
A good way to start is to ask yourself which smart-home devices you want, and see which protocol has them work together most seamlessly. This aspect, interoperability, will tell you if you can link your lights with your motion sensor, or have your alarm siren go off when a door is unexpectedly opened. The greater interoperability, the more options you have.
ZigBee is a popular communication standard that can carry a relatively large number of devices — up to 65,000 in theory! But it’s had trouble when it comes to interoperability because it can be made by different manufacturers who use different software profiles. So even if two devices are certified ZigBee, they still may be unable to talk to each other. This can complicate and limit your choice of devices.
Insteon is a home automation protocol known for its compatibility with wireless and powerline-based protocols, like X10. If you’ve already got a bunch of X10 devices in your home, Insteon would ease the transition to a wireless system. That being said, there isn’t much in the way of choice for Insteon, whose product line is limited and more expensive than the alternatives.
In terms of interoperability, experts and the home automation community agree that nothing beats Z-Wave. Because it’s licensed only by Sigma Designs, all Z-Wave devices, old or new, can talk to all other Z-Wave devices. If you consider that Z-Wave is compatible with more than 1,300 certified devices and can manage over 230 at a time, you’ve got a lot to choose from.
Don’t forget that compatibility also depends on your Z-Wave controller’s software so it’s good to research your hub first. We recommend getting an open controller like the VeraPlus or ZipaBox by Zipato so you don’t have to worry about product support.
Range length and network type are also important determiners in the success of your smart home network. ZigBee, Insteon, and Z-Wave all use mesh networks, meaning if two devices are too far apart, their signals can hop along devices in-between. However, both Insteon and Z-Wave have the advantage of automatically doubling their hardwired devices as signal repeaters, resulting in more reliable communication.
In the race for range, ZigBee comes in third, again, with a range of up to 35 feet. Insteon and Z-Wave both nearly triple that figure with ranges of around 100 feet. While these range figures are usually quoted as “line of sight”, a combination of long range and mesh network capabilities is ideal for homes where walls and obstacles come into play.
There are a lot of things that make a protocol efficient or inefficient — is it easy to install, maintain, and use? Does it save on energy usage? Is it affordable? Different protocols offer their own advantages, as well as their drawbacks.
Insteon is one of the easiest to install — all you need to do is turn on the device, press a button and it will join your network automatically. However, a mix of Insteon’s lack of variety and expensiveness means that it might not be the smartest choice for those new to home automation.
ZigBee and Z-Wave have a lot in common: they’re both low-cost and energy efficient, meaning you don’t have to worry about your battery-operated devices for months. But ZigBee’s lack of compatibility means that the installation process might be more frustrating than it should be — you’d be restricted to buying all your devices from the same manufacturer to ensure connectivity.
With that, Z-Wave’s installation process only involves a couple of minutes and the press of a button. Maintaining and controlling all your devices can be done from the sleek interface of a single mobile device.
It comes as no surprise that we believe Z-Wave is the most reliable choice for your smart-home-to-be. It’s one of the most compatible, it’s energy efficient, easy to use, fast and affordable. What started off as a group of early adopters has now grown into an impressive community of smart home innovators. The technology has evolved as well. Z-Wave Plus products introduce 50% more battery life, 67% more range, and 250% more bandwidth. See how you can start saving and building your smart home here.
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