Smart Home Tech: How To Choose The Right Home Automation Protocol
For consumers who want to integrate smart home products into one ecosystem, there are so many different paths to take. In short, Z-Wave, Zigbee and Wi-Fi are the most popular wireless technologies, but what sets them apart? Here are a few differences.
When shopping for smart home devices — like hubs and switches in particular — there are quite a few options, and it’s understandable if consumers feel a little overwhelmed.
I had the opportunity to interview Mitchell Davis, vice president Connected Home and Emerging Technologies at Jasco Products, via email and asked him to explain some of the differences in protocols.
(Note: This interview has been edited for style and length).
Where are most consumers buying smart home products?
You will find Wi-Fi-type devices primarily in brick-and-mortar stores as well as e-commerce websites. This is mainly due to ease of customer installations. Hub-based type solutions (Z-Wave and Zigbee) are very dominant at electrical distributors, wholesale stores as well as online.
How important do you think the ecosystem and compatibility with other products is to the consumer?
Consumers are repeatedly asking for one application to run everything. This falls back into ease-of-use being incredibly desirable. Very few consumers want to open multiple apps.
Some consumers continue to think that smart products are difficult to install or operate, and that you need to be tech-savvy in order to buy them. Since voice assistants have come out, many products have streamlined such processes to make a pretty seamless introduction — for even the most novice of consumers.
What protocol do you think will become the ‘standard’ in the future?
This has been an elusive question that many in the connected home industry have been trying to solve for years. Quite simply, it really depends on the type of installation and who is installing them.
For example, Wi-Fi has predominantly been the go-to protocol for the average consumer as it is easy for consumers to understand and install. While hub-based systems in many ways are more robust platforms that scale better and perform better in noisy radio frequency (RF) environments, which is why you see the majority of custom installers using these alternative standards.
You’ve recently expanded your Wi-Fi product line. Do you feel this is the future of smart homes?
As smart home products become more popular, accessibility is important. While many people have figured out how to integrate different types of products into their homes through a hub, some people are just looking for a simple solution. Wi-Fi allows control through a smartphone app and through a smart speaker, giving users the best of both worlds.
What are some benefits to using Z-Wave or Zigbee over Wi-Fi?
The most noticeable difference between these protocols is Star network versus Mesh network systems. In a Star network, every device must be in range to the router. However, in larger homes, there can be Wi-Fi dead spots where products will be out of range or difficult to install.
There are some Wi-Fi mesh network routers that have entered the market to help alleviate this problem, however, the cost of these systems are quite a bit more expensive compared to standard routers.
Mesh-based systems have many advantages over Star networks. The best advantage is that every device (excluding battery devices) acts as a repeater in the system. Every in-wall switch or plug-in module will expand the network for whole home coverage. Additionally, both Z-Wave and Zigbee have routing systems that help with network traffic making for a very robust system.
When might a homeowner want to use Wi-Fi instead of Zigbee or Z-Wave?
Homeowners who would like to keep things simple should consider Wi-Fi products. Wi-Fi products do not require a hub. They can be directly controlled through an app on a smartphone and have the lowest entry costs to get into the connected home.
What do you think the future is for smart home hubs?
Smart home hubs will not go away entirely. There will always be a need for them and therefore are here to stay long term. What may change is the way the hubs are integrated, meaning that while today, the hub is sold as a stand-alone device in my systems, the hub of the future will be integrated directly into products such as plug-in switches, TVs, DVRs, routers, etc.
There are already some devices in the marketplace today such as the Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) Speaker, which has a built-in Zigbee radio. This built-in radio makes integration to Jasco Zigbee products as simple as plugging in the device and asking Alexa to discover devices. It doesn’t get easier than that.
What recent improvements have there been to smart switches?
There have been quite a few improvements in Connected Home switches, one of which (patented by Jasco Products) allows for the easiest installation of in-wall switches.
Our latest SimpleWire technology removes the complicated process of determining which black electrical wires are load and line power. Meaning, regardless of how you wire the switch, it will auto-configure, saving the user from a complicated installation.
Additionally, the QuickFit design is 20 percent thinner than our previous generation switch, allowing it to fit that much easier into electrical boxes.
Can you explain why some smart switches require a neutral wire and what to do for older homes that do not have one?
This is a major hurdle for many consumers, especially those who live in older residential homes. Historically, there were few solutions that would work without a neutral wire, however, more recently there have been many advances with the electrical efficiencies for module designs and therefore make it possible for the smart device to run without a neutral wire.
What are some other trends you’re seeing in the smart home industry?
Cameras, whether security or doorbells, continue to dominate the market. Lighting controls such as bulbs, in-wall switches or smart plugs are always a close second behind.
The primary demand regardless of technology is ease of use. This means ease of installation, ease of understanding and ease of operation.
What products can we expect to see in the future?
We are the market leaders in many non-connected product categories, and with a recent realignment, we are in the process of expanding our Enbrighten Wi-Fi line to include even more products that integrate into the home.
When we state we are expanding the Wi-Fi line (humbly) we mean we will have a robust line of products available under one application in the marketplace. The connected home should be simple, and our efforts over the coming years will bring this dream to reality.
Brandon Doyle is a Realtor at Doyle Real Estate Team — RE/MAX Results in Minneapolis and co-author of Mindset, Methods & Metrics – Winning as a Modern Real Estate Agent. You can follow him on Twitter.