What are Home Automation Protocols?

If you are starting to automate your Smart Home, you may be hearing about Home Automation Protocols like ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Insteon.  Although at first glance it may seem overwhelming, you can think of protocols as languages or rules that devices use to communicate with each other.  Many devices speak only one language and only function with devices using the same protocol.  If you purchase devices with different protocols, you will need to introduce an interpreter (a Smart Home hub) into your system to allow the devices to work together.

Before you buy a device, you should look for the protocol logos on the product packaging or read the specifications or features on their website to make sure you understand what protocol you are introducing into your Smart Home system.

Many devices use more than one protocol to provide different features.  For example, the Amazon Echo uses WiFi for its connectivity to the Internet and can also use Bluetooth to connect to your phone or computer to play music.  The Nest 3.0 thermostat uses Wifi for its native app, Bluetooth to configure during initial set-up, and also offers ZigBee for control options.

Why Should You Care?

The simple answer is that protocols shouldn’t necessarily affect your choice of product.  Devices built with different protocols can be used as part of the same system via a Smart Home hub (e.g. Mi Casa Verde, Samsung SmartThings, HomeSeer, Wink) or by using an application (e.g. IFTTT).  It may take more work or more thought to build a system using different protocols but if you want to incorporate devices using different protocols because they offer additional features or functionality, you don’t need to let the different protocols stop you.

The more complex answer is that each protocol offers unique advantages and drawbacks and if you are running into challenges with your specific situation, changing to a protocol with certain strengths may improve your system.

If you do build a system based on one protocol, your integrations will be simpler and devices will be more likely to play nicely together.

Most Common Protocols

Wifi

The Good:

  • It’s everywhere, it’s familiar and well-understood, low barrier to entry – you probably already have a wireless router
  • High bandwidth to carry big files (audio & video)

The Bad:

  • Not designed for home automation – doesn’t work well with lots of devices (creates interference on the network), uses a lot more power – battery drain – leading to more charging
  • Security – vulnerabilities are more commonly known and easy to exploit (taking over the cameras – link to news article on this)
  • Doesn’t have greatest range – may need an extender depending on your environment
  • Doesn’t use mesh networking so not as scalable, less redundancy, less reliability

When To Use It:

  • If adding a few simple devices
  • Good for standalone video cameras or speakers where there’s a lot of bandwidth required and the devices are plugged into a power source (no need for battery) – not great for battery operated door locks & sensors

Examples of Devices:

  • Nest 2.0 Thermostat
  • IP Cameras
  • Sonos Speakers
  • Amazon Echo

Bluetooth

The Good:

  • Very common, doesn’t need a hub – you can connect directly with your  Smart Phones, watch, or tablet
  • Great battery life – Designed to be used with battery operated devices (uses less power than Wifi)
  • Robust bandwidth that can handle multimedia (audio & video files)
  • As it starts to appear in new devices in 2017/2018, Bluetooth 5 will add improvements like longer range (4x  the range of 4.2),  better security, and mesh networking

The Bad:

  • Limited range of 33′ in Bluetooth 4.2 – limited usefulness in security devices (i.e. door locks and motion sensors) or any home automation device that isn’t used with wifi as well – see point above about Bluetooth 5
  • Current Bluetooth devices tend to be designed as a standalone, one-off device.  They don’t work well in a system unless integrated using a hub.  As devices are built using Bluetooth 5, this may change.

When To Use It:

  • When it’s used in a device that uses another protocol for the main connectivity framework
  • Novelty items – when adding a fun device (like coloured bulbs, speakers, outlets, buttons or switches) that you control from your cell phone , tablet, or Smart Watch when you are within range
  • Bluetooth speakers

Examples of Devices:

  • PLAYBULB Candles, Elgato Eve Motion sensor or Smart Switch,  Wimoto Grow Smart Plant Sensor

ZigBee

The Good:

  • Purpose built – Designed from the ground up for home automation and will work over longer distances than current Bluetooth.
  • Low power requirements mean it will work well with battery operated devices, ZigBee devices must have a 2 year battery life to be certified.
  • The use of different wireless frequencies mean that ZigBee devices often do not interfere with wifi or bluetooth devices.
  • ZigBee devices tend to be less expensive than the similar Z-Wave devices.

The Bad:

  • Central hub required to control ZigBee devices through your Smart Phone, tablet, or watch.
  • Low bandwidth – cannot carry audio or video.
  • Interoperability issues – ZigBee devices are not all the same and will often not work together unless made by the same manufacturer.  You cannot just buy a ZigBee device and expect it to integrate into your ZigBee system.
  • Not as robust or familiar as some of the other options and is being overtaken by other protocols like Bluetooth 5.0, Thread, and newer protocols.

When To Use It:

  •  Ideal for alarm systems and lighting control

Examples of Devices:

  •  Phillips Hue Bulbs, Kwikset ZigBee deadbolt door lock, Securifi security sensors

Z-Wave

The Good:

  • Purpose built – Designed from the ground up for home automation and will work over longer distances than current Bluetooth.
  • Low power requirements mean it will work well with battery operated devices.
  • The use of lower wireless frequencies mean that Z-Wave devices do not interfere with wifi or bluetooth devices.
  • Unlike ZigBee devices, Z-Wave devices have universal compatibility and are guaranteed to work with any other Z-Wave device.  This includes guaranteed backward and forward compatibility – a Z-Wave device from 2005 will work with a Z-Wave device in the future.

The Bad:

  • Central hub required to control Z-Wave devices through your Smart Phone, tablet, or watch.
  • Low bandwidth – cannot carry audio or video.
  • Not self-healing – If a Z-Wave device is moved or removed in the network, you need to run a healing program that can take a significant amount of time.  If you do not run the healing, the devices may not function properly.
  • Not as robust or familiar as some of the other options and is being overtaken by other protocols like Bluetooth 5.0, Thread, and newer protocols.
  • Z-Wave devices tend to be more expensive than ZigBee devices due to the certification standards.

When To Use It:

  •  Ideal if you want to pick and choose devices from multiple Z-Wave manufacturers and ensure interoperability
  •  Ideal for sensors, thermostats, alarm systems ,and lighting control

Examples of Devices:

  •  Aeotec Smart Switch, Aeotec sensors, anything by Aeon Labs
  • Weiser ZWave door locks
  • Zwave dimmers, switchs, in-line modules, etc.

Insteon

The Good:

  • Purpose built – Designed from the ground up for home automation.
  • Low power requirements mean it will work well with battery operated devices.
  • The dual use of wireless frequencies and powerline wired connectivity mean that Insteon devices are not susceptible to interference with other devices.
  • Simple to set up.
  • Very popular protocol so devices are easy to find in department stores.  No need to go to a specialty store.
  • Unlike ZigBee devices, Insteon devices have universal compatibility and are guaranteed to work with any other Insteon device.
  • Connects with some X10 devices and may allow you a cost-effective and efficient way to update and build upon an existing X10 system.

The Bad:

  • Central hub required to control Insteon devices through your Smart Phone, tablet, or watch.
  • Low bandwidth – cannot carry audio or video.
  • Some report that Insteon devices do not offer longevity or are built to lower quality standards.
  • Not as robust or familiar as some of the other options and is being overtaken by other protocols like Bluetooth 5.0, Thread, and newer protocols.
  • Like ZigBee dominated by a single device provider with no/limited interoperability with other vendors and protocols

When To Use It:

  • Ideal for growing an X10 system
  • For an inexpensive, easy to install system with components readily available at large retailers.
  • Light switches and outlets

Examples of Devices:

  •  Insteon dimmer switches and lighting control, outlets, sprinkler controllers

Thread

The Good:

  • Modern, purpose-developed protocol that is secure, power efficient, and flexible.  Strong industry backing – developed by a group including Google Nest and Samsung.
  • Designed for Cloud integration – each device has its own IP address.
  • Self-healing – you can move or remove Thread devices without confusing the network or being required to run a healing program.
  • Backwards compatibility with ZigBee devices – some ZigBee devices can be programmed to become Thread devices

The Bad:

  • Very new, not yet widely adopted or available

When To Use It:

  • Monitor developments, wait and see…..

Examples of Devices:

  • Nest Thermostat and Nest Protect

Apple’s HomeKit Accessory Protocol (HAP)

The Good:

  • A software framework that uses either Bluetooth and Wifi to simplify access and control to devices made by various manufacturers
  • Plans are to introduce compatibility with Z-Wave, ZigBee, and Insteon devices
  • Integrates tightly with popular consumer electronics devices from Apple

The Bad:

  • Proprietary integration only with Apple devices

When To Use It:

  • If you are an Apple fanboy

Examples of Devices:

  • Ecobee3 Thermostat,  Nanoleaf Aurora Lighting

X10

The Good:

  • Established, long history (since mid-1970s)
  • Lots of products available
  • Wired – Runs on powerline – so no issues with battery life

The Bad:

  • Huge security holes.  There is an old joke that goes: “How do you hack into your neighbors X10 security camera?  Turn on your TV.”
  • Primitive system:  Slow speed and poor communication between X10 devices
  • Performance can be limited by interference from other electrical devices

When To Use It:

  • If your home already has it

Examples of Devices:

  • Surveillance cameras

Which Protocol is Right for You?

  • If you are starting from scratch, pick a gateway controller that will work with Wifi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Insteon.  If you have an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch, add Apple HomeKit to that list.
  • If you already have a gateway controller, verify which protocols it works with and stick to those.
  • If you are just looking for standalone lighting control, thermostat, cameras, or novelty items, don’t worry about protocols.  It may take some effort but you can generally make devices built on different protocols work together later using a gateway controller.