This serves as an overview on the differences between Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth and Wifi. If you’re looking for the nitty-gritty, in-depth details of the technological sides of each Smart Home language, then boy are you going to be disappointed. This is more for the Home Automation beginners, who are just beginning and wondering… what the heck should I be using as my Home Automation technology?
FOR SCIM READERS: Click here to skip the pro/cons and straight to my recommendation.
Ok, so without further ado, here’s what I’ll be covering in this post:
Z-wave vs Zigbee vs Bluetooth vs WiFi: The Smart Home Technology Battle
Before I pit one smart home protocol against the other, and break them down in layman’s terms, I figured I’d try to relate to you as best as I can by giving you a sneak peak into my journey into Home Automation.
If you could care less about my journey (I get it, no hard feelings) feel free to click here to head to the Z-Wave section.
When I first started dabbling in Home Automation (and HA Products), I just wanted to solve some common annoyances and just flat out make my life simpler. For instance, I live in Michigan and it gets flippin cold up here… I mean nose-hair stiff cold. While on vacation in Florida, I thought, “you know, there’s got to be a way to turn the thermostat down while I’m down here and then turn it up when I’m a few hours from home”.
Or, maybe you’re a #onetrip grocery bag hero just like myself and there you are, 10 bags on each arm, walking into a pitch black house (dangit, c’mon!). Wish there was a way for my lights to automatically come on when I get home (protip: there is).
What does this have to do with choosing the right technology for your Smart Home? Well, I’m assuming, like me, you didn’t wake up one day and think, “you know… I’d like a Smart Home — let’s see what there is out there”. No, I’m guessing you thought about a Smart Home and then started looking at ideas on how to make your life easier.
The problem is, there are so many brands, companies, products and technology out there — where should you start?
Here are some pro/cons of each of the technologies (Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth or WiFi) as well as my recommendation on which I think you should go with based on my own usage. Please also note, you don’t have to box yourself into one technology, but more on that later.
Z-Wave technology actually originated in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1999 and was adopted in the US in 2001. In 2005, a group of manufacturers got together to form the Z-Wave Alliance, in which their mantra is “interoperability”. What that means is that regardless of the manufacturer, brand, product, year the product was created, or version of Z-Wave software, all Z-Wave products will communicate with each other.
In other words, all your Z-Wave products can be friends, regardless of how they look, how old they are, or their country of origin. Isn’t that a world everyone wants to live in?
Alright, now for the pro/cons:
Pros of Z-Wave
- Interoperability | If you are not brand loyal, then this is the way to go. Make sure, the Z-Wave product you choose is certified. There will undoubtedly be knockoffs out there, so make sure you can find the certification number (note: the Z-Wave Alliance does a great job policing this, but I wanted to throw this out there as a caution).
- Scale | Z-Wave claims to work with over 1500 products, giving you a wide range to choose from.
- No Interference with Wifi/2.4GHz bands | Z-wave runs on a separate radio frequency wave (908.42 MHz in the US) than Zigbee, WiFi and Bluetooth which can eliminate the lag you may get if there is a lot of congestion on your WiFi/2.4GHz band.
- Range | The range can grow based on the number of devices you have in your network. In layman’s terms, the signal, “jumps” from device to device until it reaches the HUB and every device that is alway powered on acts as a repeater.
Cons of Z-Wave
- Price | Honestly, you get what you pay for when it comes to Z-Wave. It may cost a little bit more than Zigbee and more than likely a lot more than WiFi, but the benefits of the above pros are what you’re paying for.
- Moving to a different country = Start Over 🙁 | Since Z-Wave devices are programmed with their intended countries radio frequency, if you move to a country that does not support the frequency the device is programmed to, it will not work.
For more information, check out the Z-Wave Alliance’s website at: http://z-wavealliance.org/
What is Zigbee?
Similar to Z-Wave, Zigbee started its journey in 1998, and became standardized in 2003. Fun fact, Zigbee’s name originated from the waggle dance a Honeybee does after the return to their beehive!
Zigbee also claims to be interoperable with other Zigbee brands, products, manufacturers and version, which is excellent. The one thing to watch out for here, is that there are many manufacturers that provide Zigbee radios, whereas Z-Wave uses a proprietary radio from one manufacturer (Sigma Systems) so there may be more interoperability errors with Zigbee.
Pros of Zigbee
- Interoperability | As stated above (and illustrated with the fist pound) Zigbee does offer a sense of relief in that most other Zigbee products will work with each other. However, this is also a Con because there has been some major connectivity issues between Zigbee devices as referenced here.
- Scale | Zigbee also has a large selection of products, which includes many powerhouse brands like: Philips, Lutron, Samsung, etc.
- Price | Zigbee products seem to be less expensive than their counterparts given that their technology is not proprietary (thus not commanding a premium price).
- Range | Similar to Z-Wave, the range can grow based on the number of devices you have in your network. In layman’s terms, the signal, “jumps” from device to device until it reaches the HUB and every device that is alway powered on acts as a repeater. Zigbee has the ability to hop further than Z-Wave (30 hops as compared to 4). However, more hops = more latency.
Cons of Zigbee
- Potential Interference Issues | Since Zigbee runs on the 2.4GHz band, it is sharing the same frequency as WiFi and Bluetooth. So, the more devices on your frequency, the greater the interference, and thus, latency.
- Interoperability | Yes, this is a con as well for Zigbee. Make sure you do your research on what works with what. Or what features are truly available on your HUB (ie: may not show temperature, etc). Again, most brands work with each other, but because of the many, many manufacturers who produce the actual Zigbee radio, it’s hard to know which ones are living up to the Alliances standards.
For more information, check out the Zigbee Alliance’s website: http://www.zigbee.org/
What is Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy (LE)?
Ok, I felt silly writing that because, let’s face it… we all use Bluetooth every day. But it is now playing a part in competing for your smart home, so let’s talk about it!
Bluetooth started in 1994 by Ericsson and now is managed by the, “Bluetooth Special Interests Group”. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) was developed in 2011 and is what I’ll be referencing today.
Pros of Bluetooth LE
- Power Consumption | The way Bluetooth LE (4.0) operates is genius for saving battery life (NOTE: if only phones worked this way) — in that it remains in sleep mode until a connection is initiated.
- Price | While there is not a lot of data out there yet on price, since Bluetooth has been around for quite some time and is a standard that is recognized by many, it should be able to offer quality products at a lower price.
- Interoperability and Centralized HUB | Since many of us already have wireless routers, one would not need a specialized HUB in some cases since the devices could directly connect to the homes router.
Cons of Bluetooth LE
- Potential Interference Issues | Since Bluetooth also runs on the 2.4GHz frequency, it also is subject to interference issues. Again, the more devices on your frequency, the greater the interference, and thus, latency.
- Scale | While Bluetooth has been around for 22 years, it has only recently entered the Home Automation industry and thus does not have as many options available to the consumer. In addition, many HUB’s do not support Bluetooth LE at this time. However, look for that to change as some HUB’s such as Wink, have recently launched Bluetooth LE compatibility.
- Range | To my knowledge, Bluetooth does not have the ability to mesh, like Z-Wave & Zigbee, therefore limiting it’s overall range, especially if there are objects in the way (please leave a comment if this is not true).NOTE: Bluetooth 5.0 is coming out soon and claims to quadruple the range, so this may soon move to a pro
For more information, check out, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group’s website: https://www.bluetooth.com/
WiFi for Home Automation?
WiFi has played a part in our lives for a while now and, let’s face it, many could not live without it. How would we stream Netflix, or check Facebook, or sit on the couch with our laptops.
Quick question for all you spoiled Millennials out there (hey, I am on the older end of the Millennial spectrum, so take your black robes off before you judge) — how many of you
remember had to suffer through this?
If you’re into reminiscing, here’s the sound that goes along with it: Click here at your own risk to your ears
In all seriousness, I love WiFi, but how does it stack up for Home Automation?
Pros of WiFi for Home Automation
- Price | One of the biggest pros I see for using WiFi for Home Automation is the ability to get some great deals on WiFi enabled smart devices — they seem to be significantly less expensive than their counterparts. So, go ahead and be a baller on a budget, my friend!
- Scale | There are tons of WiFi enabled smart devices out there and the list is ever growing. Now, could you find most of these WiFi devices with Z-Wave, or Zigbee technology… yes, you can, however, again, from a price standpoint, WiFi seems to win out there.
Cons of Bluetooth LE
- Potential Interference Issues | As with Zigbee, and Bluetooth LE, WiFi also runs on the 2.4GHz frequency, it also is subject to interference issues. Again, the more devices on your frequency, the greater the interference, and thus, latency.
- Power Hungry | Battery operated Smart Home Products will suffer due to the power hungry nature of WiFi, which can be problematic and annoying to change batteries.
For more information, check out, the WiFi Alliance’s website: http://www.wi-fi.org/
At this point, I recommend Z-Wave for Home Automation with Bluetooth LE coming in second. That’s not to say Zigbee and WiFi won’t work for you, they are obviously great brands, and are very successful, but for me it’s all about interoperability and having things run smooth.
The last thing I want when it comes to a smart home is to be left feeling like my house is now dumber than it was before because I’m annoyed at how slow lights turn on, or robots to trigger, etc.
Being that Z-Wave is on it’s own frequency, you will experience little to no interference, with your products working as fast as lighting. There’s nothing quite like seeing the sheer frustration on your wife’s face when she presses a “smart” wall switch (RIP Quirky Tapt) and has to wait 20 seconds for a “smart” lightbulb to turn on. But contrast that with any Z-Wave switch we’ve ever owned (or Z-Wave Lightbulb) and the response time is instant like it was actually hardwired.
While Z-Wave is generally more expensive, I’m ok with that. While I realize I could pay half the price for the same product, the lack of frustration factor is what you’re really paying for. To sum up in a sentence here, you really do get what you pay for.
Finally, the strict guidelines that the Z-Wave Alliance puts in place, will save you from those annoyances mentioned above. You have ONE company supplying the Z-Wave radio, TWO certifications to ensure interoperability, and companies that sincerely work together against the vision of ensuring a smart, user friendly, house.
Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer — you can mix/match these technologies if you have a HUB that allows you to. You do not have to be loyal to one technology, however, in my experience, the more languages talking at the same time, the more interference there has been.