A Beginner's Guide To Home Automation Standards: Z-Wave vs Zigbee

Two primary standards are fighting it out to control your home and make life more comfortable and enjoyable. Here's what you need to know about lighting your Australian home of the future.

This month, Gizmodo Australia will be hopping in our domestic DeLorean to bring you what the future will have in store for the way we live. The Home Of The Future series focuses on smart tech for your home life and beyond. We've got a great month planned full of news, reviews and features. Welcome to the future.

What Is Z-Wave?

Z-Wave is a wireless communications technology controlled by Sigma Designs primarily for home automation processes. Like the competing Zigbee standard, Z-Wave products work in a mesh of devices to cover a variety of home automation tasks.

While it's a proprietary technology, it's one that's been quite widely licensed in the home automation space for most common home automation tasks.

What Is Zigbee?

Unlike Z-Wave, Zigbee was built from the ground up as an open standard under the control of the Zigbee Alliance (which sounds rather like a B-Grade action movie trope) but is instead the group that controls the standard itself. Zigbee is built on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, using low-power wireless mesh networks in the 2.4GHz band for everything from embedded sensors, medical profiling and, naturally home automation processes.

Zigbee devices are specifically low-power to enable a wide variety of applications, and Zigbee-qualified mobile devices must have at least two years of battery life in order to qualify.

What's The Difference?

What Z-Wave and Zigbee share, beyond being wireless technologies, is that they're designed to cover a range of simple home automation processes and share that information intelligently across a network of devices and controllers, so that, for example, if a set temperature is hit, an air conditioner might kick in while at the same time motorised blinds drop down to stop sunlight heating up a room.

From the home automation perspective, a fully installed Z-Wave or Zigbee system would probably be undetectable, because the endgame of home automation is identical between the two, even though the underlying technologies and even the philosophies differ quite markedly. Both are wireless, but Zigbee's working within the 802.11 specifications, which means it's closer to the Wi-Fi you've probably got working within your home, whereas Z-Wave is an RF (Radio Frequency) product.

From a technical standpoint, Zigbee can support more control nodes and devices than Z-Wave, with theoretical limits of 232 Z-Wave nodes to up to 65,000 for Zigbee. That being said, the practical limitations drag those numbers down quite markedly, and for just any home automation implementation unless you're retrofitting a hotel you plan to live in, the number of available nodes should be sufficient.

As a global standard, Zigbee products are made by a variety of manufacturers, whereas Z-Wave is a proprietary RF-based technology licensed out by a single company, Sigma Designs. That's not an automatic home run for Zigbee, however, because while it's a standard at a silicon level, differing software implementations mean that one Zigbee product may not actually talk to another Zigbee product per se, although you're usually safe if you stick to a single brand of product. That's hardly the point of a standard, however, the upcoming Zigbee 3.0 standard promises more interoperability between all Zigbee products.

To date, many Zigbee products were kept low-cost by only implementing networking features specific to their implementation, which is why some Zigbee branded gear won't talk to other Zigbee branded equipment. Zigbee 3.0 should change all that, although you won't find any Zigbee 3.0 equipment on store shelves just yet.

Conversely, while it's proprietary, all Z-Wave products have to be licensed through Sigma Designs, and that licensing process means that all Z-Wave products talk to each other by design no matter the manufacturer badge on the outside.

Zigbee has the advantage of being standardised globally, whereas regulations relating to RF frequencies mean that Z-Wave products have to be built with Australian frequency regulations in mind. What that means is that while you might see some cheap Z-Wave gear for sale online through an overseas reseller, unless it's been built to work in Australia, it'll be useless for your purposes with an existing Z-Wave network in Australia.

So What Can You Use?

Both Zigbee and Z-Wave are primarily designed to fling around very small quantities of data — typically under 100kb — for the purposes of device control. While Zigbee is a standard that's been adopted by a number of large name brands, within the home automation space you're more likely to come across installers pitching Z-Wave equipment, which has a broader market penetration in Australia.

The scope for either standard is the same as any other home automation process, dating all the way back to the now depreciated X10 standard that's been around since the 1970s, covering everything from temperature modulation, security monitoring and home entertainment purposes.


Comments

    One thing to look out for, is whether your home automation system can use both. The Ninja Sphere which is due to ship by the end of December / start of January has Zigbee primarily, but due to the USB port that's on the bottom of the device, you can plug in an Aeon Labs Z-Wave stick and use both. Or you can plug in a 433mhz stick and use that radio to tap in to stupidly cheap door sensors and such.

    Don't back yourself into a corner with a HA tech, make sure your hub can be expanded as new standards and new versions of existing standards appear.

    Any reason Insteon was overlooked in this article as another option? Apart from being rather similar to Z-Wave, it is backwards compatible with X10 (useful for people transitioning from old to new HA systems), and Microsoft recently partnered with Insteon with plans to incorporate the system into the Microsoft ecosystem.

    Shameless plug but relevant. Our new Home Automation system Habitat is taking a different approach to protocols. We use Zigbee to communicate to our own devices but offer protocol converters so you can extend our hub to support other protocols such as z-wave, wifi, or thread.

    That way the system is future proof to the changing technology landscape and you only pay for what you need to support. I'm surprised more vendors haven't taken this approach: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/652024705/habitat-home-automation-for-products-you-already-o

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