What Is Z-Wave and How Does It Compare Others?

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You’ve read about Z-Wave in our smart product reviews and have likely seen its recognizable sticker if you’ve started creating your own smart home. From lights through sensors to door locks, Z-Wave devices have become ubiquitous and shape the modern home automation experience. With literally thousands of products that integrate seamlessly into the Z-wave network, there’s never been a better time to embrace it.

But what exactly is Z-Wave? How does it work, and what does that mean for you? We’ve put together this guide to answer these questions and more in a way that’s informative and easy to understand. We take a look at what makes Z-Wave tick, how it stacks up to the competition, and what’s in store for Z-Wave in the future. There’s also a section on essential Z-Wave products you’ll want to take a look at if you decide to power your smart home with Z-Wave technology.

What is Z-Wave?

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Z-Wave is a secure wireless connection protocol used in home automation. It is based on mesh network technology created by Danish start-up Zensys in 1999 for use with their remote-controlled lighting systems. The protocol has undergone several upgrades since its inception which resulted in a more reliable connection, extended range, and better battery life.

Home automation companies became interested in the protocol in the mid-2000s when the 200-series ZW0201 Z-Wave chip was released. Its reliability and low power draw convinced the likes of Intel and Cisco to invest in the company. As Z-Wave’s popularity grew, so did the need to standardize the products that support it. This lead to the formation of the Z-Wave Alliance, an association of home automation manufacturers who promote the protocol and make sure that new Z-Wave devices are made according to the same standards.

How does Z-Wave work?

Z-Wave operates on the principle of a mesh network which is made up of nodes and a central control hub. Each Z-Wave device is able to recognize and interact with any other. This is known as interoperability. Z-Wave is designed to be backward compatible as well as interoperable, meaning that any device you have now will be compatible with future ones even though they may have more advanced Z-Wave chips.

The strength of the mesh network configuration lies in its versatility. Each device connected to it acts as a repeater and is able to relay signals to another device even if it is out of range or otherwise obstructed. This is done by signal hopping, a process in which a signal jumps from a transmitting to a receiving device by using other Z-Wave devices in-between as range extenders.

New devices need to be included into the network, and existing ones can be excluded from it at any time. This used to involve placing the hub close to the device and pressing corresponding buttons on both. The process has been simplified with the introduction of the 500 series chip and Z-Wave Plus. Now all you need to do is either scan a QR code or perform an automatic search from a mobile app.

Many Z-Wave devices can be controlled on their own using key fobs or remote controls. A hub is required if you wish to control more of them with your smartphone or computer. It is also the only means of setting up scenes where multiple devices work at the same time or are triggered by a condition like the time of day or the activation of another device. While there are hubs which work exclusively with Z-Wave, it’s better to invest in one that supports other protocols as well to increase the diversity of devices which can become part of your smart home.

In the US, Z-Wave operates on a frequency of 908.42 MHz. This allows for unrestricted communication and smaller latencies since Z-Wave isn’t competing and won’t interfere with other protocols like Wi-Fi. The maximum stable connection range between two Z-Wave devices is 30 feet and up to 232 of them can be combined into one network.

What are Z-Wave’s advantages?

GoControl-Thermostat

Z-Wave is the most popular home automation protocol, and the range of products it supports is expanding rapidly. There were only 6 Z-Wave devices in 2005. This number grew to 1,700 by 2017. 700 more products were added in 2018 alone, bringing the total to 2,400!

The frequency Z-Wave operates on ensures stable communication between devices. Unlike Wi-Fi, it isn’t dependent on an internet connection. Unlike Bluetooth, the signal strength is constant and reliable at its maximum range.

Anyone can install a Z-Wave hub and start paring devices without specialized knowledge. Creating a Z-Wave smart home ecosystem is also affordable. Getting a hub, some smart lights, and a smart plug can cost less than $100, and you’ll feel the improvements immediately! Adding more sophisticated devices is easy once you’re comfortable with the basics.

What are some of the best Z-Wave products?

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You’ll need a hub to control all your home automation needs, and none is better than the 3rd-generation Samsung SmartThings Hub. It is small and can be placed anywhere since the hub connects to your router through Wi-Fi. The SmartThings app is the best in the business when it comes to adding and monitoring all of your Z-Wave devices and creating routines in which they work together.

Most people start their home automation journey off by automating the lights. There are two ways of doing this. One is to go for a smart light bulb such as the Monoprice Z-Wave Plus RGB Smart Bulb. It can glow in one of 16 million colors and is controllable through your smartphone or tablet. The bulb is dimmable, programmable, and easy to use. If you’d rather automate your existing lights, a dimmer switch from GE will do the trick at little cost.

Smart plugs are another newbie favorite. The Monoprice Z Wave Plus Wall Socket Plug controls any AC-powered device or appliance. Plug your “dumb” TV, desk fan, or lamp into it and turn them on or off remotely. You can also schedule working times and combine the plug with devices like motion sensors to turn whatever is plugged into it on when certain conditions are met.

Speaking of sensors, there’s no better trigger for your home automation routines than a change in environment picked up by a versatile gadget like the Aeotec Multisensor 6. It measures temperature & humidity, motion & seismic movements, as well as light & UV radiation levels. Input from this one sensor lets you create countless routines. The temperature dropped below 70°? Multisensor will let your HVAC know to start heating automatically. One of the kids is in the kitchen past their bedtime? Let them know there’ll be no snacking tonight by turning on the lights.

The GoControl Thermostat is an excellent choice if you want to control your HVAC system remotely. It is compatible with 95 percent of US HVAC configurations and can easily replace thermostats even in older homes since a C-wire isn’t required. The addition of Z-Wave enables you to adjust the temperature and create schedules from your hub’s app. It also integrates the thermostat into your smart home so it can be changed based on sensors, voice commands, and more.

Why fiddle with your phone when you can control your Z-Wave smart home with voice commands thanks to the Amazon Echo? This versatile smart speaker is home to Alexa, Amazon’s AI assistant. Apart from taking charge of your automation routines, she’ll stream music, help you put together a shopping list, or access information online – all with a few easy phrases.

Z-Wave is also an excellent choice when upgrading your home’s security. The August Smart Lock Pro, for example, lets you ditch house keys in favor of automatically unlocking when your phone is in range. Its app has an activity feed which records comings and goings. It lets you assign temporary passcodes and will alert you if the kids carelessly left the door open. If you have a speaker that supports Alexa, August’s lock can be engaged with a voice command too.

How does Z-Wave compare to other connection protocols?

ZigBee

ZigBee is Z-Wave’s oldest and closest rival. The two protocols have a lot in common – they both run on the mesh network principle, consume little power, and adopt the same underlying security standards. ZigBee’s advantages lie in the number of nodes supported by a single network and its theoretical range.

A Z-Wave signal can hop between 4 devices while there’s no such limit in ZigBee’s case. ZigBee also supports 65 thousand nodes per network compared to Z-Wave’s 232. This likely won’t be relevant to most people in practice though. Lastly, ZigBee operates on a frequency of 2.4 GHz and can transfer more data with each packet.

Higher signal frequency means that two ZigBee devices need to be closer to each other for the data transfer to work. A Z-Wave network’s in-home range is from 50 to 100 feet due to walls. ZigBee’s maximum range is 40 feet. Since it operates on the same frequency as Wi-Fi, ZigBee can interfere with your network connection. Lastly, ZigBee has issues with interoperability. The standards aren’t as strict as Z-Wave’s and have two layers, so two ZigBee devices could have compatible hardware but still not recognize each other because of software issues.

Bluetooth

Along with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is the wireless connection standard for technology at large and is present in every smartphone. Its wide availability and ease of connection make Bluetooth a popular choice for smart homes too. It is also the most secure protocol since a device and its controller need to be within 100 feet of each other to communicate.

Z-Wave’s most significant advantages over Bluetooth are in its network configuration and reliability. Bluetooth uses a star network with a hub at its center. The hub can communicate with other devices one by one only if they are in its 100-foot range which gets much smaller the more obstacles there are. Bluetooth also uses 2.4 GHz as its communication frequency. The more devices are connected, the higher the chance of interference.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi and Z-Wave are complementary protocols more than rivals since Wi-Fi is needed to communicate between your Z-Wave hub and a smartphone or computer. Still, Wi-Fi is a popular home automation protocol in its own right because it lets you control connected devices from anywhere in the world.

2.4 GHz used to be Wi-Fi’s only frequency, but newer routers support 5Gzh as well. This leads to both greater transfer speeds and a more stable connection since it frees up the 2.4 GHz channel for smart device communication. Z-Wave’s data transfer speed is capped at 100kb/sec while Wi-Fi’s is thousands of times faster. This makes Wi-Fi perfect for quick data transfer of large files. That’s why smart security cameras with the highest resolution and picture quality connect through Wi-Fi instead of Z-Wave.

Wi-Fi’s most noteworthy disadvantage is lackluster security. It is the protocol most open to outside attacks. This is made worse by the fact that the attack can come from anywhere, so someone could hijack your security camera feed or unlock your doors from half the world away. Z-Wave has security standards in place which make sure this can’t happen. Power consumption is another area in which Wi-Fi performs poorly. Maintaining a Wi-Fi connection puts a strain on batteries while those in Z-Wave devices last for years.

Insteon

Insteon is a proprietary protocol created by SmartLabs. It is unique because communication is facilitated through a dual-band mesh network. The network works like Z-wave’s but also transmits signals through your home’s power mains. This ensures that the signal is clear and arrives nearly instantaneously while eliminating the problem of RF dead zones. Insteon is also among the most secure protocols since every device in a network has its own ID and can’t be linked to another.

Lack of variety is Insteon’s only major drawback. There are currently 200 products in the Insteon ecosystem, and more are added slowly.

Is Z-Wave a good long-term investment?

Absolutely – Z-Wave is in a fantastic position for growth! On one hand, the technology was bought by Silicon Labs in 2018. Silicon Labs is the leading hardware and software supplier in the IoT market and sees the acquisition of Z-Wave as a crucial step towards a more streamlined home automation experience. On the other hand, the newest 700 series chip made its debut at CES the same year. Devices outfitted with this chip will have twice the range, and their batteries can last for a decade! Couple that with the rapidly growing selection of compatible products for every smart home niche, and it’s clear that Z-Wave has a bright future ahead of it.