What the heck are ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Insteon? Home automation standards explained

Internet of Things

Automating your home used to mean spending big bucks to get a specialized control system installed inside your walls, but that’s all changing. Simple DIY smart home gadgets are quickly becoming commonplace, so if you’re thinking about dipping your toes into automation and smartening up your pad, it’s important that you know the difference between the various home automation protocols out there.

Just like other electronic systems, smart devices all run on a variety of different protocols. That is, sets of rules and standards for communication between electronic devices. Think of them like languages. If you’ve got one device that only speaks ZigBee and another that only speaks Z-Wave, they won’t be able to communicate with each other. Ideally you’ll want to outfit your home with devices that all speak the same language, but there are a few products out there that are multilingual, so if you’ve got the right gateway you can mix and match. In this article we’ll offer up a quick rundown of all the major consumer-level home automation protocols and their respective pros/cons. That way, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions if you decide to give your home a smart boost.

X10

The granddaddy of home automation protocols, X10 has been around since the mid 70’s. It started out as a powerline-based system (meaning it’s hard-wired into your walls), but eventually went wireless. It’s not known for great speed or communication between units. If you’re just gettting into home automation, we suggest picking up devices compatible with newer wireless standards, as X10 systems are typically more difficult to install in comparison.

UPB

Universal Powerline Bus is a powerline-only communication protocol designed to use a higher voltage and put out a stronger signal than x10. The only problem is that, since it’s powerline only, it’s rather expensive and hard to install. Don’t worry about this one – it’s not baked into very many new devices, and there are better options out there.

Insteon

Insteon is a home automation protocol designed to bridge the gap between powerline-based and wireless protocols, so it uses both. It’s also compatible with x10 devices, so it’s not a half bad choice if you’ve got a house filled with X10 stuff already and are looking to transition to wireless. A wide range of Insteon devices are available right now, and you can browse through the company’s entire catalog on its official Smarthome Blog

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a wireless home automation protocol that runs on the 908.42MHz frequency band. It’s relatively new in terms of home automation protocols, but has grown quite rapidly in the past few years. The group behind it, the Z-Wave Alliance, now boasts over 1,000 different compatible devices, giving you a wide range of options when it comes to automating your home. One of the key features of Z-Wave is that it utilizes a type of network called a “mesh network,” which essentially means that one Z-Wave product will pass the signal along to another until it reaches its intended destination. This relay system greatly extends its range. It’s also extremely low power, which is ideal for devices that rely on battery power.

ZigBee

ZigBee is an 802 wireless communication standard built by the IEEE. Much like Z-Wave, it’s seen significant growth in the past few years, and can be found in a relatively large number of devices. It also consumes a very small amount of power, and uses a mesh network structure to offer excellent range and speedy communication between devices. That being said, however, some users have noted that Zigbee devices frequently have difficulty communicating with those made by different manufacturers, so it might not be the best option if you’re looking for seamless interoperability. 

Wi-Fi

Of course, Wi-Fi is already fairly ubiquitous, so it’s not surprising that a broad range of manufacturers have begun making smart home devices that work with it. If you already have a wireless router, you won’t need to pick up a hub/access point in order for your compatible devices to connect to it. This does, however, come with one key drawback: interference and bandwidth issues. If your house is already full of Wi-Fi-connected gadgets (TVs, game consoles, speaker docks, laptops, phones, tablets, etc.) then your smart devices will have to compete for bandwidth and will potentially be slower to respond. Wi-Fi also consumes a lot of power, so it’s not ideal for battery-based smart devices like doorbells and locks.

BLE

BLE is short for Bluetooth Low Energy. There are tons of devices that have this baked into it – everything from bike locks to light bulbs to speaker docks – and it’s sometimes used in home automation, but usually not as the main protocol. As its name suggests, BLE doesn’t use a lot of power, but also has a fairly limited range compared to other networking protocols, so it’s not great for stuff that needs to stay connected all the time like security systems and motion sensors.

Final connection

So which one should you go with? If you’re just now dipping your toes into home automation and control, we recommend going with either ZigBee or Z-Wave. They’re both fast, wireless, have great range, and come inside of hundreds of different products. If your home is outfitted with an older x10 system, go with Insteon. It’ll allow you to go wireless; and although it doesn’t boast nearly as many compatible devices as Z-Wave or ZigBee, it does have a pretty good selection of products. Overall, so long as you pick one ecosystem and use devices within it, any of these three standards should be sufficient.

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