Smart houses are a prime example of how technology can directly improve our lives. The basic principle of any smart home is having all the devices and appliances do the work instead of you. Lights can now be operated remotely, your heaters can work on their own and the door does not only keep the elements outside, but also warns you when someone is trying to break into your home. One of the most important aspects of technology, that allowed smart homes to happen, is surely advanced communication. Without proper communication, your smart thermostat couldn’t get the readings from its sensors, and you wouldn’t be able to operate the lights from your smartphone. Therefore, having your smart devices’ communication sorted is just as important as the devices themselves. In this article, we will talk about Z-wave, a promising communication protocol designed for home automation.
Z-Wave technical description
Z-wave is a wireless communications protocol, developed especially for home automation. It is a mesh network, which uses low-energy radio waves at 800-900 MHz frequency. It is designed to ensure reliable and low-latency transmission of small data packets. Another important feature of this protocol is interoperability - this means that certified Z-wave devices are always compatible with each other.
Mesh network is a network in which all nodes are directly and non-hierarchically connected to as many other nodes as possible. These nodes then cooperate with one another to efficiently convey data from and to different clients.
In a Z-wave network, each device represents a node, and each device is connected to all other devices in its range. Such configuration has two major benefits:
- No necessary connection through a gateway - in a WiFi network, each device has to first connect to a common device (usually the router) to gain access to the network. In a Z-wave network, a new device connects directly to other devices and gains instant access to the network.
- Range - Z-wave devices have a range of about 30m (even more with more recent versions), but the entire network’s range is much wider. This protocol features information hopping from node to node up to four times. This enables communication between two devices, that would otherwise be outside each other’s range.
These properties set Z-wave apart from other more widely used communication protocols, such as WiFi, and make it more appropriate for control and sensor applications.
But enough of this tech talk. Let us introduce you to the main features that make Z-wave an outstanding technological achievement.
9 Reasons Z-Wave is awesome
Interoperability was one of the main Z-wave’s guidelines since its inception. In other words, Z-wave devices are designed to be compatible with each other, regardless of their type, brand, manufacturer or version. This seemingly simple, but important feature ensures a wide variety of available products for your smart home. In 2017, there were about 1700 certified Z-wave products on the market. By 2019, this number rose to over 2600. And the list is still growing.
And besides broadening the available choice, this principle also eliminates worrying about compatibility when combining multiple devices. Because of this principle, any certified Z-wave device is guaranteed to work with any other Z-wave device.
2. Easy installation
Setting up electronic devices can be a truly daunting task. You can always have someone else do the work for you, but that can easily get expensive. To rid you of this problem, Z-wave has introduced SmartStart, a feature that makes formerly difficult installation fast and easy.
With SmartStart, all the device configuration is done by the manufacturer or the distributor before the device is shipped out. This way, all the devices come pre-configured and paired with the network. To install a new device, all you need to do is to power it. Your network’s gateway automatically recognizes it and establishes a connection with it. And even if you are installing a device that hasn’t been pre-configured, your task will still be fairly easy. Scanning the device’s QR code will let your gateway know that you’re adding a new device to the network. The gateway will then recognize the device and connect to it or walk you through all the necessary steps.
3. Low power consumption
Most smart home devices have to be plugged into function, but some are also battery powered.
Such devices are mostly sensors or auxiliary devices that don’t function continuously - smart window sensors, for example. Because the main point of smart devices is convenience, and changing batteries every week is pretty inconvenient, having low power consumption is very important.
Z-wave chips are optimized for battery-powered devices, ensuring low power consumption and consequently long battery life. They stay in sleep mode most of the time and transmit data only when prompted. The actual battery life, of course, varies from device to device, but an average sensor can operate on a single button cell battery for as long as 10 years.
4. Low interference
As mentioned in the first section, Z-wave runs using radio waves at the frequency of 800-900 MHz. For most of you, this might seem like an unnecessary piece of information, but it’s actually very important for the reliability of this protocol.
For some of the most common communication protocols, including Bluetooth and WiFi, the standard frequency is 2.4 GHz. Most homes already have several devices communication through both protocols, which makes the 2.4 GHz band “busy”. Utilizing another, less frequently used frequency, greatly reduces noise from the environment. This makes Z-wave protocol more robust because it is not as prone to interference from the outside and “traffic jams” within the network.
One of the smart home devices’ tasks is keeping your home safe. Devices, such as smart door locks and window sensors, are there to prevent intruders from entering your home. But there is another aspect to smart home security - preventing cyber-attacks to your network from the internet.
While having a secure door lock might seem more important than having a secure smart home network, both are actually just as important. Having an unsecured smart home network may allow unauthorized persons to access it, or to connect unwanted devices to it.
To prevent such mishaps, Z-wave has built-in Security 2 framework, designed to keep you and your smart home network safe. First, it makes sure that adding devices to your network is safe and easy. After your network is up and running, it keeps all the internal communication safely encrypted and connects to the cloud via a secure tunnel.
Because Z-wave is a mesh network, it is easily scalable. Most Z-wave devices have a range of about 30 meters, which is enough for most homes. But in case your needs exceed that, you can easily extend your network’s range. Z-wave devices can also act as a repeater or, in lay man’s terms, a middle man. This means that a message can be sent to a device outside the transmitter’s range indirectly, through other devices. The only detail you have to keep in mind about this feature are battery-powered devices. Those are optimized for low power consumption and will not act as repeaters, because that would greatly decrease their battery life.
Z-wave network is not only scalable in its range, but also in the number of connected devices. A normal Z-wave network can consist of up to 232 devices. And if that still doesn’t meet your requirements, the network can be further extended to host even more devices.
Z-wave is not entirely open-source, but several segments of the technology were made public. Being open-source makes this technology great for DIY enthusiasts. This enables pretty much anyone to make their own application, which is best suited for their unique requirements. And even if you’re not well-versed in programming, there are a lot of online communities, which can help you get into the Z-wave DIY world.
Being open-source also makes this protocol more widely used. This encourages more people to pick Z-wave when deciding what protocol to use for their home automation project. And with rising numbers of Z-wave networks, manufacturers are incentivized to develop newer and better devices, broadening the selection and decreasing the prices.
8. Low cost
Home automation systems used to be a luxury available only for the wealthy. An entire home automation system used to cost as much as tens of thousands of euros - but not anymore. Z-wave technology is based on a powerful, but low-cost chip. Because of this, pretty much all compatible devices are affordable.
Additionally, Z-wave modules’ price gives DIY enthusiasts another reason to be excited about this technology. There are modules, called Z-sticks available on the market. These simple devices allow you to make your own Z-wave gateway and establish your own home automation network.
9. Z-wave communities
Whenever something becomes popular and widely used, online communities start to emerge, and Z-wave is no exception to this rule. Such communities are extremely beneficial because they represent a place where Z-wave enthusiasts can share their experiences and help each other. It also makes the protocol more popular and more widely used.
A prime example of this is the Z-Wave alliance, a growing community of companies and developers with a common goal. They strive to make a unified system of as many different devices, all compatible with each other. Even though there are several smart home communication protocols available, Z-wave has the true potential to become the industry standard.
In summary, having a good and reliable smart home network is just as important as the devices connected to it. A decent smart network should be robust, run smoothly and ensure a seamless communication between the connected devices. Z-wave excels at all of these and adds a whole bunch of useful features as a bonus.