What Makes Your House a Smart Home? How Home Automation Protocols Work

Written by | Updated August 8, 2017

Home automation protocol is the language smart home devices use to communicate with one another. Because communication is essential for home automation, it’s helpful to understand how it works when deciding which type is right for you.

Differences Between Home Automation Protocols

There are about ten different home automation protocols available. These protocols fall into two basic categories: wired and wireless.

Wired protocols, like UPB and X10, use your home’s existing wiring to communicate. Wired protocols tend to be reliable, but can be slow and difficult to encrypt.

Wireless protocols are usually faster and more compatible with other devices. Wireless home automation protocols include Z-Wave, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Thread, and Bluetooth. These connect and communicate without relying on power lines, making them easier to secure.

Some protocols such as Insteon and C-Bus use both wired and wireless technology.

Compatibility with different smart home devices is something to consider. You may want to select a protocol that is easy to use with a broad range of home automation products so you can continue to use it as new products are introduced to the market.

Top Home Automation Protocols

We’ve evaluated several of the home automation protocols out there so you don’t have to. Here’s a quick reference guide to the most popular protocols available.


Z-Wave is a wireless home automation protocol that uses radio frequencies to communicate with home automation devices. It was developed in Denmark and has quickly become one of the most popular home automation protocols, as it is supported by more than 450 companies worldwide.

How It Works: Z-Wave home automation uses the 908.42MHz frequency band for communication in the United States. The Z-Wave protocol uses one central controller (hub) to set up and manage the home automation network. Once the network is set up, you can add smart home devices, which can then be controlled using Z-Wave protocol.

Z-Wave Compatibility: There are more than 1,700 certified Z-Wave compatible devices available worldwide. This extensive selection gives you plenty of options to customize your home’s automation. Z-Wave devices are known for being easy to set up and simple to use. In addition, the Z-Wave protocol tends to consume less energy, so you can use all the automation you want without making your power bills skyrocket.

Benefits of Z-Wave Home Automation: Because the Z-Wave frequency is significantly lower than the frequency used for most other wireless devices, it has less chance of interference. This means fewer devices compete for the same frequency, which makes communication efficient and fast.

One of the best things about Z-Wave home automation is that all Z-Wave compatible devices can communicate, regardless of their brand, type, or version. Even as products evolve over time, the Z-Wave network will remain operable with both older and newer versions of products, which means you don’t have to start over with a new hub every time something gets upgraded. This is especially important in a world where technology changes rapidly and where updates and new versions are just a matter of time.


ZigBee is similar to Z-Wave in many ways and is also a popular wireless home automation protocol. ZigBee was originally developed for commercial use, but it is now considered a standard language for home automation communication in both residential and commercial settings.

How It Works: The ZigBee protocol uses radio frequency to communicate, running on the 802.15.4 wireless standard. ZigBee uses a mesh network, which allows for greater range and faster communication between devices. One ZigBee hub can be used with multiple devices to automate your home.

ZigBee Compatibility: The ZigBee protocol currently has more than 1,200 products certified as compatible with a ZigBee hub. It is an open technology, so it’s easy for developers to design new products that work with the ZigBee protocol.

Early on, ZigBee struggled with interoperability among ZigBee devices made by different manufacturers. However, recent versions of the ZigBee protocol aim to deliver better operability among devices, regardless of manufacturer or version.

Benefits of ZigBee Home Automation: ZigBee prides itself on its low power usage. In fact, ZigBee is so efficient that you can operate a ZigBee device on the same set of batteries for up to several years. ZigBee home automation also offers a Green Power feature that eliminates the need for batteries altogether, which means you won’t have to run to the store for batteries when they inconveniently die on you, nor will you have to feel guilty about the pollution.

The ZigBee protocol is also one of the most secure home automation protocols out there. ZigBee uses the same level of encryption that major financial institutions use, which secures your ZigBee network, devices, and information communicated via ZigBee. ZigBee home automation is highly customizable and perfect for techies and fearless DIYers.


The Insteon protocol is a hybrid of wireless and wired technologies, making it a unique addition to the field of home automation players.

How It Works: Insteon home automation operates on a patented dual-mesh network that uses both wireless and hardwired communication to overcome the common problems that each type of network runs into on its own. An Insteon hub connects with Insteon-compatible devices, giving you control of your home via your smartphone, tablet, or computer.

Insteon Compatibility: There are more than 200 Insteon-compatible devices available to help you automate your home. Insteon relies more on its own line of home automation products than many other protocols. This means that there is limited compatibility with smart devices made by other manufacturers. However, Insteon-compatible devices are both forward and backward compatible, which means that your Insteon home automation will always work with both older and newer devices.

Benefits of Insteon Home Automation: No matter your level of technical prowess, you’ll be able to get Insteon home automation up and running with no problem. As long as you know how to use a smartphone, managing the Insteon protocol is easy. Best of all, Insteon-compatible devices are automatically added to the network as soon as you turn them on, which makes for a speedy setup with no extra hassle for you.

Another perk of Insteon home automation is that there is really no limit to how large your network can be. Because of the dual-mesh network, one Insteon hub can work seamlessly with at least a hundred devices across a large range.


Bluetooth isn’t just used for listening to music or making your phone hands-free. Bluetooth is also at the heart of hundreds of smart products, which makes it a no-brainer for home automation.

How It Works: Bluetooth is another wireless home automation technology that relies on radio waves to communicate. Bluetooth devices all contain a computer chip with a Bluetooth radio and software that makes it simple for devices to connect with each other. Although not required, you can use a central Bluetooth hub to control all the devices on your home automation network.

Bluetooth Compatibility: You can connect any Bluetooth-enabled device with any other Bluetooth-enabled device, which means there are hundreds of products that are compatible with Bluetooth home automation. The downside is that you can’t add a non-Bluetooth device to a Bluetooth hub. In addition, Bluetooth connections tend to have a limited range, so even if a device is compatible, it may stop working if it moves out of range of the Bluetooth hub.

Benefits of Bluetooth Home Automation: Bluetooth is already included in so many devices that it is one of the fastest-growing sectors of home automation. In fact, ABI Research predicts that Bluetooth will continue to become more important for all home automation devices in the near future.

One of the biggest reasons that Bluetooth home automation is so desirable is how little power it uses. For people watching their energy consumption and carbon footprint, low-power home automation solutions, like Bluetooth, are ideal.


UPB stands for universal powerline bus, which is a wired home automation protocol. UPB has been around since 1999 and is one of the more technically advanced protocols.

How It Works: The UPB home automation protocol is based on the X10 standard and uses your home’s existing power lines to send communication signals between devices. UPB devices connect using a central home controller and links that are manually set up for each device on the network. UPB home automation is sophisticated and takes a modicum of technical savvy to get up and running.

UPB Compatibility

Even though UPB has been around for awhile, it has fewer compatible products available for home automation. UPB can be difficult to combine with wireless protocols, which also limits the number of new products entering the market that will be compatible. However, there are still around 150 UPB-compatible products on the market.

Benefits of UPB Home Automation: When it comes to reliability, it’s hard to beat UPB home automation. Because the UPB protocol is hardwired into your home’s power lines, it doesn’t experience the same limited range or interference as wireless home automation technologies.

If you’re comfortable with setting up technical systems and want the reliability that comes with a wired system, UPB home automation is a good fit.

Final Thoughts

Home automation is here to stay, and the technology it uses is changing all the time. The broad selection of home automation protocols and products available makes it easier than ever for anyone to make their house a smart home. If you’re ready to take the leap, start by using this home automation overview to help you pick the right protocol for your needs.

Written by Rebecca Edwards

Rebecca has honed her safety and security skills as both a single mom and a college director. Being responsible for the well-being of others helped her learn how to minimize risk and create safe environments. Learn more

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