The primary operating standards for home automation technology are these four: Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). However, they aren’t the only ones you’ll come across as you create your smart home. Other standards, or protocols, include X10, Insteon, Thread, and Universal Powerline Bus (UPB).
Here’s a closer look at how those different technologies work.
Wi-Fi: Most people know Wi-Fi, but they may not realize that it has a place in home automation. Lots of smart devices on the market connect to smartphones or hubs via Wi-Fi, and that makes sense—it’s a widely available network that people know how to use. However, on the downside, many devices already operate via Wi-Fi. Adding another, potentially bandwidth-intensive one could cause traffic congestion and, in some cases, signal interference.
Z-Wave: Many smart home products use the Z-Wave protocol, which usually transmits on the 908.42 MHz frequency. The protocol employs a mesh network—a chain that turns individual smart devices into nodes. These nodes pass data packets from device to device until the packets reach their final destination. Z-Wave devices are known for interoperability, although it occurs solely within the Z-Wave home automation network.
Zigbee: Like Z-Wave, Zigbee relies on a mesh network. However, it generally runs on the 2.4 GHz frequency. Many smart home devices use the frequency because of its long range. Some developers enjoy working with the Zigbee protocol because of its security and low power usage. Consumers, in turn, benefit from that built-in security in their Zigbee devices.
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE): Bluetooth Low Energy is another well-known protocol. In the past, the technology relied on short-range radio frequencies to communicate between two devices that were near each other. Now, though, the technology is capable of mesh networking, helping some of the protocol’s old range issues. Its other primary benefit is security—it relies on government-grade encryption.
X10: Some protocols have fallen out of favor or see little use today. X10 is one of these. It has been around for years and relies on a home’s powerline system to transmit signals. This standard likely won’t work well with smart home devices needing fast connections.
Insteon: Insteon tries to bridge the gap between wireless and powerline-based protocols. It’s a versatile protocol, perhaps explaining why its devices and hubs are relatively easy to install. Like Zigbee and Z-Wave, the protocol employs a mesh network. The difference is that Insteon uses two bands to increase reliability and performance—and that’s in addition to its powerline networking, too. However, Insteon works in fewer smart home verticals than some of the other protocols. The protocol tends to emphasize lighting, security, and climate control.
Thread: Thread is so new that many consumers are unaware of it. This protocol has received attention from the likes of Google and Samsung, and it aims to create a secure home network that can handle over 250 smart home devices. That kind of potential capability could cause Thread to become a more common protocol over the next few years.
Universal Powerline Bus (UPB): Universal Powerline Bus is relatively uncommon, too, though it’s more current and more reliable than X10. This system effectively turns your home wiring into a network for transmitting signals. While UPB devices operate better than the X10 ones, other protocols and products far surpass UPB in terms of speed, security, and interoperability.
Think of these different standards or protocols as languages: you want devices that either speak the same language or talk with a smart home automation hub that can translate and mediate between them.