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If you’re new to home automation, you won’t have escaped that Z-Wave logo emblazoned across the boxes of smart devices or plastered over listings.

What does it mean, though?

What is Z-Wave?

Z-Wave is a communication protocol designed for home automation and remote control applications:

“The Z-Wave ecosystem encompasses more than 2,400 interoperable products from more than 700 leading worldwide brands. These products work together through stringent enforcement of Z-Wave certification, performed at independent test labs.” – Z-Wave Alliance

That’s the official definition, but it doesn’t tell you a great deal.

What Is Z-Wave?

Z-Wave is a wireless protocol harnessing low-energy radio waves to help smart devices or appliances communicate successfully with one another.

Zensys from Denmark developed Z-Wave in 2001. The stated goal was to create a cost-effective Zigbee alternative enabling devices from different brands to communicate in harmony.

Released in 2004, Z-Wave penetrated the mass market in 2005 with the formation of the Z-Wave Alliance.

Sigma Designs purchased the Danish start-up in 2009.

Z-Wave Plus, making use of the 500 chip series, came to fruition in 2013.

Z-Wave operates using very little power. By using frequencies of 908.42 MHz in the US and 868.42 MHz throughout Europe, Z-Wave suffers from very little interference as the 800 to 900 band is well clear of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz used by WiFi and other devices, appliances, and protocols.

A wireless mesh network, Z-Wave can support up to 232 devices. While this is the practical limit, after 40 or 50 devices, you’re likely to experience a little congestion.

To understand how Z-Wave works, you need to be clear about mesh networks and the advantages they provide.

Z-Wave: A Mesh Network

With standard RF networks, more devices lead to problematic congestion.

Mesh networks operate oppositely. Adding more devices strengthens the mesh with new devices, as long as they’re plugged into an outlet, acting as repeaters.

Every device on a standard WiFi network needs to connect to a router. Although the devices on mesh networks usually link up to a central hub, they also mesh together. These devices are not WiFi-enabled. Communication takes place with the hub using the Z-Wave protocol.

Signals can hop from device to device – up to 4 of these hops are permitted – so indirect communication is possible adding a further layer of flexibility to the network.

Mesh networks are comprised of nodes. Smart home devices used in a connected home are termed nodes when considering mesh networks.

Messages can be sent between nodes even when they’re not within direct range. This is where the expression hop comes in with the signal passing along by whatever means necessary. This system gives you extended reach at the expense of a slight and barely noticeable delay in communication.

Z-Wave Alliance

A proprietary technology owned by Sigma, the company, also license Z-Wave tech and operate the Z-Wave Alliance.

This alliance is responsible for certification and makes sure all devices comply with rigid standards. It’s also a requirement that every Z-Wave device works with every Z-Wave controller.

Over 600 manufacturers produce more than 2400 devices as part of the formidable Z-Wave Alliance.

How Does Z-Wave Work?

A Z-Wave system functions over three layers:

  • Radio
  • Network
  • Application

Devices communicate on the application layer.

It's how these layers all work together, though, that makes Z-Wave such a reliable protocol.

Z-Wave devices fall into three broad categories:

  • Actuators: Controlled devices used to switch signals
  • Controllers: Method of control for other Z-Wave devices
  • Sensors: Reporting devices using both analog and digital signals to communicate

As outlined, Z-Wave functions as a secure and ultra-dependable mesh network. For more on mesh networks and why they make sense, go here

You have a variety of choices for controlling Z-Wave devices:

  • Smart Phone
  • Tablet
  • Computer
  • Control
  • Key Fob
  • Physical Controls

Whatever your preferred form of control, a command is sent from the controller to a hub. The command takes a route to the destination device.

A hub is crucial if you want remote access.

The only user input required is manipulating the controller.

When you get a new Z-Wave device, you’ll need to add it into your network. This is known as inclusion.

The overall network is given a Network Id, and all devices come with a Node ID. This ensures you’ll get no conflict with your neighbor’s system and that all discrete devices are also secure.

Z-Wave: Core Features

  • Mesh Architecture: You have multiple devices (nodes) all connected to a central hub. You control Z-Wave devices in-app on your smartphone, with controllers, wall controls or voice commands
  • Mesh Network: By dint of its mesh networking topology, Z-Wave is robust and reliable. All signals all routed by the most efficient path possible. If the protocol cannot find the optimum route, an alternative will be deployed
  • Security: AES 128 is mandatory for any device requesting Z-Wave certification meaning security is ironclad and a breach highly improbable
  • Routing: All Z-Wave devices are categorized as controllers, routing slaves or slaves. The controllers along with the routing slaves act as repeaters. It’s only mains-powered devices that perform the role of repeating messages to preserve battery life
  • Low-Power Radio: Low-power radio with an impressive range send small data packets between devices. The diminutive Z-Wave chip fits into small smart devices with ease

Z-Wave: Key Benefits

  • With the ability to support 232 devices in theory and at least 50 in practice, Z-Wave is a reliable protocol for larger smart homes
  • Signals can travel 50 feet or so indoors allowing for obstructions and up to 100 feet unobstructed. This reach is extended considerably outdoors. With the four hops between devices further enhancing range, you'll have no problem with coverage even in sprawling connected homes
  • Hundreds of manufacturers in the Z-Wave Alliance produce over 2400 devices giving you enormous compatibility. Any Z-Wave-certified device will work with literally any Z-Wave controller
  • By avoiding the frequency bands used by WiFi and other protocols, you’ll get remarkably little interference with Z-Wave
  • Due to the robust nature of mesh networks, you won’t suffer from dead spots
  • Z-Wave is very affordable, and you can start a small smart home ecosystem then build it up piecemeal over time
  • Installation is straightforward, and you won't need to call in an electrician or start rewiring your home making it renter-friendly

View our Z-Wave Products (hyperlink to Smart Home’s Z-Wave’s product pages)

Z-Wave: Drawbacks

There’s very little meaningful to knock about Z-Wave.

You should consider the workable limit of 40 to devices, though rather than the notional 232 allowed.

While 50 devices might sound like a vast spread, once you start building out a connected home, it's impressive how the bits and pieces add up.

Other than that, all you need to do is check that devices you plan to buy are interoperable before committing to purchase and you’re good to go.

According to RF Wireless World, you'll need some basic knowledge of radio frequency, but in practice, this is not wholly necessary. We back Z-Wave as a very beginner-friendly introduction to home automation so don't panic if you're not a scientist.

Z-Wave vs. Insteon vs. Zigbee

The main competing protocols are Insteon and Zigbee.

Insteon uses a dual-mesh network. Since it uses both the powerlines of your home and wireless signals, you’ll enjoy even greater reliability. You get no inbuilt redundancy with Z-Wave.

You can use many Insteon devices with no need for a hub, but with Z-Wave, you will need that third-party gateway in place.

All Insteon devices are immediately and automatically detected without the inclusion step required with Z-Wave. You’ll get no delay with Insteon either.

Z-Wave has better range than Zigbee, another mesh network. You can network 65,000 devices giving Zigbee the edge here.

With Zigbee, the transmission rate is superior, but you will be prone to a little more interference.

There's no outright winner between these protocols since it all depends on the intended use.

3 of the Best Z-Wave Devices

Some of the most widely-used categories of Z-Wave devices include:

  • Garage Door
  • Lighting Controls
  • On/Off Outlets
  • Remote Controls
  • Smart Home Security Systems
  • Smart Locks
  • Smoke Detectors
  • Thermostats

We'll very briefly summarize three great choices if you want to get started cheaply with Z-Wave…

August Smart Lock Pro with Connect

In a crowded sector, the August Smart Lock Pro comes bundled with the Connect hub you’ll need to embrace its Z-Wave connectivity. Keep your existing door hardware along with your keys but enjoy the added advantage of automatic locking and unlocking thanks to DoorSense. Control is handled in-app on your smartphone or using voice control and your favorite digital assistant.

Dome Z-Wave Leak Sensor with Range Boost

This battery-powered Z-Wave Plus device intelligently detects moisture and sends you an instant alert when it does so. The sensor assembly and the optional remote sensor probe both similarly detect water with three visible leads. The moment water touches any part of the lead; the device will beep and send a notification with its moisture status to its Z-Wave controller. The remote sensor probe is ideal for monitoring confined or hard to reach places.

Dome Z-Wave Smart On/Off Outlet with Range Boost

Protect your electronics with this on/off switch. The Z-Wave Plus device plugs into a standard 3-prong power outlet and lets you turn any connected electronic device on or off. You can also monitor how much energy the attached device uses, and the outlet reports the data to your Z-Wave Hub. This Z-Wave smart plug is an excellent starting point if you're unsure about home automation.

The Future of Z-Wave

In 2018, Silicon Labs acquired Sigma’s Z-Wave technology.

"Adding Z-Wave to Silicon Labs' extensive IoT connectivity portfolio allows us to deliver a unified vision for the wireless technologies underpinning the smart home market. Secure, interoperable customer experience is at the heart of how smart home products are designed, deployed and managed. Our smart home vision is one where multiple technologies work securely together, where any device using any of our connectivity options quickly joins the home network, and where security updates and feature upgrades occur automatically." – Tyson Tuttle, Silicon Labs CEO

Concerning the Z-Wave Alliance, they have partnered up with Silicon Labs but what does this collaboration mean for you, the consumer?

All Insteon devices are immediately and automatically detected without the inclusion step required with Z-Wave. You’ll get no delay with Insteon either.

"Silicon Labs and the Z-Wave Alliance and its ecosystems will continue to advance the Z-Wave technology roadmap, delivering innovations that engage millions of smart home product users. Z-Wave is a proven, broadly deployed technology that just reached the milestone of 100 million devices in the market. The acquisition will drive collaboration and expand access to a diverse ecosystem network of partners including Amazon, Alarm.com, ADT, Samsung SmartThings, Yale, Vivint, Google Home, and Comcast." - Raoul Wijgergangs, Vice President and General Manager of Z-Wave

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