Smart Homes Explained: What is a Smart Home Protocol and Who Uses Each

19-02-2019 |   |  By Moe Long

The smart home space operates with a patchwork of protocols. Smart home devices communicate with each other as well as smart home hubs via several technologies. While there’s some overlap, the likes of Zigbee and Z-Wave offer different advantages. Plus, since their inception, most home automation protocols evolved. Here’s a primer on smart home protocols!

What is a Smart Home Protocol?

Simply put, a home automation protocol is a means of communication between devices. It’s sort of like a language, but for smart home gadgets. While many such as Z-Wave utilize wireless communication, still others opt for wired protocols which take advantage of wiring for communication. With smart home protocols, your devices such as smart lights, thermostats, switches, and home assistants will be able to “talk.” Then, you’ll be able to configure automations and control gadgets remotely or via apps.

Wireless protocols are generally fast, secure, and boast superb compatibility. Whereas most often wired connections yield increased security and speed, wired smart home protocols such as X10 and UPB are plagued by slower speeds and worse encryption. That’s because they tap into your wiring for communication, similar to powerline Ethernet adapters. Within the wireless smart home protocols, you’ll find the likes of Zigbee, Z-Wave, Insteon, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. Wired protocols on the other hand are X10 and UPB.

  • Smart home protocol is like a language for communicating between devices
  • Wired home automation protocols: X10. UPB
  • Wireless smart home automation protocols: Zigbee, Z-Wave, Insteon, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi

What is Z-Wave?

While a multitude of smart home protocols exist, Z-Wave ranks as one of the most popular. It operates on the 908.42MHz frequency. Because it’s lower than the ultra-popular 2.4GHz band commonly found in a slew of wireless-enabled products, Z-Wave provides an interference-free solution for talking between smart home tech. Among its major benefits, Z-Wave devices communicate effortlessly regardless of manufacturer or Z-Wave version. This backward- and forward-compatibility ensures that hubs and gadgets continue functioning even with advances in the Z-Wave protocol.

For instance, the Z-Wave Plus standard debuted but provides compatibility with Z-Wave devices. Essentially, Z-Wave Plus is merely an iteration on the Z-Wave standard. As the plus suggests, there’s additional security and reliability. According to the Z-Wave Alliance, Z-Wave Plus devices include a 67% range improvement, battery life enhancement of 50%, and 250% higher bandwidth. You’ll also find three RF channels which betters bandwidth and reduces noise interference.

Z-Wave employs mesh networking technology, or wireless ad hoc network. With a mesh network, each device appears as a node and acts as a repeater. Any node may speak with another in the network. Because mesh networks present individual devices as nodes, if certain gadgets are out of range of another node, they can still communicate through another node in the network. From a technical perspective, Z-Wave offers a low-latency and stable signal. Its data packet transmission rate reaches a maximum of 100kbps. A Z-Wave hub serves as a controller for devices.

  • Mesh network
  • Operates on 908.42MHz frequency
  • Interoperability (backwards- and forwards-compatibility)
  • Reliable, low-latency signal
  • Z-Wave and Z-Wave Plus
  • Over 1,700 Z-Wave-compatible devices
  • Hub required

Who Uses Z-Wave?

With over 1,700 Zigbee devices, many manufacturers adopted Z-Wave. Among the members of the Z-Wave Alliance, you’ll find Alarm.com, ADT, Silicon Labs, Huawei, and Samsung SmartThings. The Z-Wave Alliance launched in 2005, consisting of Z-Wave experts and thought leaders around the world. Its mission is “to bring advanced, yet practical wireless products and services to market that work together seamlessly, regardless of brand or vendor.”

  • Samsung SmartThings
  • Alarm.com
  • Silicon Labs
  • ADT

What is Zigbee

Similarly, Zigbee is a smart home automation protocol. Like Z-Wave, Zigbee employs mesh networking technology. This ensures a wide range for networking. Zigbee communicates with the 802.15.4 radio frequency. Fitting with most wireless protocols, a Zigbee hub acts a central controller for device management and communication. It’s a wireless-only protocol which sips power, and remains low-cost.

Unfortunately, whereas Z-Wave offers interoperability, Zigbee doesn’t. Therefore, certain Zigbee devices from different manufacturers and with varying versions of Zigbee might not retain compatibility. However, Zigbee 3.0 touts improved interoperability among Zigbee-enabled gadgets.

  • Low-power
  • Low-cost
  • 802.15.4 radio frequency
  • Over 1,200 Zigbee compatible devices
  • Average interoperability
  • Zigbee Alliance
  • Mesh network
  • Hub required

Who Uses Zigbee?

Zigbee smart home automation protocols may be found within over 1,200 devices. Just as Z-Wave features the Z-Wave alliance, so too is there a Zigbee Alliance. Samsung’s SmartThings, Texas Instruments, Sylvania, Schlange, GE, First Alert, and more. Because Zigbee features wireless-only technology, low-power, interference-free signals, it’s incredibly similar to Z-Wave. Both comprise the main technologies which SmartThings consists of.

  • Samsung SmartThings
  • Sylvania
  • Texas Instruments
  • GE
  • First Alert
  • Sengled
  • Ecobee

What is Insteon?

Yet another means of implementing smart home control and automation arrives with Insteon. Zigbee and Z-Wave devices form mesh networks, and likewise Insteon creates a wireless ad hoc network. Messages sent between devices must endure error detection and correction for excellent reliability. Moreover, every Insteon device on a network simultaneously broadcasts an identical message which improves signal strength and eliminates dead zones.

Linking control affords greater security. It’s impossible to generate links which would allow for outside control by another Insteon device. Plus, Insteon hardware can’t be identified without physical button pushes. This leads to enhanced security. While Zigbee and Z-Wave are exclusively wireless, Insteon operates on a hybrid wired and wireless network.

Although Zigbee and Z-Wave products are fairly intuitive to use, Insteon further simplifies the process of adding devices to its web of gadgets. Upon turning on an Insteon-compatible device, it’s automatically added to the network. Insteon works with X10 powerline messaging for broad compatibility. On the technical side, Insteon networks are comprised of radio frequency (RF) wireless, and powerline wired connections.

  • Secure
  • Stable
  • Hybrid wired and wireless network
  • Mesh network
  • X10 compatibility
  • RF and powerline connectivity
  • Error correction and detection
  • Automatically adds devices to its network
  • Installation requires physical button presses

Who Uses Insteon?

Insteon brags over 200 devices. It’s not as widely deployed as Zigbee or Z-Wave, but the simplicity of its set up and superb signal strength make Insteon an excellent choice. Notably, certain companies such as Nest function with Insteon. While there’s not a strong set of third-party device manufacturers implementing Insteon as you’ll find with Zigbee and Z-Wave, this does ensure that Insteon devices remain compatible with one another unlike Zigbee’s occasional interoperability issues.

  • Over 200 devices
  • Nest

What is X10?

X10 is a smart home communication protocol for wired networking. It mostly consists of powerline devices which send signals via home wiring. It’s an older protocol which isn’t as fast or functional as most current smart home protocols. Plus, there’s shoddy encryption and interference reduction. Debuting in 1975, it’ a pretty outdated, albeit still widely-used, technology.

Who Uses X10?

X10 devices are pretty outdated. But the X10 protocol provided the foundation for wired technology such as Universal Powerline Bus (UPB). Nevertheless, you’ll find X10 appliance modules, lamp modules, and universal modules.

What is Universal Powerline Bus (UPB)?

Differing from Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Insteon, Universal Powerline Bus or UPB, is wired-only smart home tech. As the name suggests, UPB uses your home’s power lines to transmit signal to devices. Though it’s based on the X10 standard, UPB isn’t compatible with X10 devices. Instead, UPB devices only communicate with other devices on the Universal Powerline Bus standard. UPB hardware connects with a home controller and manufally configured links for each networked device. Since it’s hardwired, UPB is extremely reliable.

Who Uses UPB?

Unfortunately, despite being on the market for a while UPB lacks the diverse range of manufacturers adopting its technology. Still, the likes of Leviton use UPB.

What is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a wireless technology which operates with short wavelength UHF radio waves. These are found in the ISM band ranging from 2.4-2.485 GHz. You’ll find Bluetooth on loads of devices, from PCs and game consoles, to streaming devices, mobile phones, headphones, and smart home gadgets. For Bluetooth connectivity, individual devices require a chip that contains a Bluetooth radio. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is able to form a mesh network for an extended range similar to Zigbee and Z-Wave.

Who Uses Bluetooth?

Bluetooth features rampant use. It’s on Amazon Echo smart speakers, Google Home devices, Androids and iPhones, laptops, tablets, and a bevy of other gadgets. Since it’s incredibly low-power technology, Bluetooth is perfect for smart home control.

What is Thread?

In 2014, Thread Group launched with backing from Samsung and Google NEst Labs. It uses an identical frequency as Zigbee, and offers the capability to form a reliable, secure network. It’s an IPv6, low-power, mesh networking solution.

  • 802.15.4
  • Mesh network
  • Low-power
  • Secure
  • Reliable

Who Uses Thread?

While fairly recent, Thread Group runs on over 250 devices. It functions with the likes of the Nest Protect and Nest Learning Thermostat.

Third-party Smart Home Hubs

While ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Insteon hubs may be purchased, you may prefer a third-party hub. For instance, there’s Samsung SmartThings, Wink, and WeMo.

What is Samsung SmartThings?

Samsung SmartThings isn’t a protocol itself. Instead, it’s a hub that includes software for device connectivity. SmartThings makes use of Z-Wave and Zigbee technology. As such, most gadgets which use Zigbee and Z-Wave should work with SmartThings. Brands collaborating with SmartThings include Sylvania, First Alert, Honeywell, and more. SmartThing is my preference for smart home control and automation. I merely popped the SmartThings Nvidia Shield Link into a USB port on my Nvidia Shield Android TV streaming device and was up and running. I’ve outfitted my home with smart lights, an Amazon Echo Dot, and a smattering of smart home tech.

What is Wink?

Like Samsung’s SmartThings, Wink Hub allows for Z-Wave and Zigbee connectivity. However, its slate of wireless connectivity options includes ClearConnect, Kiddie, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Lutron. As such, Wink employs more smart home protocols than SmartThings. It works with Nest unlike SmartThing, though Samsung products don’t always play well with Wink hubs.

What is WeMo?

From Belkin comes WeMo. It’s an IP set of connected devices such as switches, motion sensors, cameras, and lightbulbs. Remote control is enabled through internet connectivity. For this capability, devices require open connection reception. This originally was a vulnerability, though subsequent firmware releases patched the issue. WeMo works with Google Assistant, IFTTT, Apple’s Siri, Amazon Echo gadgets, and more.

Smart Home Protocols Demystified

Overall, there are many smart home protocols. Wireless protocols are increasingly common, but wired options remain reliable as well. Zigbee and Z-Wave are among the best-used, with adopters such as Wink and SmartThings. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are found in loads of devices. Z-Wave lends the best device compatibility with its guaranteed interoperability, though Zigbee presents secure, reliable, low-energy wireless communication. Unfortunately, with this varied group of smart home protocols comes stratification. With different protocols, and advancements in protocols, occasionally preventing device communication, it’s a major pain point plaguing the smart home space. However, the general trend is that smart home tech continues to improve with additional integrations, making smart home control and automation easier for the end user.


By Moe Long

Moe Long is an editor, writer, and tech buff with a particular appreciation for Linux, Raspberry Pis, and retro gaming. When he's not hammering away at his keyboard, he enjoys running, reading, watching cinema, and listening to vinyl. You can read his writings on film and pop culture at CupOfMoe.com and check out his thoughts on movies on the Celluloid Fiends podcast.

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