Home automation protocols set the rules and standards by which smart devices communicate with each other. They’re essentially the language they use to communicate within a network. That means you need smart devices with protocols that are compatible with each other, and at the same time, you need to make sure that your hub supports all the protocols used.
Sometimes it’s not possible to limit yourself to a single protocol, especially if you find a device with the particular smart features you want.
But in the world of smart automation, languages are different and they may have their own set of pros and cons. You’ll have to weigh the benefits and the drawbacks carefully so that you can decide which protocols should be your first choice.
1. X10. The X10 is old. In fact, it’s generally regarded as the oldest of all the current automation protocols today. It was developed in the 1970s, and it uses your home’s power lines to enable devices and appliances to communicate with each other. Because of this use of power lines, it’s somewhat reliable, but the other electrical devices in the circuit can interfere with the passed signals. It’s also very rudimentary, with only 16 possible commands sent one at a time.
Eventually, it was modified enough to enable wireless communications, but compared to newer protocols its speed and clarity is not up to par. And in addition, it’s also generally more difficult to install. So all in all, there are too many serious drawbacks without any great advantages.
2. UPB. The initials stand for Universal Powerline Bus, and it’s a wired system developed in the 1990s as an improvement of X10 technology. It reduces the interference with its use of high-power pulses when it sends the commands over the power line circuit. The commands are sent out much faster, and UPB also handles greater voltage loads than X10 so it can accommodate more applications.
Still, it’s rather dated, and the limitation to wired applications is a letdown. In addition, its reliance on power lines makes it difficult to install, and it’s expensive as well. Not very many devices use UPB, and that should be understandable. You’d be well-advised to avoid it too.
3. Insteon. This uses both power lines and wireless protocols. That means it offers some compatibility with X10 devices, which is great if you already have older X10 systems in place. It uses the RF frequency to communicate, with the power lines as backup. So its signals can jump from one layer to another, which minimizes the error rate and maximizes the speed. The system supports as many as 65,000 different commands, which is a huge number to the mere 16 commands available from the X10 system.
It’s a very popular protocol, and Insteon LED bulbs have garnered awards as recently as 2013. It’s fast, as messages get through in just 0.05 seconds. All Insteon devices are compatible with each other (even the older ones with the newer devices) and it’s very affordable.
Its simplicity is also a marvel, as you won’t need an IT expert to install new products to another Insteon device. All you’ll need to do is to press and hold the “set” buttons one at a time, and you’re done. It only has a single class of devices, unlike Zigbee or Z-Wave which may have as many as 3.
Adding a device to a network doesn’t stress the system at all. Instead, you actually strengthen the network because each device functions as a repeater. It receives and then sends every message along the network.
Finally, each Insteon device has its own ID, so you can’t have neighbors (or hackers) gaining control of your smart devices.
The problem here is that true limited to using only other Insteon devices if you want to have a network of smart appliances. Insteon devices don’t work with other smart devices that use other protocols.
4. Zigbee. This is a mesh network, and it relays commands the same way as Insteon does. So like Insteon, the system becomes stronger and more reliable the larger it becomes and you add more Zigbee devices. This allows for quick communications between devices, and the range can be substantial. It also uses very little power, so that means your battery-operated devices won’t be in constant need of recharging.
It has become quite popular in recent years, so you’ll have a large range of devices to choose from using Zigbee. It doesn’t cost a lot either.
Unfortunately, perhaps this popularity is also due to its tendency to exclude other devices from a network. The problem with Zigbee is they’re not seamlessly compatible with other Zigbee devices if they were made by different manufacturers. So you can choose only the Zigbee devices of a particular manufacturer—add a different manufacturer to the mix and you’ll have compatibility issues even if they’re all ostensibly Zigbee devices.
5. Z-Wave. Like Zigbee, it’s a type of wireless mesh network that uses connected devices to transmit commands. This really extends its range, and it’s very efficient as well. In addition, it also doesn’t use as much power. When you have lots of devices using batteries, its energy efficiency offers a lot of convenience.
Admittedly, Z-Wave doesn’t transmit signals as quickly or as powerfully as Zigbee, although its efficiency makes up for these deficiencies. And it does have one glaring advantage over Zigbee—each Z-wave device is universally compatible with another. What that means is you can take advantage of the more than 1,200 different devices using this protocol. You can conceivably outfit your home with every type of smart device using only this protocol, and you can very certain that each one will seamlessly connect with one another.
This is the wireless protocol you’ll want if you don’t want to limit yourself to a single manufacturer. It’s very easy to set up and use the network, and connecting a new device is a cinch. It’s affordable too. For newbies, this ease of use is a godsend.
If you’re looking for Z-Wave devices, you’ll need to look over the products manufactured by the Z-Wave Alliance. This is the group of companies that sell Z-wave-enabled devices, and they’ve been in operation since 2005. It’s estimated that 35 million devices have been sold over the last decade or so.
6. Thread. This is a rather new protocol,and it was launched just recently in 2014. Its main feature is that among the founding members of the Thread Group are both Nest Labs from Google and Samsung Electronics. At least 250 devices can now be connected to a Thread network, and there are probably lots more on the way.
Part of its appeal is also that it was specifically designed with battery-operated devices in the network. This means its power consumption is very low indeed so that frequent battery recharging or replacement isn’t required as often.
Thread basically uses the same radio chips and frequency as Zigbee. It corrects any message errors on its own so it’s reliable, and it is very secure too. The network can also be connected to the cloud, which means you can monitor and control your device anywhere with any mobile or PC with an Internet connection.
7. Wi-Fi. This is extremely ubiquitous these days due to smartphone penetration into the market. With Wi-Fi, smartphones become miniature computers with a truly wide range of useful internet and app features. With it, it’s pretty much a mobile and SNS texting phone with limited Gameboy features.
The advantage of Wi-Fi is its popularity, and many people are already familiar with how to connect any device to a Wi-Fi network. Seamless connectivity is a given, as long as each device is connected to the Wi-Fi network.
The problem is that for most people, bandwidth is a limited commodity. So if you already have lots of other devices (such as PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, TVs, and game consoles) already trying to grab bandwidth share, then adding more Wi-Fi devices to the network will slow down responses for every device.
This can be maddening, and for security devices this can be a fatal flaw when commands take too long to transmit. Also, the presence of the Wi-Fi network can be visible to others, and some other people can hack into the network.
Finally, Wi-Fi can be a significant drain to the power reserves. This can necessitate more frequent battery recharging or replacement for battery-operated devices, compared to other wireless environments.
8. Bluetooth. Like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth is fairly everywhere. It’s the wireless connection used by a wide range of wireless headsets, keyboards, and mice. You can use it to transfer files from one mobile or smartphone to another without going online. Many smart watches also use Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone.
The advantage of Bluetooth is that its data bandwidth is higher than what Zigbee and Z-wave can offer. And while it may not match the data bandwidth of Wi-Fi but then again it doesn’t use power as much as Wi-Fi does.
The problem is that Bluetooth isn’t always reliable in its connectivity. This is why dedicated gamers only rely on wired keyboards and mice for serious FPS gameplay where a split second hesitation in transmitting commands can lead to virtual death.
There’s also the problem of range, which is why its use has been mostly limited to PC and smartphone accessories. Most devices are in the Class 2 category, which limits their connectivity to a mere 10 meters. Many consider it as a fairly secure network with its short range, unique encryption, and its non-discoverable mode, but it still has some security issues to address.
There’s now a Bluetooth Low Energy version (BLE) that’s also called Bluetooth 4.0. As the name says, it doesn’t drain batteries as much. But the range is still a problem, and your security cameras may not be able to extend throughout a large property when you use Bluetooth to connect them to your hub.
9. Homekit. This is an Apple product, and it’s not exactly a communications protocol. Apple announced its existence in 2014, and it turned out that it’s more properly described as a software framework.
It enables developers to create smart home devices that can connect to the iPhone and iPad, and a dedicated app can then control these devices. But Homekit doesn’t offer a communications protocol. Instead, it’s merely a conduit of other wireless technologies. Currently, Homekit devices use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to interface with the Homekit app, but word is that a Z-Wave/ Zigbee interface is coming. Apple has also okayed the creation of an Insteon bridge to Homekit.
So far, this is still considered an emerging market, with only a handful of items currently using the framework. But since it works with Apple products, expect it to become even more popular as time passes.
Now the question is, how do you choose which protocol to use for your smart devices? Remember that your choice will also depend greatly on the hub you want. In other words, you have to choose your hub and your protocol together. The most popular hub right now is SmartThings, and it can support Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and Zigbee. Obviously, with this choice of hub UPB won’t cut it.
Here are some tips:
- If you’re just dipping your toes in home automation, then the Insteon hub is a great choice, and that means using Insteon as your protocol. It’s simple and affordable, and its dual-layer communications make it very reliable.
- If you’re able to find a single Zigbee manufacturer that offers all the smart devices you want, then this is your protocol.
- Z-wave is great for many different types of devices that can work together.
- If your devices are all within the same place, then Bluetooth can work, especially BLE if your devices are battery-operated.
- And Wi-Fi can be a good choice, if you’re not using your Wi-Fi too often.
Good luck with your choice. You’ll need all the luck you can get connecting your devices into your network. There are still some bugs and connectivity issues when integrating various items with different (or even the same) protocols, but hopefully you can find help online.