If you’re shopping for smart home or home automation devices, you probably see the term “Z-wave” popping up on all kinds of product and system descriptions. So what is Z-wave, and how does it work? Is it just an alternative to Bluetooth? Z-wave is one of the newest kinds of wireless technology that smart devices use to communicate with each other. You can think of it as being in a similar category as Bluetooth or WiFi, but Z-wave possesses a few unique qualities that translate into major advantages for home automation.
Z-wave’s advantages for home automation
If you only have a few wireless devices in your home, you probably don’t need to branch outside of Bluetooth or WiFi connections. But if you’re trying to create a truly immersive and responsive smart home experience (read: lots of devices) then Z-wave is a better choice.
Z-wave technology lets you mix and match devices from different manufacturers. All Z-wave devices work together regardless of the company that makes them. As long as you stick with Z-wave, you can pick and choose your favorite smart accessories from any manufacturer and operate them on one network.
It’s less prone to interference and disconnections. When it comes to Z-wave devices, the more the merrier. Each one amplifies the network signal, which lets you easily create robust connectivity. Z-wave networks also operate on a dedicated frequency, which means less interference than Bluetooth or WiFi networks.
Z-wave technology is safe. While no technology is completely unhackable, security is a major priority for Z-wave developers. It uses the same encryption measures as online banking.
How Z-wave works
Z-wave technology creates a wireless mesh network, which is a collection of devices that link up and communicate with each other without wires. With Z-wave technology, devices “mesh” together by sending signals over low-energy radio waves on a dedicated frequency. (Z-wave operates on the 908.42 MHz radio frequency in the U.S. and Canada, but the exact frequency varies by country.) Every Z-wave device has a tiny built-in signal repeater that sends and receives network information.
Z-wave vs. Bluetooth
The biggest improvement that Z-wave makes over Bluetooth is signal strength. Bluetooth signal is prone to interference and interruption because all Bluetooth devices send and receive information on the same 2.4GHz band. They compete with one another for bandwidth. And unless you’re running a 5GHz WiFi network in your home, they’re competing with devices on your WiFi network too. With Z-wave, every Z-wave signal repeater works together to make the network stronger. Every device actually strengthens the signal. The more devices you have, the easier it is to create a strong network that’s capable of bypassing obstacles and passing through walls, ceilings and floors.
Z-wave vs. WiFi
Z-wave also beats WiFi in terms of network interference. Like Bluetooth, WiFi devices compete with one another, so signal strength and network speeds suffer when there are many devices connected. However, WiFi can carry more information. Z-wave technology sends and receives plenty of data for smart devices like light bulbs, motion detectors and other small appliances, but devices that send lots of information require the larger capacity of a WiFi network. For example, an HD video surveillance camera sends more data than a low-power Z-wave or Bluetooth network can handle.
Z-wave vs. Zigbee
You may also encounter Zigbee during your home automation research, which is another kind of wireless mesh technology. Like Z-wave, each device on a Zigbee network helps to strengthen its signal. Unlike Z-wave, it operates on the 2.4GHz frequency shared with WiFi and Bluetooth. You are less likely to experience signal problems with Zigbee than with WiFi or Bluetooth alone, but only Z-wave has its own dedicated frequency.
Another differentiation is that Zigbee is open-source software, while Z-wave is proprietary software supported and certified by the Z-Wave Alliance. While both technologies are catching on simultaneously, Z-wave technology is backed by industry leaders who are constantly refining it. Z-wave has been on the market for over a decade and has undergone several updates and improvements.
Where you can find Z-wave
Nearly all of the major home security and home automation manufacturers offer smart home accessories that support Z-wave. But first, in order to create a Z-wave network, you need a Z-wave hub that connects the system to the internet. In some cases, the Z-wave hub might be built into another one of your devices. In others, you’ll need to purchase a separate hub.
Once your hub is in place, you’re free to outfit your home with all kinds of Z-wave-equipped home automation products, from light switches and dimmers to outlets, smart locks, thermostats and more.