In this article I will describe and compare Z-Wave Vs Zigbee which are the two most dominants wireless standards used in home automation, smart technology and Internet of Things (IoT) fields in modern networks.
We are all aware of a couple of well-known wireless communication protocols such as WiFi and Bluetooth which are used in our everyday life for connecting to the Internet in our home network or for sharing photos and files between smartphone devices.
With the rapid expansion of “smart home”, “home automation” and “Internet of Things (IoT)” technologies, some new geeky technical terms started to emerge such as Z-wave, Zigbee, Thread, Insteon etc.
The two most popular “smart home” mesh communication protocols are Z-wave and Zigbee which I will be discussing and comparing in this article.
Quick Comparison Table Between Z-wave and Zigbee
The table below shows briefly the differences between Z-wave vs Zigbee for a quick comparison picture.
|Frequency Band||800-900 MHz||2.4 Ghz|
|Range||Max 100 meters||Around 10-20 meters|
|Data Rate||Up to 100 kbps||250 kbps|
|Network type||Mesh network||Mesh network|
|Max number of devices in each mesh network||232||65,000|
|Max hops between devices||4||No limit|
|Security||Security 2 (S2) proprietary security mechanism||AES 128-bit symmetric encryption|
|Company behind||Silicon Labs||Open standard (IEEE 802.15.4) – Zigbee Alliance|
|Certified Products (so far)||Over 2400||Over 2500|
What is Z-wave
In 1999 a Danish company – Zensys – developed the Z-Wave protocol for radio communication in home automation systems.
After being developed in several versions of System on a Chip (SoC) hardware devices, the technology began to catch attention in North America.
In 2018 Z-Wave was acquired by a semiconductor company (Silicon Labs) which focuses in Internet of Things (IoT) and automation markets.
Mesh Network Specs
Like Zigbee, Z-wave is a wireless protocol based on mesh network topology. This means that every device (node) in the wireless network can communicate with one another thus covering larger areas and even avoid obstacles.
There can be up to 232 nodes in a single Z-wave mesh network which is more than enough for residential smart homes and automation applications. Moreover, the signal can travel within a maximum of 4 hops (devices) according to the standard.
Although the network topology uses mesh connectivity (i.e signals in the network can hop from gadget to gadget) usually there is a central Z-wave hub controller device which connects to the Internet and at the same time connects to the Z-wave enabled gadgets for monitoring and management purposes.
The central hub enables the owner of the smart home network to control all devices, gadgets, sensors etc from a smartphone or computer over the Internet.
Another example of a great controller hub for smart home gadgets is Amazon Alexa. Alexa products can control and manage many smart home devices with voice controls etc.
Wireless Specs (Distance, Frequency, Speed)
One notable characteristic of Z-wave protocol is that it operates in a relatively low frequency band (800-900 MHz depending on the region) thus it does not suffer from interference of higher frequencies and also can travel at longer distances.
Although the theoretical maximum distance coverage of Z-wave is 100 meters (328 feet), the official website recommends placing devices roughly every 30 feet between each other for maximum efficiency.
The data rate supported in Z-wave is max. 100 kbps and is one of the lowest in this kind of technology. However, IoT devices do not need a lot of data bandwidth to operate and send or receive data.
What is Zigbee
The other popular competing wireless standard in smart home market is Zigbee. In contrast to Z-wave, the Zigbee trademark is based on open standard (IEEE 802.15.4) and is maintained and supported by a group of companies, namely the Zigbee Alliance.
The IEEE 802.15.4 technical standard which is the basis of Zigbee is geared towards low-rate wireless Personal Area Networks and is ideal for smart home environments with lots of Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets such as smart thermostats, smart locks, smart plugs, smart speakers etc.
Mesh Network Specs
Each device in the mesh network can communicate with the other devices in the mesh directly (just like the previous protocol we have seen above).
Zigbee however has two main advantages compared to Z-wave regarding the mesh network specs. It supports a maximum of 65,000 devices in the same mesh network (compared to 232) and also the signal can travel between unlimited hops (devices) compared to 4 hops of Z-wave.
The above shows that Zigbee protocol can be best suited in large industrial environments, crowded places such as airports, train stations, large areas etc (in addition to home networks of course).
Just like the previous standard, a central Hub device (such as Samsung SmartThings or Wink Hub 2) can be used to control and manage the Zigbee gadgets in your network.
Another example of a great controller hub for smart home gadgets is Amazon Alexa. Alexa products can control and manage many smart home devices with voice controls etc
Wireless Specs (Distance, Frequency, Speed)
Zigbee works on the popular 2.4Ghz frequency band which is the same frequency supporting many other standards such as WiFi, kitchen appliances etc. This is a crowded frequency range especially in home networks thus Zigbee is more likely to suffer from interference compared to Z-Wave.
Working on a higher frequency range though has the advantage of supporting more data rate bandwidth. It allows a max of 250kbps compared to max 100kbps of Z-wave.
Moreover, higher frequencies travel shorter distances, thus Zigbee supports around 10-20 meters of direct connection between devices. However, by allowing hop-to-hop communication, the signal can actually travel longer distances in the mesh network.
Pros and Cons of Each Standard
Having discussed the main characteristics of each wireless mesh protocol lets see briefly their pros and cons against each other.
- More reliable wireless communication.
- Signal travels longer distance.
- Great compatibility between gadgets supporting the standard.
- Lower data transfer rate between devices.
- Less devices supported in the same network (232 compared to 65000)
- Signal travels at maximum 4 hops between devices (compared to unlimited).
- Supports higher data rate between devices.
- Best suitable for large areas with many devices (max 65000 devices).
- Open source standard.
- Less reliable in the wireless path compared to Z-wave.
- Operates at 2.4Ghz which is a crowded frequency environment (more interference).
Popular Z-Wave Devices
Let’s see some popular smart home gadgets that work and support the Z-Wave protocol and many people buy them for their smart-home network:
- Samsung SmartThings Hub
- Wink Hub 2
- GE Z-Wave Smart Dimmer Switch
- Smart Lock (Schlage Z-Wave Connect Deadbolt)
- Honeywell Smart Thermostat
Popular Zigbee Devices
Similarly to the above, the following are some useful Zigbee devices that you can buy for your smart home environment.
Other Similar Protocols
The two wireless “smart-home” mesh protocols we have discussed in this article are the most popular ones. However, a few other options started to gain ground in the field as listed below:
Based on IEEE 802.11ah standard, Wi-Fi alliance introduced the HaLow technology operating at 900 MHz range with low power consumption and twice the distance coverage of the regular WiFi standard.
Although Bluetooth is a point-to-point protocol (not mesh like the other ones), the new Bluetooth 5.0 introduces the “Low Energy” feature which is better suited to wearable devices, Bluetooth headphones for listening to music etc. Also, this new version has 4x range and 2x data speed compared to older versions.
This is another interesting mesh communication protocol which is capable to use two communication mediums: RF radio and power lines.
If there is a problem or interference in the RF (wireless) medium, then the powerlines (electrical wiring) of the house can be used as backup medium.
This is an IPv6 based network protocol in the category of 6LoWPAN (Low power Wireless Personal Area Network).
It is based on the mature and reliable IP technology which is used to run the whole Internet as we know it today. Each device has an IPv6 address and the protocol uses an edge router for communication.
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