Understanding Home Automation Protocols
There are many different ways that home automation devices can talk with each other. Wifi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, and Zigbee are just some. Which one should you go with and what are the differences with each one? What happens when 2 different devices speak their own language (hint: this is what hubs are for)? This post will helpfully sort all that out for you.
Which protocol is best for me?
You’re not going to like my answer, but the best protocol to use is the one that works for you. What exactly do I mean by that? Let’s start with Bluetooth.
So you want to be able to control your lights with your phone, but don’t want internet control? Bluetooth is for you. GE’s Bluetooth Smart Switch allows you to control your switches with your phone, but not have to worry about someone on the internet potentially getting access. The switches form a mesh network, which means each switch is connected to the other. Think of it like a human chain. You might not be able to talk to someone because they’re at the end of the chain, but you can send a message down the chain and it’ll eventually reach them. This is important because Bluetooth has limited range. If you’re in your master bedroom on one side of the house and want to turn on the hallway on the other side of your home, you’ll need that mesh network to reach the switch.
GE also offers an outdoor version of the switch called the GE Bluetooth Outdoor Smart Switch. This would be nice for Holiday lighting. Lastly, if you just want an outlet, there’s also the GE Bluetooth Outlet. They call this a plug-in switch.
All of these are controlled by GE’s app.
So what’s the downside with Bluetooth? There is currently no smart hub support for these. That means you are limited to using just your phone. People have also been having pairing issues with these devices, but those issues have been few and far between.
Wifi is another popular protocol. This is what the Belkin WeMo line and the TPLink Smart Outlets line do. This protocol is nice because it requires no hub, saving you some money. They each have their own app, but they also work directly with Amazon Echo and are easy to integrate.
This protocol also allows you to control the outlets using your internet connection from anywhere in the world as well as your local wifi. This means that you can be on vacation and remotely turn your lights on to make it look like someone is home. It’s important to note that you can also turn this feature off if you’d like.
So what are the downsides to this protocol? Well, for starters, there’s the security aspect. Your outlets and switches are now exposed to the internet. While these companies take security seriously, there is always a risk when you’re opening something up to the world.
There’s also the potential bandwidth issue. As you add more and more devices to your home, you are putting more and more work on your wireless router and using more bandwidth for your internet connection. The amount is probably negligible, but it’s something.
Overall, this is my favorite protocol simply due to the ease of use. It works well with Alexa and is easy to add more. Not requiring a hub saves me money too, which allows me to get more smart switches 🙂
I have not yet found an outdoor WiFi outlet. If you find one, let me know!
Z-Wave / Zigbee
The reason I bundled these 2 together is not because they are the same, but because they are similar. Both do not use your wifi, so they save you bandwidth. They speak on their own frequency (think Radio waves) that generally don’t conflict with any other devices you own. They are also both reliable and have been around for a while. They also form a mesh network, similar to bluetooth.
So what are the downsides? They require a hub. Something like Samsung’s SmartThings hub is needed to talk to these devices and link them to Alexa. Another popular hub is called Wink. I will write an article later on comparing the two.
So in summary, there are a lot of different protocols for home automation devices to talk on. There are more than I listed here, but these seem to be the most popular ones currently. I’d encourage you to do more research on your own to find out what suits you and what you’re most comfortable with.
Read next: Smart Outlet Options