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Smart Home Tech: How to Choose the Right Home Automation Protocol

There are so many different avenues for consumers looking to integrate smart home products into an ecosystem. In short, Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Wi-Fi are the most popular wireless technologies, but what makes them different? Here are some differences.

There are a few options when shopping for smart home devices – such as hubs and switches in particular – and it is understandable if consumers feel a little overwhelmed.

I had the opportunity to email Mitchell Davis, Vice President Connected Home and Emerging Technologies at Jasco Products, and ask him to explain some of the differences in the protocols.

(Note: this interview has been edited for style and length.)

Where do most consumers buy smart home products?

You can find Wi-Fi-type devices mainly in brick-and-mortar stores as well as on e-commerce websites. This is mainly due to the ease of installation by the customer. Hub-based solutions (Z-Wave and Zigbee) are very dominant in electrical distributors, wholesalers and on the Internet.

In your opinion, how important is the ecosystem and compatibility with other products for the consumer?

Consumers repeatedly request an application to do everything. This results in an ease of use that is incredibly desirable. Very few consumers want to open multiple apps.

Some consumers continue to believe that smart products are difficult to install or operate and that you need to be tech-savvy to buy them. Since voice assistants came out, many products have tweaked such processes to allow for a fairly seamless rollout – even for the novice consumer.

Which protocol do you think will become the “standard” in the future?

This is an elusive question that many in the connected home industry have been trying to solve for years. Quite simply, it really depends on the type of installation and who is installing it.

For example, Wi-Fi has largely been the protocol of choice for the average consumer because it is easy for consumers to understand and install. Hub-based systems are more robust platforms in many ways that scale better and perform better in noisy radio frequency (RF) environments. It is for this reason that most custom installers use these alternative standards.

You recently expanded your line of Wi-Fi products. Do you think this is the future of smart homes?

As smart home products become more popular, accessibility is important. While many people have figured out how to incorporate different types of products into their homes through a hub, some people are just looking for a simple solution. Wi-Fi enables control via a smartphone app and a smart speaker, giving users the best of both worlds.

What are the advantages of using Z-Wave or Zigbee over WiFi?

The most noticeable difference between these protocols is the star network compared to mesh network systems. In a star network, every device must be within range of the router. However, in larger households, there can be Wi-Fi dead spots where products are out of range or difficult to install.

There are some Wi-Fi mesh network routers that have come out to solve this problem. However, the cost of these systems is significantly higher compared to standard routers.

Mesh-based systems have many advantages over star networks. The best advantage is that every device (except battery devices) acts as a repeater in the system. Each in-wall switch or each plug-in module extends the network for the entire home coverage. In addition, both Z-Wave and Zigbee have routing systems that help with network traffic and result in a very robust system.

When might a homeowner want to use Wi-Fi instead of ZigBee or Z-Wave?

Homeowners who want to keep things simple should consider Wi-Fi products. A hub is not required for Wi-Fi products. They can be controlled directly via an app on a smartphone and have the lowest entry costs to get into the connected home.

What do you think is the future for smart home hubs?

Smart home hubs are not going to go away entirely. They are always needed, so they are here to last for the long term. What can change is the way the hubs are integrated. While the hub is sold as a standalone device in my systems today, the hub of the future will be integrated directly into products such as plug-in switches, televisions, etc. DVRs, routers, etc.

There are already some devices on the market, such as the Amazon Echo Dot loudspeaker (4th generation) with an integrated ZigBee radio. This built-in radio makes integration with Jasco Zigbee products as easy as plugging in the device and asking Alexa to discover devices. It’s that easy.

What have been the latest improvements in Smart Switches?

Several improvements have been made to connected home switches, one of which (patented by Jasco Products) allows for the easiest installation of in-wall switches.

Our latest SimpleWire technology removes the complicated process of identifying the black electrical wires for load and utility power. Regardless of how you wire the switch, it is automatically configured and saves the user a complicated installation.

Additionally, the QuickFit design is 20 percent thinner than our previous generation switch, making it much easier to fit into control boxes.

Can you explain why some smart switches require a neutral and what to do in older households without one?

This is a major hurdle for many consumers, especially those who live in older apartment buildings. In the past there were few solutions that would work without a neutral conductor. Recently, however, there have been many advances in the electrical efficiency of module designs so that the smart device can operate without a neutral.

What other trends do you see in the smart home industry?

Cameras, whether security or doorbells, continue to dominate the market. Lighting controls such as light bulbs, wall switches or intelligent plugs are always just under a second behind.

The main requirement regardless of the technology is ease of use. This means easy installation, easy understanding and simple operation.

What products can we expect in the future?

We’re leaders in many unrelated product categories, and with a recent realignment we’re in the process of adding even more products to our Enbrighten Wi-Fi line that can be integrated into your home.

When we state that we are (humbly) expanding the Wi-Fi line, we mean that we will have a robust line of products under one application in the market. The connected home should be simple, and our efforts over the years to come will make that dream a reality.

Brandon Doyle is a Real Estate Agent with the Doyle Real Estate Team – RE / MAX Results in Minneapolis and co-author of Mindset, Methods & Metrics – Winning as a Modern Real Estate Agent. You can follow him on Twitter.

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