network connection

Smart Home Networks Explained

Smart Home Network names is one of the first odd terms you’ll encounter when jumping into the Smart Home space. Here we’ll talk about what a network is, what it means to choose a network, and why it matters at the end of the day.

What Is A Network?

Smart Home devices need to have some way to communicate. Unlike other devices in your home like a Laptop or Smart Phone, Smart Devices use a unique network that isn’t as common.

A network is a system that enables devices to send information between one another. By network, I’m referring to how electronic devices talk to one another, as every device you have that shares information to other devices requires a network.

Why Is The Network Important For Smart Home Devices?

In the beginning of your Smart Home experience when you have a few devices, the network won’t make too much of a difference. But once you get a more complicated setup with many devices, the network can start to have noticeable impacts on your experience. Devices may not respond to your commands or will be really slow to respond. Due to some networks that consume a bunch of power, you could spend more time than you like changing out batteries on dead devices too.

Most Smart Home devices are similar to your laptop in that they are computers with the same type of hardware. But the main difference is that smart devices are simpler and less powerful. Smart Home devices also have very specific functions, unlike your laptop, and you could have many of these around your home.

For example, a Smart Plug has a few simple tasks it must do. It needs to be able to receive and understand messages that tell it to turn on and off. The computer in a Smart Plug doesn’t need the same level of power, or energy consumption, as your Laptop; it consumes much less power. But it does need to be much smaller and much less expensive. Many Smart Home devices run on batteries, like Contact Sensors or Thermostats.

As it turns out, the network these Smart Devices use to communicate have a big impact on their performance and reliability in the long-term. There are a few different types of networks that will allow your devices to work. Some of the new network types were built specifically for the Smart Home space where devices have lower power usage and simpler messages.

Why Are There Different Network?

There have been several attempts at making the best possible network for Smart Home devices by various companies over the last few decades. These days, a handful of different networks have made it to the top, each with their own trade-offs.

For each type of network, let’s review a few different characteristics that are important from a Smart Home perspective.

Reliability – Do devices always receive messages?

Scalability – Does the network break down as you add more devices to it?

Power Usage – How much power does it take to send and receive a message?

WiFi

WiFi is how most devices communicate to one another today and to the internet. So obviously WiFi is the logical network to consider for the Smart Home space. It’s not too difficult to find some of the basic Smart Home devices, like Smart Lights and Smart Plugs, that use WiFi.

Reliability

WiFi reliability is a mixed bag. Depending on the network you have setup, it can be great, or you can spend all of your time issuing commands twice. Some of this loss of reliability comes down to to the actual devices themselves, as well.

Scalability

The more devices you have connected to your WiFi network, the slower the requests tend to get. Most WiFi routers at home aren’t build to handle a large amount of devices. So once you have a large amount of Smart Home devices on the network, reliability starts to decrease.

Power Usage

Power Usage is where WiFi starts to fall short, and it’s the main reason why other network types exist. Using WiFi, which is considered a TCP/IP network, requires a large amount of power to send and receive messages. This is why it’s tough to find smart devices that are battery powered and also use WiFi.

ZigBee

ZigBee is a newer network that’s built to handle things like Smart Home devices and other devices with lower power usage. It’s also designed to work with devices that don’t need to share large amounts of data. ZigBee is gradually gaining popularity these days, with more devices supporting it over time.

One catch with ZigBee networks is the need for a hub. Since most Smart Home devices still need to communicate to the internet, they need access to your WiFi network. That’s the point of the Hub. It’s the bridge between your Zigbee network and your WiFi network.

Reliability

It’s not uncommon for messages to be lost with ZigBee networks. The challenge is ZigBee also uses some of the same airspace as WiFi and other wireless devices. So with all devices using the same airwaves, it’s easier for messages to get lost. Range is a consideration for ZigBee, as well. Devices need to be fairly close to one another for the best performance.

Scalability

Scalability for ZigBee is very good. ZigBee uses a pattern called a Mesh Network, which means all devices share messages between one another, rather than a central device sending out messages, like a router. Mesh Networks have the benefit of removing the need for a router, which gets overloaded as the network grows.

Power Usage

Power usage is where ZigBee shines. According to this whitepaper, power usage of Zigbee is roughly half that of WiFi.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is the other network type that you might see. It’s very similar to ZigBee in that it’s designed to work with lower power devices, and it requires a hub to connect to the internet. The biggest difference between the two is that while ZigBee was designed with several different devices types in mind, Z-Wave was built specifically for the Smart Home space.

Reliability

Z-Wave has improved reliability over Zigbee due to it using a different airspace than ZigBee and other common networks.

Scalability

Like ZigBee, Z-Wave also uses a Mesh network, and gets the same benefits.

Power Usage

Power usage is tough to find for Z-Wave. Although there are many sites calming that Z-Wave has lower power usage, none seem to have any facts to back it up. I’ll follow up on this in a future post.

Which Network Is Right For You?

It depends on how many devices you expect to install. If you only plan on having a handful of devices, say less than 10, WiFi should work just fine for you. But if you think you might have more some day, you should look into a network that is built for a Smart Home.

ZigBee Vs Z-Wave

This is the ultimate question! You can find plenty of people debating as to which network is better, but in reality, you won’t regret using either one. Both are solid options for the Smart Home and have been around for awhile.

Which one is more popular? They are both pretty close there as well. I did take a look on Google Trends to get a better idea of popularity with search volume. The below graph is the result where Z-Wave is blue and ZigBee is red.

2004 – 2020 Popularity Trends

Zigbee saw much more search traffic than Z-Wave in the early days. But in 2009, Z-Wave started picking up and overtook Zigbee in 2014. Over the last year or so, Zigbee is picking up again and seems to be a bit popular. Below is a closer look at the last few years, from 2015 and up.

But most recently, Z-Wave became open standard like Zigbee, which should add to its popularity and adoption as well. So I wouldn’t count Z-Wave out yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *