Home Automation Protocols: Can You Hear Me Now?

So if you didn’t know, the whole home automation thing is enabled by technology that lets your home devices think a bit for themselves, but more importantly talk to each other. In order for your toaster to understand what your fridge is saying, though, they have to first speak the same language. You can imagine how hard it would be to have a work colleague who spoke a language you couldn’t understand at all. Basically, you could achieve nothing together.

That’s essentially where the home automation industry is at the moment. There are a number of wireless communication languages that have either been designed or repurposed for home automation and if you want to gadgets to talk to each other they both must support a mutual protocol.

In this article I am going to walk you through some of the more popular systems available today and explain the pros and cons of each one. The point is, of course, to demystify all the tech jargon that gets flung our way and make sure that you know what you are getting into before you spend any money.

WiFi

msrm-4fshWiFi is probably one that you know already. It’s the same wireless protocol that allows your iPad to connect to the internet when you are at home so that you can watch reaction videos on YouTube. It has decent range (which can be extended) and it is, of course, a helluva fast function.

The downside is that even the latest WiFi revision is pretty power hungry and it has way too much bandwidth for the needs of home automation. Unlike other specialized home automation systems you are also unlikely to have hundreds of devices connected at once and all talking. Although WiFi theoretically supports more devices than you’ll ever need, the typical home router is not going to be happy with more than a few dozen devices.

The big advantage, of course, is that just about every household that has an internet connection has some sort of WiFi router.This makes it a pretty easy entry point into home automation. Add to that the fact that all of the other protocols often have to bridge into WiFi in order to have internet access and it is clear that WiFi is here to stay when it comes to home automation.

X10

As far as I know X10 is the oldest home automation protocol, or at least the oldest one that went anywhere. The technology can be traced back as far as the 1970s.

Originally this protocol was transmitted via the home’s power lines, but was eventually adapted to run over a wireless transmission. It was never particularly fast or reliable, but because it is so mature it has the advantage of now being quite cheap in comparison to newer protocols.

ZigBee

ZigBee is a very low-power automation protocol which is also known as IEEE 802.15.4 . It creates a “mesh” network, which means that all of the devices get an equal stake in the communication that’s going on. The whole point of ZigBee is to be cheaper, smaller, and simpler than either Bluetooth or WiFi.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a privately-owned standard that belongs to Sigma Designs, but is under the control of the Z-Wave alliance that includes a few companies that you may have heard of. Like ZigBee it is a low-bandwidth, low-power, and low-latency method of communication. Unlike ZigBee, only one company gets to make the chips for Z-Wave, which pushes the price up a bit.

Insteon

Insteon is one of the most interesting offerings in home automation protocols because it actually combines both wired and wireless communication. All nodes in an Insteon mesh network can talk to each other when in proximity and the wired and wireless systems can act as fallbacks for each other. It’s also pretty awesome that Insteon is backwards compatible with X10; this means you can use some cheap X10 devices to fill out gaps in your system.

Bluetooth

Good old Bluetooth. Just about every modern smart device has a Bluetooth chip inside it somewhere. We use it to connect mice, keyboards, headphones, and more. Although it was not designed with it in mind, version 4.0 of the technology brings it in line for use with home automation devices. This technology, also known as Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth Low Energy, can work without having to manually reconnect all the time. So now it can work for Internet of Things applications too!

So What Now?

Great, now you know about some of the most popular protocols on the market, but what does this actually mean for you? Well, when you put together your home automation ecosystem you have to make some decisions about whether you want something that’s fully integrated – where everything talks to everything – or if you want to go for a system that will have multiple automation technologies running side-by-side without talking to each other.

Obviously the options where everything works together is the most elegant and makes sense if you are doing a substantive installation in a new place or during a renovation,but you may not be able to find the best products in different niches that will all play together. Having a completely unified system may therefore lead to compromises for specific types of devices.

Having different non-intraoperative systems is less convenient, but you may only have a few subsystems. For example you may have a Z-Wave lighting system with a WiFi bridge, but use WiFi to control your security system. It is therefore important to know something about these different communication technologies so that you can make them complementary.

Of course, the home automation hub was invented to overcome this tower of Babel and you can check out my review pages for them here