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An Introduction to Z-Wave Home Automation

Updated on September 8, 2014
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Wireless Home Automation

Z-Wave is a popular home automation technology which can be used to gain wireless control over a wide range of household electrics and electronics.You can use it to control your lighting or heating from a phone app, to set up scheduled events or 'scenes', to improve home security, and for many more applications as well.

A Z-Wave controller uses radio signals to communicate with devices installed around your home, and usually with an app which you can use to control your system. It is a popular system amongst DIYers because it is relatively simple to install - no special technical knowledge needed - but can also be hacked and modded by enthusiasts with more advanced knowledge.

The Z-Wave Alliance

Z-Wave is an open protocol run by an organisation called the Z-Wave Alliance. The alliance is composed of more than 250 technology companies who are involved in manufacturing, programming and installing domotic products based on a common communication standard which ensures that any Z-Wave product should be able to work with any other Z-Wave product no matter which company it was developed by.

The alliance is responsible for maintaining and developing this common standard, as well as providing information and promoting the Z-Wave brand. It is open to new membership applications and runs a website where you can find technical information, product listings and news.

Other Technical Specifications

  • Uses low power radio frequency (RF) communications.
  • Operates in the sub 1GHz frequency band. This means that it does not suffer from interference from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or other popular wireless systems.
  • Supports data transfer rates of up to 100kbps with strong AES125 encryption.
  • Supports multi-channel operation.
  • IPv6 enabled.
  • Full backwards compatibility means that new products should always work with older ones.
  • Works together with Smart Energy protocols such as OpenADR and SEP 1.1.

The Mesh Network

One of the most important technical features of Z-Wave technology is the fact that it uses a 'mesh network'. The mesh network topology simply means that every communication is broadcast to all devices within range, and each device then acts as a 'repeater', passing on the message to all of its neighbours.

There are two major advantages to the use of a mesh network. The first is that it improves reliability. The fact that a message between, for example, a controller in the living room and a radiator in an upstairs bedroom can take multiple routes simultaneously means that it is less likely to get lost or suffer from interference during its journey.

The second is range extension. Most systems will require the use of dedicated repeaters if there is a large spatial separation between a controller and the device to be controlled. Because each device in a Z-Wave network acts as a repeater this is usually not necessary - as long as there is another device in between the two (a stairway light for example).

As with many systems, z-wave also supports two-way communication so devices can report their status back to the controller.

5 stars for The Z-Wave product range

Product Range

As one of the world's most popular home automation systems there is a huge range of z-wave compatible products on the market, manufactured by a range of major companies.

From lighting control to security to radiator valve actuators - most home automation features can be built using Z-Wave products.

Popular & Notable Controllers

Some of the most popular and noteworthy controller brands include:

  • MiCasaVerde Vera: MiCasaVerde manufacture two very popular controllers - the Vera3 and the VeraLite. They are reasonably priced, include a built in router with firewall and a free app, and have a user friendly interface for programming 'scenes'. There is also a substantial online community of users where you can get plenty of tips, advice and support for installing or expanding your own system.
  • Fibaro: Fibaro manufacture higher end controllers as well as a range of sensors and actuators. In terms of available features, Fibaro are amongst the most advanced controller manufacturers, and this is especially apparent when it comes to multimedia control, which is often lacking in other z-wave controllers. The firm's website also claims that theirs is "the only system on the market which knows an exact position of a pulled-up roller blind or an awning."
  • Zipato Box: Zipato sell a modular controller system which is notable for its ability to control devices through multiple protocols. This means that you can combine Z-Wave with Zigbee, KNX and others within the same integrated system. You start off with the main controller, and then buy add-on modules which clip into the main box to offer additional functionality.
  • HomeSeer: This popular US brand which is currently making inroads into the European market makes a range of controllers to suite most budgets, which all support advanced features such as text message alerts and voice announcements

CES 2013 - Cool New Z-Wave Products

Maker Credentials and Advanced DIY

Z-Wave is very popular with the DIY community and has strong 'maker culture' credentials.

If you are an electronics hacker or home automation hobbyist then there are plenty of opportunities for advanced projects that you can get your teeth stuck into. Many of these begin with the z-stick - an inexpensive USB stick which you can plug into your computer to turn it into controller. This opens up the possibility for you to write your own controller software, as well as integrating your system with a wide range of other web services and applications.

Moving beyond that, there is a strong community of electronics hackers making or adapting their own hardware and sofware for z-wave systems. The Raspberry Pi, and inexpensive general purpose microcontroller board, is a popular choice for starting out as a hardware hacker.

You can even buy a dedicated 'Razberry' daughter board which clips onto your Raspberry Pi to enable it to easily discover and control devices using the Z-wave protocol. The Raspberry Pi is a low power device which can be left on permanently, making it much more convenient than a PC as a control device, and can easily by extended and modified by adding new hardware with only basic electronics skills. The Razberry daughter board can be programmed in Javascript - generally viewed as one of the easiest programming languages to learn - and includes an example user interface (GUI) which is ready to be used out of the box, but is open source and can be modified in any way.

SmartThings

SmartThings Know and Control Your Home Kit (OLD VERSION)
SmartThings Know and Control Your Home Kit (OLD VERSION)

Many of the latest branded home automation sytems work with multiple open protocols such z-Wave. For example, SmartThings kits work with both Z-Wave and Zigbee as well as other devices from a range of popular brands such as Belkin WeMo, Philips hue, Sonos, Kwikset, Schlage, GE. This particular kit is very beginner friendly and includes a range of sensors, power socket control, and a wifi enabled controller with free app.

 

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