Z-Wave: Gaining Ground on ZigBee for Home Energy Networking?

Can proprietary home networking technology Z-Wave catch up to its standards-based rival ZigBee in the home energy management field? Despite plenty evidence to the contrary, Z-Wave supporters say yes — and a host of new corporate projects and partnerships backs those sentiments up.

ZigBee boosters can be forgiven for dismissing those claims about Z-Wave, of course. ZigBee has a clear lead in U.S. smart meter and home area network plans, with tens of millions of chips and modules being made by multiple vendors for dozens of device partners. Z-Wave, a proprietary technology with chips made by a single vendor, may have prominent members in its Z-Wave Alliance — ADT, Black & Decker, Danfoss, Leviton and Ingersoll Rand among them. But the ZigBee Alliance has most of the big smart grid companies and utilities on board, as well as General Electric, which has named ZigBee its favorite wireless technology for its energy-smart home plans.

Even so, Sigma Designs, which acquired Z-Wave chipmaker Zensys in 2008, says a host of recent home automation announcements could put Z-Wave back in the running:

Add up all these announcements, and it looks like Z-Wave continues to gain traction in home energy automation and networking, though perhaps not at ZigBee’s breakneck pace. Of course, there’s no reason home energy management can’t use both technologies. Palo Alto, Calif.-based iControl, a home energy networking startup with backing from Kleiner Perkins, ADT, GE and Comcast, uses Z-Wave for devices sold with security giant ADT’s Pulse program. But in November, iControl announced a merger with rival home automation provider uControl, which uses ZigBee.

It’s likely that companies in the space want to be prepared to operate in a variety of networking environments, which could be leading a number of big players to hedge their bets. It’s also important to note that Z-Wave has about 250 home automation products on the market, compared to ZigBee’s 100 certified devices. That means that, while ZigBee has pole position in energy-specific home networking, Z-Wave has a lead in overall home automation and networking.

In other words, if energy is the Trojan Horse opening homes to broader automation and networking, ZigBee could be expected to retain its lead. But if energy ends up being mainly an add-on to existing channels to market, Z-Wave might have an advantage. I honestly don’t know which approach might emerge as the leader in the nascent home energy management market — or whether we’ll see hybrid models or new networking options taking over. But it will certainly be interesting to watch the competition unfold.

Question of the week

Could proprietary Z-Wave be gaining ground on standards-based ZigBee in the home energy networking space?
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  1. ^^^Certainly Z-wave is gaining share against ZigBee. But overall neither ZigBee or Z-wave is a real mass market solution. The reason is simple. Deploying these requires a new “base station” or access point that speaks Z-wave or ZigBee. Let’s focus on home power automation or demand response control. 80% of U.S. households that have internet have 802.11 (WiFi). From a practical standpoint, it’s hard for vendors to sell another overlay network.^^^ From a technical standpoint, neither Z-wave nor ZigBee co-existing very well with WiFi because they lack intelligent channel switching (for frequency co-use). On top of that, a lot of the backhaul from meters like you are showing in the picture is intended to be performed by the power company through wireless backhaul access points or ethernet over powerline. They work well enough, but it’s frankly laughable to thing power companies are going to really be able to run a data network – - there’s plenty of wreckage in this area already with failed projects.

    The long term answer is simply what we already have – - 802.11 (WiFi). It’s already in the home. It is already internet connected. True data network providers are already connected to the home. Through-firewall authentication already existing. And most importantly, there’s an emerging class of low power 802.11 chips that are out or will soon be released, that achieve the same low power operation that Zigbee and Z-wave demonstrate as a key advantage.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Gary — I am very curious about the emerging class of low power 802.11 chips you refer to, since power seems to be the main sticking point for home energy management using Wi-Fi. Can you tell us more?

  3. I’m entering the conversation late here, but I’m wondering how you think Insteon stacks up?

  4. jeoverleymobilelinc Tuesday, December 27, 2011

    The main idea behind the Zigbee protocol was it’s low power requirements for and it’s focus on transmitting small amounts of data, for a sensor network for example.

    Power is not an issue in the home, so 802.11xx is not an issue. But if you need a sensor network for Agriculture for example and covering large areas of land, but only transmitting small amounts of data, they WiFi in it’s present form is not the answer.

  5. I agree that power in the home is less of an issue because we’re not dealing with remote sensors in an agricultural network or even large commercial buildings with multiple sensors where wiring electricity to every sensor becomes unwieldy.

    The protocol wars aren’t over yet, as we’ve seen with the recent smart thermostat from Nest, which has chips for both WiFi and Zigbee. Though I still think that WiFi is very appealing because any device can use the existing router networks in almost all homes and businesses.

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