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Wi-Fi vs. ZigBee and Z-Wave Explained

If you’ve invested in a smart home, you’ve no doubt had to learn what Zigbee and Z-Wave mean. In short, they’re communication protocols, and they’re how your devices work. Some products use Zigbee, while others rely on Z-Wave. Until recently, Wi-Fi was considered too unstable to support your smart home products, but times are changing and technology is catching up - fast! Let’s take a look at Zigbee and Z-Wave vs Wi-Fi, and see the system you’re better off using.

The Importance of Wi-Fi to a Smart Home

Pretty much everyone, at this point, has a Wi-Fi router, but until recently, the connection was considered too unstable to reliably support your smart home devices. However, things are changing with Google and Alexa both relying on Wi-Fi to operate and becoming the default smart home hubs. Previously, too many devices would cause a log jam but things are changing as routers become more stable and your home Wi-Fi network becomes more reliable. Think about it - you already rely on Wi-Fi for streaming, the internet, and a whole lot more. Soon things like your doorbell, power outlets, light switches, and more might also work via your Wi-Fi and certainly, manufacturers are anticipating this. It’s becoming the new default. 

Z-Wave vs Zigbee: What Are These?

Z-Wave and Zigbee are low-cost wireless networks, similar to Wi-Fi in some ways, but designed to host the stuff you need to run your wireless smart home. It's a bit like Bluetooth, but both are considered more stable, use less data, and have a more extensive range.

Z-Wave uses a wireless mesh network to allow your devices to talk to each other. It’s a closed standard owned by Silicon Labs. By contrast, Zigbee, which operates similarly, is open code, and not owned by anyone.

Pros & Cons

Both Zigbee and Z-Wave have their good points and bad. One of the biggest assets for Zigbee is that by being open code, it's not going anywhere anytime soon, although that doesn’t mean all Zigbee products are compatible with each other. Philips Hue was able to make changes to the protocol (remember - it’s open-source), necessitating the need for their hub to make their products work. 

Z-Wave, with its closed protocol, is only compatible with other Z-Wave products, just how Zigbee is only compatible with Zigbee. But, Z-Wave’s major asset is that it has a much larger range than Zigbee. Zigbee products need to be within 60 feet of each other. Z-Wave goes all the way to 500 feet!

Z-Wave Has Fewer Congestion Problems

As such, Z-Wave’s network has much less congestion, as it operates on a lower radio frequency - 908.42 MHz. Zigbee’s frequency is closer to that of Wi-Fi - 2.4ghz - meaning a lot more congestion.

Z-Wave and Zigbee Are Single Points of Failure

This can be one of the biggest problems for Z-Wave and Zigbee. They both rely on singular company clouds, meaning that if the company goes under and the clouds stop working - so do your products. This happened when Best Buy decided to leave the smart home business, and all of their Insignia branded products lost their smart home capabilities. With Wi-Fi, there’s no danger of this happening. 

Lower Barrier of Entry For Wi-Fi Devices

For one thing, Wi-Fi is much cheaper than Z-Wave or Zigbee, simply because they work from your pre-existing wireless network. Smart hubs are also difficult, at first, to learn. Hubs that run on Wi-Fi like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, while not as powerful, are made to be as user-friendly as possible. 

Wi-Fi Devices Are Typically Cheaper

Another reason why Wi-Fi might have a leg up over Z-Wave and Zigbee is that the products are much less expensive and easier to find. Granted, this isn’t always the case, but bear in mind that Z-Wave and Zigbee smart home products have been out longer than Wi-Fi ones, and are only cheaper because the price has dropped over the years. The Wi-Fi smart home products are being introduced to the market at lower prices, and will likely decrease even more in time.

Z-Wave and Zigbee Devices Are Not Compatible with All Hubs

It’s always a pain checking to ensure your Z-Wave or ZigBee hub is up to date with the latest drivers to make sure your smart home products work. Even then, they’re not always compatible with each other. With Wi-Fi smart home products, you don’t have to worry about that. Wi-Fi products rely on the APIs provided like Google and Alexa to do all the compatibility work, so forget about updating drivers or worrying about compatibility issues.

What Happens to a Wi-Fi Power Smart Home When the Electricity Goes Off?

While a Wi-FI Smart Home might sound great, a question a lot of people have is this: what happens if there’s a power outage? Many assume that if the power goes out, your smart products will become useless. This is not necessarily the case. Wi-Fi products typically have batteries included. If the power goes out, they should still work as long as the batteries last. There are some exceptions. Devices like smart speakers and smart displays won’t work. Neither will smart lighting or anything powered by a smart outlet. However, smart locks, smart garage doors, and smart thermostat all have battery backups. This means that you won’t literally be left out in the cold even if the power goes off. Even most smart security cameras will work!  (Source

One definite advantage of a dedicated hub, such as one that uses Z-Wave and Zigbee is that their hubs don’t rely on the cloud, like Wi-Fi does. So if there’s a power failure, everything should still work. 

Wifi, Z-Wave and Zigbee: Which One Should I Choose?

In the end, it depends on what you want. For a smart home that’s accessible and cost-efficient, you can’t go wrong with Wi-Fi, where programs like Google and Alexa do all the heavy lifting. But, if you want a specialized local network you can fine-tune, then the more expensive options offered by Z-Wave and Zigbee might be more to your liking.

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