What is Z-Wave?

Wi-Fi isn't the only smart home network out there.

A smart home hub.

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Home automation is becoming a useful everyday tool. Z-Wave is an attempt to simplify turning your home into a smart home by creating a separate network for your smart devices.

What Is Z-Wave?

Z-Wave is the brand name for a wireless communications protocol first introduced in 1999. Electronics companies that want to sell Z-Wave devices join the Z-Wave consortium, which has a set of rules and regulations any device must conform to and include the Z-Wave technology.

A Dome leak sensor
Dome

Z-Wave technology is usually marked as such on the packaging. It also has a unique feature of being backwards compatible. If you bought a Z-Wave device in 1999, it will connect with and work with a Z-Wave device you buy in 2019.

How Does Z-Wave Work?

Z-Wave networks devices by sending messages via the 800-900 MHz (megahertz) frequency range. Every Z-Wave device starts with a small radio chip that can send and receive in this frequency range.

Check the radio frequency used by cordless phones and other wireless devices that don't use Wi-Fi. Depending on where you live, a Z-Wave device may interfere with it, like two radio stations broadcasting on the same frequency. However, Z-Wave devices will not interfere with Bluetooth or smartphone signals.

As you add Z-Wave compatible smart devices to your home, they speak to each other on this frequency range and form a mesh network. This allows any device, or “node,” to communicate with other “nodes” connected to the network, even if the two nodes are out of range. Think of it a bit like your device passing notes; if you want to tell your fridge in the garage to lower its temperature, you can tell your smart speaker, which will tell the closest device, which will tell your fridge.

What's The Difference Between Z-Wave And Wi-Fi?

To some degree, Z-Wave is similar to your home Wi-Fi network. Both are simply computers with two-way radios that speak to each other on a specific frequency. And many smart home devices will connect to your Wi-Fi and use it as their network. There are a few differences you should remember, though:

  • Compatibility: Z-Wave products need an independent chip built into the device to function and will only work with other Z-Wave devices. Wi-Fi devices, by contrast, can all connect to your Wi-Fi, but may not talk to each other. An Amazon product, for example, likely won't be able to control a Google device, or vice versa, out of the box.

Always check the packaging of products you buy. Compatibility with standards such as Z-Wave will be clearly marked on the side or the back of any packaging. Some devices may also offer both Z-Wave and Wi-Fi compatibility.

  • Capabilities: Your Wi-Fi network is designed to carry far more data and support more complicated requests. Z-Wave equipment stays off your Wi-Fi, letting your devices perform complicated tasks while reserving the simple commands issued to smart home devices to a separate channel.
  • Range and Extenders: Wi-Fi networks are extended using "extenders" or "repeaters," which boost your Wi-Fi signal and copy your router's password and settings. The more repeaters and devices you have connected to your Wi-Fi, the more potential weaknesses in your home network there are. Z-Wave devices are their own “repeaters,” limiting the risk of breaches.
  • Internet connection: A Z-Wave connection doesn't need Wi-Fi. Since a Z-Wave device form a mesh network to pass requests along, and the network can support up to 232 different items, you can plug a Z-Wave hub into a wired internet connection and have a smart home that operates independently. If your router breaks, your smart home will still work as long as your internet is up

Is Z-Wave Secure?

Security is an important question in a world where smart home objects have microphones and cameras, but Z-Wave has yet to have any serious security concerns as a standard.

However, just like Wi-Fi can be secure and the devices connected to it are not, Z-Wave has the same problem. An early Z-Wave door lock was found to have poorly implemented design, making it a risky device. More recently, researchers have discovered the Z-Wave's backwards compatibility may be a security issue, although research into this is ongoing. However, unless you're using older Z-Wave devices, the latter issue is unlikely to affect you.

Fortunately, communications between each Z-Wave node are also encrypted, and to pair a Z-Wave device to your network, you'll need to use either a PIN placed somewhere in the packaging or on the device, or scan a QR code placed on the device in a place it can't be easily seen when packaged.

A Z-Wave light switch
ZLink

Another security advantage is that, in 2016, the Z-Wave Alliance made its security software open source so white hat hackers could test it for weaknesses. This is important, as “closed” software is much more difficult to study, making it potentially more vulnerable if a flaw is discovered.

Automating your home can be a useful productivity tool, and can even help some of us live independently. Researching all your smart home options is a wise choice, but if you don't want Wi-Fi in your home, Z-Wave may be right for you.