What Is ZigBee?

Wireless technology for commercial uses and home automation

Zigbee is a communication protocol that controls smart home devices.

ZigBee is an open wireless communication standard based on a standard network architecture using an OSI model through an IEEE 802.15.4-2006 IP layer.

In plain English, think of Zigbee as a language that devices use to speak to each other. ZigBee 'speaks' in the same general terms that a Bluetooth or wireless device might. That means they can communicate without much difficulty. It also works in low-powered devices, that don't have huge bandwidth needs, so if a device is sleeping, Zigbee can send a signal to wake it up so they can begin communicating. For that reason, it's a popular communications protocol used in smart home devices. They key to remember, however, is that Zigbee speaks to devices, so it's technically part of the Internet of Things (IoT).

How Zigbee Communicates

ZigBee devices are designed to communicate via radio frequencies. ZigBee has adopted 2.4 GHz for its worldwide standard frequency. Because of potential bandwidth interference, ZigBee uses 915 MHz in the United States and 866 MHz in Europe.

ZigBee devices are of 3 types:

  • Coordinators control the network formation and security.
  • Routers pass on the signal and extend the network range.
  • End Devices perform specific tasks such as turning on a light or taking a reading.

It's the end devices that we're most concerned with. For example, you may have seen Zigbee associated with the Philips Hue family of products. Zigbee is what guides the wireless signals used to control these devices, and it's included in other types of products, such as smart switches, smart plugs, and smart thermostats.

ZigBee in Home Automation

ZigBee devices have been slow in gaining acceptance in the home automation market because they are open-source, which means the protocol can be altered by each manufacturer that adopts it. As a result devices from one manufacturer sometimes have difficulty communicating with devices from a different manufacturer. This can cause a home network to have poor and sporadic performance.

However, as the concept of the smart home matures, it's becoming more popular because it allows a wide range of control with a minimal number of smart hubs. For example, GE, Samsung, Logitech, and LG all produce smart home devices that leverage Zigbee. Even Comcast and Time Warner have included Zigbee in their set-top boxes, and Amazon has included it in the newest Echo Plus, which can serve as a smart hub. Zigbee also works with battery powered devices, which extends it's capabilities. 

The main downfall when using Zigbee is the range over which it communicates. That's about 35 feet (10 meters) while some other brands of communication protocols can communicate up to 100 feet (30 meters). However, range deficiencies are overcome by the fact that Zigbee communicates at greater speeds than other communications standards. So for example, Z-Wave devices might have a larger range, but Zigbee communicates faster, so commands make it from one device to the next faster reducing the time needed from command to action, or for example, reducing the time from when you say, "Alexa, turn on the living room lamp," to the time the lamp actually switches on. 

ZigBee in Commercial Applications

ZigBee devices are also known to excel in commercial applications because of its capabilities on the Internet of Things. ZigBee’s design lends itself to sensing and monitoring applications and its use in large-scale wireless monitoring is growing fast. Also, most IoT installations use products from only one manufacturer, or if they use more than one, the products are thoroughly tested for compatibility before installation.