How Home Automation Protocols Work

Smart home devices are all the rage, but how do their communication protocols work?

Mindy Woodall
Managing Editor, Home Security & Smart Home
Read More
Published on December 28, 2020
3 min read

Home automation systems work through home automation protocols. These protocols are like languages your smart stuff uses to talk to each other and work together.

There are a bunch of protocols out there—including both wired and wireless options—but here we’ll focus on the most popular wireless home automation protocols.

Most popular home automation protocols: 

  • Z-Wave
  • Zigbee
  • Insteon
  • Bluetooth
  • Thread

Z-Wave

Pros
  • Popular among many smart home devices
  • Secure transmission
  • Low interference
Cons
  • Requires a central hub

Z-Wave is the “it girl” of the home automation world. It’s the most popular smart home protocol around, especially in the United States. And it’s easygoing. Z-Wave works with hundreds of different manufacturers and thousands of different smart home devices.

You’ll need a central Z-Wave hub to control all your smart devices. You can find standalone Z-Wave hubs that will integrate with third-party devices, like the Samsung SmartThings hub. SmartThings links all your smart devices together and lets you control them from a single app.

Another common way to implement a Z-Wave smart home system is through your home security system. Many home security systems build Z-Wave functionality into their control panels or base stations. Popular companies like ADT, Vivint, and Ring Alarm all offer Z-Wave integrations.

Zigbee

Pros
  • Very low energy use
  • Secure transmission
  • Common protocol for smart home devices
Cons
  • Requires a central hub

Zigbee is the runner-up in the protocol world. It’s a popular choice, but not quite as big as Z-Wave. Dedicated smart home hubs like Samsung SmartThings often work with both Z-Wave and Zigbee, which gives you the ultimate flexibility in choosing your devices.

Like Z-Wave, Zigbee uses radio waves to link your devices together and let them talk to each other. Zigbee also has the advantage of being a power-saving pro. It doesn’t take much power to run Zigbee devices, so you don’t have to worry about constantly changing batteries.

Zigbee Alliance logo

As for security systems, it’s usually one or the other. It’s pretty rare to see both Z-Wave and Zigbee functionality in the same system, but you can find it. Both Abode and Scout Alarm (two DIY home security systems) work with both Z-Wave and Zigbee.

Bluetooth

Pros
  • Easy to integrate new devices
  • Does not require a central hub
Cons
  • Extremely short range

If you’ve heard of any smart home protocol, it’s probably this one. Bluetooth is popular for more than just smart home stuff. You probably own Bluetooth devices already, like headphones, speakers, or keyboards.

Just like all the other cool protocol kids, Bluetooth uses radio waves to make devices talk to each other. But it has a much more limited range than Z-Wave or Zigbee. You have to be standing in pretty close proximity to control things using a Bluetooth connection.

Bluetooth logo

Smart home stuff rarely relies on Bluetooth alone to work. But you will see it used in things like Philips Hue smart lights and smart door locks. If you don’t want to rely on a central hub to control your smart devices, then Bluetooth is an option for hub-less control.

Insteon

Pros
  • Hybrid technology
  • Easy to set up
Cons
  • Restricted to Insteon products

Insteon is a hybrid protocol: it uses both wired and wireless technology. You’ll need a central hub for this protocol, namely the Insteon Hub. The hub lets you connect your devices together and control them from anywhere using your smartphone.

Fans like Insteon because it’s fast and easy to use. But it’s definitely not as popular as the other protocols on this list, and it works only with Insteon-branded products, like light switches, smart outlets, sensors, and thermostats.

Insteon offers a ton of different smart home devices, but it doesn’t have the same level of flexibility as Z-Wave or Zigbee.

Thread

Pros
  • Fast, reliable, and secure
  • Easy to integrate new devices
Cons
  • Limited compatibility

Thread is the newest protocol on our list. Thread was originally established by Google Nest (as in the Nest Cam and the Nest Learning Thermostat). Amazon, Apple, and a bunch of other companies have jumped on board since then and become part of what’s known as the Thread Group.

You’ll need a hub to use Thread. Just know that Thread calls its hubs “end routers.”

Thread uses a 2.4 GHz frequency, which is the same as Zigbee and Bluetooth. But the biggest differentiator for Thread is that it’s IP-based.

Z-Wave and Zigbee use their own networks, but Thread uses an IP network, which makes it easier for it to communicate with Wi-Fi networks and cellular networks. For you, that means it’s faster and more reliable at communicating across networks than some other smart home protocols.

Built on Thread logo

Recap

There are several smart home protocols to choose from, but the most popular ones have a lot in common. Whether you choose a Zigbee-, Z-Wave-, Insteon-, Bluetooth-, or Thread-based smart home ecosystem depends largely on which devices you want to use and which features are most important to you.

If you already have smart home devices, or a home security system, check to see which protocols they work with and what other devices you could add.

Now that you know, what’s next?

Find the best smart hub for your home

Check out the best smart home security systems

Mindy Woodall
Written by
Mindy Woodall
Mindy has been writing about technology for seven years. She covers all things smart home for Reviews.org, and keeps track of the latest robot gadgets. Mindy attended the University of Utah and her work has been featured on the likes of Parents.com, Digital Care, Hostfully, and more.

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