In 2017, our homes deal with more data than ever before. Whether through a cord connection or WiFi, a regular home has a constant stream of information. This is doubly true for the smart home.
There are a wide variety of different data formats and protocols that are used to keep your smart home online and functioning properly. Many of these protocols interface well together, working together to provide the ultimate in convenience and home security.
In this article we’ll discuss the basics of smart home technology, and get into more detail about how your connected home stays online and communicative.
Smart Home Protocols
As our homes become more and more connected, smart products need the capability to exchange information with multiple devices. To exchange this information, these products need to transmit data in the same way, i.e. communication protocols.
A protocol varies in technology and function, but generally accomplishes the same goal: sending a signal from one device to another in order to trigger an action. These actions can range from turning lights on or off to controlling a smart security system. Having a thorough understanding of the difference between protocols is a big benefit when you’re shopping around for devices for an automated home ecosystem. Each protocol has its pros and cons, which we’ll get into below.
Despite having separate manufacturers for different brands of products, communication protocols are developed by organizations or associations whose members decide on the specifics of how the technology will function. This agreement forms the backbone of how the protocol works, and leads to families of devices that interface seamlessly together.
Protocols vary in structure, with setups ranging from “open” design like KNX and Z-Wave, to private design where only certain manufacturers are allowed to use the protocol.
In all cases, protocols are executed via wireless or wired layers. It’s helpful to get acquainted with the most popular protocols and how they function in order to make a reliable and informed purchase.
Perhaps the most recognizable form of data transmission is Wi-Fi, a technology which uses radio waves to transmit data across a network. Many devices rely on this tech and it’s one of the most common ways for your home to stay connected and communicative.
Bluetooth is a wireless connection between two devices intended for continuous communication of data at a short range. This technology is perfect for devices like headsets, file transfers between two devices, wireless keyboards and printers, and wireless speakers. Smart home technology is also starting to take advantage of this technology for a reliable and capable data connection.
Bluetooth Low Energy
Additionally, Bluetooth has a low-energy setup known as Bluetooth Low Energy. This has particular uses for smart home technology in devices that value conserving power. By expending less effort to transmit and receive data, these devices will remain charged and active for longer periods of time, all while saving you money on your energy bill!
Thread is a relative newcomer to the smart technology scene, but is seeing some adoption due to its flexible setup. It sees particular use with battery-operated devices due to its ability to be easily secured.
ZigBee is a communication technology that’s very effective, but also much more selective in terms of the devices that it will work with. If you’re looking to build a smart home environment based off of this technology, make sure you do your research and purchase from the small pool of manufacturers that make devices that interface with the protocol.
Z-Wave has a decent history behind it, and has a pretty wide adoption in terms of smart devices. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck with a communication protocol, Z-Wave tech is one of the better options. The technology features two-way wireless communication, status updates, mesh networking to cover dead spots, and easy installation.
Z-Wave Plus is the new and improved Z-Wave protocol, with the above functions as well as additional perks like longer battery life, increased data transmission capability, and increased range.
X10 is one of the oldest communication protocols, and has been around for over 40 years. The technology uses the home’s wiring to transmit data, but has largely been rendered obsolete by protocols that are more reliable and less prone to interference.
UPB was supposed to replace X10, but still hasn’t managed to unseat the protocol with such an extensive history. UPB, or Universal Power Bus protocol, also uses your home’s wiring to communicate. It differs from X10, however, in increased efficiency and reliability — but most devices will not support it. The aging protocol is still less reliable than more modern alternatives, and makes wireless communication difficult.
KNX has been around for decades, but differs from the protocols above in that it remains one of the more popular forms of data transmission even in modern connected homes. It operates on more than one physical layer of infrastructure, such as your power lines and ethernet cables, for increased reliability and efficiency.
Insteon is rapidly becoming a major player in the communication protocol scene, and functions via dual wireless and power line protocols, combining them into a single smart home automation mesh. Many devices support insteon connections, so you’ll have a wide variety of products to choose from when building out your connected ecosystem.
ClearConnect is a communication protocol largely used by Lutron devices, so it’s somewhat limiting as far as supported devices. Still, if you’re comfortable sticking to the Lutron family, you’ll enjoy a reliable and efficient data connection that will keep your smart home running smoothly.
Connected Smart Home
As you can see, there are a wide variety of communication protocols — each with their benefits and drawbacks. But what if you want these protocols to interface together? After all, being able to take advantage of more than one protocol would open up an expanded product base for you to choose from.
Generally, protocols are still not directly compatible with each other. You can somewhat address this inconvenience by purchasing a smart hub (such as a SmartThings or Wink device) that supports multiple protocols. Voice-controlled home assistants, like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant, also offer the ability to unite smart products that offer support for this feature.
Keep in mind that devices with different protocols will need this extra step to translate into a language that your home assistant or hub can understand. Many products use a middleman of sorts, such as the Philips Bridge for the Philips Hue light bulbs, or the Lutron Smart Bridge for the Lutron Caseta dimmers.
With the way that communication protocols are currently set up, it’s often difficult to have devices with differing data transmission technologies. We hope that as technology continues to advance, it will become easier and easier to build a connected ecosystem that integrates multiple protocols for the optimum in reliability and convenience.