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Smart homes: A guide to home automation protocols

Smart homes: A guide to home automation protocols

Turning your simple home into a smart home can be a time-consuming task. Making use of the best home automation systems undoubtedly eases the strain of taking  the ultimate technological control over the lights, appliances and various other devices in your home. However, you'll still need an appropriate home automation protocol to make sure that all the separate parts work together. 

A home automation protocol, also known as a home control technology, is a communication hardware language that transmits instructions to and from a device, either through wired or wireless communication. There are about a half dozen home automation protocols with various functionality. This guide will teach you more about each individual type of protocol, starting with the oldest protocols and working our way through to the newest.

X10

Developed in the 1970s, X10 is the oldest home automation protocol. X10 is a simple system that uses the power lines in your home to allow communication between devices and appliances. Since X10 uses the power lines, it is very reliable but subject to interference from other electrical devices in the circuit. Special noise filters can mitigate this interference. X10 is a primitive system and can only perform about 16 commands, sent one at a time.

Insteon

Insteon combines wired and wireless communication into a single system that offers great reliability and flexibility. The power line is typically used as a backup to the RF frequency used by the system. This allows commands to reach the proper destination with little to no interference. Insteon supports over 65,000 different commands and is one of the best options for upgrading the light switches in your home. Insteon offers limited compatibility with X10 devices, but with the proper equipment, you can streamline an older X10 system with Insteon technology.

Smart homes: A guide to home automation protocols

(Image credit: Getty)

UPB (Universal Powerline Bus)

UPB is a wired system developed in the late 1990s as an improvement to the technology that undergirds X10. UPB reduces the interference that sometimes plagues X10 by using high-power pulses to send its commands over power line circuits. UPB sends commands faster and can handle greater voltage loads than X10, enabling a broader range of applications. UPB is fully programmable beyond the simple commands of X10.

KNX

KNX appeared in Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s and spread from there to over 100 countries. The system operates in much the same way as Insteon, except that in addition to power lines and RF frequencies, the standard system also supports the transmission of commands over wireless infrared, twisted pair wiring and Ethernet cables. KNX is normally installed in a twisted pair wiring setup, which effectively eliminates electrical interference. If you choose the twisted pair wiring option, it will be necessary to install new wiring throughout your entire home, unlike with the other systems in this guide.

ZigBee

ZigBee is a type of wireless mesh network that is completely unlike any of its predecessors. In a mesh network, every device acts as a relay to send and receive information. Commands travel by relay through the network of devices until they reach their intended destination. Due to the nature of a mesh network's relay system, the wireless network can become larger, stronger and more reliable with each additional device added. 

It is common to see ZigBee devices from one manufacturer that are unable to communicate with those from a different manufacturer, likely because each device uses different methods of programming to accomplish the same tasks. For this reason, manufacturers use ZigBee as a way to limit third-party devices in closed systems.

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is the golden standard of wireless smart house systems. Z-Wave uses the same mesh networking strategy as ZigBee; however, Z-Wave devices are universally compatible with one another. Z-Wave is available on every type of device that you would want in a smart home. It is not as fast or powerful as ZigBee but makes up for this by being more efficient - it therefore doesn't need to be as fast or powerful.

Protocols that aren't specific to home automation

It's very likely that you've seen a light switch, LED light bulb or thermostat that uses Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or Near Field Communication (NFC). Since these control technologies are not inherently made for home automation, they are often poorly suited for the task. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth both require a great deal of energy to operate and drain batteries quickly, which makes them less than ideal for the battery-powered devices that often dominate a smart home.

Wi-Fi is a great choice to connect your computer or smartphone to the home automation controller or system, but it should ideally only be used for that purpose. NFC is a decent choice for home automation but requires close proximity to work properly. This requirement makes it a great choice for door locks and security system access, but not much else.

The final word on home automation protocols

Ultimately, you need to find a smart home system that fits your needs - whether that be for security, convenience or personalization, it all depends on your final goal. Once you know what you're aiming for, it will be easy to decide which system to use and then find out which home automation protocol, or combination of protocols, fulfills those requirements.