Defining a “Smart Home"
"Smart Home" is a phrase that is often used in our marketing, but it may mean different things to different people. Answering the question “what is a smart home?” will help a beginner get the most out of his or her investment, and allow Zwaveproducts.com to better answer any questions that come up. I answer hundreds of questions; from elderly homeowners to professional installers. Most people that I chat with want to dabble in technology, make their lives a little easier, add some level of security, and be able to impress friends and family.
Home ‘assistant’ and 'smart speaker' devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home have become staples in many households, and are usually a gateway to home automation, once the user starts exploring options. The Amazon Echo (Alexa) has been a popular entry device into home automation, but its capabilities are sometimes misunderstood. But does adding a voice controlled device constitute a smart home? For many Alexa users, voice-controlling a few WiFi light bulbs is sufficient. On the other end of the spectrum, some users want the security of a panel from a nationally known alarm company, and will pay the monthly fees to have it monitored. Everyone is different, and the definition of a 'smart home' usually falls somewhere in between a single device and a million-dollar newly constructed showplace. This makes answering emails with the vague statement, “What do I need to get started in home automation?” a little difficult. It also adds spice when we sit around and discuss what is necessary to go into a ‘get started’ kit.
Nobody is more qualified to answer the question of what you need, than you. We can help you with describing the technology and what the device is called, but you either have something in your head, or you have seen a demo of something done. Start there. Concentrate on what your smart home is supposed to do for you. Read the following primer that discusses the more technical side, and then references some of our best devices (more information on any device can be found by clicking on the link, where available). When you’re done, contact us for more information on putting together a compatible Z-Wave network that’s right for you.
RF Protocols and Compatibility
Devices have varying levels of compatibility, depending on the radio protocol (language) you choose. There are pros and cons for each type. WiFi has great compatibility, but as it is broadcast where anyone can catch the signal, devices require passkeys to keep it secure. Bluetooth has a similar range and security concern as WiFi, but it’s only peer-to-peer, meaning there is no mesh network (you can’t add and utilize multiple devices at one time). Zigbee is a RF protocol that uses small bits of info, and its secret nature keeps it secure. Battery life is increased in battery-operated Zigbee devices, since there isn’t a lot of information transferred. Zigbee’s big flaw is its lack of cohesive operation between different brands. If you buy a controller from brand ABC and a bulb from XYZ, there’s a pretty good chance that they will not work together. Still, Zigbee is a ahead of WiFi and Bluetooth when it comes to running the show in your smart home. Z-Wave is our favorite RF protocol for controlling smart devices in the home automation field. Every controller has a secret home ID; every node has an ID assigned to that controller. Battery-operated devices benefit from long life due to tiny information transfers, and mains-powered devices work together in a mesh network to make sure each devices stays online. Devices from different manufacturers have a better than average chance of communicating together, thanks to the Z-Wave Alliance and their rules for certification. There’s a reason why were are zwaveproducts.com. We had (and still have) the chance to work with any RF radio we wanted, and we chose Z-Wave because we feel it is the best. Other protocols that are installed on popular gateways are Kidde and Lutron’s Clear Connect. They are similar to Zigbee and have a place in the smart home, but we still prefer Z-Wave.
Why is a hub necessary?
All Z-Wave networks start with a Z-Wave hub. Popular models are VeraPlus, WINK 2, Samsung's SmartThings and FIBARO Home Center. A Z-Wave hub will sometimes be referred to as a Z-Wave controller. A hub with several radios is commonly called a gateway. No matter what the name, the purpose of the hub is to act as a central point between the internet and your Z-Wave devices. This allows you to control (or receive information from) your smart home, anywhere you can get to the internet. Z-Wave is exceptionally modular, so you can keep the costs down as you build your automation network. Most of our new customers get a hub and a few wall switches (or plug-in switches) and go from there.
You almost can’t make a bad decision with getting started, as long as you know what your long term goals are. Ask your installer, or us, for more help on determining the correct hub for those goals. Buying a hub that won’t work with Amazon Echo will be a poor choice if one of your goals is to control lights from Alexa. If cameras are a big draw, you’re not going to be happy if your shiny gateway won’t run multiple cameras. Hopefully this “Getting Started” guide will help you understand what you are getting into. Why is a hub necessary with Z-Wave and not with WiFi? Because your smart phone doesn’t have the Z-Wave chip required to talk directly from App to device. The WiFi that’s in your smart phone controls the WiFi device, but also contributes to a very crowded and unstable network. Shop Z-Wave Controllers here.
Adding Lighting Controls
Once you have a hub, you’ll most likely consider adding some lighting controls. The line of ZLINK wall switches feature the ZL-WD-100 Smart Dimmer, ZL-WS-100 Smart Switch, and ZL-WA-100 Accessory Switch (for 3, 4, and 5 way applications). These devices work with almost any hub, which makes them simple from the smart home point of view. However, you’ll need to understand some electricity DIY basics, including if you have a neutral wire in the wall switch box (necessary, but not always present). Changing switches can be easy, but understand what you are getting into; contact an electrician if you feel overwhelmed. For lamp control with a different spin, consider an in-wall smart receptacle, like the GE 14288 In-Wall Smart Duplex Outlet. This device features two outlets; one Z-Wave controlled, and one always powered.
Energy Savings via Climate Control
Wrestling the heating or A/C bill is a fairly easy concept. Change the thermostat and apply some automation (discussed later). However, like lighting controls, replacing your stat assumes you know a little bit about what is going on with that wire that runs from your living room to your furnace. Manufacturers do a great job describing the 50 ways your HVAC system could be wired, but its ultimately up to you (or your hired pro) to ensure correct installation. Z-Wave thermostats allow the user to view and adjust the heating or cooling for your home- or vacation home- or business, from anywhere.
With a smart thermostat, like the Trane XL624 pictured above, a user can add climate control and reap energy savings from his/her smart home.
For those with line-voltage baseboard heat, the Stelpro STZW402B+ does the job very well.
The Ecolink Firefighter listens to your installed ‘dumb’ smoke and CO2 alarms, and can trigger a scene that kicks off a siren and sends a notification to your phone.
Securing your Home - Door Locks
Due to the security of the Z-Wave signal, lever locks and dead bolts are a popular addition to any smart home. Right now, our Z-Wave door locks will fit standard residential-style doors. For efficiency (battery life as well as secure locking) the door must be square and easy to close. If you find yourself leaning a shoulder into the door panel to squish 15 years of weatherstripping, a smart lock will not be a good choice for you. I find that a deadbolt gives me more security, and I recommend pairing the smart lock of your choice with a ‘dumb’ lever lock of the same color/manufacturer.
In order to understand camera integration, you will need to know a little background. Z-Wave is a radio protocol that allows a little bit of information to be shared. Bits are sent then acknowledged, and through this process your gateway tells your door lock to open, or your hall light to turn off. There is only enough information for directions, but not enough for any real meaty information. This is important, because while many devices have unlimited power (plugged in or wired to 120VAC), many are battery powered. This information has to be powerful enough to automate an entire house but also not drain the battery life of motion sensors, thermostats, and door locks. That rules out any bandwidth-heavy information draws like video, music, emails, and security cameras; items like that are usually left for WiFi or cellular transmission. So, why doesn’t Z-Wave use WiFi to communicate? Because WiFi is a very crowded place, and Z-Wave has proprietary means of securing information, so your neighbor isn’t turning his lights on and unlocking your back door, etc. What the home automation industry has done is in the form of integration. So your Z-Wave gateway handles all of your Z-Wave devices, and allows a connection to IP cameras via WiFi or a corded connection. Not to mention WiFi would really tax those battery operated devices and you’d be sending us your battery bills. All cameras, even those marketed as "Z-Wave Cameras," use a wired or WiFi connection to operate. Cameras can be key to any smart home, but understanding integration leads to many questions.
I have “Z-Wave Controller X.” Will any of your cameras work? Just like Z-Wave, all these devices are expected to work, regardless of make or model. I find a lot of that to not be true. Our cameras will not work with WINK, and will not work with Nexia Bridge unless expressly made for this purpose. The cameras that we carry will work with many of the major alarm companies with two caveats: Some will not let you include 3rd party cameras into their systems, and some will not let you include any cameras without paying for a plan. Shop All Cameras here.
While 'smart home' and 'security system' are sometimes used interchangeably, both phrases are actually pretty different. Regardless, you can add security to your home automation by scaring off intruders with a GoControl WA105DBZ-1 Siren and Strobe. Low voltage systems (zone valves, irrigation systems) can be added to your Z-Wave network using a relay, like the Remotec ZFM-80 15A Dry Contact Module. Want to keep your controls in your pocket? Aside from your smart phone, you can also control scenes from a remote, like the Aeotec ZW088-A Key Fob.
So, taking into account the primer on the hardware listed above, what are some basic things that you can do in a smart home?
• Get a notification that a child or spouse got home safely (hub and smart lock)
• Create scenes for entertaining, utility, safety, energy savings (hub and wall dimmers, plug-in switches, Smart LED bulbs, or any combo of these)
• Turn a dumb coffee pot into coffee waking you up in the morning (hub and appliance module + dumb coffee pot)
• Monitor your home via your smart phone from work (hub and IP camera)
• Create a schedule for your HVAC system that is as flexible as you want to make it. (hub and smart thermostat)
• Automatic closet/utility room lighting that turns off when nobody is using it (hub, door/window sensor, and Smart LED bulb)
• Have your outside lights come on as soon as you get home (geofence via the hub, wall switches controlling the outside lighting)
• Receive a notification on your phone that water is in your basement (hub and water sensor)
• Turn your lights on/off/dim via Amazon Echo (Echo-compatible hub, Amazon Echo, and wall dimmers, plug-in switches, Smart LED bulbs, or any combo of these)
• Scare away a prowler using a scene controller/key fob (hub, remote, and your choice of lighting controls)
• Get a notification on your smart phone if your home temperature has dropped (hub and smart thermostat)
• Water your lawn (or not) based on current weather forecast (hub, weather plug-in for your hub, smart relay)
• Alert the house (and neighborhood) of unauthorized entry into your home with a siren (hub, door/window sensor, siren/strobe)
What does a Smart Home mean to you? Ask the team at Zwaveproducts.com to help you put together your smart home automation system.
• Create a ticket using our Ask An Expert form. Our experts will take a look at your question, confer, and get you an answer; usually within a day.
• Need immediate help? Call our tech department at 201.706.7198 (9-5 Eastern Time, M-F).