Smart Home Plus: Z-Wave of the Future?

Not long ago, I had an extended conversation with Mark Walters, the Chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance. Our discussion ranged pretty much across the board as far as the smart home topic was concerned, including how quickly the landscape is changing (not quite daily, although it seems that way) and the various companies – both large and small – that are trying to stake their technological claims in this relatively new territory. Clearly, the consensus is that there’s lots of money to be made in the smart home automation business. The problem, however, for both manufacturers and retailers is choosing a space that’s full of milk and honey rather than settling in what will eventually become a electronic ghost town complete with rolling tumbleweeds of discarded protocols and standards. Consumers, by the way, are basically collateral-damage-in-waiting during this high-tech land grab. (But that’s part of the risk you take as an early adopter, I suppose.)

Mark, of course, has a vested interest in promoting an ever-increasing adoption of the Z-Wave wireless communication standard amongst manufacturers of smart home hubs and home automation devices. He makes a good case for it. (He should. He’s been at it for close to 10 years.) The Z-Wave Alliance, for instance, has over 250 member companies; and there are well over 1,000 Z-Wave-enabled “interoperable” products on the market. There’s more than one bit of good news for consumers in those statistics. First of all, there are lots of devices from which to choose – although, it should be said, that not all of those 1,000+ products are intended for the average DIY smart home. Regardless of the intended demographic, since all Z-Wave devices are required to be “interoperable” as part of the standard, no individual brand or group can attempt to limit competition by implementing a proprietary spin-off sub-standard of the Z-Wave protocol. According to Mark, the result is classic, textbook Market Economics 101: lower prices and higher quality.

But having worked with quite a few of the new, DIY smart home hubs that are now available, I had questions about the “interoperable” aspect of Z-Wave devices. My experience so far with the Revolv, SmartThings, and Staples Connect Hubs has made it plainly clear that these Hub makers aren’t solely interested in selling customers a hub (or two) to smarten up their homes. It sure seems like they want to get a piece of the action on the automation gadgets that are going to go into those homes. Until just a few days ago, all three of the aforementioned companies made it very easy to buy compatible smart devices and sensors directly from within their apps. Not surprisingly, the Staples Connect app links to Press “Shop” in SmartThings’ app, and you’ll be taken to SmartThings’ online store where you can purchase SmartThings’ branded items as well as plenty of third-party devices. Revolv’s app used to have a “Buy Devices” menu button, but it disappeared after the release of the new Android and updated iOS apps. Revolv still makes it easy to buy devices (via Amazon) through the company’s website. “Gee whiz, Mr. Peabody! Now your smart home can help you spend money, too…”

At this point, it’s important to note that not all of the smart devices and sensors you can buy through these apps are exclusively Z-Wave. Many of SmartThings’ Things, for instance, incorporate ZigBee connectivity. Revolv is compatible with Insteon- and a variety of Wi-Fi-enabled devices. But these protocols don’t boast the same interoperable mandate that Z-Wave devices do.

The crux of my question to Mark at Z-Wave had to do with the way in which you add Z-Wave devices to these smart home hubs. Each hub’s app offers a variety of pre-selected smart devices that are labeled and usually include a dedicated icon or image. It’s super-easy, for example, to add a Yale Real Living Electronic KeyFree Touchscreen Z-Wave deadbolt to the Staples Connect system because there’s a picture of the lock along with detailed installation instructions within the app. (Ditto for some Schlage and Kwikset Z-Wave locks.)

If I decide to use a generic Z-Wave Electronic Door Lock from Monoprice, however, I have to add the device manually because it’s info isn’t already included in the app. Adding a Z-Wave device manually is very easy and usually amounts to telling the app you want to include a Z-Wave device and then pressing a button on the device itself. The problem I’ve run into when manually adding devices, however, is that some devices aren’t represented in the app accurately.

One specific example happened when I added a Linear WA105DBZ Z-Wave Sounder, which is a siren with an integrated red LED strobe, to the SmartThings hub. The hub added the Z-Wave Sounder quickly, but it categorized the device as a switch. I can understand that, because that’s essentially what Linear’s Z-Wave Sounder is: a switch that turns the siren/strobe on or off. So, yes, it’s interoperable within the SmartThings system; but the app doesn’t make using Linear’s Z-Wave Sounder as intuitive as you would hope.

Here’s the gist of how Mark explained the issue to me, as well as the upcoming solution. The Z-Wave Alliance requires that if a hub supports a particular category of device, then it must support all Z-Wave devices in that category. In other words, if it supports a Kwikset Z-Wave lock, then the hub must work with all other Z-Wave locks. If it supports anyone’s Z-Wave motion sensor, then it has to support all manufacturers’ Z-Wave motion sensors. (The reverse is also true. There’s no requirement that a Z-Wave enabled hub must support all Z-Wave device categories. If a hub-maker doesn’t want to support Z-Wave switches, for instance, it doesn’t have to.)

But there’s support, and then there’s support. That Linear Z-Wave Sounder certainly works as it’s supposed to within the SmartThings system; and, as long as you don’t care about the icon and (in some cases) the proper name of the device, there’s no doubt that it’s “interoperable”. But DIY smart home systems are supposed to be consumer friendly – and I don’t think this situation qualifies as friendly to anyone.

The solution to some of this confusion is Z-Wave Plus, and you’ll be hearing more about it soon. For the moment, here are a few of the most important things to know. To begin with, Z-Wave Plus will be fully backwards compatible, so all of your existing Z-Wave devices (which will now be referred to as Z-Wave Classic) will coexist just fine in systems with Z-Wave Plus connectivity. The new Sigma Designs chip used in Z-Wave Plus devices has more on-board memory, which means there’s now enough space on the chip for to include more features and more elaborate identification information. Soon you won’t have to rely on the hub makers to include (or not include) more specific details on various Z-Wave Plus devices that you might want to add to your smart home system.

Z-Wave Plus details were given to developers in October of 2013. The first Z-Wave Plus certified device was released in May of this year. Leak Intelligence’s Leak Gopher is a smart water valve that allows remote control of water systems and can be used to shut off water valves when a water sensor in the system detects water where it shouldn’t be – like on the floor beneath your water heater tank.

There’s a lot more to talk about from a technology standpoint, including the chip’s better radio and power efficiency; but I think the marketing aspect of including more of a device’s information in the device itself is a great improvement. There’s enough to think about when setting up your smart home and programming it to do what you want – and reprogramming it when you discover things you thought would be cool and useful are actually quite annoying. Z-Wave Plus looks like it’s going to make smart homes smarter and easier – and that’s a huge plus.

BadCommand's picture

Oh come on, I'm suppose to trust a critical system with a manufacturer that can't even spell check their website. I would hate to experience a "burst pope". And what's even worse is the the product is now called a "Leak Goher".

That's the problem with zwave, often time many of the companies, and the devices they present, just feel half baked. Even big players like GE that have one of the best selling lamp modules suffer from this. That is the module is HUGE and has in my experience has a high failure rate. Come on GE, you can't make a zwave lamp module smaller that 4x3x1.5" ugly ass wall wart? Then I compare their module to something like the Nest thermostat and feel like zwave is 20 years behind.

What I'm hoping/waiting for is that Google or Apple come out with a complete, well thought out, home integration system. But I guess until then, I'll have to do with zwave. With that said, I don't think it would take much for the hammer to fall on zwave.

stiege's picture

Hey BadCommand, it's SUPPOSED to, not suppose to