Using Z-Wave home automation to build a smart home
- By: Ashley Saunders
- November 2018
When it comes to consumer level smart home tech, Z-Wave is a brand that constantly pops us. What makes a Z-Wave home automation system exciting is underlying technology, the range of available products, and it’s compatibility with a range of other smart home protocols.
While it works completely different from Lightwave, the two share many similarities. Since comparing the two is beyond the scope of this piece, we’ll have to settle that debate at a later date.
Plus, with big brands such as Bosch, Honeywell and Yale on board, it’s easy to see that Z-Wave home automation is only getting started and will continue to grow. So where did it all start?
With over 18 years of history, Z-Wave has been around a long time! In 2001, a Danish company named Zensys set about to design a new way to control the home and so, the Z-Wave home automation protocol was born.
Later that year, Zensys introduced a consumer light-control system. After a short while, this system evolved into Z-Wave as a proprietary system on a chip (SoC) home automation protocol, which uses an unlicensed frequency band in the 900 MHz range. As a lower power alternative to Wi-Fi, the protocol has a much bigger range than Bluetooth.
By 2005, our friends in the USA started developing products around the protocol, enabling users to add basic automation to their homes. It was around this time that five companies, including Danfoss, Ingersoll-Rand and Leviton Manufacturing, adopted Z-Wave. Together they formed the Z-Wave Alliance, whose objective is to promote the use of Z-Wave technology.
Since then the technology has grown from being included in 6 products in 2005 to over 2,400 products in 2018. Not bad for an evolving market!
A typical Z-Wave home automation system home has a hub, the brains of the shows as well as a number of devices which link into this hub. These devices control such things as heating, blinds, power, lighting and other functions.
As devices communicate wireless with each other, they create a strong mesh which improves connectivity and ensures drop-outs are virtually non-existent. And because they use a low frequency to communicate, unlike Zigbee and Wi-Fi, there’s no major interference issues.
Plus as a protocol used by over 700 manufactures, it’s likely there’s at least one product on the market which will solve your issue and seamlessly integrate with an existing system. Whether you use a hub from Aeon Labs with Honeywell heating controls or a Z-Wave.me RaZberry 2 PI with some Fibaro devices.
Again this provides the ultimate flexibility when compared to other systems like Control4 or Lightwave.
Selecting the brain
At the heart of every Z-Wave home automation system is a hub and unlike other home automation systems, there’s a few to choose from.
For a long time, the Mi Casa Verde would be the one we’d often see on YouTube reviews and demos. However, this unit is now discontinued. Replacing it is the VERA Edge, which can control a whopping 1300 compatible devices. We’re sure you could control a palace and still have room for more devices!
If that’s too much or you’re looking for a sleeker unit then Aeotec Z-Stick is a superb option. This highly affordable USB stick can control up to 232 devices and also works with the new Z-Wave plus protocol. The only downside to the Aeotec is you’ll need to find and install software (such as OpenHAB or HomeAssistant). However, it does work with Raspberry Pi.
You could, however, go down the Fibaro route. The brand offers a range of hubs as well as controls and so can be used to build a large chunk of a system. Their flagship model – Fibaro FGHC2 Home Center 2 can control up to 230 devices.
While the three hubs above are all fantastic, if you’re slightly intimidated or unsure where to start then the Samsung SmartThings Starter Kit might be your best option.
Included in the Samsung kit is a hub, a plug-in-and-play socket, three sensors. It’s worth the £165 price tag. In addition to working with other Z-Wave devices and apps, you can also control the system via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
Building a home automation system for the first time or exploring a different type of smart home, it’s best to start with one feature in a single room and build from there. For example, you can easily add smart bulbs and more plug-in-and-plug sockets, giving you near total control of your living room.
From there, you can expand lighting control to the whole house by using either smart bulbs or DIY retrofittable dimmers. It’s a good idea to expand slowly, giving yourself time to fully test new feature and functions. This way you can easily problem solve and not be left with a mess!
Building your Z-Wave home automation system
Let the fun begin! We’re going to build a system around the Vera Edge as it’s affordable and can control a humongous amount of devices.
So what will our Vera Edge control? We’ll start with the basics of lights, power and heating.
Starting with power, currently, only plug-in-and-play devices are available. Typically these range from as low as £10 up to £55. While plug-in-and-play don’t look as nice as retrofitted sockets (such as the Lightwave ones), they do afford instant control without any DIY or tools.
Our top pick is the NEO Coolcam Power Plug, which at £32 is a little pricey, but work with both Vera and Fibaro.
Moving on to light. There’s plenty of options here, including a range of bulbs, dimmer modules, plug-in-and-play lamp holders and retrofit light switches. So the choice is yours!
In terms of prices, plug-in-and-play lamp holders are your cheapest option at £10. Whereas bulbs such as the Aeotec LED Bulb start at £30.
Based offer a range of dimmer switches with both single and double gang switches available. Of course, these will require you to replace your current light switches. Whereas Fibaro offers a range of dimmer modules, which are easily wired into the existing back box and so it’s possible to keep your light switches.
When it comes to heating, a few options are available depending on the type of control you’re after. At one end, there’s plenty of Z-Wave enable thermostats available, which afford basic control. If you’re looking for control over each room then there are a few TRV options on the market. These include the Popp POPE010101 Radiator Thermostat.
So with the basics covered, what else can we control?
There’s a wide range of security products available, including cameras, motion sensors, doorbells and door locks. So you can leave your home knowing that it’s safe and that you see in real time what’s happening.
Staying close to security, a number of blind controls are available, for example, Fibaro has a module which can control any AC device. So you can easily control blinds, garage doors or any device with a motor.
Home Cinema and Media
As we have a soft spot for movies, let’s explore what available in the media category. While there’s no hardware which uses Z-Wave, using Logitech Harmony Ultimate Hub, you can add further controls to your TV, DVD/BluRay and games consoles. While the Logitech costs around £100 mark, it’s a time saver and can even be run using its own app.
If you want to use Sonos then you’ll need to invest in a bridge in order to get the two systems to talk.
There’s a number of apps out there include ones which enable you to combine different systems into an easy to use layout. The right option for you will depend on the hub you choose. For example, Fibaro has a fantastic app, for which there are many add-ons. Our favourite app is the openHAB, which works well with any system and provides effortless control.
There are also a few controllers on the market enable a user to save/recall scenes. These devices are great for controlling lighting for example or as a way to turn everything off on your way out.
As an open source protocol, Z-Wave is fairly easy to hack. And while security patches and updates are being added all the time, the wrong hands could cause problems.
It’s worth checking that you’re buying the latest version and if any software or firmware updates are available. Regardless of what you buy, you should keep units up to date as this helps to protect your smart home from hackers.
As a wireless network, devices pair with each other, and some users have experienced devices randomly unpairing with the system. And while we haven’t seen many of these issues, it’s worth rigorously testing every new device that you add. Of course, this could also be a software issue which is fixed by an update.
Another issue with wireless networks, in general, is wall thickness. So if you do live in a 16th-century barn conversion with metre thick walls, then you might face connectivity issues. Luckily, repeaters are available which should solve this issue.
Can I use …?
Regardless of how amazing the available product range is, it’s also worth considering how other major tech interfaces with Z-Wave.
While the two are in competition with each other, combining Z-Wave and Lightwave is extremely simple through using Athom Homey. The Homey can be used to control Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and more, creating a single unified smart home system.
Again as a competing system, combining the HomeKit with a Z-Wave home automation system might be tricky. Apple has released a bridge which aims to enable the two to talk, however, there are limits and restrictions.
The good news is that the Athom Homey can be used to bridge the gap and enable the two to work in harmony.
Z-Wave and IFTTT were built for each other! Well, not quite but the two interact with each other seamlessly. If you don’t have a clue about IFTTT, then read our introduction to IFTTT for home automation.
Yes, you can use all of your Sonos gear with Z-Wave. However, it’s easier to combine Sonos with a Fibaro system, for example than others.
The Fibaro system has a Sonos app that is easily installed within the Home Center control app. If you’re using a Vera then you’ll have to invest in a bridge or use an app which can control both.
Amazon Alexa / Google Home
The future of Z-Wave home automation
If anything can be predicted about Z-Wave home automation is it will continue to expand with new products and brands.
We would like to see more Z-Wave ready hardware come onto the market such as fridges, kettle (the Smarter iKettle looks cool!) and media devices.
Being able to interface with voice-activated tech means the future is already here and this put it’s ahead of most of the competition.
Overall, Z-Wave home automation is the system we’ve been looking for. The entry price is cheap enough for anyone to get started. Plus as it’s DIY friendly, you don’t have any expensive installation costs.
All in all, we recommend starting with an eBay search for Fibaro products. Remember to start with one feature in a single room and build from there.