What is the Difference Between Zigbee and Z-Wave

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In the world of smart homes, two protocols reign supreme: Zigbee and Z-Wave. While the two technologies sport similar functions, they are different. You might be asking yourself how? The answer is relatively simple, but it does require a bit of research, understanding, and insight into how they operate.

The difference between Zigbee and Z-Wave is that Zigbee uses open source technology which means any manufacturer can use it unlike Z-Wave, which operates under a unified standard. Also, Zigbee and Z-wave run on different frequency bands, even though they both use a mesh network.

If you already own a smart home device, like an Amazon Echo Show (on Amazon), you may have considered adding other smart products. But, if you plan on setting up a complete range of smart devices, it is good to understand these protocols. Assessing your system and comparing it to the differences in protocols is a great start. To help you along your journey, let’s explore how these technologies work and what makes them different. 

How do Zigbee and Z-Wave Work?

Icons of various electric components and background of electric circuit board

Both Zigbee and Z-Wave operate on the same general technology: mesh networks. Mesh networks use a similar technology to WiFi or Bluetooth (more on how they work in our guide) but can be more useful in a home situation. This is because they use the devices connected to the network as nodes for signal transmission. 

What does this mean? It means that your mesh network has the capability of covering an area more thoroughly than your WiFi network. Additionally, the nodes act in a way that relays the signal to other nodes. This means that instead of the signal getting weaker the farther a device is from the source, like a WiFi router, you restart the signal at the device, so that each new device effectively extends the range and acts as a new link in the chain.

For example, let’s say you want to communicate to a device that is 100 feet away. If you are using your WiFi network, chances are the signal will be weak when it arrives. If you are in a building with thick walls, signal strength can be limited even more through interference. 

In contrast, a mesh network like the ones used by Zigbee and Z-Wave can relay the signal. Using the connected nodes, they can reach farther areas without the loss of signal strength. This translates to a more stable signal, even if you are in an area with thick walls or other signal obstructions. 

A mesh network works optimally when there are many nodes to choose from. Here, you can see why they are the chosen tech for smart homes. Basically, the more smart devices you have, the better your mesh network will perform. But, while both Zigbee and Z-Wave use mesh networks, there are some differences between the two.

Code

Zigbee and Z-Wave have taken different approaches to how they distribute their product/code. Z-Wave operates on a proprietary code, which means it is locked away. Zigbee, on the other hand, has designed its protocol to be open-source. This means that any manufacturer that wants to produce a product that works with Zigbee can.

They don’t have to ask for permission to use the protocol as it is free for any developer to access. But, what does this mean for a consumer? To put it simply, it all comes down to what products are supported. Put both protocols against each other, and you will see a similar list of sponsored products. 

  • Z-Wave has an alliance made up of over 700 companies with over 2,400 supported products.
  • Zigbee sports 400 companies in their alliance with around 2,500 products on the list. 

Furthermore, Zigbee devices can operate on different versions of the protocol. The problem is that not all are compatible with each other. This means that even if you have all Zigbee devices, they may not work together. In contrast, Z-Wave operates under a unified standard. Any Z-Wave device will work with another, regardless of version and age. 

Frequency

While both Z-Wave and Zigbee operate on industrial science and telecommunication electromagnetic bands, many popular consumer electronics operate on these bands as well (Bluetooth, WiFi, even your microwave). But, what separates the two is on which channels within the band they use. 

  • Zigbee – This protocol uses 915 MHz and 2.4GHz bands. If this sounds familiar, it is because they are the same bands used with WiFi technology.
  • Z-Wave – Z-Wave operates on a lower frequency range between 800-900 MHz

Some have argued that because Zigbee uses frequency bands similar to WiFi, it could be troublesome. As we’ve explained before in our article on 5G and 5GHZ, this is because too many devices operating on a single band can cause interference. If you have ever had problems working on an IR remote control, you already know about this.

The reality, though, is that Zigbee has already considered this problem. They have implemented interference-preventing technology and they also try to communicate on different channels other than WiFi. So, while you may run into issues if you are in a home filled with smart devices, for most of us, interference is not something to worry about. 

Also, keep in mind that the lower the frequency, the less data can be transmitted. This means that the limitation on, say, a 900MHz band is about 100kb/s. Compare that to WiFi, which operates with signals that can deliver speed around 25mb/s. The difference is that most smart home systems don’t need those high data transfers. For the most part, mesh networks deal with transferring small amounts of data. 

Supported Devices

Another factor that separates the two protocols is the number of devices that can be connected. Similarly, there is also a difference in the number of nodes that each protocol can “hop.” By hop, we mean the way the mesh network communicates. One hop would be a single device relaying the information to another. 

ProtocolNumber of Supported DevicesNumber of Hops
Zigbee65,000Unlimited
Z-Wave2324

For most consumers, 232 devices and four hops will be sufficient. If you are working with a mansion filled with smart devices, Zigbee may be the right choice. Also, if you are planning on using your mesh network in a business or enterprise setting, Zigbee can offer more flexibility. But, for most users, you can use either without any issues or limitations.

What are Zigbee and Z-Wave Used For?

Both protocols are incredibly popular and are used in a wide variety of products. While it is true that Z-Wave and Zigbee are not interchangeable, some products can use both. But, as far as different types of products, you’ll find similar devices in each camp.

Understanding what actual components you need to operate these devices can be a bit of a hurdle, but luckily the device makers know this and offer some pretty good direction. On the Yale Assure lock listed below, the manufacturer explains: “Lock and unlock your door from anywhere by adding the lock to a compatible Z-Wave smart home or alarm system and app […] Requires compatible hub.”

So in this case, it’s clear we need a separate Z-Wave enabled hub like Hubitat Elevation Home Automation Hub (on Amazon) to use this lock. This example demonstrates a detail you have to understand to get this right: a Z-Wave and a Zigbee device don’t work automatically with your home.

If you have a Wi-Fi network, some devices will advertise they connect through Wi-Fi, and those will work instantly. But if you don’t already have a Z-Wave or Zigbee enabled hub, you’ll need to get one before those devices will work.

Z-Wave Products

Zigbee Only Devices

Dual Compatibility

As you can see, there is a lot of crossover for compatibility in types of products. Generally speaking, you should be able to find a class of products for each protocol. There are even companies that make the same product but for both Z-Wave and Zigbee. 

When constructing a network of smart devices, these protocols don’t piggyback off your WiFi network. Much like Bluetooth, a new connection is made independent of your wireless. This translates to more robust systems made of many devices. This is the beauty of the mesh network.

The more you have, the better it works. It’s also worth mentioning that you can even use these two protocols together. If you are using a smart hub that can use both protocols, you can easily add both types of devices to your network. 

How to Pick Between Zigbee and Z-Wave

You may have already gathered by now that the differences between the two are relatively small. Yes, Z-Wave and Zigbee indeed represent separate protocols with their own benefits. But, to build a smart home network, each protocol can work for most needs. 

This means that for the common user, either will suit their smart home set up. It is even possible to run both networks if you find a device that you want that runs on the opposite system. While, for basic applications, differences are menial, there are some situations where one is more favorable than the other.

Zigbee is better optimized for larger spaces, businesses, and any application with more than 232 wireless smart devices. In contrast, Z-Wave can be more user-friendly, which gives it a slight edge for consumer and home applications.

Z-Wave also tends to be more expensive. But, with this expense comes the advantage of being relatively future-proof. This is because of the compatibility between Z-Wave builds and devices, a feature that Zigbee lacks. 

What are the Security Concerns with Zigbee and Z-Wave

When it comes to security, both Zigbee and Z-Wave are fairly well matched. They both use the AES 128 Standard for encryption. AES 128 is the same level of encryption used on a secure WiFi network. While there is little chance that your signal encryption would be hacked, with access to vulnerable devices, no system is safe from all foul play.

It is worth noting that Z-Wave has made news in the last few years about security issues. Recently, a problem with a vulnerable access point in older systems has allowed hackers to get into your network. A security testing firm Pen Test Partners found the vulnerable point, and Z-Wave has assured users that its protocol is secure. 

While the vulnerable spot was minuscule and could only have access in specific network situations, this may sway your opinion if you are concerned about security.

Conclusion

Both Zigbee and Z-Wave make for excellent smart home networks. They essentially accomplish the same tasks but with slightly different benefits. Generally speaking, you should be fine using either one. If you are not super tech-savvy, you may have more luck with Z-Wave. Compare that to Zigbee, which is better for larger spaces with more devices.

As these technologies advance, they start to overlap their benefits. But, with Z-Wave offering a unified standard for their products, it may be worth the higher price tag. Either way, you can rest assured your home network will be up and running with all the latest smart devices.

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