Control & Automation

Why Z-Wave is the Home Automation Market Leader ... for Now [UPDATED]

Shipments of Z-Wave vs. ZigBee chips will surprise you; news on Sigma 500 chipsets, Z-Wave Plus, IPv6 gateway, IMA for remote diagnostics, more.

Why Z-Wave is the Home Automation Market Leader ... for Now [UPDATED]
Z-Wave Unplug Fest -- interoperability has been the key to the home automation platform's success.
Julie Jacobson · November 26, 2014

ZigBee vs. Z-Wave: It always makes for a spirited conversation over the dinner table. If your dinner table is mine. And you’re a dork. And you have no friends outside of the home automation industry.

The conversation is about to get livelier now that ZigBee has announced 3.0, making the otherwise spottily-interoperable protocol a really interoperable protocol.

That is something that Z-Wave have given us all along – the ability for any compatible controller to communicate with any Z-Wave device, whether it’s a thermostat, light switch or sensor (but not necessarily a locks, due to security requirements).

About 100 people attended an annual conference and “Unplug-Fest” recently at the Carlsbad, Calif., headquarters of Linear and its home automation/security group 2Gig Technologies.

The conference, which included tracks on technology and marketing, schooled developers on the latest Z-Wave technology from chipset maker Sigma Designs, and allowed product manufacturers to test their early devices within a Z-Wave ecosystem.

And that ecosystem is enormous, with some 300 companies making more than 1,100 certified interoperable products from garage-door controllers to light bulbs to motorized shading solutions.

And did I say interoperable. Yes, yes I did. That is something that ZigBee is only just now getting around to, with ZigBee 3.0 expected to be ratified in Q4 2015. That would be one year away.

ZigBee & Z-Wave Shipments

Speaking of ZigBee, for some reason people think it’s crushing Z-Wave when that’s just not the case, according to Avi Rosenthal, VP of security and control at Linear Corp., the Nortek (Nasdaq: NTK) company that acquired Z-Wave powerhouse 2Gig Technologies for $135 million in 2013. Linear reportedly is the largest supplier of Z-Wave products worldwide.

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Rosenthal also is on the executive committee of the Z-Wave Alliance, so it really irks him when ZigBee garners such affection by so many people – even intelligent press and analysts.

Rosenthal himself was shocked at just how small the ZigBee universe is. It isn’t easy finding the number of ZigBee chipsets sold, but at the Unplug-Fest, he learned from chip-maker Silicon Labs that merely 45 million ZigBee chipsets have been sold worldwide.

Subtract the 11 million or so that have gone into smart meters, and then you about hit the number of Z-Wave chips sold – about 35 million.

UPDATE: MEA CULPA. We got this very wrong and I apologize. The ZigBee numbers are for 2013 alone, but a big chunk of the chipsets sold were for cable boxes and remotes that use 802.15.4 for RF remotes (RF4CE). GreenPeak sells a lot of the chips into RF4CE, claiming sales of 1 million units per week. Dale Weisman of Silabs says, “The total ZigBee chip installed base dwarfs Z-Wave’s by an order of magnitude.” Apologies to the ZigBee community for this faux pas.—jj

And if you want to talk interoperability, millions of “ZigBee” chips with their 802.15.4 radios have gone into proprietary implementations such as home automation systems from Control4 and Crestron. So all of those almost-ZigBee thermostats, light switches, keypads and such don’t work with other manufacturers’ products.

Millions more of the so-called “ZigBee chips” have been deployed for 6LoWPAN, the technology that delivers IPv6 over 802.15.4. The most notable of the 6LoWPAN implementers is Nest (its own Weave technology), which will become the more open-standard Thread protocol. Also, Greenwave Reality (now Greenwave Systems), which makes (rather, made) lighting products under the TCP brand, utilizes 6LoWPAN.

And toss in the fact that a large number of ZigBee products go into industrial applications, and you start to see that the other Z leads in home automation.

“The numbers show we are the leader in the marketplace,” Rosenthal says.

Not so fast. Insteon, lately Microsoft’s bff in the home automation space, claims to be the “world’s best-selling wireless home-control networking technology.”

Don’t laugh. Back in 2005 when Insteon was launched, CEO Joe Dada predicted 10 million devices would be installed by 2006, so an installation base of about 35 million devices today is not out of the realm of possibilities for this favorite in the DIY community.

Important New Z-Wave Plus Developments

Sigma Designs, the chip-maker that bought Z-Wave developer Zensys in 2008, has introduced the 5th-generation Z-Wave hardware platform, known as the 500 Series.

Along with the 500 Series comes new “extended features” and certification program known as Z-Wave Plus, which is fully compatible with earlier versions of Z-Wave going back to 2002.

Adding the ‘Plus’ label is kind of a big deal.

“It is tough when you maintain backwards compatibility over 12 years to positively identify watershed advancements,” says Mark Walters, chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance.

The new capabilities include:

  • Backward compatibility and interoperability with previous generation Z-Wave
  • 50% improvement in battery life
  • 67% improvement in range
  • 250% more bandwidth (now 100kbs vs. 40kbs)
  • 400% extension of flash memory over previous-generation SoC
  • Frequency agility: three RF channels of operation in some regions
  • New Plug-n-Play Network-wide Inclusion feature (explained below)
  • Improved self-healing and fault tolerance with Explorer Frame feature
  • Standardized method for over-the-air firmware updates (OTA)
  • Improved product information capture for product certification database

Bandwidth, speed and other performance-enhancing features are nice, but the more interesting thing about Z-Wave Plus is the standardization of over-the-air firmware upgrades. In theory, you could update every Z-Wave device on the network remotely via the Internet. That’s nice.

The other significant improvement is the ginormous increase in flash memory on the new 500 Series SoCs.

“With the expanded non-volatile memory, developers are no longer limited as to which Z-Wave protocol features to implement while trying to leave enough memory free for their application,” says Walters. “Instead of deciding if they wanted to include something like Network Wide Inclusion (NWI or ‘Plug N Play’) at the expense of code space for their application, they now have more than enough memory to include all available protocol extensions and still have ample room for their applications code.”

NWI, aka ‘Plug N Play’ is an interesting feature – available only as an option in “classic” Z-Wave, but as a requirement in Z-Wave Plus.


In the earlier generations of Z-wave, the devices had to be enrolled in close proximity to one another.

“This means basically that you don’t have to program the devices before installing them,” says Linear’s Rosenthal. “Now, you can install them around the home and then add them and configure the network all at once from a central location.”

Devices are discovered by communicating through other nodes in the network. The network also will heal itself if a node dies, is disabled or moved – previously a major pain point for tech-support centers.

Rosenthal says, “This is a big difference between Z-wave and ZigBee. And a big advantage.”

Want it all?

“Consumers simply need to look for the Z-Wave Plus certification mark to be assured they are getting all of the best features and capabilities of the Z-Wave technology,” Walters says.

Unfortunately, not all Z-Wave products are labeled as such, which is another blog.

CONTINUES: IP for Z-Wave, Remote Diagnostics, Bluetooth & Wi-Fi
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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]

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  Article Topics

Control & Automation · Lighting · Security · News · Linear · Sigma Designs · Z-Wave · ZigBee · All Topics
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