Smart Home Technology Explained

What’s the Difference Between Zigbee and Z-Wave? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Bryan Wolfe 13-09-2017

As the popularity of home automation products has grown, so too has the number of wireless technologies Smart Lighting Showdown: Bluetooth Smart vs. Wi-Fi vs. ZigBee There are a lot of smart home lighting solutions on the market, and it can be overwhelming! Here are the main differences between smart lighting standards, and some key considerations when making a purchase. Read More that allow these devices to talk to one another. Two of the technologies, or languages, you will likely run into as you set up your own smart home are ZigBee and Z-Wave.


Though both technologies allow you to control multiple smart home devices remotely, Zigbee and Z-Wave each come with benefits and drawbacks. In this article, you’ll also read about some of the products that support each protocol.

All About Zigbee

All discussions about Zigbee should begin and end with one important fact. Unlike Z-Wave and similar technologies, Zigbee is an open technology, meaning no one owns it. Instead, the wireless connection is maintained and advanced by the non-profit Zigbee Alliance and its 400+ member organizations.

Why is this important? Because of Zigbee’s open standard, it’s almost certainly not going anywhere. Instead, it will continue to evolve as the needs of its member organizations change over time. For folks worried about ever-changing technology, this is something worth noting, and can offer you some peace of mind.

How It Works

Zigbee uses a mesh system 5 Reasons to Buy a Mesh Wi-Fi Router Kit (And 3 Reasons Not To) Is your router tucked away, battling thick walls and providing spotty coverage? A mesh Wi-Fi system wants to put an end to that horror, boosting your wireless coverage throughout the house. Read More where information from one device jumps to another using a wireless signal. In doing so, devices can talk to one another. When one device drops out, alternative routes remain, allowing the whole system to stay online. This movement of data doesn’t require high-powered transmitters, which makes it an ideal solution for situations that require a large number of automated products.

Though originally developed for commercial use, Zigbee is now a solid choice for both residential and industrial areas as well.


Advantages of Zigbee

  • Easy setup, doesn’t require a central hub or controller
  • You can control and monitor products using a remote or mobile device
  • Scaleable, supports up to 65,000 devices on a single setup
  • AES-128 encryption, offering peace of mind
  • Speeds of 40-250 Kbps

Disadvantages of Zigbee

  • Not as secure as other systems (such as Wi-Fi)
  • Walls and other obstructions can reduce transmission strength significantly

Smart Home Compatibility

In the smart home space, you’ll find many Zigbee-compatible products, including smart lights, switches/plugs, and surveillance systems. The most popular of these is the Philips Hue lighting system The 7 Best Philips Hue Apps for Android and iPhone Looking for the best Philips Hue apps to use with your smart lights? Here are several great apps for iPhone and Android. Read More , which first arrived on the scene in 2012.

Are you looking for something a little bit different? IKEA’s 2017 Zigbee-compatible TRÅDFRI lighting products are also growing in popularity.

What about an all-in-one smart home system? Iris by Lowes offers an ever-growing lineup of security and automation products for the home using Zigbee technology. The Samsung SmartThings Hub also works with Zigbee.

Looking for More? Comcast, Honeywell, Intel, Kwikset, and WeMo also heavily support Zigbee, as does the popular Nest Learning Thermostat.


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All About Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a wireless communication protocol developed by Zensys in 2001. Seven years later, Sigma Designs purchased the proprietary technology.

z-wave brand logo

Like Zigbee, Z-Wave consists of a mesh network that uses low-energy radio waves for communication. It’s primarily used to connect automated lighting How You Can Have Outdoor Lighting Without Any Wiring Required Dealing with wiring for outdoor lighting can be an enormous headache, especially if you are unfamiliar with the process. Thankfully, there are great wireless outdoor lighting solutions to fit any budget or design. Read More , heating gadgets, security tools, and other smart devices.


Unlike Zigbee, Z-Wave isn’t an open system and therefore is only available to Zensys and Sigma Designs customers. While this may initially seem like a limitation, it’s actually one of the protocol’s biggest strengths. One of the most important advantages of a closed system is security. Every Z-Wave network and its products have unique IDs used to communicate with your hub, and this ID adds another level of safety beyond that goes beyond AES-128 encryption.

Advantages of Z-Wave

  • Reliable and secure communication
  • Simple installation
  • Low power consumption
  • Remote or local control

Disadvantages of Z-Wave

  • It supports only 232 nodes, which is significantly less than the 65,000 nodes backed by the Zigbee standard
  • Relatively slow, only supports data transmission rates up to 100 Kbps

How closed is the Z-Wave system? Because it’s a closed system, there’s a risk Z-Wave could suddenly be taken off the market. However, this probably won’t happen. At last count, the Z-Wave Alliance consisted of 450 members and 1,700 certified products. In other words, Z-Wave isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Smart Home Compatibility

There are a lot of smart home products with Z-Wave compatibility, including lighting, sensors, smart locks, thermostats, and more.

For security products, you can’t go wrong with Schlage smart locks or the Piper all-in-one wireless system. The popular First Alert 2-in-1 Z-Wave Smoke Detector and Carbon Monoxide Alarm is also worth considering. Z-Wave compatible thermostats include ones from GoControl and Honeywell, among others.


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Which One Is Better?

Zigbee and Z-Wave are both well-established products with their own sets of pros and cons. Z-Wave is often criticized for being a closed system. However, one of the advantages of this is the control that it gives homeowners. The Z-Wave Alliance guarantees that every Z-Wave device complies with a strict set of standards. In contrast, while it is open source, Zigbee is sometimes faulted for its perceived lack of interoperability.

As the Smart Cave explains:

“It is possible that a product may get their hardware certified but their software is not. The result is products that are broadcasting the ZigBee signal but not using the proper ZigBee software. Products like this might be labeled ‘ZigBee-ready.’ A customer may buy the product expecting it to work with all the other ZigBee products but it won’t.”

From an end-user perspective, I’m convinced most folks will be happy with products from either camp. Luckily, an increasing number of smart home devices now offer more than one standard, so you don’t necessarily have to make a choice. For example, the Samsung SmartThings hub uses both protocols How to Set Up and Use Your Samsung SmartThings System Just purchased a new Samsung SmartThings system? Here's a step-by-step guide for everything you need to know to get it working perfectly in your home. Read More .

Also,thanks to IFTTT, even smart lighting products that use different standards can work together 10 of the Best IFTTT Recipes for Smart Home Automation The right IFTTT recipes for your smart home can save you time, effort, and energy. Here are ten of our favorites to get you started. Read More . In other words, even if they aren’t compatible, your smart lighting solutions could be tied together using this free web- and app-based service.

The smart home industry will continue to change over the next few years as it gains in popularity. Two things that almost certainly won’t change is the industry’s reliance on Zigbee and Z-Wave protocols to allow devices to talk to one another. Each has a number of well-established products with a large following.

Which wireless protocol to you typically use for smart home products? Let us know in the comments below.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Rob Samples
    November 7, 2017 at 10:07 pm

    I use Insteon. It also is a repeating mesh technology but has the added advantage of being able to communicate over my house's power wiring. This gives much greater range than I can get with RF mesh alone. As an example, there is no problem communicating between different floors in the house, obstacles in the house can't block or interfere with the signal and locations like my pump house or the end of my dock, which are hundreds of feet from the house (with no other mesh connected items between the locations and the house to repeat the signal), are remotely controllable. Low powered RF devices can't reach these locations but the power line signals have no problem.

  2. Indranil Chakraborty
    September 19, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Being closed certainly doesn't make you secure. SSH, case in point. Heartbleed wouldn't have been remedied in case it was closed.

  3. Brandon
    September 14, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    The statement:
    "One of the most important advantages of a closed system is security."
    is not legitimate. See "security through obscurity"

  4. Texany Automation
    September 14, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for the article.

    You're not mentioning one other very powerful middle-ware, stringify. It blows IFTTT away in terms of the scenarios you can create between several, otherwise incompatible products. It even has IFTTT as a thing.

  5. Zig Master
    September 14, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Good article; fair, succinct, and largely accurate. Minor correction though: Nest thermostat aren't using Zigbee for their embedded networking; they use Open Thread, an open source derivative of the Thread networking protocol, which is based on IEEE 802.15.4 like Zigbee but is developed by the Thread Group rather than the Zigbee Alliance.

    • Bryan Wolfe
      September 14, 2017 at 7:39 pm

      thanks for your comments.

  6. James M
    September 14, 2017 at 3:49 am

    You left off the most important thing: compatability. All zwave devices must be tested and meet minimum functionality and security thresholds. 1st gen zwave devices can work on 5th gen controllers. Most 5th gen devices can work on 1st gen controllers (exceptions being locks and other encrypted devices that require security not available on 1st gen controllers).

    ZigBee is depressingly open. The "standard" allows for proprietary, unpublished commands for every bit of functionality and that's what most companies did. There is zero guarantee anything will work with anything else. There are ZigBee command sets, but they are not widely used. The exception is the LightLink (LL) subset because Philips Hue uses it. There is also a Home Automation (HA) flavor of Zigbee, but bafflingly, it uses different commands than LightLink to turn lights on and off so the devices aren't directly compatible. Why HA isn't a superset of LL I can't fathom.

    Zwave does allow for "non standard" commands but devices must support some standard functions and the non standard functions must be listed in documentation. I have an "unsupported" zwave doorbell on my vera that shows up as a basic momentary switch that rings when triggered. With only minimal configuration changes, I can use all the doorbell's features.