Z-Wave products are hitting the market left and right. With the growing interest in home control and automation, wireless technology is gaining substantial ground. We asked Mark Walters, head of the Z-Wave Alliance – an organization that is bringing order to the growing cluster of companies creating products around the technology – to shed light on this market and where it’s going.
ZWaveWorld: What is Z-Wave?
Mark Walters: Z-Wave is a radio frequency technology that many manufacturers use in their products so that their products can communicate with each other and form intelligent networks. These networks provide for applications such as automated lighting, one button “scene” or “mode” control of the environment – for instance, in Movie Scene, press one button on a handheld remote and you turn on all of the A/V equipment to watch a movie, the curtains close, lights dim, heat in the room is set up three degrees. Or Leaving Home Scene, one button and all the lights are turned off, HVAC is setback to power saving mode, doors and windows are locked and alarm is armed.
ZWW: Just how big is the Z-Wave world today? How many companies are making products or are planning to? How many products are on the market?
MW: Today the Z-Wave world is just getting started, with many companies planning their product launches for the fall season of 2006. There are over 100 different companies with product development underway and over 60 fully interoperable products on the shelves in the United States. These numbers will more than double in the next year.
ZWW: How does Z-Wave differ from other approaches, and can you give us a little background, some historical context? .
MW: Z-Wave uses a new technology called mesh networking. In a mesh-network any product can act as a relay device between two other products that are communicating with each other. Think of a spider web, where there are many different threads you can traverse to get to the center from the edge. This ability to choose from many different paths for communication between two devices provides for extremely robust performance even in harsh application environments. In older power-line technologies, if there is interference on the power line caused by, say, a hair dryer or cell phone charger, between two devices that need to communicate, they have no ability to route their communication around that interference.
Z-Wave mesh technology is completely “two-way,” in that every message sent is confirmed by its receiver forming closed-loop or reliable communications. This is not true of many of the older home control technologies. With Z-Wave technology the more devices you have in your network the stronger it is as it increases the number of communication routes. With power line technologies – like X10 and Insteon – the opposite is true, in that more devices do not increase the number of routes. In addition, even though some of the newer power line devices claim to relay for each other, the hidden secret is each time you add a power line relay device to the power line it acts as a partial short circuit and pretty soon – with around 20 devices in a typical home – it gets very hard to get any communications down the power line. As a result, most power line devices are receivers only and cannot act as relay devices or provide two-way closed-loop acknowledgment of received messages.
Z-Wave communicates at data rates of up to 40,000 bits per second, whereas X10 communicates at 120 bits per second. Z-Wave can accomplish in a few milliseconds what it would take X10 several seconds to accomplish.
ZWW: What would you say is the principal advantage of Z-Wave based products, from a consumer point of view?
MW: They work, they’re easy to get and use, they’re affordable, and come from established companies. They enhance users’ lifestyles by increasing comfort, conveyance, safety, and energy conservation. Consumers know by purchasing products with the Z-Wave mark, that products purchased today from one manufacturer will work with products purchased tomorrow from another. Products with Z-Wave capability are often as little as 15 to 20 percent more expensive than their “dumb” counterparts.
ZWW: Where is the excitement today? As a potential consumer, what should I be getting enthusiastic about?
MW: It depends on what you’re looking for. There are almost limitless applications that can be addressed using intelligent devices with Z-Wave technology. I like the convenience of one button when I leave the house and I know it’s secure and I’m not wasting energy (spending money) while I’m away. You might like a one-button home theater experience. In a broad sense, we now have the ability to do cool things with cheap ubiquitous end points. That is, we can put intelligence in every light switch, every door, every window, battery powered sensors anywhere.
ZWW: What are the biggest issues facing the manufacturers? Is it the cost of the technology, difficulty of installation, integration issues, or customer awareness?
MW: The biggest challenge is consumer awareness or lack thereof, followed by lack of awareness in the installer community. Cost is becoming a non-issue fast as volumes go up.
ZWW: How difficult is it to install Z-Wave products and use them?
MW: Z-Wave enabled products are no more difficult to install than their non Z-Wave counterparts. A Z-Wave light dimmer installs just the same as a regular light dimmer. There is an added step of including the device into your collection of Z-Wave devices and assigning its control to a button on a remote control or wall control. This requires the installer to press a button on the device followed by the button they want to use to control it. It’s about as hard as popping a bag of microwave popcorn in a microwave oven by pushing the POPCORN button. One good reason to call in a pro, though, is they can often can show you applications that you would never think of yourself but find you can’t live without. Often with little or no additional cost over a basic installation
ZWW: What are some of the latest innovations in Z-Wave-based products?
MW: Many innovations can be found in Z-Wave enabled products including power-saving light dimmers for two-wire retrofit applications; remote control of your Z-Wave enabled devices over the internet or from your cell phone; home schedulers that know when dawn and dusk are each day so you never have to change timers as the seasons change; remote controls that know if you’re turning on the bathroom lights and it’s after 10:00 p.m. but before 6:00 a.m. to turn them on to a dim setting; and products that convert your in-car garage door opener to a home controller letting you turn on the lights, disarm the alarm and unlock the doors from the safety of your car. [Click here to read a related review]
Find out more about the Z-Wave Alliance at www.z-wavealliance.org