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A smart home with ZigBee: Everything you need to know

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We’ll tell you everything you need to know about ZigBee, a universal protocol for your smart home. What products are there, how do you manage everything and what are the benefits?

When you start with a smart home, you probably mainly think of smart products such as doorbells, lamps, door locks and thermostats that you use as a basis. But, you can also set up your smart home based on a protocol, which gives you more options to expand your smart home and is also more flexible in the applications. Earlier we already looked extensively at the Z-Wave as the basic protocol for your smart home. In this article we look at a similar yet different protocol; ZigBee. Zigbee is also a standard with which products in the house can communicate with each other.

What is ZigBee? – the pros and cons

Let’s start with the answer to the question of what a protocol is. Simply put, this is a universal standard that specifies how people, parties or products must communicate with each other for fast, streamlined and efficient communication and transfer of information. Like Z-Wave, ZigBee is a protocol that focuses on the smart home and enables fast, stable and efficient communication between products that are ZigBee compatible.

A mesh network

ZigBee is therefore a communication protocol with which products communicate with each other, and that communication can go both ways; devices confirm commands given to them. ZigBee makes use of a so-called mesh network. This means that each ZigBee device is connected to at least two other ZigBee devices. In this way you are almost always provided with a stable connection and you can extend the range of your network effortlessly. Should one of the ZigBee sensors or devices in your network fail, other sensors or devices can take over the functionality and ensure that the network remains stable and intact. And that mesh network is a must, because ZigBee itself has a moderately direct range.

Open but not always compatible

Unlike Z-Wave, Zigbee is an open protocol. This means that manufacturers who integrate Zigbee into their products can make adjustments themselves to the software to adapt it to the product. You could see this as an advantage since ZigBee can be widely deployed and used, but it can also prevent every ZigBee device from (fully) communicating with another ZigBee device. This can be quite confusing. For example, we know that ZigBee lighting can often communicate with other ZigBee lighting without problems, but in some cases it is more difficult for accessories, which means that (part of) the functionality is missing. At ZigBee it is therefore important that you do some research beforehand, or try it out yourself.

An extremely large ZigBee network

If we look at the communication from ZigBee, we see that communication takes place on the 2.4 GHz frequency, where we also find WiFi and Bluetooth. This has its pros and cons. For example, it can be crowded by multiple devices that communicate on the same frequency, but on the other hand it also means that devices can easily be certified and sold worldwide. With Zigbee you can connect up to 65,000 devices in one network, which is a lot more than the 232 products in a Z-wave network, but in our view even the 232 will not be feasible for most of us.

Energy efficient and affordable

Finally, ZigBee is a very energy-efficient and affordable protocol. Sensors and other devices that use ZigBee as a communication protocol can often take years with one battery, and the cost price of a product with ZigBee is usually slightly lower than the cost price of a product with, for example, Z-Wave.

ZigBee in a smart home

ZigBee is a universal standard and can therefore be used for various applications, but today we mainly see the protocol in the smart home. There is now a large number of manufacturers engaged in developing products that are compatible with this standard, and the range is almost as wide as the range of Z-Wave products. You can now go to the store for lighting, blinds, plugs, door locks, sensors, switches and smoke detectors.

Although ZigBee is not tied to one brand and therefore any manufacturer of products can use it, we still see the standard in a number of major brands. Two of the most famous brands that use ZigBee as the standard for wireless communication are Philips Hue and IKEA. Philips Hue equips all its smart bulbs and accessories with the standard, while IKEA has equipped its smart lights and smart blinds with the standard. These products work fine with the controllers / hubs of the manufacturers themselves, but in a real smart home you want to make them work with each other, including all sensors, switches and other devices from other manufacturers. That is possible, but you need a controller with which everything can be operated.

A ZigBee controller

ZigBee products cannot be connected directly to your phone, tablet or router. After all, these do not have compatibility with the standard and also do not have an antenna with which the signal can be received or sent. A hub such as the Philips Hue Bridge or the IKEA hub does have this, but is often limited to supporting its own products, or comparable products in the same product category. For example, you can connect the IKEA lamps to the Hue Bridge, but not the IKEA roller blinds. You need a controller to allow all these products to communicate with each other.

This controller, also known as a gateway, can send commands to the ZigBee products, can receive signals from the products, offers options to automate products and have them work together, and gives you the option to use all products with your smartphone ( or another device). The controller is therefore the gateway to all ZigBee products and the only product in the network that must connect to the internet so that you can also access it on your smartphone.

Today you will find various controllers on the market that can act as a gateway to your ZigBee products and thus give you access to your network. The most famous controllers are those from Samsung (SmartThings), Homey(Athom) and Zipato (Zipatile). You can also buy ZigBee expansion modules for controllers (software) such as Domoticz that you run on, for example, a Rasberry Pi. The only requirement for the controller is that it supports ZigBee and can therefore communicate with your products in the house. The functionality per controller and per software package can differ a lot, but basically all controllers offer the possibility to link (register) compatible devices in the house and then create scenes or scenarios with which you can automate your home. For example; the sensor in the bathroom sees someone soon and lets the controller know. The controller gives the built-in module for the lighting in the bathroom a signal that the lighting can be switched on.

Of course, the controller also offers you the possibility to operate the linked devices remotely, with your smartphone. You can also switch the lighting on or off manually, with your smartphone. Finally, you can also use sensors and other products to monitor things. The ZigBee products also provide communication in the direction of the controller. For example, you can use a smart plug to see exactly how much power that one device uses.

Is there more than ZigBee?

ZigBee is not the only universal standard for communication between devices in your smart home. There are more standards that are used for this, including Z-Wave , bluetooth, WiFi, radio frequencies and even infrared. Combining multiple protocols in the house is possible, but it depends on your controller. The controller must support the different protocols and can therefore make them work together seamlessly. An example of a controller with which multiple protocols can be used is the Homey from Athom . Even if you use Domoticz software, for example, you can expand yourself to support multiple standards.