What is ZigBee and What Devices Can it Work with Within the Smart Home?
Does ZigBee matter | How to use Zigbee | Zigbee hub | Mesh networking | Zigbee range | and more...
Published: 16th Sep 2019
Over the past few years, the smart home industry has grown exponentially. There is a gadget for almost anything you can think of – from air conditioning and cameras to lighting and so much more.
Notably, too, there are numerous devices which seek to connect everything you own and make sure different devices can speak to each other. ZigBee is one such device, but what exactly is it and what can it do to enhance your smart home? Let’s find out.
What is ZigBee?
In order to understand what ZigBee is, we need to start with the smart home. For your home to be truly smart, you need to have devices that can communicate with each other. To illustrate, you might want to have your kettle start boiling when you approach the front door. Or you might want the thermostat to reduce the temperature when you get into bed.
The idea behind the Internet of Things (IoT) is to have all of these devices connected. This way, they can share information without requiring you to operate each one individually. To make this happen, you need them all to speak the same language. But, this is far from the case currently; most of the devices in the typical home come from different manufacturers and speak different languages.
Enter ZigBee. You might be interested in knowing where the concept got its name. When bees get back to their hive, they communicate their findings from the outside world to their counterparts using a waggle dance. This zigzag dance for communication is a great choice of name for such an innovative communication protocol.
ZigBee is essentially an open communication standard that operates wirelessly on the basis of the IP layer known as IEEE 802.14.4-2006. If that sounds like Greek to you, let’s look at it from a different perspective. Consider how wireless or Bluetooth devices speak to each other. ZigBee basically makes it possible for devices to ‘speak’ in an equally simple manner. It can, therefore, act as an alternative to wireless and Bluetooth communication for some devices.
ZigBee devices make use of radio frequencies to communicate, using 2.4GHz as a standard frequency. These devices fall into three main categories:
What is Mesh Networking?
What makes ZigBee ideal for home automation is the fact that it does not simply facilitate communication between two devices. Bluetooth, for instance, will only transmit data from one high-power device to another over a short distance. But ZigBee functions using what is referred to as a ‘mesh network’.
A mesh network is a type of network that spreads out its connection among multiple wireless points known as nodes. These points, or nodes, are able to communicate with each other and can share a network over a much larger area than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
The nodes are comparable to small transmitters acting in much the same way as wireless routers. Their ability to transmit over a wide area means that they can enhance the range of data transmission while, at the same time, ensuring stability.
Understanding ZigBee in the Context of Home Automation
In the smart home, if you are using ZigBee, you will still need a coordinator. The coordinator, which will act as the main node, can take the form of a smart home hub, such as the Amazon Echo or Samsung SmartThings. In case one of the nodes on the network fails and is unable to communicate with a second node, the main node can communicate with the second one.
They would need to communicate with a third node on the same network, so long as it is within range. Each node within the network plays the role of a repeater and all nodes work harmoniously to distribute data.
That explains the name, mesh network. Within the mesh, every interoperable device acts as a sort of outpost. Thanks to its technology, the concept can work even without the need for a centralised hub and still pass information around the mesh network.
ZigBee can support up to 65,000 nodes within a single network. The communication range is approximately 35 to 70 feet (10-20 metres). Though there are other communication protocols like Z-wave, which can communicate further, ZigBee’s main strength is its speed.
Additionally, ZigBee is becoming popular in commercial applications by virtue of its IoT capabilities. Its design makes it ideal for monitoring and sensing applications, with adoption in these areas growing rapidly.
What Devices Can Be Used with ZigBee?
ZigBee makers created what is known as the ZigBee Alliance back in 2002. The industry alliance consists of the companies that sign up to use the protocol. At the moment, there are more than 400 members registered to the alliance and over 2,500 devices. Most of the big names in the industry are currently partner brands under the alliance.
Here are some devices that support the ZigBee protocol:
Instead of installing each of your ZigBee devices individually, you will need to have a central hub to control all of them. As well as the aforementioned Amazon Echo Plus and SmartThings, you can also use a Wink hub to play this central role in the network.
The hub will scan your network for all ZigBee devices and spare you the hassle of individual setup. It also gives you easy control over the devices using a single, central app.
What Do You Need to Buy in Order to Use ZigBee?
In order to start using ZigBee you need only buy a hub to act as coordinator. One of the best options is the Amazon Echo Plus. Currently selling for $149 from Amazon, this seamlessly connects to and controls all Zigbee devices without requiring any other hub. You can use Alexa to access and control all Zigbee devices with voice commands.
Since the Amazon Echo Plus has integrated support for ZigBee devices, you do not require anything extra to get them to connect. Simply say, “Alexa, discover my devices” when you
Is Google Home Compatible with Zigbee?
Unfortunately, the current range of Google Home devices does not offer support for Zigbee. However, there are some workarounds and hacks to get Google Home devices to work with devices that use Zigbee.
Google Home Zigbee Hacks and Workarounds
Before we get to the actual hacks, it is important to understand how Google Home works. Google Home smart speakers communicate with compatible devices using Wi-Fi. Therefore, Google Home can talk to any smart devices that connect to your Wi-Fi network. In such cases, there is no need for a middleman.
However, some smart home device use the Zigbee protocol for communication. To get such devices and Google Home talking, you need a middleman, such as a bridge or smart hub.
Think of the middleman as an interpreter who allows two parties that speak different languages to communicate.
Let us find out how to get these devices talking using different types of interpreters.
Using a Smart Bridge
As mentioned above, one type of interpreter that can help you connect the two worlds is a bridge. But what is a bridge?
What is a Smart Bridge?
Simply having a collection of smart devices does not make your home smart. Oftentimes, you cannot control these devices or even get them to communicate, as is the case with Zigbee and Google Home devices.
In such cases, a bridge will act as the missing link to connect your devices. A bridge is essentially a connection point between your smart devices and your control point. It is a necessary addition to your smart home when the devices you use speak different languages.
Basically, it works behind the scenes to translate information and convey it in a form that each of the two parties can process.
How to Use a Bridge to Connect Google Home and Zigbee
To understand how you can get Zigbee and Google Home devices to communicate using a bridge, let us take the example of Philips Hue.
Philips Hue produces a range of light bulbs that use the Zigbee protocol and which cannot, therefore, communicate directly with Google Home. Knowing this, Philips Hue produces its own bridges. You can buy them in the light bulbs’ starter pack.
Here is how to set up the connection:
Though the above procedure uses Philips Hue as an example, the bridging process is more or less the same for all Zigbee devices that you want to connect to Google Home.
Once you have paired your Google Home to the bridge, you can now assign devices to specific rooms, create routines and do everything else to get them to operate seamlessly.
Using a Smart Hub
As mentioned earlier, you can also get Google Home and Zigbee to work together by using a smart hub to connect them.
What is a Smart Hub?
In the simplest terms, a smart hub is hardware or software that you use to connect devices on a home automation network. The device controls communication between the connected devices and between you and your devices.
While you may have smart hubs that connect locally, in the case of hardware, other types connect to the cloud (software). Such hubs are fundamental to the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that use the Zigbee and Z-Wave protocols instead of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
The hub’s role is so crucial to the smooth functioning of a network that it is usually known as the heart of the network. This is because it ties together the various independent components into a centralised platform.
It also simplifies the use of devices by allowing you to control them all using a single smart home app. The hub can also divert traffic off your Wi-Fi or Bluetooth network to ease network congestion when necessary.
Using a Smart Hub to Connect Google Home and Zigbee
Now that we understand what a smart hub is, let us find out how to connect our two worlds using one. For illustration purposes, we will consider how to connect Google Home and Samsung SmartThings.
Here is what you need to do:
Everything is now ready to go, and you can start controlling Zigbee devices directly from Google Home using Google Assistant’s voice control.
Note that when you authorise your SmartThings account for Google Home, it will have permission to access all devices that SmartThings supports. These include all Zigbee devices. You can, however, edit the list to suit your preferences.
Is Nest Zigbee Compatible?
Just like Google Home, the Google Nest Hub does not offer support for Zigbee. Therefore, to control any Zigbee devices using Nest you would need a bridge or hub.
How to Get Started Setting up Zigbee (Steps to Take)
One of the greatest challenges when setting up a smart home ecosystem is the sheer variety of devices you may need to choose from. They can make the task feel like an overwhelming puzzle of logic.
In the same way you simplify any task, you can make this a lot less challenging by breaking it down into portions. Let’s look at the steps you can take to set up your Zigbee ecosystem:
Step 1: Select a Backbone for your Network
The majority of smart homeowners get started with the Zigbee ecosystem by finding a basic central gadget to function as their network’s backbone. As you have already learned, you need such a gadget to facilitate control of all devices from a single app.
One of the easiest ways to do this is by using a starter kit of the devices you have in mind. As mentioned previously, for instance, the Philips Hue starter kit comes complete with a bridge and a set of bulbs.
The bridge acts as the gateway to your system, the backbone of the network. It will function as the network controller, ensuring that the software you are using can communicate with all devices.
Additionally, it will serve to connect your system to the internet. With this connection in place, you can control your smart home from anywhere, as long as you have internet access.
Besides the Samsung SmartThings smart hub, you may also consider the Wink hub, which also supports this protocol. However, its range of products is not as wide as that of SmartThings.
While Wink offers a friendly interface that is easier to use, SmartThings is a lot more robust, with a lot more features under the hood for those who dare to explore.
Step 2: Select Devices to Create your Ecosystem
Now that you have the backbone to control your network, the next step is to select devices for use in your smart home. The best way to do this is to start with a few gadgets and build from there as the concept becomes more familiar.
To help inform your decision, think about the processes you would like to automate. Do you like the idea of turning lights on and off or adjusting brightness with your voice? Would you like to lock doors and adjust temperature settings from a smartphone app?
The gadgets you will choose will depend on your needs and wants for smart home automation. Note that, since you are creating a Zigbee ecosystem, you will need to specifically select devices that support Zigbee. Therefore, before buying any gadget, consider its compatibility with the Zigbee protocol.
You will probably find that picking devices according to your preferences and compatibility will narrow down your list to a manageable number.
Here are some of the device categories that most people prioritise when setting up a Zigbee smart home ecosystem:
Smart bulbs are a great place to start when automating your home. With such bulbs, you can control groups of lights or individual lights using voice commands or from a smartphone app. It is also possible to set up scenes to make things even easier.
For instance, you may choose to set specific colours and brightness for specific times of day – bedtime, for example. At such a time, you might prefer having romantic, ambient lighting and keeping things low-key with dimmer lights.
It could also be that you want lights to turn on and off automatically at specific times based on set triggers.
With smart bulbs at hand, you can pre-set everything to automate the process you have in mind. Philips Hue smart bulbs are one of the most popular choices for Zigbee users, as they offer a wide range of options.
Note that, besides using smart bulbs, you can also set up smart switches for similar light control.
Smart thermostats are another great addition to your Zigbee smart home. These not only offer convenience, letting you control temperature settings from the comfort of the couch, but they also facilitate energy savings when used appropriately.
Some thermostats, such as Ecobee, use data from your routine to manage heating and cooling. You can use them to adjust temperature settings based on criteria such as the time of day and whether you are home or away.
As well as Ecobee, thermostat brands that support the Zigbee protocol include:
Another important aspect of your smart home that may merit attention is security. Under this category, you may consider getting Zigbee smart locks, doorbells, surveillance cameras and sensors.
Smart locks vary in functionality – some allow you to lock and unlock your home remotely from a smartphone app, some can give a guest temporary access and some let you lock and unlock using a finger.
Smart doorbells, on the other hand, let you know who’s at the door right from your smartphone or TV screen. You can also have security cameras record footage and send you alerts when you are not home.
These work hand in hand with motion sensors and, in some cases, you can get a single kit that covers all of the above security angles.
Yale Smart Locks and Bosch Security systems are great examples of products that support the protocol.
Step 3: Getting Everything to Work Together
Now that you have a backbone for your ecosystem and a few devices on hand to get you started, it’s time to connect everything.
With a Zigbee smart hub, such as SmartThings or Wink, this step simply requires that you set up the hub. Here is how to set up the SmartThings hub and connect your devices:
Sign Up for SmartThings
Set Up the Hub
Connect Your Devices
That is all you need to do to set up your Zigbee ecosystem using SmartThings as the hub or backbone of the network.
Zigbee vs Z-Wave
Zigbee and Z-Wave are among the major wireless protocols that smart home products use. They offer innovative alternatives to the standard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth products that you may be well acquainted with.
Interestingly, the two do not connect together in spite of sharing some obvious similarities. They also have noteworthy differences as well as advantages and disadvantages. To run your smart home smoothly, it would be wise to take a moment to analyse the two and determine which one best suits your needs.
Key Features of Zigbee and Z-Wave Protocols
Open Source vs Closed Source
Zigbee makes use of an open-source protocol while Z-Wave uses a closed standard. For the former, this is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
The code is publicly available for anyone to check and it is likely to be around a long time since nobody owns it. However, it also means that anyone can use the code, tweaking it to suit their needs.
A case in point has to do with the Philips Hue line of products. These are among the most popular Zigbee protocol products. But, since the manufacturer made changes to the protocol, you will need a Philips smart hub in order to use them.
The Z-Wave protocol, on the other hand, belongs to Silicon Labs. During its years of existence, though, it has changed ownership multiple times, which one might consider a weakness. But as a closed-standard system, it offers a considerable measure of security.
All Z-Wave products need to meet pre-specified standards and, thus, avoid the incompatibility issues that sometimes arise with Zigbee products. They are, therefore, almost always interoperable.
Mesh Network Range
Both protocols use mesh networks to connect with devices within your home ecosystem, but that is as far as the similarity goes. Z-Wave has a much longer network range and can connect to devices that are up to 330 feet away. Zigbee’s maximum range is approximately 60 feet.
This means that Z-Wave might be more practical for users with larger homes, as it will close larger distances.
On mesh networks, devices do not have to connect directly to a central hub. Rather, they can connect to nearby devices to create a chain from the hub. What happens is that signals hop from device to device within the network to reach the hub.
With the Z-Wave protocol, the maximum number of hops is four. Therefore, you need to have a hub connecting to a maximum of three devices per chain. Otherwise, the chain will break and devices will lose their connection.
Zigbee does not have any hopping limitations. It can hop through any number of devices that stand in the way and reach the hub.
Both Zigbee and Z-Wave devices are renowned for their low power consumption. They both use only a fraction of the power that Wi-Fi requires. However, Zigbee devices consume much less energy than Z-Wave devices.
The Zigbee ecosystem will last longer than Z-Wave devices before requiring a recharge.
Zigbee networks are more prone to congestion than Z-Wave. This is because the latter runs on a lesser-used radio frequency, 908.42 MHz, whereas the former runs on 2.4 GHz making it a Wi-Fi competitor.
As a result, congestion can easily add up between devices on your Zigbee mesh network, your Wi-Fi network and even your neighbour’s.
In both the US and Europe, Zigbee makes use of the same radio frequency, 2.4GHz. Z-Wave radio frequencies, however, vary from country to country. In Europe, for instance, the frequency is 868.42 MHz.
Therefore, if you move abroad, Zigbee might prove to be a little more convenient. The only change you will probably need to make is on-device power adapters. But if you are using Z-Wave, you might need a whole new set of devices altogether.
Both Z-Wave and Zigbee make use of AES 128 encryption standard, the same standard that banks and governments use. This makes it highly improbable that malicious attackers could control your smart home by hacking the signal. This applies to both protocols.
The Zigbee network capacity is much higher than Z-Wave’s. While the Z-Wave maximum is 232 devices, Zigbee can theoretically cater for up to 65,000 devices. Take note that these are only theoretical figures, but they offer a glimpse into the capabilities of the two.
Chances are you may never need that many devices in your smart home. But then again, you never know!
Another advantage of the Zigbee protocol is that it supports more devices than Z-Wave. The difference is however negligible, as the former supports approximately 2,500 smart devices while the latter supports bout 2,400.
Notably, too, the Zigbee line-up includes some top name brands, such as Philips Hue and Amazon Echo Plus.bring a ZigBee product home and they will automatically be added to your app.
The Samsung SmartThings Hub at $62.70 from Amazon can also control ZigBee devices from its smartphone app, Samsung Connect.