First there was the battery-operated TV remote; then came the cordless phone. Remote-controlled garage door openers soon became standard in just about every home. Wi-Fi eventually entered the scene, enabling laptops to connect to printers and modems without having to be plugged in. These days, music can travel over the airwaves from a stereo system to speakers all over the house, and it may not be long before high-def video starts traveling from media servers to big-screen TVs without requiring a single strand of wire.
We’ve definitely cut the cord when it comes to electronics in the home. Radio frequency (RF)–based communications has dramatically improved how we interact with certain household devices. But as with any technology, there is always room for improvement. “Traditional RF communication is one-way,” explains Jeff Singer, public relations manager at Crestron, a manufacturer of wireless Zigbee-based home control systems. “So if you use an RF remote or keypad to turn on a light in a different room, the system is unable to tell you if the light actually turned on.” Another issue with traditional forms of RF signal transmission, according to Singer, is signal interference. With so many products—remotes, cordless phones, Wi-Fi computers and more—cluttering up the RF airwaves, it can be difficult for a control system to get its commands to a device in a timely fashion, which is critical for applications like lighting control. “Most people aren’t going to put up with waiting even a couple of seconds after they press a button for a light to go on,” says Singer.
These limitations may soon be a thing of the past, however, thanks to new forms of communication technology that are being adopted by a number of home electronics manufacturers. Z-Wave, ZigBee and Insteon are three of the most promising wireless control technologies to date. Although each technology differs in its makeup, all employ a new type of networking infrastructure, called “mesh networking,” that strengthens the transmission and reception of wireless signals throughout a home. Products designed to work on a mesh network send their signals over multiple communications paths, unlike traditional RF products, which use a single communications path. The more products on a mesh network, the more communications paths are formed, which gives signals several travel options and ultimately enables commands to reach their destinations quickly and reliably.
Zensys, the developer of the Z-Wave chip, offers this example: If a signal from a remote control is blocked the first time, the signal will notify the remote that it did not complete the connection, and the network will immediately seek an alternative path. The signal may go to an enabled hallway light, then to an enabled thermostat, then to an enabled dimmer switch in the dining room before ultimately reaching the light switch in the kitchen. Once the operation is complete, an indication is sent to the remote. In a traditional RF control scenario, the remote would receive no notification of the blocked signal, and in order for the signal to even get to the light switch the next time, you’d likely need to move to a different area of the house to transmit a command.
Lighting Is the Springboard
Currently, mesh networking is getting the biggest support from manufacturers of lighting control systems. Leviton, Intermatic, Cooper Lighting, SmartLabs and others have developed a line of switches and push-button controllers designed to operate on a mesh network. While these products are unique in how they communicate with one another, they are installed just like standard switches and dimmers, which makes them simple enough for homeowners to set up. In fact, some manufacturers are planning to sell their products through big-name retailers like Home Depot this year.
Even companies that have in the past focused on high-end home control systems are giving mesh networking a try. AMX, for example, has developed a line of ZigBee-based remote controls. As AMX vice president of product management Robert Noble explains, the benefits of mesh networking to a handheld remote are significant. For starters, it extends the battery life of a remote from a few days [for an RF remote] to a couple of weeks [for a ZigBee remote]. “And unlike Wi-Fi-based controllers, which require several seconds to wake up, a ZigBee remote is instantly on,” he says. Another benefit, adds AMX product manager Scott Carpenter, is that ZigBee allows homeowners to pick up any remote to operate any system in any room. “With previous generations of RF remotes, each entertainment system could only be operated from its own dedicated remote control,” he explains. “Now you’re free to use one remote for multiple systems.”
Variety Leads to Quality
Finally, mesh networking offers the opportunity to build a home control system with products from a variety of manufacturers instead of products from a single maker. “[Z-Wave] doesn’t force us to be the sole provider of everything in a home control system,” says Grant Sullivan, product marketing manger for Leviton’s Integrated Networks and Controls. “Homeowners will be the ultimate winners, because they’ll be able to choose products from companies that do what they do best.” In addition to lighting controls and remotes, some of the product categories on the horizon include sprinkler controls, motorized blinds, home control software and thermostats. And although spokespersons from Z-Wave, ZigBee and Insteon each acknowledge that it may be a few years before consumers start asking for mesh networking by name, its benefits are destined to make a huge impact on the home control industry. “For so long, home control has been designed for the rich and famous or for hobbyists,” says Ken Fairbanks, vice president of business development for SmartLabs, the developer of the Insteon technology. “With dual-mesh networking, we’ll finally be able to reach the average consumer with a broad range of products that are reliable, affordable and easy to install in every room of the house.”
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.