A smart home system typically consists of several devices, including sensors, light switches, surveillance cameras, and more, which all speak to a central controller, or hub. To understand the role of a smart home hub, consider what happens with simpler, single-function approaches to smart home technology: For example, you might install an electronic lock on the front door and a smart thermostat on the wall in the hallway, each with its own complementary app that lets you control each device from a smartphone or tablet. Later, you might add a smart light switch, which is also able to be controlled from an app. As you add more smart devices to your home, jumping from one app to another can become a tedious exercise and affords none of the conveniences you’d expect from a smart home.
By tying all of these individual products to a central controller, though, you can automate the process so that unlocking the door signals the lights to turn on and the thermostat to adjust. A smart home hub also offers the benefit of managing the operation of all your smart devices all on its own. You can put down your smartphone and let the hub do the work.
Based on parameters you (or your professional installer) specify, schedules and settings can be programmed into the hub from a phone or computer. The hub then dispatches commands to the appropriate devices. A hub can also receive signals from connected smart devices (either wireless technology or physical cabling) and can react to these signals in a meaningful way. For example, when it receives a signal from a motion sensor, a smart home hub can respond by switching on a light and sending your smartphone a text message.
Wireless Communications Protocols
Pros: Very low power, batteries can last a year or more; Mesh networking; Over 1,000 devices available
Cons: Uses different frequencies in different countries; Can’t handle video
Pros:Low power, battery power is possible; Mesh networking
Cons: Many different “flavors” make compatibility challenging; Not as many devices as Z-Wave; Can’t handle video
Pros: Communicates directly with a smartphone without a controller; Low power with Bluetooth; Low energy
Cons: More limited range; Lacks the advantages of mesh networking
Pros: Biggest signal range (up to 600 feet indoors)
Cons: Limited device availability; Lacks the advantages of mesh networking
Pros: High bandwidth; suitable for use with video cameras and audio; Communicates directly with a smartphone or tablet without a controller
Cons: Power hog and requires AC adapters or other power schemes for devices, cannot use batteries; Lacks the advantages of mesh networking
Wireless technology is a big trend in the smart home hub category. By employing any number of different wireless communications protocols, a smart home hub is able to send and receive signals to and from individual devices without needing to be physically connected to them. It all happens wirelessly, which makes these types of hubs easy to install and appealing to the DIY contingent of homeowners.
There are a number of wireless communications protocols, each with certain advantages and disadvantages (see the chart below). A smart home hub can employ one type of protocol or several. The more languages it can speak, the more versatile (and usually expensive) a hub becomes, as you’ll be able to mix and match devices from various manufacturers, choosing the products you like best.
However, there is a benefit, beside lower cost, to using a hub that speaks a single language: mesh networking. Mesh networking is a feature of Z-Wave and ZigBee communications protocols, both of which were created specifically for smart home applications. In a mesh network, some devices (usually those that plug into an AC outlet) act as repeaters for the signals from other devices, creating better overall signal coverage and longer signal range. It’s important to know that a repeater only works for its own signal type. For example, a Z-Wave repeater cannot extend ZigBee signals or vice-versa. So even if your smart home hub is capable of communicating via Z-Wave and ZigBee, there’s an advantage of sticking to a single wireless protocol for all of the sensors, switches, and other devices you add to your house. EH