Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Thread Explained

So, today we’re talking Internet of Things (IoT) stuff. It’s important to understand how the world will be using different communication protocols (fancy word for standard) to make your home automation devices sing to each other like gremlins – Gizmo-style. Oh, the joy of people working together to find efficient and secure ways of making your home automation devices reliable and dependable.

Where do we start?

Ya, where do we start? You’re probably reading this and haven’t really digested the title of the post. You are probably thinking what does this have to do with my Nest devices, my Alexa, my “mini-g” (Google Home/Mini), my Samsung SmartThings, Ikea Trådfri devices, and so on.. and on and on… uhh … and on and on. It’s the future of how the Internet of EVERY-Thing is going to work. Think ev-er-y-thing, at least for now. I’m excited. Garage Openers, Motions Sensors, Door Sensors, Leak Sensors, Lighting, Power outlets, Locks, Smoke Detectors…

Let’s compare, shall we?

There are a few similarities with the two main standards; ZigBee and Z-Wave (we’ll talk Thread too).

Both standards use 128 Bit AES encryption, use low power, run low latency (delay) and low bandwidth mesh networks. There are approximately 2500 certified products in the market right now. They both require some sort of ‘Hub’

ZigBee is supported by an IoT community of 300 members, Z-Wave has 700 members.


ZigBee was created sometime in the 90’s, however, the standard 802.15.4 was built in 2003. (we’ll explain the fancy acronyms and numbers in another post in the future – stay tuned). It provides PHY (physical layer) and MAC (medium access control)…. Stay with me here. The standard is solid. This is important to note. It’s more open source, so you and I could also develop something for the home, or car, or boat, or work, or …. you get it? It’s something that’s really powerful, and it’s given more opportunity to have secure and reliable devices in the home – think energy, utility, safety devices.

ZigBee devices are generally cheaper than Z-Wave devices. ZigBee works from country to country due signal frequency allowance, whereas, Z-Wave could have issues if you’re taking your Z-Wave device to another country – Z-Wave might not work.


Z-Wave is proprietary. Started by a company called Zensys – It’s owned by Silicon Labs now. Their standard is based on PHY and MAC layers in a recommendation called ITU G.9959. You need to get the chip to make a Z-Wave device work. You can buy a starter kit from Silicon Labs and get a Software Development Kit and build something yourself. Think everything that Zigbee can do; with a bit more range (30 meters Z-Wave, 10 meters for Zigbee). So more repeaters or hubs for ZigBee. You’re going to see more Z-Wave devices in North America vs. Australia, UK, China, Japan or South Korea. Again, different frequency settings in different regions.

Z-Wave devices are a little bit more expensive – maybe because of the proprietary nature. Z-Wave is generally used in a wider range of devices: commercial to industrial to home. There are still tons of home automation devices in North America, however, most of the Z-Wave home automation devices in the market are home lighting, and plugs


So, you’ve seen the video about Thread. What is this? Products like Nest use Thread to communicate between devices. Think about your Nest Protect as your end device; they communicate to each other using Thread instead of WiFi. This is so you don’t use up the WiFi bandwidth in your home. The Nest Guard could be an end router. However, the end device can change into another end router, and you can communicate from device to device.

Maybe this standard is going to be used in the future IoT vehicles to communicate to each other?

Devices that use Thread consume one tenth of the power Of WiFi. Think about the lifecycle of devices that need to keep running. If you lose power, it goes to a low power state and begins to communicate via your phone on a mobile network.

The ZigBee Alliance would like you to be aware of a group called Dotdot, which is creating the first universal language for IoT devices. Dotdot wants to bridge the gap between Zigbee and Thread. Meaning, now there is a way for devices to understand who they are to each other; they actually have one way of talking; a universal language, an open standard between homes, businesses, industry… and so on and so on

Exciting Times in IoT

So: we have ZigBee and Thread. We have Z-Wave. You can use these devices over a hub, so you don’t need to use up the Wi-Fi in your household or business. Both Zigbee and Z-Wave have great standards. Now with Thread, the possibilities of applications are huge in regards to integration of the home.

Thank you for reading the post. Enjoy your ZigBee’s, Threads and Z-Waves.

If you need any recommendations for home automation products, here’s my Amazon Influencer Shop. It’s a curated list of high-quality smart home products (and it’s an affiliate link).

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