When wireless automation first appeared, there was competition between ZigBee and Z-Wave to integrate building electronics into a wireless network. Over time, Z-Wave forged ahead in terms of ability and wireless applications in the home-automation market, while ZigBee seems to have found its niche in commercial and industrial markets.

Z-Wave, based on Zensys’ open standard technology, is a wireless platform that is routinely used to control residential applications, such as lighting, HVAC, access control, security and safety, motorized shades and screens, appliances, home entertainment, home audio and more.

“The home-control and automation market passed a milestone in 2007 and is entering new grand era,” said Grant W. Sullivan, product marketing manager, residential, Leviton. “Previous high-priced home-control systems—once only affordable in the realm of luxurious, elite homes—are now experiencing massive competition from wireless Z-Wave technology-based systems.”

The Z-Wave technology has allowed manufacturers to develop competitive products that enter the market at dramatically lower prices, in some cases more than 60 percent lower than the systems of only five years ago. Home control also has proven to be a valuable tool for builders and developers that have been struggling with home sales in 2007.

“The home-control industry has changed dramatically,” said Kim Scott, director of global wireless, Intermatic. “It has gone from an industry that served the wealthy to an industry that promised to serve the masses to actually delivering on that promise. A consumer can visit Amazon.com or walk into a store and purchase a couple of plug-in units and a remote for about $100. With just that purchase, they can control their lights or appliances, using time of day or via the remote.”

The other aspect of Z-Wave’s evolution is the inclusion of more vendors. Interoperability is a critical factor in any control environment, and the residential marketplace is no different.

“No small factor in Z-Wave’s success is that the home-control industry has matured to the point of having an ecosystem,” Scott said. “This is extremely important because no one company can really produce enough of the products to truly provide robust solutions for end-users.”

Pieces of the puzzle include controlling lighting, garage doors, window shades, etc., and even accessing the control remotely from a computer or handset.

“The emergence of a standard and ecosystem enables complete solutions for end-users that incorporate products from many different sources,” Scott said. “While companies have been cooperating to form a standard and also to create processes to certify product interoperability, only recently have we started to see products show up through distribution and also on shelves delivering on this promise.”

Benefits by any name

One reason Z-Wave has garnered such attention and success is its ability to provide users with levels of control that once were only imagined or reserved for the very elite or commercial users.

“Home automation and control adds new levels of user experiences. On a daily basis, users experience one-button control of multiple lights and electronics throughout the home,” Sullivan said. “Vizia RF improves the ‘going-to-bed ritual’ in the master bedroom by presenting a homeowner with knowledge of what lights remain on throughout the home and [the ability to] turn them off without leaving the bedroom.”

Saving green in multiple ways

Z-Wave also plays a role in lowering energy costs. Energy demand is growing faster than our collective ability to produce energy. Therefore, anything users can do to reduce energy consumption helps.

“An automated Vizia RF dimmer can save up to 40 percent in energy consumption and extend bulb life over 200 percent,” Sullivan said.

“Automating when lights and other appliances turn on and off is something everyone can do to save energy and money. In fact, even triggering lights to come on via motion detectors and turn off when the motion has stopped and saves more energy than people imagine,” Scott said.

Lights often are left on for security reasons. Residents either don’t like to come home to a dark house, or they don’t want their home to look vacant.

“Home control can help, because you can program whatever lights you wish to turn on/turn off when you work your garage door, and [you] never have to come home to a dark home again,” Scott said. “You can also program your lights to come on somewhat randomly and/or use the time of day to make your house look lived in when you’re on vacation. Being able to put a Webcam in your house—and then turn it on over the Web, so you can monitor your house—is another way you can feel secure when you’re not at home.”

“The fact that home control has matured to the point of having an ecosystem is one of the cornerstones that’s enabling home-control mass adoption. The fact that there is an ecosystem emerging to support home control is what’s turning the dream into reality. Why pay the extra energy costs if you did leave it on? Why risk burning the house down if what you left on was an iron or a coffee pot?” Scott said.

On the horizon

With all of these advances, where can Z-Wave go next? The industry and user demands are constantly changing, and thus, the industry needs to continually respond to those changes.

“Leviton invests heavily in the future development of home-automation and home-

control technologies. The trends for the future continue to drive the home automation dream and exciting experience into more homes,” Sullivan said.

Soon, you might come home from the grocery store to a dark home. With one push of a button on your keychain, the garage door will open, the porch lights will illuminate, the sprinkler will temporarily turn off, and a path of light will slowly brighten up through your home to the kitchen or whichever destination you set.

“A significant value that Z-Wave brings to the market is in the integration between brands,” Sullivan said. “Unlike other wireless home-control technologies that are proprietary, closed systems with minimal integration, Z-Wave is adopted and integrated by major brand companies that specialize in respective products. The user does not need to wait for a single manufacturer to develop a total infrastructure of compatible products. Z-Wave brings the brands together, which is in the best interest of the consumer.”

Why?

The benefits certainly promote using Z-Wave. The question remains why there has not been a more widespread adoption of the technology.

“I believe the word about home automation being available at a cost and also ease-of-use level that serves the masses still needs to get out,” Scott said. “The hobbyists and technical savvy end-users will start to stimulate the industry, but I believe that energy savings will be one of the drivers for mass adoption. There are some states regulating energy controls, and also some utility companies driving solutions that reduce energy consumption. Home automation not only reduces energy consumption but provides cost savings, convenience and security benefits for end-users.”

However, according to Sullivan, a significant barrier against the technology is the people it is intended to help.

“Many people will think that they’ve been manually turning off lights for decades without any problems,” Sullivan said. “They don’t see the need to automate what seems natural. What they are missing is that home automation changes not only the act of turning a light on or off, but it also groups lights into single button control of many lights. It enables selected lights and electronics on a lighting schedule, so you never need to come home to a dark house.”

“Once users experience home automation that is designed and integrated well, they will never be content with a toggle switch again,” Sullivan said. “Ever taken a guest aside to show them how well your room’s lights change from one scene to another? You will. For the homeowner, the experience is a level of pride and a sense of sophistication that a regular toggle switch will never achieve. A homeowner is not only updating the style of switches on the wall but improving their lifestyle. Well-designed home automation systems are simple to use.”

Contractors take note

Z-Wave, though touted as a relatively easy-to-install-and--operate platform technology, can be as sophisticated or as simple as users desire.

“Home automation falls into two different styles of systems: Basic systems are consumer friendly and relatively simple to install,” Sullivan said. “Their features are not extensive but are ideal for budget-conscious and do-it-yourself customers. For the professional, there are systems such as Vizia RF that include all the basic Z-Wave features, ensuring maximum interoperability, but also add additional professional features that position Vizia RF as a desired brand with advanced features.”

These advanced features are intended to be installed by an expert who will be able to add additional value and performance to the system. Professional integration specialists, including electrical contractors, will be helpful in determining the best products for desired installations, optimizing performance, troubleshooting RF environments, as well as providing programming expertise.

Contractors may be more beneficial to Z-Wave installations than they initially realize.

“Most electrical and/or low-voltage contractors have a great knowledge base and can pick up home automation easily. What they need to learn is how to include the devices in a network and also how to program scenes, which is very simple. Many homeowners want in-wall devices because they look nicer than plug-in modules, so there is definitely still a place for contractors in this market. Also, even though it is very easy to program, many end-users would rather hire someone to program their homes,” Scott said.

Contractors who wish to delve into this aspect of residential work need stay on top of this developing technology.

“In terms of knowledge base of contractors, I’d like to remind them that, unlike when they wire a house and complete a job, with home automation, there are many more up-sell opportunities after the job is finished,” Scott said. “For example, after living in the home for a while, [homeowners] may discover other fixtures that they wish could be controlled by timers or specific buttons. Thus, a contractor could have more follow-on revenue opportunities by checking in with the homeowner or leaving a business card than they might have seen with just a wiring job.”

Challenges

One of the downsides of Z-Wave actually is a positive for the contracting community.

“While the costs of the hardware in a home-automation system are declining,” Sullivan said, “the need for trained professional installers remains an important part of the home automation success story. A good system designer and integrator will be able to deliver a high-performance system, add advanced features, dial up the system’s reliability, and be around when it’s time to upgrade a system with new products and features.”

Sullivan explained that the retrofit opportunities to update an old home with modern control features are exciting. If you are staging a home for sale, adding a simple lighting control package to a kitchen and creating separate lighting scenes for cooking, dining, cleaning and late night can add a big perceived value to the home without adding excessive costs.

In the end, Z-Wave can take end-users, and the contractors who serve them, to a level they may never have even dreamed about.

“My only advice here is once you got the system set up, … you’ll never stop thinking of ways to grow the system and do more with it. It’s worth the effort,” Scott said.

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.