Many homes are being built from the foundations up as smart homes, while others are being retrofitted decades after construction to accommodate the new tech. Part of what is driving the growth of home automation are the continued advances of wireless networks, now a common (and critical) part of complex smart home systems.
Smart speakers like this one can connect to other smart devices through wireless mesh networks.
Wireless mesh devices integrate within a smart home’s network through Bluetooth, Zigbee, and other communications protocols.
Ideally, smart home system installers can integrate all the necessary networking equipment during a future smart home’s construction. Cabling, routers, and Wi-Fi network access points, including Control4’s Pakedge solutions, are used to extend physical and wireless networks throughout the home. All of it connected to a centralized media closet where the most critical components can be easily accessed for maintenance and replacement.
Of course, most homes weren’t built with smart home technology in mind, much less basic networking. Most homeowners understandably want to minimize the need for drilling holes or cutting open sections of drywall. To this end, many smart devices today are designed with the wireless mesh concept in mind. They easily integrate into existing smart home networks, allowing multiple devices to communicate with each other through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, and other proprietary communication protocols. Here are a few prominent examples of products that put them to good use.
The Nest Learning Thermostats are among the most prominent pieces of smart home technology today. Communicating through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth mesh networks, a Nest can be controlled through smartphone apps and other existing smart home control solutions. Nests can communicate with temperature sensors placed throughout the home, allowing the thermostat to automatically adjust heating and air conditioning as necessary.
We’ve come a long way from in-home lighting that’s either on or off. The Phillips Hue system uses the ZigBee protocol to connect multiple lights to a central bridge that controls up to 50 total lights. This also extends to special lighting strips that can be mounted in places where traditional light fixtures are not an option. It’s a solid solution focused entirely on smart lighting, complete with its own app.
For a more complex home automation system, Control4’s controllers act as a centralized brain for the entire home. Communicating through a ZigBee wireless mesh, hardline connections, and Wi-Fi, you are able to control lighting, home theater, security, and more through a single app.
Amazon’s Alexa has transformed the nature of many smart home devices. Through the Amazon Echo Plus, multiple Alexa-enabled devices can all be controlled through voice commands alone over wireless networks. Using a built-in ZigBee hub, the Echo Plus is equipped to communicate with other ZigBee devices. Regular updates and new Alexa ‘Skills’ continuously expand the device’s capabilities, making it an excellent entry level solution for home theater controls.
For those looking for finer control over individual aspects of the home theater experience, or those for whom the home theater is more complex than a TV with a soundbar, a more dedicated solution is still the way to go. Matrix switches can handle all the physical wiring needed for a home theater, while still being fully integrated into the greater smart home network.
Home theater enthusiasts typically rely on hardwiring for in-wall and in-ceiling speakers, and they often require amplified signals. But when speaker wiring isn’t practical, there are wireless alternatives. Sonos offers some of the most prominent wireless speaker and powered subwoofer systems available, requiring only power plugs at most. These systems typically uses a home’s Wi-Fi networks for all the devices to communicate.
Wireless networks can extend your smart home automation to every corner of the house, but there are still limitations that require physical networking.
Most wireless communications solutions are based around low-energy usage requirements. A Nest’s temperature sensor, for example, uses a battery to power itself and can last up to 2 years. To get this battery life, the sensor must use the absolute minimum amount of power while remaining in communication with the central Nest thermostat.
Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), ZigBee, and other wireless mesh solutions facilitate this constant communication between devices without demanding much in the way of power. However, these solutions are not suited for more demanding applications, which is where physical networking comes into play.
A gaming enthusiast might not mind a wireless Bluetooth mouse and keyboard… but someone who is particularly competitive might prefer a hardline connection for reliability. The same can be said about Wi-Fi internet. Even with the best Wi-Fi networks extended with high-end network access points, there are physical limitations, which can affect network speeds. For those streaming 4K video online, Wi-Fi routers are still not quite capable of the bandwidth the resolution demands, and the same is true of wireless mesh networks.
We can only speculate on how far we will be able to push wireless networking solutions in the years to come. In terms of reliability, the days of running CAT6 cables through a home are not yet behind us. What wireless networks can do is provide connectivity between devices when a hardline is not a practical or possible option.