Z-Wave Making a Move for Home Energy Networking?

Does Z-Wave stand a chance against ZigBee in the home energy management space? No way, ZigBee boosters say — their standard-based technology has a clear lead in U.S. smart meter-home area network plans, with tens of millions of chips and modules being made by multiple vendors for dozens of device partners.

Even so, a host of recent home automation announcements could put Z-Wave back in the running, according to Sigma Designs, which acquired Z-Wave chipmaker Zensys in 2008. In my weekly update at GigaOM Pro (subscription required), I delve into some of the factors for and against such an outcome.

One thing working against Z-Wave is that it’s a proprietary technology with chips made by a single vendor. Sure, it may have members including ADT, Black & Decker, Danfoss, Leviton and Ingersoll Rand. But the ZigBee Alliance has all the big smart grid companies and utilities on board — as well as GE (s GE), which just recently named ZigBee its favorite wireless technology for its smart appliance and home energy networking plans.

Still, Michael Weissman, Sigma’s vice president of corporate marketing, laid out some interesting developments on the Z-Wave front to us. One of the most interesting comes from Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo, which said in October it planned a Z-Wave-based home energy management offering, featuring “smart tap” power sensing devices and home routers from Sumitomo.

Japan’s government requires home automation systems to run at frequencies of under 1 gigahertz, which fits Z-Wave in the 900 megahertz range but doesn’t match ZigBee at 2.4 gigahertz, Weissman noted. That could make Japan a big Z-Wave market — unless Wi-Fi in the home takes over that primary function for home networking.

Back in the U.S., Verizon (s VZ) has been rumored to be planning a FiOS-enabled home energy management offering for the past two years or so. But it’s also plotting home networks that runs on technologies like MoCA and Z-Wave, Ann Shaub, director of program management, said in September, with devices coming as early as the first quarter of 2011.

In early December, Motorola (s MOT) bought Z-Wave Alliance member 4Home, a startup that has worked with Verizon and other partners in a host of home energy management configurations. Could it be a preparatory move to work with Verizon’s Z-Wave home strategy?

Of course, just because a vendor is looking at Z-Wave as an option for home energy networking doesn’t mean it is ruling out ZigBee as well. Palo Alto, Calif.-based iControl, a home energy networking startup with backing from Kleiner Perkins, ADT, GE and Comcast, uses Z-Wave for its wireless sensor and management software platform as part of security giant ADT’s ADT Pulse program. But in November, iControl announced a merger with rival home automation provider uControl, which uses ZigBee.

Comparing ZigBee to Z-Wave does bring up an interesting contrasts. While ZigBee is king in the emerging field of energy management networking, Z-Wave has the lead in overall home automation products on the market, with about 250, compared to ZigBee’s 100 certified devices. In fact, behind its lead in home energy management, ZigBee’s second largest market is in industrial sensors — far from the home.

For more on this and other smart grid and energy-smart home technology coverage, check out my Green IT coverage at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

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