Proprietary Hubs

When we discussed hubless wifi systems, one of the main downsides was their reliance on wifi and the potential for overloading it. Additionally, the lack of sensor options and unified solutions were problematic as well.

Enter the hub. At its simplest, a hub is piece of equipment with one or more radios in it that acts as a central coordinator for other components. It is responsible for knowing things like the current time, temperature, whether your door is open or not, whether a certain button in your house has been pressed, and the myriad of other things going on in your home; and then taking action by sending commands to devices like lights, speakers, or screens.

Put another way, the hub receives inputs from your house via your phone,  buttons, switches, and various sensors and sends output as commands and data to switches, light bulbs, displays, speakers and your phone.

Every part of your home automation needs some way to talk to the hub. This is typically done wirelessly via tiny radios inside each component and the hub. The “language” that these radios can broadcast and receive messages with is called a “protocol”. Some of the most common protocols used for home automation are Zigbee and Z-Wave. These protocols are open standards, which means anyone can create a device that uses them as long as they adhere to the rules set up by the Z-Wave Alliance or the Zigbee Alliance. (Apparently, there are zero points awarded for innovation when naming your alliance.) We’ll get to some of the specific advantages these protocols offer over wifi in another post.

Some manufacturers create their own protocols. Lutron, for example, created the Clear Connect protocol which it uses in its own hubs. That doesn’t mean it’s bad; in fact, Lutron is one of the premier home automation companies out there and make very good equipment! It just means that the only light switches that will work with a Lutron Hub are those made by (or licensed by) Lutron. Inversely, Lutron switches cannot be controlled by hubs that are not made by Lutron.

Another company that has a proprietary hub is Philips, the maker of the extremely popular Hue line of bulbs. They actually call their hub a "bridge" for technical reasons we won't get into now. Hue actually uses the Zigbee protocol but it is one (ZLL) that is not well supported by many other hubs. To effectively use Hue bulbs, Philips wants you to buy the Hue bridge. As one of the pioneers of the smart bulb industry, Philips has a very large selection of bulb types (which we will discuss in depth later) and complements it with compatible remote controls, motion sensors.

Ikea hubs use the standard Zigbee protocol and its components can be used by other hubs that support Zigbee. However, the hub itself will only communicate Tradfi components.

Hopefully, you’re starting to see a pattern emerge. Proprietary hubs work well within the boundaries set by their manufacturers. Lutron systems are some of the best. Hue is wildly popular (and pricey!). They are typically reliable because all pieces of the system are made (and supported) by the same company. But they require you to stick with that brand when buying all your equipment. And if that brand doesn’t offer a component type (like Lutron Caseta’s lack of motion sensors) then you’re out of luck.

Of course, there’s always a solution. We’ll talk about when you should combine various proprietary hubs with each other and wifi systems and how to connect them in another post.

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