In all honesty, wireless gets a bad rap. Often, members of the custom install community extensively criticise it for its perceived reliability issues. While copper or glass is generally a more reliable way of transferring information from point A to point B, under the right circumstances you achieve the same reliability from a wireless connection.
Granted, if we’re talking high bandwidth applications there can still be a slight difference in signal quality – but this is so tiny that it is not really an issue for most people. While sending HDMI content without cables is still a challenge, for an Apple TV set-up streaming Netflix, a decent WiFi network is perfectly fine in the majority of environments.
A lot of the criticism that wireless control systems attract comes down to their smaller practical operating range. Take Z-Wave for example – it has a reasonable maximum reach of around 30m, free field; beyond that its effectiveness tails off almost immediately. Does this make it unreliable? Not as long as you stick to its working parameters.
Cat6 itself only has a useful range of 100m so, although it goes further, it still suffers from the same issues – beyond this distance it becomes incredibly unreliable. Additionally, if Cat6 is poorly installed – for example, unshielded wires running close alongside 230v mains cables – then signal will be severely compromised.
Two types of wireless
Wireless technology in the smart home tends to serve one of two purposes: content delivery (WiFi for video-on-demand streaming, internet access etc…) and control signals. For the latter, many installers suggest that basing your control strategy on a wireless platform is a bad idea when creating systems from the ground up. Aside from being obviously self-serving, it’s short sighted. Embracing wireless in the smart home gives installers new opportunities in retrofit markets and more flexibility in their ground-up installations.
I would argue that certain wireless platforms, such as Z-Wave, can deliver the same level of reliability as more traditional wired systems. Limitations in range can be overcome using mesh networks, where the signal gets bumped via powered nodes to devices that would otherwise have been out of reach.
The best of wired; the worst of wired
Now, before you start venting with flame at the above statement, let me throw in some caveats. With wireless there is an inherent level of uncertainty as to the performance in a particular physical environment; that is, what works in your house may not work in mine. Whereas with a shielded cable you can generally be confident that the signal that goes in at one end will generally emerge undiminished at the other end, regardless of what’s happening around it.
Installers that want to use wireless do need to put in some extra work here to make sure that what they’re specifying is actually going to work – this means site surveys and careful design. Yes, that’s more work at the earlier stages of a project, but as Patton once said “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.” (That applies to all aspects of a project too!)
Also, when you are dealing with the transfer of large amounts of data, wired is a more inherently stable connection. I would never recommend putting physical access control onto a wireless network if possible, as it does have a larger attack surface. CCTV and television are the other two elements of a smart home that should probably be kept on wired networks, as data rates for both are quite high. As wires cannot easily be jammed in the same way that a wireless system can, it is the best solution for the really mission-critical stuff.
Of course, the big problem with wired is that it is totally inflexible once it is installed. If you place a wired PIR (passive infrared) motion detector in one corner and then want to change it to another side of the room, you face having to totally rewire the space to accommodate it.
Best of both worlds
We have moved on; it’s 2016 and we no longer have to rely totally on wires for everything. We’re already used to hybrid systems in the home – think laptops, docked home phones and battery-powered alarms – that make use of both wired and wireless infrastructure.
For large properties, a hybrid system is often the most effective solution. A wired backbone, built on Crestron or a similar platform, can operate as a bus network whereby a central cable links several access points with base stations for wireless devices. This ensures good, consistent signal strength throughout the home and greater flexibility in how the technology sits within the design and aesthetics of the building.
Clearly, an effective hybrid system must result from a comprehensive site survey that highlights any potential physical limitations but the benefits are numerous. Integrators that immediately write off such a network without looking into the possibilities hinder themselves and their clients, as it is a much more flexible solution.
With any network installation, physics is still a factor; you have to abide by its laws. Buildings that feature thick concrete walls, steel columns or thick glass will struggle with the implementation of wireless in certain parts of the property. The same applies to buildings which use celotex foam for thermal insulation. These boards effectively act as a Faraday cage and can cause massive problems for implementing a wireless control strategy.
A fully or partially wired system will inevitably come at a premium but, if you can afford it, then it is often the way to go. That said, it entirely depends on the homeowners’ requirements. By thoroughly researching the technology that is required and the environment in which it will sit, it will become apparent which set-up is right for the customer. And ultimately, isn’t that what custom install is all about?