Home security technology has come a long way over the years. The use of deadbolts, window locks, and motion-activated lights are still very effective for securing your home. Advances in technology have provided consumers today with plenty of choices to enhance total home security.
Home Security Systems – Everything to Know Before You Buy
Basic home security is often not enough to prevent break-ins, and experienced criminals can easily identify homes to easily burglarize. Combining traditional features and modern technologies is the strongest barrier against burglars. This guide will help you learn more about home security systems and how to best secure your home.
What are the basic principles of home security systems?
Barriers, detection, and response are three basic principles of creating an effective home security system. Think about how an intruder might gain access to your home. Burglars want a quick and easy entry and exit point. Thieves want to get into your home, take want they want, and get out of the area as fast as possible.
That’s why homeowners often display alarm company signs in their front yards and place easily identifiable cameras and floodlights around the exterior. Hopefully, a would-be intruder will keep moving when it’s apparent that a home has an installed security system.
Create Barriers to Entry
Barriers consist of all the elements that prevent a person from intruding into your personal space. Fences, doors, windows, and even curtains and shades are all forms of barriers. Barriers prevent unauthorized entry into the home and unauthorized viewing of what is occurring inside the home.
Believe it or not, the easiest way most burglars enter a home is right through the front door. Doors and windows are the most obvious entry points but consider other vulnerable areas such as garages, work sheds, guest houses, and gates, and fences. Developing the habit of always securing your entry points is the primary method for keeping your home safe.
Detect Any Intrusion
Despite your best efforts, sometimes barriers fail and intruders can still get inside your home. Home security systems allow homeowners to detect a possible intrusion and create a second layer of prevention.
Cameras and floodlights help to discourage criminals from coming near your home. Entry sensors and glass break sensors trigger an alarm when a barrier has been breached. And motion detectors and internal cameras can tell you if an intruder is inside the home.
Respond to an Intrusion
A loud alarm is the first response to an intrusion. The detection phase and the alarm gives the homeowner time to fully respond to an intrusion. In many cases, a loud alarm is enough to cause an intruder to run away. If not, a homeowner can call the police, answer any calls from the alarm monitoring company, and call for assistance from any neighbors.
The last resort is to hunker down for the possibility of having to physically defend yourself. None of this would be possible, though, without properly implementing all of the basic principles of home security systems.
What are the common components of a home security system?
A home security system consists of a range of electronic components linked to a control station. For professionally monitored systems, the system is linked to a remote monitoring company. Modern systems do more than just protect against burglars. There are sensors to help protect against fires, water damage, and temperature variations as well. Your goals and risk tolerance will determine the components you purchase and how they will be situated in your home. Here’s a list of basic components that can be mixed and matched according to how you want to build out your system:
Camera technology has advanced to the degree that you can place security cameras practically anywhere around your home. Security cameras can be set up to monitor the outside or inside of the house with many features and capabilities – such as zoom, pan, and motion activation. The sight of a conspicuous exterior camera can be enough to deter a would-be thief, and a small hidden camera can capture any activity going on inside your home.
Entry sensors can be placed on doors and windows, and represent the first line of defense in any home security system. They tell the base station whenever a door or window has been opened. When a security system is set to protection mode, a breached entry sensor will trigger an audible alarm. When the system is turned off, a sensor can let you know when a door or window has been opened by signaling a light ding sound from the base station. Entry sensors can be wireless or hard-wired. Wireless types use lithium-ion batteries, that should be changed out every three to five years. A loss in communication with a wireless sensor is usually caused by a dead battery.
Motion sensors are a good second line of defense and great for when an intruder has found a way to defeat your cameras and entry sensors. Certain motion sensors can distinguish between a pet and a human, an essential feature for keeping your home safe with active pets inside. Exterior motion sensors can be used to turn on floodlights whenever someone comes close to the outside of your home, and interior sensors can turn off lights whenever movement is no longer detected after a specific period. In addition to triggering an alarm in the presence of an intruder, motion sensors can be set to activate your camera system when movement is detected.
Glass Break Sensors
The sound of breaking glass is usually loud and very distinct. As the name implies, glass break sensors are sound detectors that detect the distinct sound of breaking glass. Entry sensors alert when a door or window is opened, so burglars will often simply break a window to get around the entry sensor. Motion sensors can detect when an intruder has entered a house, but glass break sensors can keep an intruder out of the house by triggering an alarm when an attempt is made to otherwise breach a window.
Smart Smoke Detectors
Smoke detectors are required by law in all homes. Tying smoke detectors into your home’s security system ensures a rapid response from the fire department, even when you are away from your home. Smart smoke detectors can also trigger the system to speak out loud where the smoke is coming from in the house.
Smart Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that is invisible, tasteless, and odorless. Carbon monoxide detectors work similar to smoke detectors and trigger an alarm whenever a buildup of carbon monoxide occurs. Just like smart smoke detectors, having the sensors tied into your security system lets you know if there is danger even while you are away from home.
Heat sensors protect against any rapid rise in ambient temperature, usually caused by a fire inside the home. Heat sensors trigger an alarm when the interior temperature rises more than a specific number per minute or when the total temperature reaches a specific high point during any given time. For instance, a system can be set to alarm if the temperature goes up by 10 degrees in less than a minute or when the interior temperature reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Water damage is probably a more common occurrence than fire for the average homeowner. But water sensors are an often overlooked component of home security. Place water sensors near any place where a water leak is likely to occur. Bathrooms, laundry rooms, kitchens, and near water heaters are the most common sources of water leaks. Considering the costs of repairing the source of the leak and all the subsequent damage, including water sensors in your system is a worthwhile investment.
Home security systems can have any number of alarms that emit high pitched noise whenever a sensor detects activity. Some systems offer distinct sounds for different types of events and others only offer one tone regardless of what type of sensor has been triggered. High pitched noise is designed to alert the homeowner of an emergency and to scare away would-be intruders. For systems that only have one type of alarm, you would have to read the alarm panel, keypad, or phone app to find out what type of alarm has been triggered. Some systems also offer verbal alerts that tell you the type and location of the emergency.
The keypad is the main control station for a home security system. A keypad will have a display from which you can see when the system is armed and displays information when a sensor is triggered. The keypad will also show when a sensor is malfunctioning and can set the system to monitor all the sensors, only the exterior sensors, or set to ignore specific zones or rooms. Advanced systems can be disarmed by fingerprint readers, proximity cards, or key fobs.
In addition to a keypad, some security systems also use a base station to tie all the sensors to the alarm monitoring company. A base station is separate from the keypad and is more like the hub of the system, maintaining the link between your home system and the monitoring company. Depending on the model, a base station can be linked wirelessly to the internet or have a dedicated cell phone line for alarm monitoring.
A panic button can be mounted to the wall or kept loosely near a bedside. Entry sensors, glass break sensors, and environmental sensors work passively to detect threats, but a panic button can be activated any time you feel in danger. Panic buttons can be installed on key fobs, on wrist bands, or on lanyards to be carried around the neck.
Doorbell cameras are a great way to see who is knocking at your door and to prevent thieves from stealing packages off your front porch. They can be set to motion activation or to activate whenever someone rings the doorbell. You can also video-chat with whoever is at the door and manually check the camera just to see what is going on outside your home.
A smart lock allows keyless entry to your home by way of a touchscreen or keypad. Both types use a code to unlock the door. Touchscreen smart locks use a screen for code entry, with some models providing additional features such as fingerprint access and scrambled numbers to avoid eavesdroppers reading your keystrokes. Keypad smart locks use a simple button-press system with a standard keyhole and key as a backup.
Signs and Stickers
Security system signs and stickers are more than a free advertisement for the alarm company. They also serve as an active deterrent to thieves looking for an easy opportunity. A burglar on the prowl will likely avoid a home with security system signs posted in the front yard. Potential intruders simply move on to the next home, rather than taking the time to defeat a given home security system.
Phone apps are quickly becoming the preferred method to arm, disarm, and monitor home security systems. Phone apps make it easy to check your system while you’re away from home, and most allow you to view and save live video from your security cameras. Some apps even allow you to control connected devices such as lights and door locks. You can also talk to anyone at your front door by way of a connected doorbell device.
Alarm Monitoring Service
Alarm monitoring service completes your home security system. Since an alarm system doesn’t link directly to local emergency services, a monitoring company keeps constant watch to call the police or the fire department in case of an emergency. Without an alarm monitoring service, your home security system is simply a local alarm to hopefully scare away intruders. You can keep watch yourself via a phone app, but for a small monthly fee, you can trust an alarm monitoring service to always ensure your home is safe.
Do I need a landline phone to operate my system?
Over the years, home security systems have typically required a landline to communicate with the alarm monitoring service. With the development of reliable cellular service and high-speed internet, the need for a landline telephone for your system is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Newer systems communicate through an internet connection or a dedicated cell phone line. Both internet and cell phone line systems allow for the use of smartphone apps to monitor and control your home system.
Internet-based systems can be vulnerable during a power outage though. When the power goes out your internet service goes out too, meaning your home will lose its security protection.
Cell phone-based systems usually include a battery backup for the base station, so you’ll never lose communication with the alarm monitoring company even when the power goes out. Combined with wireless battery powered alarm sensors, your home will stay protected even during a power outage.
What are the different types of home security systems?
Wired or Wireless
There are two main types of home security systems – wired and wireless. A wired system requires professional installation involving the placement of sensors and all the wiring that connects to the control station. A wireless system can be installed professionally or DIY. Although they’re called wireless, the system does still requires power cables for the cameras and the base station/control panel.
Professional Monitoring or Self-Monitoring
For wired or wireless systems, you can purchase a 24/7 professional monitoring service or you can self-monitor your system. A self-monitored system can be monitored and controlled by way of a cell phone app. Professional monitoring is a better option though because you’ll get a quicker emergency response from fire or law enforcement when an alarm is triggered.
You can also install a system that is completely unmonitored with all the same sensors and components as a monitored system. The system will only sound a local alarm when a sensor is triggered and you won’t be notified of a break-in or other emergency.
How easy are DIY systems to install?
DIY home security systems are very user friendly and are designed to be installed by homeowners with little to no home improvement experience. All of the sensors are usually wireless and powered by small lithium-ion batteries. Most sensors can be placed with removable adhesives, making a DIY system a perfect option for renters who want to avoid drilling holes in the walls.
Base stations require a power cable and need to be situated near a wall outlet. Some keypads are fully battery-powered though. Cameras can be a bit tricky too since they may need a hardwired power source and more solid mounting hardware. If all you need is basic intrusion sensors, a DIY security system such as SimpliSafe, Adobe, or Ring.
Can I install it myself or is it better to hire a professional?
DIY wireless systems are designed for very simple installation, with detailed, easy to follow instructions for installing and using your system. At most, you may need a screwdriver and some elbow grease to get the system up and running.
Wired systems usually require an in-home consultation and professional installation. Wired systems also cannot be moved to a new home, but a wireless system can be easily installed and removed for use at any new residence.
Does the system require a long-term contract?
It all depends on what company you decide to go with. For DIY systems, alarm monitoring and monthly payments are not necessary but your system will be nothing more than a local alarm. This may deter some criminals, but it won’t call the police or fire department in case of an emergency. Those precious few moments are crucial in the event of a real emergency.
For DIY systems, you purchase the system components upfront and pay monthly for monitoring service. The monthly charge is usually relatively inexpensive and requires only a month-to-month agreement. Some have a tiered system, charging slightly more per month depending on the monitoring features you want (i.e. live video feed, smart device control, etc.) For wired systems, the components are delivered free of charge but require a long-term contract for 24/7 monitoring.
How easy is the system to use?
A home security system is essentially a simple network of entry sensors and interior sensors all monitored and controlled by a central hub. The central hub or control panel is designed to be as uncomplicated as possible.
The use of passcodes and biometric access control (aka fingerprints, etc.) allow only the homeowner to quickly arm and disarm the system. Mobile panic buttons make it easy to trigger an alarm even if the system is necessarily armed.
All home security systems come with very easy to follow instruction guides. Even the most inexpensive companies have good customer service to help with any questions you might have about your system.
How much control do I have over my system?
All home security systems have at least three settings – active home, active away, and deactivated. You can set the system for delayed activation for when you leave the house or immediate activation when you’re at home. You can control all of this from the main panel or keypad or a phone app for smart systems.
Systems with smart capability allow you to control individual components of your system. For instance, you can turn off the sensors in a specific room or turn the lights on to check your interior via cameras while you’re away.
Any malfunction with a wired system requires the alarm company to come out and make repairs. DIY systems are very easy to maintain though. Replacing lithium-ion batteries is a simple matter of popping the cap off the top of the sensor and switching out the battery. The batteries can last anywhere from 3 to 5 years before needing replacement.
For wireless DIY systems, you can add and subtract components using the keypad or phone app, and the system will tell you if communication is lost with any specific sensor. It will also give notification if there’s a loss of signal to the alarm monitoring company or if the base station is malfunctioning.
What are the alternatives to home security?
Exterior window bars and security doors for your front and back porch might be unsightly, but they’re a very strong security measure. They can be a bit of a challenge though when you need to get out of the house, such as during a fire emergency. A guard dog in the back yard is also a strong deterrent to even the most determined thieves.
Besides these obvious alternatives, you can also install a standalone camera system with a dedicated DVR and smartphone access. These systems can also be set to motion activation to save a little electricity and space on the recording media.
You can install jamb reinforcement plates on your exterior doors to prevent forced entry and shatterproof film on your windows to prevent window breaks. “Pick-proof” deadbolts for your exterior doors also make it very difficult for intruders to defeat your door locks.
The best protective measure, though, is being security conscious. Always remember to lock your windows and doors, keep your porch lights on at night, and get to know your neighbors.
What happens when an alarm is triggered?
Your home security system is designed to sound an alarm whenever one of the various sensors is triggered. If someone attempts to open a door an entry sensor will trigger the alarm. If someone attempts to break a window, the glass break sensor and probably also the internal motion sensor will trigger the system.
What happens next depends on whether you have 24/7 alarm monitoring attached to your security system. Without it, your alarm is nothing more than a loud announcement that an intruder is attempting to break into the house. It’s up to you to call the police or fire department.
With 24/7 alarm monitoring, your alarm company will take appropriate action. Most companies operate the same in response to an alarm activation. Step one is to attempt to contact the homeowner by the phone number listed in the account. If someone answers, the person is will be asked for a secret code or password. If the person states the alarm is false or accidental and give the correct password, the alarm company will cancel the alarm and not call the police. If the person does not answer the phone or does answer but gives an incorrect password, the alarm company will notify the authorities of the emergency.
What is considered a good resolution for a home security camera?
Security camera resolution standards can be understood the same as with modern flat-screen televisions. 720p HD is an old technology that is quickly being scrapped. 1080p Full HD used to be considered top of the line but is gradually being replaced by 5MP Super HD security cameras. 5MP Super HD is the current mainstream and offers 2560 x 1920 resolution. 4K Ultra HD is top of the line with 3840 x 2160 resolution, but the price of these cameras makes them a bit too expensive for the average consumer. 5MP Super HD security cameras offer very good resolution and are affordable for the average user.
What will I see in the viewfinder?
The area that is viewable through a security camera is called the Field of View (FOV) or viewing angle. The field of view is affected by the size of the camera lens, the image sensor inside the camera, and the distance of the camera from the subject being viewed.
A fixed lens camera has a fixed point of view and can be more economical for price-conscious consumers. A fixed lens is not able to zoom and is best used for indoor areas such as an office or living room. A veritable lens can be adjusted to allow for zoom, but the closer you bring the image the more narrow the FOV will be in your viewing screen.
Modern security cameras are designed with wide-angle lenses, with each being a wider field of view the higher up the resolution scale you go. Wide-angle lenses allow for a more accurate field of view. For instance, a 1080p Full HD camera will have a larger field of view than a 720p HD camera, and a 5MP Super HD camera has a wider view than the 1080p Full HD camera. Most good cameras also have night vision and two-way audio.
How do I look at what the camera sees?
Traditionally, security camera footage had to be viewed on-site using a television and recording device. The ability to remotely view live video and playback is a common feature of most modern systems. Whether your video footage is stored on a local DVR or is uploaded for cloud-based storage, the best way to view your video footage is on a smartphone app or laptop. You can quickly log in on your phone app and see the live feed or watch footage from a date and time in the past.
How do I store and retrieve video footage from my security cameras?
There are three basic options for storing the video from your security cameras. Some cameras have onboard storage and others are connected to a local storage device such as a DVR, NVR, or PC. Cloud-based storage is quickly becoming the most common method for storing digital video from security cameras. With cloud storage, you never have to worry about a corrupted file or damaged equipment that might make it difficult to impossible to retrieve your video recordings.
With onboard storage or with a local storage device, retrieving your video files usually requires proprietary software to view and save the files. Saved files can be transferred to any standard portable media such as a flashcard or USB drive. DVDs are becoming less common as disc players are a less common feature of most new computers.
For cloud-based storage, you can retrieve video footage online by logging in to your account and selecting the camera and date range for the video you need. From there, you can download what you need to a cell phone or computer for transfer to a portable storage device.
Will the police come when my alarm is triggered?
Having 24/7 home monitoring doesn’t mean the police automatically come to your house whenever an alarm sensor is triggered. In the event of an alarm, the alarm company will attempt to call you before dispatching the police.
If they can contact you, they’ll ask for a password or secret code. If you answer correctly, then the police will not be alerted. If not, the alarm company will call the police to respond to your home. If you cannot be reached, the alarm company will call the police to your home.
Without monitoring service, the responsibility is on you to call the authorities when you have an emergency.
Do security systems actually deter criminals?
The obvious presence of an alarm system in the home is one of the best means of deterring potential break-ins. Yard signs, stickers, security cameras, and doorbell cameras let criminals know they’re being watched, something they desperately try to avoid.
In a study of 422 convicted criminals conducted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 83% of those interviewed said they would check for an alarm system when scouting homes to be burglarized. 60% stated they would move on to another target if they saw the presence of an intrusion alarm system.
When burglars discover an alarm while in the act of breaking in, 50% stated they would stop the burglary and run away and 31% said they would sometimes run away. A mere 13% said they would continue the break-in even when an alarm system was discovered (2).
What happens if I can’t remember if I locked my house?
Sometimes we can misremember common tasks, confusing our intention to do something with actually having done the thing. According to a recent study done by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this is why someone can leave their doors unlocked but swear they remember locking the doors as they were leaving home (1).
With a home security system enabled with smart locks, you’ll never have to worry about this problem. Can’t remember if you locked the front doors before you left home? No problem. Just check your smartphone app to make sure the doors are locked. You can also see that all your sensors are working properly and the alarm system is active.
1. Ciocora, Phil. “Paper: Mundane behavioral decisions, actions can be ‘misremembered’ as done.” Illinois News Bureau, 17 Jul. 2020, https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/2064440634
2. Kuns, Joseph B. “Understanding Decisions to Burglarize from the Offender’s Perspective.” The University of North Carolina at Charlotte Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, Dec. 2012, http://www.airef.org/research/BurglarSurveyStudyFinalReport.pdf