It is amazing just how many different home security systems there are and companies offering them. There seems to be a new one coming out all the time.
Along with this choice there is the fact that some of the companies have used high pressure tactics and worse to get sales. This all makes it hard to know you are making the right choice for your home and family.
Choosing the right system gives you peace of mind by protecting your property and doesn’t become a financial burden.
There are a number of things to consider ensuring you get the best one for your circumstances and doesn’t break the bank.
- 1 The Components Alarm System
- 2 How Many Devices Do You Need?
- 3 Monitored or Unmonitored
- 4 Hardwired Or Wireless
- 5 DIY or Professional Installation
- 6 Going With An Alarm Company
- 7 Landline, Cellular, VOIP or Internet
- 8 Remote Access
- 9 Portability
- 10 Expandability
- 11 Contracts
- 12 Door to Door Salesman
- 13 Customer Support
- 14 Warranty
- 15 Permits
- 16 Price
- 17 Insurance
The Components Alarm System
A good starting point is to know what a system is how a system works. The basic process is that when a sensor is tripped and it communicates this to the control panel, there is a short delay and then the alarm is sounded and notifications are sent out by the system to a professional monitoring center or to the phone of the owner if it is self monitored.
The standard home alarm system is made up of 5 components.
Control panel – this is the “brains” of the system. This is where the system is programmed. It controls and monitors the sensors, sounds the alarm and sends notifications out to the monitoring center and/or nominated people. It is plugged into the wall. It should have a battery backup so the system continues to work even when there is a power outage.
Sensors – these are the devices that sense changes in the home and when tripped they send a signal to the control panel to let it know. The two sensors included in a basic set up are:
Window/Door Contacts – these are in two pieces. One piece is the sensor and the other is a magnet. The magnet is normally attached to the door or window. The sensor is attached to the frame of the door or window. When the window/door is opened and the gap between the two is greater than the prescribed amount (less than an inch) a signal is sent.
Motion sensors – these detect motion in rooms and normally are fixed to a wall and usually work best when mounted in a corner to give full coverage of the room. A standard motion sensor will pick up the movement of pets in your home and sound the alarm. To avoid this there are pet sensitive sensors that will not detect the movement of pets under a specified weight – usually below 40 to 50 lbs.
Siren – this sounds the alarm when the sensors are tripped. It can be internal and/or external depending on the set up. An internal siren will let anybody at home know that the alarm is triggered and in many cases this will scare off the intruder. Most internal sirens when set up in a house are not loud enough to be heard by neighbors. External sirens are normally loud enough to be heard by the neighborhood but this does depend, of course, on how loud it is.
Keypad– these are used to arm/disarm the alarm and program the system. Keypads can be separate to the control panel or be part of it. In addition to this some systems give you the ability to arm/disarm the system using key fob remotes. And there are now systems that do not include a keypad at all. In these systems the programming is done using a smartphone app or using your computer.
Monitoring – a system can be monitored or unmonitored. A monitored system is one where the notifications are sent to a monitoring center that assesses the situation to determine whether to dispatch emergency services.
An unmonitored system can either work where only the alarm is sounded and is monitored by the residents (if they are at home) and if they are away it depends on the neighbors to alert police or it is self-monitored where the notifications are sent to phones of the owner and other people set up in the system .
Notifications can be sent by landline, cellular network, VOIP, internet or a combination.
On top of the basic system outline there are a number of other devices that can be added to the system:
Panic buttons – these sound the alarm immediately and send notifications out when pressed to get help in an emergency
Glass break sensors – these hear the sound of breaking glass when a window is smashed
Carbon monoxide sensor – these detect the carbon monoxide in the air to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
Smoke detector – detects smoke that indicates the presence of fire and sends out a warning as to the presence of smoke
Water sensor – these detect the presence of water. They are used in basements, attics and where pipes or boilers are stored. They can help in detecting a leak before it becomes a flood.
Temperature – used to detect changes in temperature outside a pre-set range and send a notification. These can be useful if your home goes below a certain temperature to let you know that your home is cold and pipes might start freezing
Cameras – these can be used to see what is going on at home by streaming video and taking pictures. They can be controlled remotely to pan and tilt around the room. They can be used to see if there is an intruder in your home or if it is a false alarm or just to check that your kids are safe and sound at home. These can start sending a feed automatically when a sensor has been tripped.
Home automation – many systems now give you the opportunity to automate your home. It gives you the ability to control and monitor your home remotely through your smartphone or computer. You can control your lights, lock and unlock your doors and have these things happen at a certain time or when a sensor detects an action. An example is you could have it set up so when a motion sensor detects someone entering a room the lights come on and when they leave the room the lights are turned off.
How Many Devices Do You Need?
Most break ins occur using the front door then the back door followed by the first floor windows. Next there is the garage, basement and second floor windows. Most burglars are in and out within 12 minutes. They target the master bedroom looking for cash, jewelry and other valuables and then look for expensive electronic equipment to take with them as they leave. It’s all very quick and if they have an accomplice with a car they will meet them in the drive for a quick getaway.
Before looking at systems it is a good idea to plan your security system to know what devices you want where. To work this out start by looking at the entry points which are easiest and quickest for an intruder to gain access. This as a minimum will be the front and back door. Window/door contacts are used here to detect the doors being forced. If you have any other doors it is advisable to cover these too.
Then it’s on to assessing your windows on the first floor and assessing whether you need to cover them. Windows can be a quick way for crooks to gain access and consideration should be given to covering them.
The other points of entry like the garage, basement and 2nd floor windows can also be covered with window/door contacts. There is less risk that these will be targeted and it depends here on your attitude and perception of risk and the cost. The garage is the most susceptible and you may want to consider this if you have any valuable items stored there.
As well as covering entry points, wireless window/door contacts are useful for monitoring medicine, gun and liquor cabinets and jewelry boxes to let you know when they have been accessed. It is possible to set your system up so that when a sensor is tripped you get a notification only that it has been opened and it does not sound the alarm.
For most homes motion sensors are advisable to detect movement inside. The living room and other rooms where there are valuables kept should be covered. On the second floor you should consider covering the area leading up to your bedrooms. These are a second line of defense if an intruder has got past the window/door contacts.
Other safety components you can consider are C02 detectors, smoke detectors, temperature sensors external sirens, cameras etc.
There is likely to be a number of people who will need to arm/disarm your system. You can have them arm/disarm using a keypad but an alternative is to use remote key fobs that will do this remotely like you can unlock your car with your car keys. Therefore count up how many remotes you may need.
So, take the time to count the rooms where you want motion sensors, the doors and windows that have outdoor access, cabinets you want secured and the number of people that need to be able to arm/disarm the system.
Once you’ve planned out your system there are a number of choices to make:
Monitored or Unmonitored
Monitored systems are monitored by a professional monitoring service (see going with an alarm company). They monitor the system 24/7 and will dispatch emergency services. You will be charged a monthly fee and be tied into a long contract of 1 to 3 years except for Simplisafe with it being the only company that has a monthly contract that allows you to cancel at any time without a penalty. Most companies operate with a 3 year minimum contract.
There are two types of unmonitored systems – one where only the alarm sounds. The other is where you self- monitor and you get the notifications sent to you on your phone. You then make the decision as to what the right course of action is. The big advantage here is that you are not paying a monthly fee and you won’t be signed up to a long term contract.
I’ve written more about the differences between unmonitored and monitored systems here.
Hardwired Or Wireless
A hardwired or wireless system describes how the various security devices communicate with the control panel. A hardwired system communicates through wires that run through the walls. Some modern homes come pre-wired that make installation straightforward. But many homes don’t have this and installation requires the drilling of holes and running wires through the walls and under the floor. Most people opt for these to be professionally installed.
Wireless systems communicate using radio waves. The devices and control panels have wireless transmitters. Most wireless systems come pre-configured to work with each other and the installation is easy and it can be done in a few hours or less. There are few DIY skills or technical skills needed to do this.
Wireless coverage is limited up to a few hundred yards from the control panel. It can be expanded with the use of repeaters but for very large homes a hardwired solution is going to be needed.
DIY or Professional Installation
When you choose a professional installer they can do an excellent job. They will know where to install the sensors for best coverage and to avoid false alarms. They are often the best choice when you choose to install a hardwired system as it involves running wires through your walls and under the floor boards. The downside of this is that you are going to be charged, your walls will be drilled into and you are going to have strangers in your house for a day or two.
Wireless systems are much more straightforward to install and many people choose to do it themselves. There are few skills needed with most systems programmed to work out of the box. You may need to screw the devices to the walls, windows and doors although you can use double-back tape to mount them. It can be done in a few hours or less. Most companies offer help and troubleshooting advice on line or by phone if you run in to trouble , so it’s worth picking a system with excellent customer service like Fortress Security.
Going With An Alarm Company
If you choose to go with an alarm company to buy, install and monitor your system take the time to check them out fully and get yourself a number of quotes as the prices can vary quite considerably. And the difference in price doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality.
Check the company on the Better Business Bureau and Angie’s List sites to see what feedback there has been received. If you have friends that have had a system installed checked with them, too.
The FTC has investigated the alarm system industry and has found that it has more than its’ fair share of rogue traders. They have published some useful guidelines on how to assess the reliability of the company you are considering to use. See it here: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0195-some-home-security-systems-may-be-scams. It does a good job of going through how to check out the company online, the government agencies to check with, the questions to ask and things to look for in any contract you are asked to sign.
Remember you don’t have to sign up with an alarm company to install a system and monitor it as you can choose to install and self-monitor.
Landline, Cellular, VOIP or Internet
This is how the system connects to a monitoring center or the owner of the system. So, a wireless system can use a landline or a hardwired system can use the cellular network.
A landline is the most reliable of the options as it is not affected by power outages and the connection is more secure. However a burglar can cut the phone line and stop the notifications getting out.
Cellular communication is more tamper proof and is the next most reliable system but is reliant on the cellular network being up and does require a power backup to work when there is a power outage. They can carry more data and dial out quicker than a landline.
VOIP offers a solution of taking analog phone signals and transforming them into digital signals to transmit them using the internet. It is dependent on there being power and an internet connection. Some systems require a landline to dial out and VOIP can be used in these circumstances in place of a landline but check with the manufacturer to see if their system is compatible.
Internet – this offers the most feature rich communication (great for home automation) for remote monitoring and control of your alarm system. Many new systems like SmartThings and iSmartAlarm use the internet as you plug them into your router. When the internet is down or there is a power outage the system does not work and cannot get a signal to you, so you are effectively without a system. The system will let you know that contact has been lost.
It is now possible to access you system remotely. This can be done through your smartphone or computer. It gives you the ability to arm/disarm the system remotely, to give someone access to your home without giving them a pass code – such as a plumber coming into fix the bathroom. There are loads of options possible as to what you can do even from the other side of the world. If you don’t want to do this straightaway it’s worth keeping this in mind when selecting a system so that it has the capability to do this when you are ready, if it is something you think you will be interested in.
If you are a renter or looking to move you are going to want to be able to move your security system with you. A wireless system makes this easier to do as you only need to remove the devices and there is no need to plug holes in your existing home or run wires at the new location.
Over time you may want to move sensors in your home and this is easier with wireless as you only have to move the sensor and not run wires to the new location.
Most home security system companies have a starter kit with a selection of components that help to make it more affordable to get started and give you minimum coverage.
When choosing a system you want one that has a wide array of sensors now and gives you the ability to add them piece by piece as you decide on more security coverage or want to add environmental sensors or home automation devices and you have the budget for it. This way you can customize the system to fit in with your everyday life. Installation and set up should be as easy as possible.
If you do decide to go with an alarm company to install and monitor your system you are going to be tied into a contract of some sort. It is important to understand the contract. Areas to look at are the penalties for breaking the contract, what happens at the end of the contract term (is it automatically rolled over and you are locked in again), what happens when you move. In the FTC article referenced in the section about alarm companies the FTC have a number of questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line.
You really want situation where you can get out of the contract when you want. Many DIY systems don’t come with a contract or you only need to sign up for 1 year at a time making it much easier to get out of.
Door to Door Salesman
The advice is not to buy from a door to door salesman. There is unfortunately a large number that use high pressure and devious sales tactics to get you to sign. If one comes to the door it is best to not engage with them and don’t invite them in to your home as you might not be able to get them to leave easily.
As with any purchase it’s important to buy a system from a company with excellent customer support. This can be assessed by looking online at forums and customer reviews at Amazon. When you are relying on the system to protect your home you want the support to be there if something goes wrong with the system.
A warranty is important if there is a problem with the parts. The best warranties cover the system for manufacturer defects for 3 years. Research online is required to see how the company responds to a problem. There are a number that send out a replacement part without question and get it to you quickly so your system is up and running as quickly as possible.
Some states require you to have a permit for an alarm system and charge you for this. Also you may be charged for any false alarms as police time has been wasted by answering them.
Comparing prices can be difficult with systems as many companies offer a discount on the equipment costs and installation if they can tie you into a long contract. The company recoups the discount given by the amount they charge you each month for monitoring. Therefore it is important to compare the whole life cost of the systems i.e. cost of the equipment, installation and the monthly charges for the life of the contract. The monthly charges for a 3 year contract can be expensive on what level of monitoring you have. The costs of the best systems are easy to determine and are shown upfront. They are not set out in a way designed to confuse or hide the true cost.
Most home insurance policies offer a discount for installing a home security system. The biggest discounts are normally offered for a system that is professionally monitored with a smaller discount for one that is self monitored.
How much of a discount you can get differs from company to company and policy to policy and needs to be checked with your insurance company. The discount offered is not going to cover the cost of the monitoring.
There are a number of factors to consider when buying a home security system. It starts by planning it and counting the devices you’ll need for entry points, motion detection and remotes for arming/disarming. Also this is a good time to make an assessment as to the additional security sensors, environmental sensors and home automation features to get upfront or at a later date so as to ensure the system you buy can expand to suit your lifestyle now and in the future.
Then it’s a matter of deciding on the type of monitoring, DIY or professional installation and whether you want a wired or wireless system.
If you choose to use an alarm company to do the monitoring and/or installation it’s important to do some extra checking on the background of the company using the FTC guidelines. The pricing of the system should be easy to understand. It’s important to be comparing total cost and realize the discounted equipment cost will be recovered in the monthly cost. So it is the cost of the equipment, installation and the monitoring cost for the term of the contract that needs to be compared.
If you choose the DIY route for installation and monitoring check out customer reviews and review sites that have taken the time to analyze the product in detail.
The system itself should be able to be expanded as you need, have a backup battery for power outages, manufacturer’s warranty, good customer support, be hard to tamper with and has a reliable system for sending out notifications.
And don’t forget to check if you need to have a permit, if you are charged for false alarms and if you can get a discount on your home owners insurance.
You’ll then have a system that’s right for you and you can have peace of mind that you are providing the best protection for your home, valuables and family.
Filed under: Buying Advice
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