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Home security systems 101: Things to consider

There’s a lot more to it than alarms and security cameras

Andrea Calo

When we talk about home tech, we’re often focused on products from technology juggernauts or new startups, but home security systems, the predecessors to today’s smart home ecosystems, have been used for decades (the first system was invented in 1969 by Marie Van Brittan Brown, and it featured a closed-circuit television system, a remote controlled door, and two-way communication).

Today there are literally thousands of options on the market, ranging from DIY kits to hardwired systems built into your home. How to choose? We went to the home security experts to understand the differences between systems and key features you should consider before installing.

Wireless vs. hardwired

Most home security systems are hybrids, meaning that parts are hardwired but they can still use wireless communication. Matthew Ladd, president and owner of The Protection Bureau, a security system company based in Exton, PA, advises homeowners to avoid systems that use an analog phone line. Analog phone lines are going away, and you don’t want your system to be obsolete in five years.

Homeowners should instead choose a system with wireless communication, be it the internet or cellular backup. Telguard and both work over cellular networks. If you want the best of both worlds, Ladd advises using a system that communicates over a cellular network and goes through your home internet.

Having cellular capabilities ensures that your system won’t go down just because the power went out and you lost internet service. On that same note, be sure that your system has a battery backup in case of power outages. Surprisingly, many systems, Canary included, do not.

Go beyond the standard alarm

Tim McKinney, vice president at ADT Custom Home Services, the largest security company in the country, believes that one of the biggest advances in the world of home security today is the coupling of security and automation into one designed portfolio—a.k.a. the smart home ecosystem.

For example, a customer with ADT Pulse knows that when the fire alarm system trips, authorities are immediately notified, and the system can also initiate the lighting pass or exit pass for the kids, unlock the front door, and shut down the HVAC system, so it’s not pushing smoke in and throughout the home. The Nest system has similar capabilities.

Illustrated security cameras Sunny Eckerle

Ladd says that security systems are more than just alarms. "You can even connect your system so when someone rings your doorbell, you get notified remotely on your app and have a video and a camera to talk to the person at your front door," he adds.

For full integrated systems, Ladd recommends Honeywell, a manufacturer of security systems; Qolsys, producer of alarm systems; DSC, a world leader in electronic security; and Napco, developers of advanced technologies and high-quality security solutions. However, when it comes to systems communication, he believes that is the most comprehensive—they offer everything from energy mangement and home automation to remote-controlled locks and central monitoring.

Consider self-monitoring

The DIY self-monitoring market is becoming increasingly popular thanks to home tech companies like Canary and Nest (the big ecosystems also offer integrations that allow self-monitoring; Amazon Echo connects with Scout while Apple HomeKit works with Eve products from Elgato). Self-monitoring means that if someone breaks into your home, you get a text message or an email, putting you in control of the situation. You decide what to do with that information: if you need to contact the authorities, or pull the plug on a false alarm.

Ladd cautions that this may not be the best or most secure system, however. What happens if you don’t see the alert because your phone is silenced while you’re in a meeting?

Ladd advises using a central monitoring station instead that has people on staff around the clock whose main purpose is to respond to your alarm. Note that there are DIY kits that include central monitoring. If you go this route, look for the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) certification when choosing a system. The CSAA has some of the strictest industry standards, and ensures that operators will respond to your emergency quickly and efficiently.

illustrated keypad locks Sunny Eckerle

How much does it cost?

Cost will be a determining factor when it comes to the type of system you choose. The DIY market is certainly more affordable. Installation and monitoring will be free since you’ll be doing both.

If you opt for central monitoring, you’ll have to pay a monthly subscription fee to know that the authorities are on call. Some services cost as little as $10 a month, but on average, you can expect to pay $30 to $50 per month for monitoring. Installation costs will vary depending on the company and type of setup, but ADT can install a standard system for less than $500.

Do your due diligence

As customary with any new project, you want to do your research before hiring an installer to ensure that you’re working with an accredited and licensed security provider. According to McKinney, some states have no restrictions regarding who can offer home security. Disclosing security-related matters to the wrong individuals or company exposes your home to future vulnerabilities, he says.

"We have a relationship with Chubb Insurance, the nation's largest insurance company to provide security services to their customers," says McKinney. "Because Chubb has done their due diligence upfront, it’s a clear indicator to a homeowner that we are reputable."