Smarter Home Security

Not long ago, home security systems were disturbingly less than foolproof. If you forgot to arm the system or change the batteries, if the power went out (in the case of a hardwired system) or if an intruder was quick enough to disable the system before it sounded the alarm, your home was left unprotected.

Fortunately for homeowners, advances in wireless technologies, smartphones and mobile apps have changed that. Today's security systems are much more difficult to foil or forget about. For example, a software-supported system can send you a text message every time a door or window is opened, whether you've armed it or not. It can stream live video or send still images of what's happening in your garage, living room or anywhere you've installed a security camera. And some systems can even alert you before a break-in — the moment a burglar pulls into the driveway.

Smart system benefits
Home security has teamed up with home automation so the same interactive service can make your house look occupied at all times. The system turns lights, TVs and radios on and off at random intervals or according to the schedule you choose. Even the blinds can be raised or lowered upon your command or according to a schedule.


Home security and home automation have been integrated into relatively inexpensive single platforms. Systems that would have cost thousands of dollars five or 10 years ago cost only hundreds today.

Home security systems can also alert you about other hazards, including fires, elevated carbon monoxide levels and power outages, or if someone is tampering with a safe, a locked tool chest or a medicine or gun cabinet. You can use the systems to check on a child returning home from school (by arranging for a no-activity alert shortly after the child is due home). Or if you lose sleep wondering when the water heater is going to flood your basement, you can use a security system to alert you if there's a leak.

Interactive systems offer other benefits as well. Prefer not to hand out keys to housekeepers or other service providers? You can unlock a door for them from wherever you are, whether taking a walk. You can also program your home's temperature so you don't waste energy on unnecessary heating or cooling. During cool seasons, these systems can automatically lower settings when you're sleeping or away and raise them again when you're awake and at home. Or if you're driving home from a trip and want to cool off the house before you arrive, just pull out your smartphone and send the command.


The latest systems allow you to monitor your home's security and safety — you can even watch your kids as they return from school — and control many functions with a smartphone.

Buying a system
Smart systems' hardware hasn't changed much in appearance in 25 years. There are some new specialized sensors and video cameras, and window and door contact switches have shrunk, but the basics are the same: a control panel or console, magnetic difcontact switches, motion sensors and a siren. Like many old-style systems, the new models also connect to central monitoring stations. The big difference is the degree of interactivity. New software platforms allow you to send commands, program home systems, view surveillance video and receive alerts on a smartphone or computer — whether you're at home or away.

When shopping for a system, review software platforms first. The two biggest are Alarm.com (which has partnered with more than 2,500 dealers) and iControl (icontrol.com; partnered with ADT and Comcast). Read the user reviews before you sign the contract.


Wireless plug-in modules allow you to control lights and radios from wherever you are. Interactive thermostats can also be controlled remotely.

You'll have to decide on a cellular-primary or a broadband-primary system. A cellular-primary system connects to the monitoring station wirelessly, so it's not affected by a power outage or if someone cuts a cable. However, it is limited in transmitting large quantities of video, so many cellular-primary systems incorporate broadband for video. Broadband-primary systems, on the other hand, have cables running down the side of a house, and those cables can be cut to disable the system. Some services offer cellular backup in case this occurs.

Choose a reputable dealer that will sell you the equipment and a monitoring plan. Many dealers will also install the system for you, but some dealers sell equipment and services to DIYers. For example, FrontPoint Security (frontpointsecurity.com), a national provider based in Virginia, sells the Simon XT, a GE-brand system that homeowners can easily install; the company also offers Alarm.com features and a thirdparty monitoring plan. Installing the system yourself can save you several hundred dollars — and make you more knowledgeable about how it works.


With a smart security system, you can monitor everything from basement flooding to fire. Many systems feature sensors for motion, smoke, moisture and vibration (not shown).

Smart systems do not restrict the type of security hardware you can use, although a dealer may limit your choices. The inside-the-house components may be hardwired or connect wirelessly via radio frequency (RF radiation). Though hardwired components are considered the standard because they are more difficult to disable and don't rely on batteries for power, the reliability gap has narrowed (or even disappeared) with new technology. Alarm.com and its partners offer "smash-and-bash" protection for wireless systems: As soon as a point of entry is breached, the central monitoring station is sent a pending alarm signal — it doesn't wait to find out if the person who entered is you or a bad guy. If the system is not disarmed within the programmed amount of time, the alarm is treated as an intrusion. So a smashed controller won't stop the central station from calling the police.


A Wireless Motion Alert from Chamberlain lets you know before an intruder reaches your front door. You can install as many as eight sensors for total perimeter coverage.

A conventional system, on the other hand, does not send a signal for a period of time (typically 30 seconds while it allows the homeowner to enter a code and then more time for the dialer to call the monitoring station). For a smart burglar, that can be long enough to disable the security system or to grab some valuables and run.

Wireless hardware is much easier to install than wired components, making it more appealing to DIYers. It can also be taken with you if you move. If you're in the market for a wireless system, keep these tips in mind:

  • Consider all of the available wireless peripherals, including modules for controlling lights and appliances, thermostats, cameras, motion sensors (some can distinguish between a pet and a person), water sensors and glass-breaking and vibration sensors.
  • Seek out long-life battery power. Lithium-sensor batteries can last three to five years. When they do run low, the system lets you know well before they're totally depleted.
  • Look for a controller with a backup battery so your system will stay active if the power or Internet is out. If you plan to install smoke alarms, you'll need a 24-hour battery backup rather than the four-hour backup offered by many manufacturers.
  • All smart systems require a subscription to a third-party alarm-monitoring service. Ask about which central station will be handling your account, and be sure that it is UL certified.


Carbon monoxide detectors are required by code in many communities, and now they can also report dangerous CO levels to your security company's monitoring center.


Several smart security systems offer add-on touch-screen controllers. This model from Interlogix features two-way communication so you can talk with personnel at the monitoring station in an emergency. It will also tell you current weather conditions and allow you to program your thermostat.

Equipment and monitoring costs
There are two costs to keep in mind when shopping for a security system. The first is for the equipment and installation (if you're having it professionally installed). This can run from a few hundred dollars for a basic system (or less that half of that if you install it yourself) to more than $1,000 for a full-feature system with specialized sensors and wireless smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors. The second cost is the monthly service charge that includes fees for software-driven features and central station monitoring. It typically ranges from $35 to $60 a month. Some dealers, much like mobile phone and cable TV companies, will reduce the installation cost in return for a multiyear contract.


Kwikset's SmartCode deadbolts can be locked or unlocked remotely using wireless security software and a smartphone. You can also operate the lock with the keypad or with a key.

Low-Tech, Low-Cost Secutiry
Burglaries have been dropping steadily for 20 years in the United States, according to the FBI, but that's small consolation to the roughly 2 million victims each year who experience break-ins. To avoid becoming part of this statistic, you can take several steps to make your home less vulnerable:

  1. Install window and door shades that make it difficult to see whether someone is home.
  2. Upgrade locks on all doors and windows — and use them.
  3. Set timers for interior lights, TVs and radios to create the illusion that someone is home when you're out.
  4. Install motion- or infrared-controlled outdoor lighting. Keep a porch light on from dusk to dawn. (Use an LED bulb to save electricity.)
  5. Prune or replace large shrubs so intruders cannot hide behind them while prying open a window or door. Low thorny bushes are a deterrent (but not so nice when it's time to repaint the house).
  6. Form or join a neighborhood watch group. These organizations are effective crime deterrents because they encourage residents to be vigilant and to call the police whenever they see something amiss. They also keep members informed about neighborhood crime, work with police to improve response times and facilitate volunteer neighborhood patrols by foot and car.
  7. Always keep garage doors closed, even while you're at home, so thieves don't see items they may want to steal. Secure valuable items, such as expensive bicycles and grills, to a very heavy object with a chain and padlock. Drill holes in garage door tracks and insert a padlock or bolt to prevent the door from being forced open. Install a hasp and padlock on shed doors.
  8. Don't record an answering-machine greeting that says you are not home. Never leave a note on the door indicating that you are gone.
  9. Keep car doors locked and windows closed. Never leave valuables, especially electronics or money, in the car. (If you must, put them out of sight.) Use a locking device on your steering wheel in high-crime areas.
  10. During ongoing home-improvement projects, store ladders out of sight — they are an invitation to burglars. And don't leave tools such as hammers or pry bars out where an intruder can pick them up and put them to use.

Joe Provey is a frequent contributor to HANDY who writes from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Sources:
ADT, adt.com
Alarm.com
Chamberlain, chamberlain.com
Comcast (xfinity), comcast.com/homesecurity/ security.htm
FrontPoint Security, frontpointsecurity.com
iControl, icontrol.com
Interlogix, interlogix.com
Kwikset, kwikset.com
Schlage, consumer.schlage.com