What’s the Best Home Security System?
The Internet of Things (IoT) has made it easier than ever before to create a smart home. One in which you can remotely control your door locks, lights, and thermostats. You can do all of this from your smartphone and an app(s). The IoT has also made it wicked easy to monitor your home from pretty much anywhere in the world. Smart home security systems are extremely customizable and available as do-it-yourself (DIY) kits. The alternative option consists of all-out setups that require professional installation. Both routes also offer the option of professional monitoring.
Smart Home Security Systems with Professional Monitoring
It varies depending on your needs. You can go with a system that you monitor on your own or pay a subscription fee to have you home professionally monitored. One of the perks of professional monitoring is that you are covered 24/7 and the monitoring professionals will dispatch local fire and police departments in the event your alarm is triggered. This is a superb service for when you’re away on vacation. However, the more coverage you have ultimately means that you’ll end up paying more.
Ease into Smart Home Security
There are plenty of individual devices that allow you to monitor your home from anywhere if you’re not quite ready to for a dedicated security system. You can monitor your home from your phone or tablet via devices such as indoor and outdoor cameras, video doorbells, motion sensors, and smart locks.
Here is what you need to know when deciding how to best secure and monitor your home when you’re away.
Streamlining Security & Home Automation
A smart home security system connects to your Wi-Fi network so you can monitor and control your security devices using your smartphone and an app. Entry-level systems usually include some door and window sensors, a motion detector, and a hub. The hub communicates with these devices using one or more wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, or a proprietary mesh network. You can add door, motion, and window sensors to provide coverage for your entire house and build a comprehensive system that includes door locks, garage door openers, indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras, lights, sirens, smoke/CO detectors, water sensors, and more.
In a perfect world, all home security components would use the same wireless standard to communicate with the main hub. However, factors such as power requirements, signal range, price, and size make it virtually impossible to settle on just one. Smaller components such as door & window sensors typically use Z-Wave or Zigbee technology. This is because they don’t require a lot of power and can be powered by smaller batteries.
They also operate in a mesh topology and can help extend the range of networked devices. However, neither protocol provides the bandwidth that you get with Wi-Fi, which is why it is usually used in security cameras to provide smooth video streaming, and in other devices that require a fat pipe. Moreover, Z-Wave and Zigbee devices are connected and controlled using a hub, while Wi-Fi devices can be connected directly to your home network and controlled with an app. Finally, Z-Wave and Zigbee devices use AES 128 encryption, and since they operate in a closed system with a dedicated hub, they offer more security than Wi-Fi devices.
Any smart security system worth its salt offers components that work together in a seamless environment. Furthermore, you can create customized automation rules. For example, you can create rules to have the lights turn on when motion is detected. You can also have your doors unlock when a smoke alarm goes off. Another great automation is when you have a camera begin recording when a sensor is triggered. Some systems store recorded video locally on an SD card or a solid-state drive (SSD), while others offer cloud storage.
Locally stored video is a good choice for do-it-yourselfers on a budget. You have to be careful not to overwrite video you may need later. Cloud storage makes it easy to store and access recorded video. However, it can cost hundreds of dollars per year depending on your subscription. Some systems offer both cloud storage and local storage. Some provide a dedicated storage drive that gives you DVR capabilities with time-lapse recording. This makes it easy to find a video event that took place at a specific point in time.
DIY Home Security Systems
Do-It-Yourself security setups are great for budget shoppers. They can save you a bundle on installation charges and subscription fees. You can customize most DIY systems to fit your needs and they are also wicked easy to install in most cases. As your needs grow, you can order additional components such as sensors, at your convenience and pair them to your system in a matter of minutes.
Your basic, entry-level, DIY system may only support one or two wireless protocols and typically offers a limited number of add-on components. Whereas more expensive DIY systems will support multiple wireless protocols and are compatible with dozens of add-on components. Some DIY systems are self-monitored, which means that you’ll receive alerts when devices are triggered. However, you are responsible for contacting your local authorities if there’s a break-in or a fire. However, many DIY companies are starting to offer professional monitoring services.
Professional Home Security Systems
There are many DIY systems you can install using double-sided tape. However, there are some high-end systems that require professional installation. These full-fledged systems typically cost quite a bit more than DIY systems and require professional monitoring in most cases. You may also need to agree to a multi-year contract and pay a large termination fee if you break it. These upper echelon systems tend to feature touch screen hubs that feature RF, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave radios. This broad spectrum of radio signals allows them to communicate with and control a wide array of devices.
These devices include:
- window & door sensors
- smart locks
- glass break detectors
- indoor & outdoor cameras
- light switches
- motion and water detectors
- smoke/CO alarms
- video doorbells
- and a host of other various smart home automation devices
How Does a Professionally Monitored System Work?
With a professionally monitored system, an agent will first try to reach you via the two-way control panel before calling your listed phone number when a smoke or intrusion alarm is triggered. If you fail to respond, the agent will call 911 to dispatch an emergency responder to your home. The nice thing about professionally installed systems is you don’t have to lift a finger; after you’ve placed your order a technician will come to your home, set everything up for you, and show you how the system works. It’s important to note that in some areas you may have to file for a permit to have a security system installed in your home.
Nearly all of the latest DIY and high-end home security systems offer support for voice control via Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and in some cases Apple Siri, which allows you to unlock doors, change thermostat settings, open the garage, and arm or disarm your system with a spoken command to a connected device like an Amazon Echo or a Google Home speaker. Many also offer support for IFTTT (If This Then That) applets, which use triggers from IFTTT-compatible web services and devices to create an action. For example, you can create an applet that says if a garage door is opened to turn on the floodlight.
How Much Do Security Systems Cost Per Month?
Whether you decide to go with a DIY system or opt for a professionally installed system, you’ll have to pay a monthly or annual fee if you require monitoring, and in some cases, you’ll be hit with a monthly fee to pay off the cost of hardware components. With most DIY systems, such as the SimpliSafe Home Security Kit, the Ring Alarm Security Kit, and the Nest Secure, you purchase the hardware outright and can avoid any monthly fees if you decide to self-monitor. If you add monitoring, fees will vary: SimpliSafe charges $14.99 per month for its no-contract monitoring service, while Nest charges $29 per month. If you commit to a three-year contract, the price of the Nest service drops to $19 per month. Ring’s Protect Plus plan goes for $10 per month and doesn’t require a contract.
Cost of Professional Monitoring
Monitoring for professionally installed systems tends to be more expensive. The ADT Pulse monitoring service starts at $28.99 per month and requires a three-year contract, but you also have to figure in the cost of things like hardware components, cellular backup, and installation. When we reviewed the Pulse system, our upfront cost was more than $3,000, with a monthly fee of over $60. Some vendors, such as LifeShield, will let you buy the components outright or lease them. For example, LifeShield’s Security Essentials system will cost you $29.99 per month for three years and includes monitoring, but you’ll pay a $99 activation fee and you don’t own the equipment at the end of the lease. Or, you can pay $299.99 upfront for the hardware and still get monitoring but avoid the activation fee.
Can You Use a Security Camera Instead?
If you live in a small apartment and want to keep tabs on things when you’re not home, a security camera can get the job done for a lot less money than what you’ll pay for a full security system. Nearly all standalone security cameras connect to your home’s Wi-Fi so you can see what’s going on from your phone or tablet, and most have built-in sensors that detect motion and sound and will send push and email notifications when those sensors are triggered. You can usually tweak the camera’s motion sensitivity to prevent false alarms due to pet activity or passing cars if the camera is near a window, and you can create a schedule that turns the sensors on and off during certain hours of the day.
Some of the more expensive cameras are equipped with humidity and temperature sensors and will interact with other connected home devices such as thermostats and smart lighting systems. If you want to save some money, look for a camera with an SD card slot that allows you to record video when motion or sound is detected, but remember to save your recordings every so often before they are overwritten. Alternately, look for a camera that offers a cloud storage plan.
An outdoor camera is ideal for keeping an eye on what’s happening outside of your home. These devices are weatherproof and typically require a nearby GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet to supply power, although there are a handful of battery-powered models out there. As with their indoor counterparts, outdoor cameras connect to your Wi-Fi network and allow you to view live video from your phone. They are fairly easy to install, but if you’re not familiar or comfortable with electrical wiring, you may want to have a professional electrician do the job.
Most outdoor cameras, like our current top pick, the Arlo Ultra, offer motion detection with push and email notifications, night vision, and cloud storage for event-triggered video, and some, like the Ring Floodlight Cam, pull double duty as floodlights or porch lights. Some models can even tell the difference between a passing car, an animal, and a person. Look for an outdoor camera that will integrate with other smart home devices such as garage door openers, external sirens, and smart switches.
What About a Video Doorbell?
Video doorbells offer an easy way to see who is at your door without having to open or even get close to the door. These devices connect to your Wi-Fi network and will send an alert when someone approaches your doorway. They’ll record video when the doorbell is pressed or when motion is detected, and usually offer two-way audio communication that allows you to speak with the visitor from anywhere via your phone.
Most video doorbells (like the RemoBell S, our current Editors’ Choice) use your existing doorbell wiring (two low-voltage wires) and are fairly easy to install, but there are battery-powered models available (like the Ring Video Doorbell 2) that install in minutes. Some work with other smart devices such as door locks and sirens and support IFTTT and Alexa voice commands.
Look for a model that offers a high resolution (1080p), a wide-angle lens (140 to 180 degrees), a night vision range up to 25 feet, and affordable cloud storage for recorded video. Sometimes it’s helpful to be able to see what happened just before or after a visitor approaches your door. For that, you’ll need a doorbell that uses pre-buffering to record the action taking place before motion is detected or the doorbell is pressed.
What’s the Best Smart Lock?
A smart lock is typically part of a robust smart home security setup. You don’t have to invest in a full-blown system to use one. You can add a Z-Wave or Zigbee smart lock to your system without much effort. Alternately you can seek out a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth lock that comes with its own mobile app. Smart locks use standard pre-drilled holes and are fairly easy to install. Some models use your existing keyed cylinder and deadbolt hardware and attach to the inside of your door. Others require that you remove your existing interior and exterior escutcheons and replace the deadbolt and strike hardware.
Using Smart Locks
Smart locks can be opened and closed using a mobile app. They will also send a notification when someone locks or unlocks a door. Most allow you to create permanent and temporary access schedules for family members and friends. Temporary codes are helpful since they’re based on specific hours of the day and days of the week. Key features include:
- Geofencing, which uses your phone’s location services to lock and unlock the door;
- Voice activation using Siri (HomeKit), Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa voice commands, support for IFTTT; and
- Integration with other smart home devices such as video doorbells, outdoor cameras, thermostats, smoke alarms, and connected lighting.
There are plenty of smart lock models to choose from. There are keyless no-touch locks, touch-screen locks, and combination keyed &touchpad locks. You can even protect your home with a biometric lock that will only let you in with a handprint scan. Our current top pick is the August Smart Lock Pro + Connect.
Hackers Can Hack Your Security System
Like any internet-based device, smart home security systems are vulnerable to hacking, particularly systems that lack encryption. Hackers can sit outside your home and intercept wireless signals coming from your system. This allows them to suppress alarms and disable sensors. Other devices allow hackers to generate radio noise that can jam communications between the sensors and the hub.
Additionally, devices that connect via Wi-Fi, such as security cameras and smart door locks, can be hacked. A skilled hacker can use Wi-Fi devices and other network resources to carry out DDoS attacks against larger networks. Perhaps even more disturbing is the idea of some stranger monitoring video from your indoor and outdoor security cameras.
Secure Your System
There are several steps you can take to make sure your home security system is safe from malicious cyber intruders. For starters, replace the system’s default password with a unique one that contains a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols. If possible, change your password from time to time. Additionally, make sure your home network is secure. Check the security settings on your wireless router. You should also consider models that add an extra layer of software protection, like the Bitdefender Box 2.
Some security system vendors use frequency hopping tech to prevent signal jamming. Others use embedded encryption, but neither feature is standard, so check with the manufacturer if you require an extra layer of security.
In addition, keep an eye on your camera logs to see when they have been accessed. If you notice camera activity at odd hours or at times when you know that nobody is at home, it may be an indication that your system has been compromised. Finally, make sure your system software and all of your connected devices are up to date. Firmware updates often address security issues and can help protect your system from infiltration.