In the U.S., a home burglary occurs approximately every 13 seconds. Most homeowners will, unfortunately, wait until after the fact to have a home alarm system installed. The worst part is that the intruder doesn’t just steal material items; they steal the safety and peace of mind the homeowner once felt.
For this reason, it is the worst time for a homeowner to buy an alarm because they are in an influx of emotions and will often overspend on the entire process as a result.
Whether you’ve had a burglary or are being proactive, my goal with this guide is to provide you with the basics on home alarm system equipment so that you can make an informed decision that meets your particular needs before calling around for quotes. Putting the power back into your hands and reassuring yourself that you are getting a great deal without sacrificing security.
For starters, let me begin by mentioning that there are essentially two ways to install a security system – wired and wireless. A wired system consists of physical cable wire leading from each security sensor back to a circuit board housed in a metal box, usually in a closet or the basement.
A wireless system consists of battery operated security sensors that “talk” to the main alarm panel via specific frequencies depending on the manufacturer. This guide will focus on the latter as it is the most common setup in the market today for its ease of use, installation, and repair.
I will begin this guide by breaking it down into four sections. To begin I will talk about the most important factors when choosing an alarm panel, or control panel, for navigating the entire system. Second, I will give a description of each burglary sensor, how they work, and what their limitations are. Third, I will describe the most common surveillance cameras used on the market and how they can keep you up to date on what is going on at home. Finally, I will discuss the life safety equipment offered providing you with a well-rounded home alarm system.
The Alarm Panel
This will be the most important decision in the alarm buying process as it will act as the “brain” of your system. There are several reputable manufacturers, in addition to the wide variety of models that each manufacturer produces, to choose from. Don’t let this overwhelm you.
I will leave the full breakdown of each manufacturer and their models for a different article. For now, let’s look at the most important factors and then start with your budget and getting the most value for your dollar.
Every manufacturer of home alarm system equipment will contain at least one model that relies on your existing, or willingness to supply, a home phone line. They will also have at least one model that relies on a built-in cellular chip that will communicate wirelessly, the same way your cell phone does.
Unless you already have a home phone line and you don’t plan on getting rid of it anytime soon I would highly suggest for you to get the cellular model. They are generally evenly priced and provide a greater deal of security. I will explain below:
- The Average Cost. Adding a home phone line to your home will range from around $15-$30 per month depending on the services involved. The low-end monitoring for a basic landline alarm system starts at $30 per month.
- Since you have to have one in order to have the other, the actual out the door rate on the low end is around $45 per month and around $60 per month on the high end. There are many companies that offer cellular radio systems for around $50 per month.
- Security. Other than the price point, the protection provided by the cellular models is immensely more secure. Over the near decade I’ve been in this industry I’ve heard countless stories of burglars cutting phone lines in order to bypass the former systems.
- If the phone line has been cut, there can be no phone calls coming in or out of the home; while the alarm will still make a noise it will not do the purpose it is designed to do – getting the police to your home.
Both of these systems will provide you with multiple user codes, which turn the alarm on and off. All this means is that you can create and give a different user code to each member of the family, friends, or house sitters.
This will help keep track of who was in your house and at what time. You can also limit the accessibility each user has over the system. The number of users and functionality of these codes will differ depending on the manufacturer and model you choose.
The last consideration I would make in choosing a manufacturer and model would be looking for an alarm panel with a tamper switch built in.
Criminals have gone to great lengths in disabling alarm systems and have discovered with older models that they can simply open the panel and disable the power and back-up battery; therefore, disabling the control panel from calling out. The tamper switch will send a signal to the monitoring center in the event a would-be intruder attempts to bypass the alarm panel as soon as they open it.
No matter which system you decide to go with, either will do better in deterring burglars than not having anything set up at all.
Burglary Sensors and Remote Access
There are three primary sensors that protect your home against intrusion:
1) Door/Window Contact. These sensors do the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to notifying you that there is a breach from a door or window. There are two components that work in tandem, a sensor that speaks with the alarm panel and a magnet. They will rest parallel with each other, one on the door or window and one on the frame.
When the door or window is opened the magnetic connection will break and the sensor will alert the alarm panel. All doors and windows must be aligned, or closed, in order to arm your security system.
It should be noted that by default, the door sensors will be programmed with a delay while the windows will not. This means that if you enter your home while the system is turned on, or armed, the system will give you 30 to 60 seconds to get to the alarm panel to turn it off or disarm it.
As most people do not enter their homes through a window, the window sensor will be programmed to sound the alarm immediately.
However, most alarm panels will allow you to arm your system in “instant mode” which will override the regular rules your door sensors abide by and cause the alarm to sound immediately upon the opening of the door. This comes in handy if you’re in for the night or going out of town and aren’t expecting any visitors.
This happens to also be an effective way to avoid intruders from attempting to disable your alarm if you choose a panel without a built-in tamper switch.
The main limitation of this sensor tends to occur during the summer. Often homeowners like to open the windows for some fresh air or help control the temperature inside. Since the sensor and the magnet aren’t aligned when a window is open the security system will not allow you to arm it.
The reason I consider this as a limitation rather than a weakness is that there are ways around this.
- My personal favorite method is to install a second magnet at a height, or width if the window slides left or right, that you generally open your windows. For example, let’s assume the sensor is located in the bottom right corner of the window edged up against the frame, and the magnet is sitting parallel to the sensor on the frame.
- You could simply install a second magnet a few inches above the first so when the window is opened the sensor will align with the second, higher magnet allowing you to arm your system and keep your protection.
- The second method is a little more tedious depending on the make and model of the alarm panel and temporarily disables the sensor from operating. Most panels can “bypass” individual sensors or groups of sensors when arming the system.
- This will turn the selected sensor(s) off so that you can freely open it without it affecting the rest of your system. This must be repeated every time the alarm system is turned off and on again if you would like the same sensor to be “bypassed”.
2) Motion Detector. While there are multiple motion detectors which differ in the way they detect motion, we will take a look at the PIR (passive infrared) motion detector as it is the primary sensor offered by home security companies.
Imagine looking through thermal goggles for a second, when looking around you can see different objects shaded in blue, green, yellow, orange, and red hues. The blue hue being the coldest part of the object while the red hue represents the hottest part of the object.
Let’s pretend you are inside your house and you are looking at your living room. The carpet is a yellow hue, the wall is primarily blue with some green tones showing throughout, and the furniture has a range from yellow to red.
The PIR motion detector is essentially “looking” at your house in this way. It breaks its “vision” down into grids and “remembers” the different hues of its environment. When it “sees” an unfamiliar, warm-hued object move through the grid it will recognize this change and send a signal to the panel causing it to trip the alarm.
Depending on the manufacturer, a few key points will slightly differ such as:
- Pet Immunity (usually 30-80 lbs)
- Distance they capture infrared movement
- Width they capture infrared movement
This device is perfect for covering high traffic areas while cutting down on costs. Rather than putting an individual window sensor on every window, you can strategically place a motion in an area that will cover many windows at once.
For the extra security conscious readers, this sensor is also a great way of creating redundancy in your system. If a burglar breaks through a window and manages to not separate the window contact from the magnet while doing so, the motion will then work as a backup.
Security panels will allow you to arm them in two modes, “away” and “stay”. The only difference between the two is that during “stay” mode the motion detector will be disabled, while the rest of the sensors will function as normal.
This is a nice feature if you are the type that wakes up during the night to grab water, use the restroom, or anything else you may be getting into. Just keep in mind that if this sensor is your primary method for protecting your windows, you will be forfeiting that security for convenience.
There is one primary limitation to cover – pets. If you have an animal that is larger than 70-80 lbs most motion detectors will sense them and trigger the alarm.
Cats can also be problematic, even if they are significantly smaller, because of their ability to jump onto taller furniture. If they are able to elevate themselves directly into the motions field of view it can occasionally react the same way a human body would.
3) Glassbreak Sensor. While the motion detector can be related to an eye with its ability to “see”, the glass break sensor can be related to an ear with its ability to “hear”. When glass shatters there are two sounds that are made, the initial blow and then the shattering itself. This combination is what the glass break sensor is “listening” for and once heard will alert the panel.
These sensors will differ slightly between brands on their listening range, but a good estimate would be 15-25 feet from the sensor. It should be noted that they cannot “hear” through walls. The glass break sensor can only sense a window being shattered if the window is in line of sight and within the range of that specific model.
They are very effective in rooms with multiple windows. They too, can be standalone security devices or used to create redundancy in a system. However, their biggest benefit is that they will work even if the alarm is set in “stay” mode. This will allow you to keep your windows secured even if you happen to be the type of persons that gets out of bed frequently throughout the night.
The one downside to this device is that if placed near a kitchen, dropping a glass or dish can set this sensor off. Even further, I’ve heard stories that hand washing dishes can set this sensor off if they get clanked together loud enough.
The upside is that there is usually a sensitivity slider inside the sensor that can be adjusted if it keeps receiving false alarms.
Since remote access pertains to the home’s security, and it can have the option to create a “panic” button I will quickly describe the different methods below.
There are two methods in the home security industry used to allow homeowners with remote access to their alarm systems:
1) Key Fob. The typical key fob will be a four button fob, similar to the one’s cars use for locking and unlocking their doors. The key fob will have the ability to arm the panel in both “away” and “stay” modes as well as a button for disarming the panel.
In addition to this, the fourth button will act as an emergency button for either police or medical services. This emergency button can be activated even if the panel is disarmed.
The downside to the key fob is that it is contained to only working around your home. They usually have a working radius around the panel of up to a couple hundred feet.
2) App. Modern alarm panels will now allow remote access through an app. The specific app used will depend on the company you choose to have to monitor your alarm system.
The app will work in much the same way as the key fob. It will allow you to arm your panel in both modes, disarm, and send an emergency signal. If you consider yourself to be less than tech-savvy, don’t be concerned, the app is straightforward and easy to use.
The primary difference will come with the range and convenience of either device. If you always have your smartphone with you, the app is a great choice. If you don’t have a smartphone or don’t care to use it much, then the key fob is reliable as well. This is overall a matter of personal preference.
The benefit to the app though is that it can be used anywhere in the world to keep in an eye on and control your alarm system and home so long as you have WiFi or data from your cell phone provider.
While the full utility of home alarm system equipment will deter most potential intruders and will notify you and the police if an intruder does breach your home, video surveillance will put a face to the burglar and help catch and prosecute them.
There are many options available when it comes to video surveillance but I will focus this section on the primary three offered by home security companies, they are:
1) Doorbell Cameras
2) Outdoor Cameras
3) Indoor Cameras
Doorbell Cameras will replace your current doorbell and can be tied into the existing wiring. If there is no present wiring, some manufacturers make a wireless model with a rechargeable battery.
Either way, they can still chime inside the home through the existing doorbell chime or from a device sold separately. In addition to this, it can be set up to ring on your smartphone, tablet, and your alarm panel (if your panel supports it).
Just like your regular doorbell, there is a button a visitor can press to ring. Your smartphone will be notified and you can see who is at your door and speak to them through the doorbell, by pressing a microphone button on your screen.
The cameras can also be set up to activate based on motion. Before a visitor or potential intruder has the chance to get to your front door, you will be notified and the camera will begin recording a video clip.
If you are unable to answer or view the notification you can access the recording through the designated app.
Outdoor Cameras will be mounted in a specified location on your house, usually underneath an eave. They are weatherproof and require minimal maintenance once mounted.
The outdoor camera has a more narrow field of view than the doorbell camera but typically make up for it in distance.
You can view a live feed from these cameras anytime you would like and they will also notify you when they detect motion. When motion is detected it will trigger the camera to record and again, you can view these recordings later if you missed the notification.
Indoor Cameras can be mounted inside your home but are most likely to be placed on shelves or desks. If you choose to let it stand freely they can then be moved around the home to best suit your current needs.
They do need to be plugged into an outlet but will typically be attached to a cord that is several feet in length so you can hide the wire behind the object it is placed on.
Just like the previous cameras, a live feed can be accessed remotely anytime you would like to check in. They too are motion activated and once they detect motion they will send you a notification and begin recording a video clip that can be accessed later.
All three of these cameras can contain night vision, and even full color at night depending on the manufacturer. Some manufacturers also make models that will have the same 2-way voice feature that the doorbell cameras have, allowing you to speak back and forth through the camera.
You can typically customize these cameras to record between set times. For example, let’s create a scenario where there is typically heavy foot traffic coming and going from your home between 2 PM through 6 PM.
This is normal foot traffic from your own household and neighborhood dog walkers. You may not want to be notified every time a neighbor walks by or your spouse enters or leaves the home. So you can customize the recording schedule to exclude those hours and only record before and after. This can be changed to meet your specific needs.
You can also typically customize these cameras to record based off of zones in the camera’s view. Let’s create another scenario where you have an outdoor camera facing your backyard. In the middle of the cameras field of view stands a tree that moves throughout the day as the wind picks up and slows down.
Rather than being notified every time the tree moves you can create zones surrounding the tree, but excluding the tree itself. Anytime there is motion in any of the zones the camera will notify you and record as normal.
The last point to touch on will be the storage for the video clips. Most home security companies will offer you a limited monthly number of clips that will be stored in the cloud when you choose a video package.
They can then be downloaded to your phone or computer if you would like to save specific recordings. You can typically purchase more cloud storage at an additional monthly fee or you can purchase a separate device for 24/7 storage.
Life Safety Equipment
We’ve covered all the most commonly used home alarm system equipment from a security standpoint. While everything described up to this point will prevent and detect an intruder attempting to break into your home, there are still a few more sensors to go over to protect your home against some equally concerning dangers.
Since you may, and should, already have a form of these sensors in your home, I will briefly cover these so you know what is available.
The first danger we’ll go over is fires. There are two primary sensors used by alarm companies to help keep your home safer against fires.
- Smoke Listener. This is the cheapest option, as it utilizes your homes current smoke detectors. Its job is to simply “listen” for the other smoke detectors alarm(s) to go off and relay a signal to the control panel. This will notify the monitoring center so they can warn you and the fire department. This, of course, has the potential for false alarms if you happen to be like me, and frequently burn food.
- Smoke/Heat Sensor. This is the better of the two alternatives but will cost more to fully protect your home. These sensors will generally cover around a 30-50 foot radius so depending on the size of your home several will be needed to receive full coverage. They will detect smoke in the air, just like any store bought detector would.
- However, they have another beneficial factor in which they can recognize excessive heat in the room caused by such things as smoldering, even before a fire fully ignites. This multi-functional sensor helps prevent false alarms and the control panel will notify the monitoring sensor of a potential fire so they can assist in getting the fire department to your home.
The second danger we’ll go over is carbon monoxide leaks. Carbon Monoxide detectors offered by alarm companies work in exactly the same way that store bought ones will, the only exception is they go beyond the alarm in the sensor itself and alerts the control panel so that the fire department can be notified.
This is especially important if a leak were to occur while sleeping as carbon monoxide doesn’t have a smell and will put you into a deeper sleep, preventing the detector from waking you up.
The third danger we’ll go over primarily concerns the elderly; however, can be used in any situation where there are medical concerns present. Most alarm companies will be able to loop a medical pendant into the alarm system.
It will be a wearable device and will come with attachments for use as a necklace, wrist watch, etc. If a fall were to occur the wearer simply presses a button and a live operator will come over the panel and determine if an ambulance needs to be dispatched.
Some alarm companies have even begun utilizing GPS based wearable medical pendants which can be used anywhere the user has cell phone reception, as the former pendants are only operational within a couple of hundred feet of the control panel.
Tying It All Together
We’ve covered a lot of information up to this point. There are many components to building an efficient and safe home in today’s world. Break-ins happen multiple times every single day.
This guide will help you pick and choose the right equipment to prevent one from happening to you. If you happen to be one of the unfortunate homeowners this has already happened to then this guide will act as the first step in returning your peace of mind.
The majority of break-ins, unsurprisingly, occur through the doors. The pine frame itself is designed to be vulnerable in case emergency services need to get into your home. Obviously, this is both good and bad as a criminal can easily take advantage of this weakness.
You can build your home’s security up like a Lego set if funds are short. Start with the doors, and be strategic about the most vulnerable windows. A motion or glass break is a cheap alternative to protecting multiple windows with one sensor.
Surveillance cameras can add extra security and peace of mind when used with an alarm system as they will obtain valuable footage that can be used to catch and prosecute an intruder. They also act as a convenient way to be notified when a friendly visitor is at your door.
Finally, fully protect your home against other dangers such as fires and gas leaks with smoke/heat sensors and carbon monoxide detectors that wrap directly into the alarm panel. Whether you’re home or away these sensors can save you and your families lives and keep the damage done to your home to a minimum.
Every home and every homeowner will need to be protected a little differently for maximum protection and now you will have all the tools in your arsenal to make the right decision for your home’s unique home alarm system equipment requirements.