What Is A Home Security System and How Does It Work?

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Expert Verified By: Steve Olshansky, M.S.

Whether you’re at the beginning of your search for a home security system or just trying to educate yourself on the topic, you’ve reached the right place. Security Baron’s bread and butter is home security systems from companies like ADT, SimpliSafe, abode, and more. But what is a home security system in the first place and how does it work? This section will answer all that and more. Let’s get started!

What Is A Home Security System?

Home Security
Home Security

A home security system is a group of physical electronic components that all work together to protect your home. Often it will consist of the following objects:

  • Security camera: Smart security cameras hook up to Wi-Fi so you can livestream footage remotely as well as receive notifications when the camera detects movement, people, packages, and more. Some cameras also have two-way audio, allowing you to speak to whoever the camera is on, plus infrared or color night vision. Many cameras have smart platform integrations with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, cloud and local storage, as well as DIY or professional installation.
Motion Sensor
Motion Sensor
  • Motion sensor: Motion sensors should be placed in a main entryway or hallway on the ground floor a home so that they can detect motion and alert you, if your system is armed. Some motion sensors are sensitive to pets so they won’t go off every time your dog walks by. If you have a pet, that’s an important consideration to make before buying a home security system.
Entry Sensor on Door
Entry Sensor on Door
  • Entry sensor: Also known as contact sensors, entry sensors go on doors and windows to see when they have been opened or closed. Again, you should put these on windows or doors on your ground floor. The majority are battery-operated and many even have adhesive backings for easy installation. The sensor itself consists of two parts, one to go on the window or door itself and one to go on the frame. Using magnets, the sensor will alert you whenever it senses movement.
  • Glass break sensor: Sometimes instead of opening windows the old-fashioned way, intruders will simply break them open to avoid setting off the entry sensors. However, a glass break sensor will also detect the sound of glass breaking so that you can be alerted via a mobile notification.
  • Siren: Sirens exist in home security systems both on their own and built in to other devices, like the base station (which we’ll get to below). They’ll often go off with your alarms to scare the intruder away or to alert your neighbors.
  • Keypad: In order to arm or disarm your security system, some require that you enter a code on a keypad, either mounted to the wall or, with more modern systems, placed on a flat surface. However, there are a number of ways to arm and disarm your home security system, which we’ll get to below.
  • Key fob: You have keys for your car, so why not have some for your security system as well? Key fobs allow you to disarm or arm your security system without having to use the keypad. They’re perfect for when you’re upstairs and just don’t feel like leaving your bed!
  • Panic button: If something goes wrong, a panic button is an easy and fast way to alert emergency services, be it the police, hospital, or even the fire department. Like key fobs, panic buttons aren’t installed anywhere in particular, but you should always have one around in case of an emergency. I recommend keeping one at your bedside table at the very least.
  • Base station: Base stations sync all of the connected devices with your mobile application so you can actually receive those notifications I mentioned earlier. Think of it like Grand Central Station, the channel through which trains (i.e IoT security devices) pass through.
  • Yard sign and/ or window stickers: Many security systems will also give you a yard sign or window stickers to advertise the fact that you have a security system. Pretty often, burglars will turn around if they see that there’s a security system, so they’re good to have, but also not a necessity.
  • Smoke and CO detectors: This is more environmental monitoring than home security exactly, but your home should have a smoke and carbon monoxide detector to make sure that your air quality is safe to breathe in.

The components vary wildly from system to system, consisting of just sensors for some companies, and all of these components and more for others.

Professional Monitoring
Professional Monitoring

Many physical systems also come with other services such as 24/7 professional monitoring or cellular, landline or battery backup, which will keep the system on in the event of a power outage.

Alarm systems are rarely if ever connected directly to emergency services dispatch (911 in the US) centers. Rather, an alert first goes to the alarm company’s monitoring center, which will attempt to determine if the emergency is real before then contacting official emergency services dispatch centers. Typically, they would place a phone call to the number(s) on file (they would normally have more than one if possible, to call in priority order), and if that call is answered they would ask for a “safe word” or password to confirm that the person is not under duress. If the call is unanswered or if the safe word is not given, they would then contact the appropriate emergency services dispatch center for fire/police/medical assistance.

Smart home security systems, in particular, connect all components to a mobile application, allowing the user remote control. As smart home ecosystems become more commonplace, many smart security systems integrate with voice assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, allowing the user to command their system using their voice alone. These systems usually work for your voice only so that any burglar can’t disarm your system using their voice.

To see some examples, check out our list of the best home security systems of 2019.

How Do Home Security Systems Work?

For the majority of home security systems,  all of the components will connect to the base station and from there, will connect to a mobile application, allowing you to monitor and control everything remotely. The majority of systems use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to connect to your phone, and some systems even have cellular, landline, or battery backup in case of a power outage. That way, your home security system can stay on at all times.

You’ll arm your security system when you’re not home, and disarm it when you’re home, usually by inputting your code on the keypad, using a voice command, pressing a key fob, or doing it through your app. When your system is disarmed, none of the sensors will go off and your camera will stop recording automatically when it detects motion or people, depending on its artificial intelligence capabilities (of course, your smoke and CO sensors will still be on whether or not your security system is armed or not). Vice versa, if your system is armed, the sensors will turn on and the camera will start recording.

You’ll use a mobile application to livestream footage from your security camera, receive notifications from your sensors, speak through two-way audio if your camera allows for that, and other capabilities. As opposed to a local alarm system, smart home security lets you see what’s going on at home, wherever you are. Local alarms just send out a siren to your house, which isn’t very useful if you’re not home.

Professional Monitoring vs. Self Monitoring

So what happens if someone sets off an alarm? Immediately, the sensor itself will communicate with your base station, which will send a message to your mobile application. Depending on the system, the app, and your phone’s settings, you can receive an email notification, a text notification, or a notification within the app. From there, you can either livestream footage of what’s happening to check in, or you can use your camera’s two-way audio to speak to whoever is being recorded, if your camera includes a speaker and microphone. If you see that an intrusion is taking place, you can call the police from there.

Of course, I’m sure you’re a busy person who can’t always attend to your security notifications, which is why many companies offer 24/7 professional monitoring with their systems. Say one of your alarms goes off and you get notified, but you’re not available to deal with it. A professional monitoring team will also be notified, and, after verifying the emergency, can call emergency services for you.

I recommend getting 24/7 professional monitoring with your security system, as no one is around all the time to deal with their home’s security on their own. However, self-monitoring is also a viable option if you want to avoid monthly or yearly fees. As many systems nowadays offer DIY installation, the only cost will be the cost of the equipment, which has gone dramatically down after the advent of more modern and flexible home security companies.

If you do choose to self-monitor, I highly recommend getting a siren that’ll go off with your alarms, either embedded on the base station or a separate device. The siren should have at least 85 decibels, making it about as loud as a diesel truck. Remember, the louder it is, the more likely your neighbors are to hear it as well, giving you added protection.

Home Security System Pros and Cons

Okay, now that you’re clear on what a home security system is and how it works, I want to walk you through the basic pros and cons of getting one for your home.

Home Security System Pros

Alarms help speed along police contact

Of course, the main purpose of a home security system is to let you know if anyone’s in your home who shouldn’t be, but let me break that down even further.

  • Fast police contact: With professional monitoring, you can be sure that the police or other emergency responders will be notified when you are not at home.
  • Existence of system on its own can deter burglars: Even just having a sign and window stickers can convenience thieves to turn around!
  • Easy safety alerts: Left the front door open? Is your back window closed or not? With entry sensors, you’ll be able to check to see if your home is secure, from anywhere. You can also be notified if a person is detected or movement is detected, allowing you to check in and make sure everything’s okay at home.
  • Possible discount on homeowners insurance: Many home insurance companies offer discounts if you buy a security system, putting more money into your pocket.
  • Livestreaming: Livestreaming isn’t just for crimes! It’s also a great way to check in on what’s going on at home, whether it’s your kids playing after school or your teenagers having a “small get together” when you’re out of town. With livestreaming, you can always be home no matter where you are!

Home Security System Cons

Cost of Home Security Systems

Of course, nothing’s all positive, so what are the drawbacks of getting a home security system?

  • Cost of equipment: Home security systems are expensive, costing an average of around $400. Of course, there’s a huge variance here, as the most minimal systems are only sensors, while some systems include 15 or more components.
  • Monthly fees:  If you decide to get 24/7 professional monitoring or cellular backup, you might have to pay monthly fees. Again, there’s a huge price range, with the lowest monthly rates at only nine dollars, going up to about sixty. However, there are often discounts if you sign up for a year.
  • False alarms: You may receive some false alarms that triggered the police to get involved, which they won’t exactly love.
  • May forget to turn on: This is more of a personal problem, but some people say they have trouble remembering to arm their security systems when they leave the house, making the entire system a moot point.

And there you have it, the basics of what a home security system is, how it works, and what are its pros and cons. If you have any additional questions, feel free to leave them below— we’d love to educate you further!

Gabe Turner

Gabe Turner

Gabe Turner is an attorney and journalist with a passion for home tech and secure, efficient living. Since graduating from NYU Law, he has maintained a paradoxical existence of trying to live life adventurously while remaining staunchly risk-averse. He is torn by the dual desires of wanting to only be in Brooklyn writing about housing policy and smart home tech and aspiring to visit his friends scattered across the globe. Gabe believes that stable, safe communities are the cornerstone to a vibrant and healthy society, and it is this passion that brought him to contribute to Security Baron.

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