Home Security 101: Sensors, Cameras, Smart Home Integration & More

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Burglar cartoonThere are many other elements to home security that you should consider besides installing a security system. Have you considered how to protect your family from items like carbon monoxide and fires? What about securing your home when you leave for vacation? Or how about how you can deter a burglar from targeting your home?

These (and more) are all important aspects of securing your home that we can help you with. Our home security experts have spent countless hours researching, calling companies and personally testing gear so they can bring you the latest accurate information and data on home security products and services.

Article Overview

Home Security Components & Terminology

Security camera on side of building (caption: Best Burglar Deterrents)When most people hear the words home security, they think of a security system. A home security system is comprised of different sensors and devices to help monitor your home. The equipment mentioned here do different things individually but can also work in tandem to ensure maximum protection.

Keep in mind that it’s not just burglars that you want to deter and scare away, but you also want to consider environmental hazards such as smoke, fire, freezing, flooding and carbon monoxide.

Since there’s an overwhelming number of components, we’ve tried to group them in a way that makes sense.

The Brains: Base Station, Hub & Control Panel

These can be a bit confusing because companies use different names for them. Below are the main components you’ll hear and should know about.

Keypad
Hub and Keypad

Hubs/Base Stations

These are the brains of your home security system; they control all the devices and sensors you have connected, transmit events to a central monitoring station and alert you of activities and events as they occur. Older systems may come with just a control panel, while newer systems tend to make use of a hub and a touchscreen interface.

Control Panels/Keypads

Control panels are used to control your security system via a keypad or touchscreen interface. They are typically installed near the hub and in an accessible area such as inside your garage or outside your master bedroom. At a minimum, the keypad lets you arm and disarm your system, and some go as far as to let you control everything, including smart devices, light schedules and more.

Key Fobs
Key Fob

Key Fobs/Keychain Remotes

Before the advent of home security apps, your system included a keyfob or physical remote control that would let you control basic functions of your system such as arm, disarm and a panic button. They typically work within a specific range of your control panel and are not meant to function outside your home.

Where Should I Keep My Keyfob?

It could be a good idea to keep one in your nightstand for quick access in the middle of the night, although you may want to relocate it when you’re gone as the nightstand is a typical point of intrusion during burglaries.

Essential Sensors: Door/Window, Motion & Glass Break

Glass Break Sensors
Glass Break Sensor

Almost every security system comes with the sensors listed below. They detect various types of intrusions, from door and windows opening to glass breaking, and send a signal back to your base station if they are tripped. Your goal should be to cover major entry points to the home, as well as areas commonly visited or that contain valuables (including yourself and your family).

Glass Break Sensors

These sensors detect the sound of breaking glass via an audio microphone that is tuned to the frequency of glass breaking. They are commonly placed near glass windows and doors that could be used as entry points to your home. The reach of a glass break sensor can vary, but typically you’re able to cover a couple of windows or a door and window along the same wall.

Door & Window Sensors
Door & Window Sensor

Door & Window Sensors

Also known as contact sensors, they attach to window sills or door frames and activate when the door or window is opened. They can be used to monitor pretty much anything that opens or closes, like medicine or liquor cabinets, for example.

Motion Sensors

Motion sensors are some of the most useful of all the security sensors, as they can cover a large area and catch almost any intrusion event. You’ll typically want to place these in the corner of a room, hallway or high traffic area of your home.

They activate when they sense motion within a certain range. A single motion sensor can cover several windows and eliminate the need for multiple window sensors, but since door/window sensors are typically used in stay/home mode, and motion sensors in away mode, it’s not a bad idea to have both.

Foolproof Your System By Combining Contact, Motion & Glass Break Sensors

As you may have imagined reading the descriptions above, if an intruder breaks the glass without opening the window, the window sensor will not activate. However, if you also have a motion and/or glass break sensor in the area, they will most likely trip one or the other upon entering.

Motion Sensors
Motion Sensor

Garage Door (Tilt) Sensors

Garage door sensors attach directly to your garage door. Since your garage door tilts as it opens, the sensor is designed to recognize and register this “tilting action.” These sensors could technically be used on anything that tilts to register the tilting action, but we can’t think of much in a typical household aside from your garage door. Can you? If you can, let us know in the comments!

Driveway Alarms

Driveway alarms notify you when people and/or vehicles enter your property via the driveway. We’ve written a dedicated article on driveway alarms where you can learn all about them.

Each Home Is Unique In Its Needs

Keep in mind, every home is unique, so not all homes need the same security setup. For instance, a 4th story condo might not need window sensors since that would require quite the ladder. But they could benefit from a motion sensor. A stand-alone, ranch-style home, meanwhile, could benefit from door and window sensors as well as a driveway alarm.

Keep An Eye On Things With Security Cameras

Cameras are another layer of protection that can give you additional peace of mind, especially when you’re not at home. You can see and interact with unwanted (and invited) guests from your smartphone (or website) and record footage of them to (potentially) use as evidence to help catch intruders.

Indoor Camera
Indoor Camera

Security cameras can be installed inside or outside of your home to keep an eye on people coming and going (including recording video when they sense motion). There are all kinds of cameras available now, including night vision, outdoor, WiFi, doorbell, app-based, hidden, CCTV and more. Learn more in our dedicated security camera guide.

Detect Natural Hazards Before They Become A Disaster

Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detectors
Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detector

Let’s face it, humans aren’t the only thing to worry about when it comes to keeping your home safe. Weather conditions and other accidents are prone to happen and this equipment can sense when disaster strikes.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) Detectors

These sensors detect carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that can be very dangerous (if this detector goes off, go outside and seek fresh air immediately). Natural gas fireplaces, furnaces and cars are potential sources of carbon monoxide. Learn more, including how to protect yourself in our carbon monoxide guide.

Flood/Water Sensors

These sensors detect water leaks when they happen, so you can hopefully take action before the problem gets out of control. We recommend placing these next to your water heater, washing machine, dishwasher, in your basement and anywhere you think water could be an issue.

Flood/Water Sensors
Flood/Water Sensor

Freeze Sensors

These sensors detect low temperatures to help you know when a thermostat may be broken or if your valuables may be in unsafe conditions. We recommend setting these at 41 degrees, so you have a heads up if temperatures drop before they hit freezing. This lead time could help prevent burst pipes or worse.

Smoke Detectors

Smoke Detectors 
Smoke Detector

These sensors alert you when the presence of smoke is detected. Our smoke detector article has our expert researchers bringing you everything you need to know. Read our fire safety guide to learn about additional protective options, including escape ladders and fire extinguishers.

Sound The Alarm

In some situations, you need to sound your alarm without waiting for a sensor to go off. This can be helpful for the elderly, those with medical conditions that need monitoring and even those living in remote areas where an audible alert may be necessary.

Panic Buttons
Panic Button

Panic Buttons & Pendants

With the press of a button, you can have security or medical help sent to your home immediately. While these are included or an option with most home security systems, their functionality tends to be very basic. We review comprehensive medical alert systems that give you more control if this is something you’d like to learn more about.

Sirens

Alarm sirens can be used to alert your household or neighborhood of an intruder right when the intrusion occurs. Typically your hub/control panel comes with a built-in siren. But if that’s not loud enough or you have a large home, you may want to consider an additional internal or external siren. Note that sirens outside your home, while effective, can be a nuisance to your neighbors, so use with caution.

Who’s The Best Home Alarm System Company?

1st
Frontpoint logo small
2nd
ProtectAmerica logo small
3rd
SimpliSafe logo small
Compare All Companies

What happens when you combine all of the components above into a home security package and provide monthly monitoring? You get a home security system. The market for these are hot, and the competition is fierce. Unfortunately, not every company is up to snuff. Many of them are not specialists in home security at all; they’re merely marketing companies that saw an opportunity.

Fortunately, our experts have done over 2,000 hours of research, including equipment testing, focus groups, consumer research and anonymous contact with these companies to get to the truth. Check out our home security systems comparison to see who came out on top. We’ve included the top 3 at the right for your convenience as well.

Smart Home & Automation: Live Like A Jetson

Door Jammer
Door Jammer

As home security enters the Do-It-Yourself age, you’re able to expand your home security system to just about anything you can imagine. Here are some devices/technology that can take your line of defense to the next level.

Door Jammers

Deadbolts are a thing of the past. Most intruders can kick down your front door and won’t be deterred even by multiple deadbolts. Door jammers take physics into account and make it nearly impossible for an intruder to enter through your door. Learn all about them in our door jammers guide.

Garage Door Controllers

A classic smart home feature, garage door controllers, allow you to open and close your garage door remotely. Most home security companies offer this feature through their respective smartphone apps.

Security Lights

These outdoor lights include a motion sensor and activate when they detect motion within their range. The classic versions that simply detect motion and turn on have been around for a while, but in our comprehensive security lights guide, we cover new smart versions that offer features such as app integration, video monitoring, alerts, solar power, wireless, weatherproofing, light rotation and more.

Smart Thermostats

Not your typical thermostat – these smart thermostats let you set schedules based on your average day, they can sense when you come and go, and control your home’s heating and cooling remotely. They can also lower your energy bill (because they’re only active when you need them to be), work together with your smart speaker and more.

Smart Locks

Smart Lock
Smart Lock

Smart locks like the ones pictured at right use Bluetooth and/or WiFi to provide keyless entry. Not only that, but they can sound an alarm, notify you of activity via smartphone app, enable guest access, integrate with Apple TV, HomeKit, smart doorbells and cameras such as Nest and Ring and more. Learn all about them in our smart lock guide.

Smart Home Protocols: Z-Wave & Zigbee

Z-Wave and Zigbee are wireless communication protocols used for home automation equipment. Companies that support these protocols can expand their product lines to support many third-party devices, giving you access to more equipment options. The two protocols broadcast at different frequencies and send data at different rates, so they’re not equivalent to one another.

Automation Via IFTTT (If This, Then That)

IFTTT is a way to integrate your devices and apps to work together. All you have to do is sign up for a free account, turn on any Applets you want to use, connect the services needed for the Applets and tell them what you want them to do. For example, you can back up your Instagram photos to Dropbox, have your lights turn on when you enter your home or remind a Slack channel about a meeting.

Why Do I Need A Home Security System?

Person looking outside a windowAccording to the FBI1, in 2018, there were 7,196,045 (2 out of 100 homes on average) property crimes in the U.S. (that’s just one of the many crime statistics we’ve gathered — you wouldn’t believe some of the others!). While rates vary by geographic area, home intrusions, property damage and burglaries can happen to anyone. In addition to general security purposes, there are many other benefits to having a home security system:

  • Find out if there are unwanted animals or intruders in your garage or yard.
  • Know when people are entering and leaving your home.
  • Let people in remotely via access codes (such as the cleaning person or babysitter), or unlock the door for them via your smartphone.
  • Receive alerts when smoke or CO is present in your home (a good way to keep pets safe when you’re not there).
  • Integrate with smart home devices, including thermostats, speakers, lighting and more.

Having a home security system can also help decrease the time it takes for police to arrive at your door. Instead of missing a break-in because you’re sleeping or hiding in a closet without your phone while a stranger ransacks your home, you could have someone else contact the police for you. You’d be surprised to learn what happens when you dial 911 and what the average police response time is.

Peace Of Mind While You’re On Holiday

Flip flops on the beachSelf-monitored home security systems have mobile apps that notify you when something triggers a sensor. This is especially handy when you’re away for vacation or a holiday and can’t check on your home easily. If you receive one of these alerts, you can contact police or a neighbor to check your home for you. In addition to having a home security system installed, we have more advice on keeping your home safe on vacation.

We also have more holiday-specific safety advice to share with you, much of which only takes minutes of your time to implement and can give you peace of mind so you can enjoy your holidays.

How Do I Pick The Best Home Security System For My Home?

Installing a security system is an excellent way to monitor your home, but how do you choose a company? There are hundreds of home security companies on the market, and it can be time-consuming and overwhelming to sift through them all. We’ve done extensive research, taken our findings and put them into a comprehensive, detailed home security systems guide that can make your decision easier.

Do you have any home security tips to share?

Sources: [1] FBI

About The Author:

Kimberly is our home security expert, and has been researching and writing about security and safety since 2013, covering everything from security systems and home automation to identity theft protection, home warranties, medical alert systems and more. She has personally tested hundreds of system components and interfaced with dozens of home security companies to find out what's happening behind the scenes.

In 2018, she had her first child, and that opened up a whole new avenue of security experience with baby gear. She wanted to purchase the safest items for her family.

Kimberly received her Bachelor of Arts in multimedia journalism from Simpson College. Her natural curiosity helps her research as she seeks the truth when learning about, comparing and personally testing products and services.

Disclaimer: This website contains reviews, opinions and information regarding products and services manufactured or provided by third parties. We are not responsible in any way for such products and services, and nothing contained here should be construed as a guarantee of the functionality, utility, safety or reliability of any product or services reviewed or discussed. Please follow the directions provided by the manufacturer or service provider when using any product or service reviewed or discussed on this website.

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Ron A
I’m a little confused by the different integrations that are possible with home security, specifically home automation devices. Are Z-Wave and Zigbee the only communication protocols available, or are they just the most popular? And how can I find out what’s available in either format – are there listings of all the Z-Wave or Zigbee devices available somewhere?
Ethan Hansen
I didn’t realize cameras were such a deterrent to burglars. My wife and I are in the process of building our new home and we want to make sure it is the pinnacle of safety and security when we leave to visit our grandchildren. Do you know if there are outdoor security cameras that are DIY (i.e. that don’t need expensive hard-wiring)?
Alex Schenker (Admin)
Great question Ethan. Our outdoor camera review covers 3 cameras that can be wirelessly installed.