Home Security Systems: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know (And Some Things You Didn’t)

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Door lock (caption: Home Security Systems: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know)Home security has changed quite a bit since the old days of landline systems where burglars could cut the wire to sever communications between your home and a monitoring station. We’ve entered the era of smart technology, and home security is catching up to the times.

Along with a plethora of DIY offerings (think easy self-install at your own convenience vs having a professional hardwire equipment on a scheduled installation day and time), home security has expanded from the typical motion and door/window sensors to smart home technology that integrates everything from your door locks and light switches to your thermostats. The technology and terminology can be overwhelming, so we put together a guide on home security systems to help.

Article Overview

Top 3 Home Security Systems & Category Winners

Frontpoint logo smallProtect America logoSimpliSafe logoLink Interactive logoRing alarm logoADT Authorized Dealer logo
Ranking1st2nd3rdMost CustomizableLow Cost, No ContractProfessional InstallSmart Home
Total Score4.704.354.154.104.003.302.75
Customer Service & Reputation4.84.34.54.34.02.01.0
Equipment4.84.33.83.53.34.34.0
Technology4.84.03.54.04.33.53.0
Value4.54.54.54.54.03.02.0
Ease Of Use4.84.84.54.34.53.83.8
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14 Home Security Systems Reviewed

In addition to our top 3 and category winners, we cover more than a handful of additional home security companies, including some new entrants to the space touting fancy smart technologies, as well as providers readers have requested we review, in our comprehensive home security systems reviews.

What’s A Home Security System Made Of?

Home security systems have come a long way from the typical motion, window and door sensor days. They now comprise a suite of smart technology that is used to not only deter but record and catch thieves. We’ll break it down for you one component at a time.

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 & 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 often use a hub and touchscreen interface.

Control Panels/Keypads

Control panels are used to control your security system via a keypad or touchscreen interface. They’re typically installed near the hub, in an accessible area like your garage or outside your master bedroom.

At a minimum, the keypad lets you arm and disarm your system. 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 key fob or physical remote control that would let you control essential functions of your security system such as arm, disarm and a panic button. They typically work within a specific range of your control panel and aren’t meant to function outside your home, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally setting it off when you’re miles away.

Where Should I Keep My Key Fob?

It may be a good idea to keep one in your nightstand for quick access at night. However, 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

Almost every security system comes with the sensors listed below. They detect various types of intrusions, from doors 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 and areas commonly visited or that contain valuables.

Glass Break Sensors
Glass Break Sensor

Glass Break Sensors

These sensors detect the sound of breaking glass via an audio microphone 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 you’re typically able to cover a couple of windows or a door and window along the same wall.

Door & Window Sensors

Door & Window Sensors
Door & Window Sensor

Also known as contact sensors, they attach to window sills or doorframes 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 among the most useful security sensors, as they cover a large area and catch many intrusion events. 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.

Motion Sensors
Motion Sensor

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.

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. Still, 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. Meanwhile, a stand-alone, ranch-style home could benefit from door and window sensors as well as a driveway alarm.

What Does Smash Proof Mean And Why Is It Important?

Smash Proof (or Crash & Smash Protection, Smash Protected, etc.) are terms used to indicate that a hub/panel/base station is not vulnerable to a criminal disabling your alarm capabilities by destroying the brains of your home security system. Look for this type of protection before purchasing your security system.

What Is Crash & Smash?

Crash & Smash is a term used when a burglar gets to the brains of an alarm system and disables it before it can send a signal to your monitoring station, alerting them of the break-in. Many newer panels have built-in protection mechanisms to prevent this vulnerability.

How Does Crash & Smash Protection Work?

In general (check with your security company for specifics), the protection works like this – if a sensor is tripped while your system is armed, a signal is sent to your central monitoring station, and your system is put into a special status. This status only clears if a disarm signal is received. If your panel or hub is smashed, there won’t be a disarm signal sent, and the incident will be treated as an alarm event.

Do I Really Need A Home Security System?

Person looking outside a window (caption: Crime Statistics)According 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). 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 areas you choose to monitor (garage, crawl space, driveway, yard, porch, mailbox, etc.).
  • Know when people are entering and leaving your home and manage their access. For example, you can use guest access codes to let the cleaning person or babysitter in, or unlock the door for them via your smartphone.
  • Receive alerts when smoke or carbon monoxide is present in your home (a good way to keep pets safe when you’re not there).
  • Integrate your security system 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 the average police response time.

If, for whatever reason, after reading this article, you choose not to get a security system, that’s totally fine, we’re only here to inform. We do recommend that, at a minimum, you follow some necessary precautions to secure your home:

  • Flip flops on the beach (caption: Tips To Maximize Home Security While On Vacation)Don’t leave ladders or sharp objects (or anything that would make breaking into your home easier) lying around.
  • You’re only as safe as your neighbor, which means if they don’t have a security yard sign, but you do, they’ll probably get hit first. Consider getting a home security yard sign and/or window decals at a minimum.
  • Carports are more vulnerable than garages; if you must park your car outside, try to leave it in an open, well-lit area and remove any valuables.
  • Trim any bushes or shrubs and keep the access points to your home well lit.
  • If you leave the house, leave the radio or television playing, and consider investing in a timer for your indoor lights, and security lights for outside, to create the impression that someone is home.
  • If you’re leaving for vacation or an extended period, we’ve got extra tips to secure your home so you can enjoy your holiday with peace of mind. We also have a guide on securing your vacation home.

A home security system can manage much of this checklist for you.

Review Criteria

How do we arrive at the rankings above? We take into account the following review criteria:

Customer Service | Equipment | Technology | Ease Of Use | Value

Customer Service

Customer service rep at home security companyWe conduct anonymous phone calls and test out customer service quality at the point of purchase. We try and find out:

  • Friendliness – When you’re trying to find out about a new system, are the sales representatives pushy or hands-off, giving you the space you need to make an informed decision?
  • Informed – Are they able to answer all of your pre-purchase questions and concerns? We also call into tech support in post-purchase scenarios on systems we physically test at different locations to see how good they are at troubleshooting existing customer issues.
  • Accessible – Can you get to them off-hours, on weekends and through what contact points (e.g., phone, chat, email, etc.) and how responsive are they?

We also consider any type of guarantees a company may offer (e.g., money-back guarantee, free trial, return period, price match, etc.) as well as the cancellation policy details and how easy it is to cancel with the customer support team.

Equipment

Nest carbon monoxide detectorFirst, we begin with the company’s equipment lineup. Does the company offer the basics that most consumers expect in a home security system? What about home automation options, so you can control your system through the app?

We get our hands on all the equipment we can and conduct extensive testing in real-life environments. Does the carbon monoxide (CO) sensor actually sense CO? Does the smart thermostat respond remotely, and how long does it take to warm up your house? We run as many test cases as we can think of and report back on your home security equipment’s reliability and effectiveness.

Having a thorough and dependable equipment lineup is great, but sometimes equipment malfunctions and a warranty needs to be put into use. How long is the company’s equipment warranty, and how does it compare to its competitors? We also take into account user feedback to determine our Equipment score.

Technology

We look carefully at the technology each company offers and how cutting edge it is. We analyze the types of monitoring available, wireless communication protocol compatibility (e.g., Z-Wave or Zigbee), battery backup, app features, smart speaker compatibility and more to arrive at our Technology score.

Ease Of Use

How difficult is it to install the system? Does it require a professional to come to your house, or is it DIY? Is it easy to relocate if you move homes, rent a house or live in an apartment? We test actual systems and install them ourselves to see how easy the process is.

Once your system is up and running, how easy is it to operate? How user-friendly is the app? These are all critical considerations we take into account in our Ease Of Use score.

Value

We may have just tested the system from the company with the best customer service, the latest technology and the easiest to use equipment and app. But are you getting what you’re paying for?

And is it in line with the competition? We consider contract length, installation and equipment fees, number of monitoring stations, monitoring company and more to arrive at an overall Value score.

Terminologies (Explained So You Can Understand Them)

  • Desk with money, finances and home block (caption: How Much Does A Home Security System Cost?)Equipment Starting Cost – The cost of your system’s equipment can vary based on the devices you select, but these are the base prices for each company. They can go up from there.
  • Professional Monitoring Monthly Starting Cost – This is the lowest monthly fee you should expect to be charged for professional monitoring. The monthly fee can increase depending on the type of monitoring (landline, broadband or cellular) you want and the devices in your system (e.g., cameras and home automation equipment typically result in higher monthly fees). Check out our detailed home security system cost guide.
  • Contract Length – This is the standard length of the contract you’ll be required to sign to maintain monitoring for your system.
  • Girl installing door sensorInstallation – Many companies offer do-it-yourself (DIY) type installation, which is fairly simple since most sensors attach with peel and stick (similar to a sticker). Some companies still offer professional installation if you’d prefer that. If you’re worried about purchasing a DIY security system, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions in our DIY frequently asked questions article. We can help you put your cameras, control panel, sensors and other equipment in the perfect spots in our home security installation guide.
  • Installation Fee – DIY installation typically means there is no installation fee. If you opt for a company with professional installation, you’ll commonly be charged for it.
  • Money-Back Guarantee – The time you have to return the system for a full refund without being locked into a contract. Be sure to read how each company defines its money-back guarantee before signing a contract.
  • Warranty – This is the amount of time your equipment will be covered for any defects. Each company has exclusions in its warranty — make sure you read carefully, so you understand what is and isn’t covered.
  • Battery Backup – This is the amount of time the control panel will operate on battery power during a power outage. Power outages are popular times for burglars to break into homes, so the longer the battery backup time, the better.
  • Security system on desk (caption: Best Self-Monitored Security System)Self Monitoring Option – If you’d prefer to monitor your system yourself and avoid a professional monitoring fee, you can select one of these companies. Keep in mind, a self-monitored system means if an alarm goes off, you’re responsible for contacting the appropriate authorities. So, if you’re often away from or mute your phone (including air travel), this may not be a great fit.
  • Third-Party Monitoring – We recommend companies that use a third party for their monitoring needs because it’s challenging for a company to specialize and excel in both security equipment and 24/7 monitoring.
  • Cellular Monitoring – Cellular monitoring is more secure than landline and broadband (internet) because there’s no risk of any wires being cut.

Learn more about central monitoring stations and monitoring types, so you know what to consider before making a purchase.

What’s Most Important?

1st
Frontpoint logo small
2nd
ProtectAmerica logo small
3rd
SimpliSafe logo small
Most Customizable
Low Cost, No Contract
Ring logo small
Professional Installation
ADT Authorized Dealer logo
Smart Home

When shopping for a home security system, there are several factors to consider. It’s important to find a company that fits your lifestyle and home layout. It’s easier than ever to install your own system, but that doesn’t mean picking a provider is as simple.

If smart home features or customization is a priority, you may want to select a company that excels in those areas. If you prefer reliability, you’ll need a monitoring plan you can trust.

Our best home security systems article covers companies that have an established reputation and meet our high standards and rigorous review process. We’ve also listed the winners here for your convenience.

However, there are dozens of other providers, and quite a few new ones taking advantage of the latest technologies the smart home revolution has to offer. You’ll find many of these and more in our comprehensive home security systems reviews.

And if there’s home security lingo or concepts you’re still murky on, please don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments.

Clear as mud? Did we miss anything?

Sources: [1] FBI

About The Author:

Kimberly is our home security expert and has been 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. Her work has appeared in many notable brands, including The New York Times' Wirecutter, Reader's Digest, Forbes, People, Woman's World, and Huffington Post.

In 2018, she had her first child, which 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.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

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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Pat
March 17, 2020 2:02 pm

With COVID-19 hitting the US hard right now, should I be concerned about the protection my house is under? Are monitoring stations still being fully staffed with the recommendations the CDC, White House, WHO, etc. are giving in regards to the coronavirus? People are being completely crazy right now and it feels quite apocalyptic right now. I’m worried people will begin ransacking homes for basic necessities. If this happens, will the monitoring station be ready to send help?

Suzanne G
December 4, 2019 9:31 pm

Are any home security promotions extending past Cyber Monday? I missed the deadline. Our neighbor’s house got broken into while we were gone and we’ve been so distressed we completely missed the holiday shopping period.

(Admin)
Alex Schenker
December 6, 2019 1:14 pm
Reply to  Suzanne G

Hi Suzanne, most of our links automatically incorporate the promotions. I would find a company you like and see if the promo is still active. If there’s a specific one you have a question about, I can look up the details for you.

Jason F
September 25, 2019 2:52 pm

I’m interested in a system that supports dual path – in other words, one that uses both the internet and a cellular signal for monitoring. That way if one goes down (for example if an intruder blocks the cell signal with a jammer) my system will still be online. I’m supposing that all the ones that have “cellular monitoring” are in fact dual path, but I’m not sure. Any chance you can confirm this?

Finn G
August 21, 2019 4:00 pm

Can someone explain further why you would ever want to self-monitor? Am I correct that without professional monitoring, you are basically SOL if there’s a break-in anytime you’re 1) asleep, 2) not at home, 3) don’t have cell reception. For those of you that are self-monitoring, how do you overcome these 3 obstacles?