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Insurance can help replace stolen, damaged, or destroyed property, but a home security system can help prevent your property from being stolen, damaged, or destroyed in the first place. And while most break-ins occur when people are away from home, a home security system can also protect you and your family from personal injury at the hands of criminals brazen enough to pull off a home-invasion robbery. And there’s a good chance your insurance company will subsidize the cost of the system by discounting the price of your policy.
The hot trend in today’s home-security market is to bundle home-control technology into the same package as the alarm system. Instead of a sensor just sending an emergency alert message to a central office, these systems can also turn on lights inside and outside your home while simultaneously triggering video cameras to record what’s happening. If fire sets off a smoke alarm, these systems can automatically shut down your HVAC system to prevent smoke from being spread throughout the house.
Home control is incredibly useful on its own, too. It can automatically turn on lights when you open a door, dim the lamp when you turn on the TV, adjust the thermostat when you leave and return, give you the power to remotely unlock a door from anywhere you have Internet access, and much more. It can even alert you when something doesn’t happen, such as when your child doesn’t come home from school within an expected timeframe.
After several months of testing hybrid home-security/home-control systems from three major service providers, we’ve concluded that the two great technologies go great together, just like peanut butter and chocolate. We’ve also found that the systems can be expensive, that elaborate systems can be difficult to configure, and that some service providers make shopping for a system much more difficult than it need be.
Allow our pain to be your gain: We’ll provide a deep dive on every component, tell you which devices we think are essential (and which are just nice to have), explain how the systems work, and provide valuable tips on how to avoid getting screwed when you go shopping for one. We’ll wrap up with hands-on reviews of dealer-installed systems from ADT and Vivint, and a DIY system from FrontPoint Security.
If you'd like more information on home-control systems, check our reviews of the Schlage LiNK, Kwikset SmartCode, 3M Filtrete, and Yale Real Living products. And if you'd like to see more of this type of coverage in Maximum PC, hit the comments section and let us know!
CHOOSE THE RIGHT COMPONENTS AND AVOID OVERPAYING FOR YOUR HOME SECURITY SYSTEM
Everybody loves discounts, but most insurance companies will only grant a discount--typically 20 percent--for installing an alarm system if a central office monitors the system. When an alarm is triggered, the system sends a message to a human being working at a 24-hour service center. That person will attempt to reach you or a designated contact to verify the emergency. At your direction, or if they can’t reach you, the service will contact the appropriate emergency agency to dispatch help.
Whether a home-security service provider sells a pre-packaged system or you order all the components a la carte, every system will include a control panel and a few door and/or window sensors at a minimum. The control panel arms and disarms the system and reports issues to a central office, and the sensors monitor and report on your home’s status. You can add more sensors (smoke, heat, motion, carbon monoxide, etc.) and all sorts of other bells and whistles (lighting controls, thermostats, electronic door locks, cameras, and more). We’ll delve deeper into sensors later, but one extra we recommend is a local siren that emits a loud noise when the alarm system is triggered. This might help drive burglars out of your house before they can steal anything. If you already own compatible devices, you should be able to enroll them into any new system, but discuss this with your service provider in advance to determine what the company will permit.
Each of the three systems we evaluated for this story utilizes a host of wireless sensors for security, plus a Z-Wave wireless mesh network for home control. Two of the three piggyback on your existing Wi-Fi network, and one establishes its own independent wireless network. Two of the systems communicate with the central office using dedicated GSM connections; the other relies on a land telephone line (with GSM available as an added-cost option). All three rely on your broadband Internet connection.
The control panel can be as simple as a box with a rubber keypad, but you’ll be happier with something that provides at least some visual feedback, even if it’s only an LCD limited to displaying text. More elaborate panels feature touch-screens that provide not only information about the state of your alarm and home control system, but also display news and weather reports.
The control panel is best mounted on the wall (lest it become buried in hats, jackets, mail, laundry, and all the other stuff that tends to collect on countertops). It shouldn’t be too close to an entry door (a thief could kick the door in and instantly gain physical access to the panel), and it shouldn’t be within sight of a window (you don’t want a would-be thief to know what type of system is protecting your home).
By the same token, some home-security experts believe you should use generic—versus branded—lawn signs and window stickers to warn burglars that your home is protected by an alarm system. Not surprisingly, each of the three vendors we contacted told us that this free advertising (for them) is the best deterrent imaginable.
Don’t forget that the control panel must be plugged into an electrical outlet (it will have a battery back-up so it continues to function in the event of a power failure, but it will require steady electrical power). Most alarm-system installers are not licensed electricians, so they won’t be able to install an electrical outlet if there’s not one near where you want to mount the panel.
When Vivint’s tech installed the Vivint control panel, he ran the power cord inside the wall, up to our attic, and plugged the AC adapter into an outlet next to our furnace. We could easily have done the same with FrontPoint’s panel. ADT dispatched both a tech and a licensed electrician to install their system, because their package includes an in-wall Z-Wave switch. If you think you’ll need electrical work, discuss this with the service provider up front, hire your own electrician, or do the work yourself before the installer arrives.
The best home security systems have GSM modules and communicate with the service provider’s central office using a cellular network. A burglar can disable a system that relies on a land line by simply cutting your phone cable before breaking into your home. Some systems with GSM modules also support two-way voice communication, which enables you to use the panel to communicate with personnel at your service-provider’s central office. We think this is a great feature, because you won’t have to run around looking for your cordless phone or cell phone (which always seem to have dead batteries at exactly the wrong time) in the event of an emergency.
If the control panel is the brains of your security system, battery-operated wireless sensors comprise its nervous system. Door and window sensors consist of two pieces: One piece you attach to the door or window and the other to the door or window frame. Separating the two elements by opening the door or window breaks a magnetic field between them and sends a message to the control panel.
Door and window sensors come in various shapes and sizes. We prefer recessed sensors for doors, because they’re completely hidden from view when the door is closed. The drawback is that you must drill holes in your doors and doorframes to install them (this also renders recessed sensors unsuitable for sliding-glass doors and glass-paneled French doors). Surface-mount devices come in different sizes and can be attached with either small screws or two-way tape. Ask your service provider to show you which ones it plans to use—and how much they cost—before the installer shows up at your house.
If your home has large picture windows or lots of other non-opening windows, a glass-break sensor will detect the sound of breaking glass and trigger an alarm. We recommend putting a sensor on each entry door, but if you have a lot of windows, you can save money by placing a motion sensor in a central area of your home that you’re certain a burglar will pass through. You should be aware, however, that motion sensors might generate false alarms if you have large pets in the house, or if you have pets of any size that jump up onto tables or countertops within the sensor’s coverage area.
Smoke detectors provide crucial protection in the event of a fire. A carbon monoxide detector will safeguard you from a defective furnace. Freeze sensors detect thermal conditions that can lead to broken water pipes, and water sensors detect floods and leaky pipes. A company called FortrezZ manufactures a valve with a Z-Wave module that can automatically close in response to a water alarm, preventing serious water damage.
ADT and Vivint both include a number of sensors in their package, but will happily sell you more if you need them now or down the road. If you order them later, however, you’ll have to pay to have them installed—these companies won’t allow you to add them yourself. FrontPoint will sell additional sensors, too, but the installation charges don’t apply because FrontPoint’s system is DIY anyway.
Wireless video cameras enable you to monitor what’s happening in your home at any time, and they can provide invaluable peace of mind when you’re away from home and something triggers an alarm. Many security cameras are equipped with motion sensors that will automatically record a video clip when something moves in front of them, but you can establish schedules so they do this only when you don’t expect anyone to be around, only when an alarm is triggered, or according to user-defined rules (e.g., if the front door opens between 8AM and 5PM Monday through Friday). Each of the alarm systems we reviewed was capable of automatically sending email and text messages with snippets of these videos attached.
Unfortunately, your choice of video cameras will be limited to whatever your service provider happens to support. Pan/Tilt cameras allow you to cover more area than fixed models, but they’re more expensive and the pan/tilt feature on the models we reviewed is useful only while the cameras are being controlled live. None of these provided video quality that was remotely as good as Logitech’s Alert series of cameras, and only one of the three vendors—FrontPoint Security—supports outdoor cameras.