The Internet of Things has made it easier than ever to set up a smart home in which you can remotely control your door locks, lights, thermostats, vacuums, lawn mowers, and even pet feeders, using your smartphone and an app. It's also made it simple (and relatively affordable) to monitor your home from pretty much anywhere. Smart security systems are highly customizable and available as do-it-yourself kits or as full-blown setups that include professional installation and monitoring.
Depending on your needs you can go with a system that you monitor yourself, or pay a subscription fee to have your home surveilled 24/7 by professionals who will contact your local fire and police departments when alarms are triggered. You can even take advantage of on-demand monitoring services for when you're away on vacation. Of course, the more coverage you have, the more you can expect to pay.
If you're not ready for a dedicated security system, there are plenty of individual devices available that let you monitor your home from anywhere using your phone or tablet, including indoor and outdoor security cameras, video doorbells, motion sensors, and smart locks.
Here's what you need to know when deciding how to secure and monitor your home while you're away.
Streamlining Security and Home Automation
A smart home security system connects to your Wi-Fi network so you can monitor and control your security devices using your smartphone and an app. Entry-level systems usually include some door and window sensors, a motion detector, and a hub that communicates with these devices using one or more wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, or a proprietary mesh network. You can add extra door, motion, and window sensors to provide coverage for your entire house and build a comprehensive system that includes door locks, garage door openers, indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras, lights, sirens, smoke/CO detectors, water sensors, and more.
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- Ring Alarm 8-Piece Kit With Indoor Cam and Echo Show 5 — $299.99 (List Price $379.98)
- Ring Alarm 8-Piece Kit With Video Doorbell and Echo Show 5 — $339.99 (List Price $419.98)
- Ring Alarm 14-Piece Kit With 3rd Gen Echo Dot — $329.99 (List Price $369.98)
A word about wireless protocols: In a perfect world, all home security components would use the same wireless standard to communicate with the main hub, but factors such as power requirements, signal range, price, and size make it virtually impossible to settle on just one.
For example, smaller components such as door/window sensors typically use Z-Wave or Zigbee technology because they don't require a lot of power and can be powered by smaller batteries. They also operate in a mesh topology and can help extend the range of networked devices. However, neither protocol provides the bandwidth that you get with Wi-Fi, which is why it is usually used in security cameras to provide smooth video streaming, and in other devices that require a fat pipe. Moreover, Z-Wave and Zigbee devices are connected and controlled using a hub, while Wi-Fi devices can be connected directly to your home network and controlled with an app. Finally, Z-Wave and Zigbee devices use AES 128 encryption, and since they operate in a closed system with a dedicated hub, they offer more security than Wi-Fi devices.
Any smart security system worth its salt offers components that work together in a seamless environment and can be manipulated using customized rules. For example, you can create rules to have the lights turn on when motion is detected, have your doors unlock when a smoke alarm goes off, and have a camera begin recording when a sensor is triggered. Some systems store recorded video locally on an SD card or a solid state drive, while others offer cloud storage. Locally stored video is a good choice for do-it-yourselfers on a budget, but you have to be careful not to overwrite video you may need later. Cloud storage makes it easy to store and access recorded video, but it can cost hundreds of dollars per year depending on your subscription. Some systems offer both cloud storage and local storage, and some provide a dedicated storage drive that gives you DVR capabilities with time-lapse recording, which makes it easy to find a video event that took place at a specific point in time.
All of the systems we've tested feature an app that lets you use your smartphone as your command center to arm and disarm the system, create rules, add and delete components, and receive push notifications when alarms are triggered. Most apps also allow you to do things like view live and recorded video, lock and unlock doors, change thermostat settings, and silence alarms. Some apps will even use your phone's location services to automatically arm and disarm the system according to your physical location. The more expensive systems usually come with a wall-mounted panel that acts as a communications hub, with a touch-screen display that allows you to do everything the app does. The display lets you communicate with a professional monitoring service when an alarm is triggered and view video from any of the installed security cameras.
DIY Home Security Systems
Do-it-yourself security setups are ideal for budget shoppers because they can save you a bundle on installation charges and subscription fees. Most DIY systems are easy to install and are sold as kits that you can configure to suit your specific needs. As your needs grow you can order additional sensors and other components at your convenience and pair them to the system in a matter of minutes.
Your basic entry-level DIY system might only support one or two wireless protocols and usually offers a limited selection of add-on components, while more expensive DIY systems will support multiple wireless protocols and are compatible with dozens of add-on components. Some DIY systems are self-monitored, which means you'll receive alerts when devices are triggered, but it's up to you to contact the local authorities if there's a break-in or a fire. However, DIY vendors are increasingly offering professional monitoring services.
Check out our picks for the Best DIY Smart Home Security Systems to learn more about do-it-yourself hubs, components, and monitoring options.
Professional Home Security Systems
While many systems use wireless components that are installed using double-sided tape, some high-end systems use components that require professional installation. These soup-to-nuts systems typically cost considerably more than DIY systems and offer 24/7 professional monitoring, but you may have to enter into a multi-year contract and pay a hefty termination fee if you break it. They usually use touch-screen hubs that contain RF, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave radios, allowing them to communicate with and control a multitude of components including door and window sensors, door locks, glass break detectors, indoor and outdoor cameras, light switches, motion and water detectors, smoke/CO alarms, thermostats, video doorbells, and a host of other home automation devices.
With a professionally monitored system, when a smoke or intrusion alarm is triggered, an agent will first try to reach you via the two-way control panel before calling your listed phone number. If you fail to respond, the agent will call 911 to dispatch an emergency responder to your home. The nice thing about professionally installed systems is you don't have to lift a finger; after you've placed your order a technician will come to your home, set everything up for you, and show you how the system works. It's important to note that in some areas you may have to file for a permit to have a security system installed in your home.
Nearly all of the latest DIY and high-end home security systems offer support for voice control via Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and in some cases Apple Siri, which allows you to unlock doors, change thermostat settings, open the garage, and arm or disarm your system with a spoken command to a connected device like a smart speaker. Many also offer support for IFTTT (If This Then That) applets, which use triggers from IFTTT-compatible web services and devices to create an action. For example, you can create an applet that says if a garage door is opened to turn on the floodlight.
How Much Do Security Systems Cost Per Month?
Whether you decide to go with a DIY system or opt for a professionally installed system, you'll have to pay a monthly or annual fee if you require monitoring, and in some cases, you'll be hit with a monthly fee to pay off the cost of hardware components. With most DIY systems, such as the SimpliSafe Home Security Kit and the Ring Alarm Security Kit, you purchase the hardware outright and can avoid any monthly fees if you decide to self-monitor. If you add monitoring, fees will vary: SimpliSafe charges $14.99 per month for its no-contract monitoring service, for instance.
Monitoring for professionally installed systems tends to be more expensive. We detail these prices in each of our reviews.
Can You Use a Security Camera Instead?
If you live in a small apartment and want to keep tabs on things when you're not home, a security camera can get the job done for a lot less money than what you'll pay for a full security system. Nearly all standalone security cameras connect to your home's Wi-Fi so you can see what's going on from your phone or tablet, and most have built-in sensors that detect motion and sound and will send push and email notifications when those sensors are triggered. You can usually tweak the camera's motion sensitivity to prevent false alarms due to pet activity or passing cars if the camera is near a window, and you can create a schedule that turns the sensors on and off during certain hours of the day.
Some of the more expensive cameras are equipped with humidity and temperature sensors and will interact with other connected home devices such as thermostats and smart lighting systems. If you want to save some money, look for a camera with an SD card slot that allows you to record video when motion or sound is detected, but remember to save your recordings every so often before they are overwritten. Alternately, look for a camera that offers a cloud storage plan.
An outdoor camera is ideal for keeping an eye on what's happening outside of your home. These devices are weatherproof and typically require a nearby GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet to supply power, although there are a handful of battery-powered models out there. As with their indoor counterparts, outdoor cameras connect to your Wi-Fi network and allow you to view live video from your phone. They are fairly easy to install, but if you're not familiar or comfortable with electrical wiring, you may want to have a professional electrician do the job.
Most outdoor cameras offer motion detection with push and email notifications, night vision, and cloud storage for event-triggered video, and some pull double duty as floodlights or porch lights. Some models can even tell the difference between a passing car, an animal, and a person. Look for an outdoor camera that will integrate with other smart home devices such as garage door openers, external sirens, and smart switches.
What About a Video Doorbell?
Video doorbells offer an easy way to see who is at your door without having to open or even get close to the door. These devices connect to your Wi-Fi network and will send an alert when someone approaches your doorway. They'll record video when the doorbell is pressed or when motion is detected, and usually offer two-way audio communication that allows you to speak with the visitor from anywhere via your phone.
Most video doorbells use your existing doorbell wiring (two low-voltage wires) and are fairly easy to install, but there are battery-powered models available that install in minutes. Some work with other smart devices such as door locks and sirens and support IFTTT and Alexa voice commands.
Look for a model that offers a high resolution (1080p), a wide-angle lens (140 to 180 degrees), a night vision range up to 25 feet, and affordable cloud storage for recorded video. Sometimes it's helpful to be able to see what happened just before or after a visitor approaches your door. For that, you'll need a doorbell that uses pre-buffering to record the action taking place before motion is detected or the doorbell is pressed.
What's the Best Smart Lock?
A smart lock is typically part of a robust smart home security setup, but you don't have to invest in a full-blown system to use one. If you're using a home automation hub to control things like lighting and thermostats, you can add a Z-Wave or Zigbee smart lock to the system without much effort. Alternately, if you don't have a home automation hub, look for a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth lock that comes with its own mobile app. Smart locks use standard pre-drilled holes and are fairly easy to install. Some models use your existing keyed cylinder and deadbolt hardware and attach to the inside of your door, while others require that you remove your existing interior and exterior escutcheons and replace the deadbolt and strike hardware.
Smart locks can be opened and closed using a mobile app and will send a notification when someone locks or unlocks a door, and most allow you to create permanent and temporary access schedules for family members and friends based on specific hours of the day and days of the week. Features to look for include geofencing, which uses your phone's location services to lock and unlock the door, voice activation using Siri (HomeKit), Google Assistant, or Amazon Alexa voice commands, support for IFTTT, and integration with other smart home devices such as video doorbells, outdoor cameras, thermostats, smoke alarms, and connected lighting.
There are plenty of smart lock models to choose from, including keyless no-touch locks, touch-screen locks, combination keyed and touchpad locks, and locks that you can open using a biometric fingerprint reader.
Can Home Security Systems Be Hacked?
Like any product that connects to the internet and uses wireless technology, smart home security systems are vulnerable to hacking, particularly systems that lack encryption. Hackers can sit outside your home and use a laptop and software to intercept wireless signals coming from your system that allow them to suppress alarms and disable sensors. Other devices allow hackers to generate radio noise that can jam communications between the sensors and the hub.
Additionally, devices that connect via Wi-Fi, such as security cameras and smart door locks, can be hacked to gain access to your home network. A skilled hacker can then use your Wi-Fi devices and other network resources to carry out Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against larger networks. Perhaps even more disturbing is the idea of some stranger monitoring video from your indoor and outdoor security cameras.
There are several steps you can take to make sure your home security system is safe from malicious cyber intruders. For starters, replace the system's default password with a unique one that contains a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols. If possible, change your password from time to time. Additionally, make sure your home network is secure. Check the security settings on your wireless router, and consider models that add an extra layer of software protection, like the Bitdefender Box 2.
Some security system vendors use frequency hopping tech to prevent signal jamming, while others use embedded encryption, but neither feature is standard, so check with the manufacturer if you require an extra layer of security.
In addition, keep an eye on your camera logs to see when they have been accessed. If you notice camera activity at odd hours or at times when you know that nobody is at home, it may be an indication that your system has been compromised. Finally, make sure your system software and all of your connected devices are up to date. Firmware updates often address security issues and can help protect your system from infiltration.
For more, check out our Readers' Choice Awards to see which home security systems and brands other PhonespySoftware24 readers trust most.