What to Look for in a Home Security System

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In today’s consumer-centric market, you have lots of options in home security systems. Here’s a guide to understanding those options, and narrowing down your search to the features and the technology that work best for you.

Basic Elements of a Home Security System

Security systems consist of three basic elements:

  • Sensors
  • Controls
  • Monitoring

Some of today’s best security systems also include more advanced interactive technology, such as online access, mobile apps, video security cameras and home automation. We’ll look at those features shortly.


If you’re familiar with a smoke detector, you understand the concept of a sensor. Security sensors are basically detectors – you place them around your home to detect signs of trouble. Each sensor has its own specific job. Sensors that detect a door or window opening, or motion in the room, are built to guard against intruders. There are also sensors for smoke, heat, water, freeze and carbon monoxide, and these are often categorized as “environmental” dangers. Keep in mind that a common smoke detector is not part of a true home security system, unless it’s linked to professional, offsite monitoring.


Sensors each do one job only, so a security system needs some kind of built-in “intelligence” to control the system as a whole. This is the job of the control unit – a device that communicates with all the sensors and manages the system. You use the controls to arm and disarm the system, and, if the system is advanced, to customize your special features. All security systems need a main control, and many offer an auxiliary unit as well, so you can control the system remotely or from an alternate location in your house, such as upstairs.


A team of trained professionals is on hand 24/7, at a central monitoring facility, to watch for alerts from your home security system. If a sensor in your home detects trouble, it signals an alert to the control unit, which forwards the alert to the monitoring center. People at the monitoring center then contact you and dispatch your appropriate local authorities, such as the fire or police department. If your system covers medical emergencies, your monitoring team can send an ambulance if needed. Some security systems come with a “Panic Button” that lets you signal for immediate help. These are especially useful for elderly people living alone.

Wireless Sensors

If your home security system is “wireless,” it means your sensors operate and communicate without wiring. They send alerts to the control over a wireless frequency. Most reputable alarm companies today offer wireless equipment because of its many benefits. Wireless equipment is cleaner and simpler, requiring no complex programming, wiring or drilling through walls. Homeowners like wireless security systems because they are easy enough to set up themselves, without tools and without paying for professional installation. Wireless systems are also up and running much more quickly than the old-fashioned “hard-wired” systems.

Cellular Monitoring

With home security, it’s important to understand the distinction between “wireless” and “cellular.” A wireless system is not necessarily cellular. The cellular technology pertains to the built-in communication link between the system’s controls and the monitoring center. Traditionally, alarm systems use the home’s phone line for that link. A security system that depends on your home phone line is NOT cellular, even if it claims to be “wireless.” Some alarm companies offer cellular “back-up,” because the phone line proved vulnerable to burglars, as well as storms and power outages. Cellular alarm systems have a huge safety advantage, because they are virtually invincible. They also require no home phone – in fact, no phone at all.

Interactive Apps

In today’s mobile society, we have learned to expect instant communication and information, no matter where we are. The best home security systems give you that connectivity, with mobile and online apps. You can access and control your alarm system over any internet-connected device, arming, disarming and monitoring it, remotely.

Home Security Cameras

Video monitoring is another highly interactive option with today’s most popular security systems. These cameras should have options for both live and recorded video, which you can monitor yourself, anytime, anywhere. Security video offers both an extra layer of security, and a great way to stay connected to family, kids and pets, when you’re away from home.

Home Automation

The intelligence built into today’s home security systems also allows you to control a variety of devices within your home – such as your lights, thermostat and door locks. This home automation saves you time and money, helps you conserve energy and also enhances security.

Home Security System Reviews

Once you decide which security features you’d like, it’s a good idea to read the reviews and see what existing customers are saying about their own security systems. Review sites can be found in abundance online. Start with the traditional well-known establishments, like the BBB. Angie’s List also provides excellent and reliable detail about home security companies. Do you have a favorite review site for restaurants? Chances are they cover alarm systems, too. Or check out Top Consumer Reviews or Top Ten Reviews. The security industry also has reviews from industry experts, on sites such as A Secure Life or Alarm System Report.

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