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Alba Iulia
Friday, September 18, 2020

How do smart home security systems work?

Traditional home security companies like Vivint, ADT and Brinks charge up-front fees for hardware installation. In addition, they lock customers into expensive multiyear contracts for 24-hour monitoring service.

Pre-internet home security system
Conventional home security services are expensive and outdated

Today, an array of DIY home security systems has shaken up the industry. These systems are cheaper to buy and easier to set up. Monitoring is an optional add-on – without long-term contracts, hidden charges or cancellation fees.

Smart home controller
DIY security systems are cheap and easy to set up

Difference between a smart security and smart home

What’s the difference between smart home security systems and smart homes? Homeowners use smart home security systems for monitoring. For example, if it detects an intruder, the system will sound the alarm. In addition, these systems can be configured to detect fires, carbon monoxide leaks and burst water pipes. Other possible uses:

  • When on holiday, program the lights to turn on for a short time in the evenings. This will make it look like someone is at home.
  • While at work, disable the system to let a cleaning company into your home.
  • Monitor babysitters and home care staff while away from home.
  • Receive alerts when deliveries arrive at your door. This will deter package thieves.

Beyond security, most smart home devices deliver convenience. For instance, these gadgets can turn lights on and off using voice commands. Other conveniences include activating sprinkler systems or adjusting your thermostat.

When starting out with smart home tech, many people opt for a security system. You can develop these systems over time by purchasing more components that extend functionality.

Smart home hubs vs burglar alarms

Smart security systems work the same as burglar alarms, in that they monitor homes for intruders. Typical security systems come with costly monitoring packages and a choice of notification options:

  1. Speech dialler: sends an automated message to an appointed person
  2. Key holder contact: an appointed key holder (like a neighbor or family friend) will receive a notification
  3. Police contact: the police will receive an alert

With DIY systems, alerts reach the user via their smart phone.

How do home security systems work?

All smart home systems include a hub for receiving and transmitting wifi data. This hub receives data from sensors. That data relays to an interface (like a smartphone or tablet) that controls the system.

Upon purchasing a system, the first step is to install the hub in close proximity to your router. Next, install your mobile app and connect to the hub. After that, install door, window and motion sensors. Then, your home security system is ready to use.

Components of a home security system

Most DIY smart home security systems come as kits. These include all components to get you up and running. A typical kit will include the following components:

Control panel hub

The hub connects to your internet router (over wifi or via an ethernet cable). In some cases hubs come with a keypad that you can use to disarm or activate your security. Hubs communicate with all sensors installed in your home. If it detects an intruder, the alarm goes off. More expensive units contain battery backups and cellular radio connections. This ensures proper operation when the power goes out.

Most modern smart systems control hubs via a mobile app. From your phone, it’s easy to disarm the system, communicate with sensors and monitor your security. These apps provide greater convenience. For example, you can activate security from your bedroom, or monitor cameras when away from home. With add-ons, you can extend functions. Popular add-ons include thermostat controls, remote light switches and remote door lock controllers.

Once your add-ons are set up, you will receive a variety of notifications. For example, receive alerts when your kids arrive home. As another example, receive alerts when your motion detection cameras capture a new clip.

Door and window sensors

These small devices come in two pieces. One side contains a magnet and the other a piece of steel. Separating the two (such as by opening a door or window) breaks the magnetic field. This sends a signal to the hub. In most cases this will activate a high-decibel alarm loud that alerts neighbors of an intrusion.

You can program door sensors with a delay, if you need to open the door to disarm the hub. Window sensors trigger instant alarms – only intruders will enter your home through a window.

Motion sensors

Motion sensors detect heat signals and movement within a 25-foot, 90 degree range. This creates a barrier that triggers the alarm if breached. For instance, placing these in hallways will seal off any path an intruder may take.

While at home, it’s easy to manage alerts. For instance, disarm the motion sensors while at home and activate them when you go out. While armed, any detected movement will trigger an alert. If you have pets, many motion sensors include a ‘pet mode’ to prevent false warnings.


Alarms attached to hubs are loud. Upon detecting a breach, people inside the home and neighbors will know about it. In addition, startled intruders will most likely flee.

Window stickers

Many smart security devices come with branded stickers. While these might seem like marketing gimmicks, they serve as a powerful deterrent against potential intruders. A sign taped to your window will warn burglars about your security setup.

Smart Home Security Extras

Beyond basic door/ window and motion sensors, you can add many extras to your system.

Surveillance cameras

Most basic DIY security systems come without cameras, although most units can integrate them as add-ons. You can place cameras inside or outside the home. Use your imagination. For example, place cameras in remote buildings (like garages or barns). Other placement options include distant areas of your property and entry points like your front door.

To access real-time footage, connect to your system over wifi using a computer, smartphone or tablet. Cameras allow monitoring in multiple scenarios. Examples:

  • While waiting for a package delivery
  • If the homeowner wants to check their home while out of town
  • When monitoring caregivers, babysitters, pool cleaners etc
  • Checking on your kids as they get home from school

Other addons

Beyond cameras, there are many other addons that can extend the functionality of your home security system.

  • Remote secondary keypad: while smartphone apps control most systems, many units offer a secondary keypad or disarming unit. Fix these to any convenient location, or on a keychain remote controller for easy system disarming.
  • Glass break sensors: these monitor vibration shocks. In some cases, they use sound sensors to detect the pitch of breaking glass.
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors: these addons will provide early warnings. They can detect smoke, a sudden rise in temperature and carbon monoxide leaks.
  • Water leak sensors: burst pipes are more common than fires. Adding these will bring you greater peace of mind.

Note that compatibility with extras depends on the unit you purchase. Some manufacturers are open, while others test and approve third-party extras. Others are closed systems that limit your options to what that company provides.

How to monitor your home security system

With conventional systems, the only option is to have professional monitoring by the manufacturer. This is usually on a fixed multiyear subscription service. Cancelling the contract before the term expires can leave you owing early termination fees.

In contrast, modern DIY smart systems allow you to monitor security yourself – for free.

This might be fine in low-risk areas. In higher risk areas, you will be responsible for deciding how to react to an alarm. Do you call the police or fire department? Ask a neighbor to check? Ignore it?

Take heed that dealing with security alarms is stressful. How do you function when stressed? Make sure you can handle the responsibility before taking it on.

Benefits of professional monitoring

In most cases, professional monitoring packages come with a round-the-clock watch by security staff. When an alarm goes off, they will first call the homeowner. If they can’t reach them, they will attempt to notify the listed secondary contacts. In case they can’t reach anyone, they will call the police. If your package includes smoke alarm coverage, they will call the fire department.

Like insurance policies, monitoring contracts are complex, with lots of fine print. Before signing up for a plan, read every single detail to comprehend what you are getting yourself into.


A smart home security system is a burglar alarm with sensors that connect to your smartphone or tablet. This means that you can be alerted if a motion sensor detects an intruder, no matter your location.

Most systems work with a range of different sensors. This means you can stack on more sensors, cameras and numerous smart functions.

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