How Home Security Systems Work

July 10, 2018

With all of the confusing information out there, many people aren't exactly sure how a security system works, the benefits it provides, and how much they should expect pay for one.

We answer those questions (and more!) in a separate blog post: 7 Things People Get Wrong About Home Security.

Alarm systems are made up of several main parts (there are optional add-ons out there, too):

      • The main control panel or keypad
      • Door and window contacts
      • Motion detectors
      • Glass break protectors
      • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

Here's how all these work together to give you the protection you need from burglars, fires, and other hazards.

The Control Panel

The control panel is the brains of your home security system that connects to all other devices over Wi-Fi and gives you control of them.

honeywell lyric controller with deskstand

When the alarm detects motion, smoke, or other causes for concern, this device contacts the central monitoring station so an operator can confirm the emergency and dispatch authorities.

The control panel is also your tool to arm the system when you leave your home and disarm it when you return.

This panel also where you can view the feed from your cameras and see the status of your devices.

Door and Window Contacts

Door and window contacts create a perimeter of protection around your home. There are two pieces to each contact; one affixes to the frame and one to the actual door or window.

door contact installation

If there's an unauthorized entry through your door or window, it breaks the magnetic connection and activates the alarm.

Your door and window contacts should protect every entry point to your home, especially your ground-floor or basement doors which are the most common way a burglar will attempt entry.

Motion Detectors

Motion detectors provide extensive coverage of the interior of your home and will activate when someone moves in their range.

A motion detector's infrared rays fans out like a flashlight beams from the sensor. They're ideal for covering large spaces like an upstairs hallway or living room.

motion sensor detection patterns

Even if a burglar managed to pull off a dramatic heist by digging underneath your house and up through your floorboards (bypassing your door and window contacts), the system would still go off.

Get pet-immune motion detectors if you have pets, as these only sense bodies over 65 pounds, helping prevent false alarms.

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If you own cats, don't bother with motion sensors; cats love to climb on elevated surfaces and appear to infrared sensors to be much larger than they really are, tripping the alarm.

Glass Break Sensors

As the name implies, these go off when they detect the sound of shattering glass. If you have large pets or cats, this is a great alternative. 

glassbreak

Glass break sensors provide a wide coverage zone to further secure your exterior doors and windows. These are especially useful if your windows are large or if you have sliding glass doors.

Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Smoke & carbon monoxide detectors add an extra layer of protection to whatever you already have in your home.

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Unlike the basic smoke alarms that come with most homes, these will be monitored. That way, your fire alarm doesn't just make an ear-splitting noise; it automatically triggers a sequence of events that gets the fire department to your door.

The Key Fob

The key fob is a keychain-like device that allows you to arm and disarm your system from upstairs or outside your house, acting like a tiny, portable control panel. It's helpful, but not required for your alarm system to be effective.

keyfob

It includes a panic button which can be placed around the house that, when pressed, will dispatch the police at the highest priority level.

Many people like to put these under bedside tables for easy access.

What about security cameras?

Cameras can be a valuable addition to any security system. However, it’s possible you may not need them at all.

honeywell c2 camera

While indoor cameras are invaluable for monitoring activity around and inside your hometo check on a child, nanny, or petcameras do not sound an alarm like the other sensors.

You can use indoor and outdoor cameras to check-in with your home, deter unwanted visitors, and collect important evidence to aid police investigations.

However, a company that calls a camera system a “home security system” is not being entirely honest with you.

Without alarms and sensors to call the authorities for you, cameras are only useful for giving you information after your house has been burglarized. 

Self-Monitoring vs. Professional Monitoring

What are self-monitored security systems?

Self-monitoring means that your system will only alert you in the event of a breach via your smartphone or other device. Essentially, it’s a closed system that does not alert a third-party professional monitoring company.

In the case of an emergency where you are not at home, you may get a notification on your phone that there is a problem.

But then you don't have the assistance of a professional monitoring service to contact dispatchers or emergency responders for you.

What are the drawbacks of self-monitored security systems?

Self-monitored security means you also must be available to monitor the system around the clock. What happens when you are driving, working, sleeping, or on vacation?

A.) Imagine you are inside your home and someone is breaking in.

You want the police to arrive as fast as humanly possible. Going toe-to-toe with a criminal is gambling with your life.

glass door breakin

But with a self-monitored system, it may not be possible to call the police without alerting the intruder to your location. The thief (or worse) is not going to sit there patiently while you pull up your app.

B.) This time, imagine you are away from your property and someone is breaking in.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do you have a good data connection to monitor your home?
  • Are you going to be glued to your mobile phone every day, through the night, checking on your app?

If you answered no to either of those questions, a self-monitored system is not going to give you the protection you and your family need.

Learn more about designing an effective home security system by reading our Ultimate Guide to Home Security.

Download the Ultimate Guide to Home Security and learn:

  • Top 5 misconceptions about home security
  • How to assess vulnerabilities in your home
  • Why home security is about more than preventing burglaries
  • Cutting-edge security equipment: how home security has changed
  • Monitored vs. Self-Monitored Systems
  • Local vs. National Security Companies

... and more!

Download Ultimate Security Guide
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