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Do-It-Yourself Home Security Systems

This photo illustrates a home break in at night through a back door from inside the residence.
Date: December 15, 2015      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source: Ry  Crist      Print:

They’re Easy to Set Up

About 20% of US homes have professionally installed and monitored security systems. These services, with maintenance and monitoring fees that add up to several hundred dollars a year, are beyond the budgets of many people. Also, many existing homes would require custom installation and wiring.

But a different type of home security has been catching on—do-it-yourself (DIY) systems that have no contracts and, in most but not all cases, no additional fees beyond the cost of the equipment and no professional monitoring. Instead of requiring wires in the walls, DIY systems typically use the existing Wi-Fi network in your home…wireless door and window sensors…an app on your smartphone or tablet to control the system…and optional wireless cameras. You can install, customize and monitor these systems yourself.

DIY systems aren’t right for everyone, especially if you don’t want to figure out where to put sensors and/or you are unwilling to sacrifice the added security of professional outside monitors to contact authorities when you are away or under threat. But for home owners willing to do without that extra layer of security, DIY systems can provide some peace of mind without a lot of the extra cost.

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How It Works

The centerpiece of a DIY home security system typically is a base station that connects to your home’s Wi-Fi router. The base station usually contains a built-in, very loud 110-decibel alarm and communicates with various sensors, including motion detectors for rooms and contact sensors for doors and windows, all of which can be attached with double-sided tape. The wireless motion-detecting video cameras that also can be used in these systems tend to get a lot of attention—there’s a certain gee-whiz factor using your smartphone or tablet to see what’s going on in your living room from anywhere in the world—but video cameras are not as important as the other components for actually deterring break-ins.

With most DIY systems, you choose whether to receive a text message, an automated phone call or both whenever a sensor or video camera is triggered. Many also can be controlled manually with a wireless keypad that you affix near an entranceway and/or with a key-chain remote. Drawback: Most DIY systems depend on the Wi-Fi network in your home, so they might not fully function if you lose electrical power ­unless they have a battery backup.

A basic, entry-level DIY system starts at about $200, while an elaborate system with lots of additional sensors and cameras can run several thousand dollars. A comparable entry-level professional home security service for a small house typically charges a $99 installation fee and a $40 monthly monitoring fee with a mandatory 36-month contract (that is a savings of $1,340 with the average DIY system).

What to Buy

There are more than two dozen companies offering DIY home security systems, ranging from well-known brands to start-ups. Consider these three factors when you choose…

Price. Most DIY systems are cheaper than a professional home security service when you consider that with DIY, you might not have any outside monitoring to pay for. But there is a wide range of how much you can spend.

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Size of your house. For a small apartment, a very limited DIY system with base station and contact sensor on the front door may be enough. A large house may require a system that’s easy and affordable to expand and offers you options such as range extenders that strengthen Wi-Fi signals to reach rooms far from the router.

Type of protection you need. Most systems offer a basic security package and let you customize it to your needs by adding additional sensors, sirens, cameras and remotes. But you may want a system that also offers additional types of protection beyond break-ins. For example, some systems have carbon monoxide sensors and flood sensors. Others have key-chain remotes that ­elderly parents can carry around in the house to alert you via smartphone if they have an emergency.

My favorite DIY systems now…

iSmartAlarm. Best very basic, inexpensive system. The starter package comes with a base station, two door/window sensors, a motion sensor and two key-chain remotes. It took me just 15 minutes to open the box and get the system up and running. Cost: $199. Note: The starter package does not include a camera, but you can buy one for an additional $150. iSmartAlarm.com

Piper Pro. Best for home owners who want a system that provides more flexibility and greater potential coverage. You get a base station with a Piper NV night-vision video camera and your choice of three other items (for example, you can choose door/window sensors or smart plugs that plug into existing electrical outlets and allow you to automate lights and appliances and turn them on and off remotely). Cost: $389. GetPiper.com

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Iris by Lowe’s. Best for a larger house or if you want home automation as well as security. To use Iris for security and/or home automation, you’ll need to buy the Smart Hub—the brains of the system—and then add on what you want. The basic home security package comes with a motion detector, two door/window sensors and an alarm keypad. What sets Iris apart is the wealth of affordable options—more than 60 add-on devices for security and home automation, including a programmable thermostat ($99)…smart plugs ($35)…and an electric water heater controller ($70). Cost: $59 for the hub…$99 for the basic security package. An optional $10/month plan gives you more advanced controls and lets you have up to six people notified when an alert is triggered. IrisByLowes.com

SimpliSafe. Best if you don’t want to monitor the security system yourself but want low monitoring costs. This is a hybrid DIY/professional offering with no contract. You install the system, but it is professionally monitored, so when an alarm is triggered, the system makes a cellular phone call to a dispatcher. The Economy package consists of a base station, a wireless keypad, three door/window sensors, one ­motion sensor and a key-chain remote. Extra sensors are available, and there is a battery backup for the base station and a cellular backup in case the power goes out. Cost: $259 for equipment plus a $14.99 to $24.99/month fee, depending on the options you want. SimpliSafe.com

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Source: Ry Crist, an associate editor for CNET, the consumer-electronics website. He specializes in smart and automated home electronics products and systems. CNET.com