Home security demystified: How to build a smart DIY system

home security
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Everyone wants their home to be safe and secure, yet only 17% of homeowners own a home security system. Why? Because traditional systems cost hundreds of dollars to install, require long-term contracts and mean a lifetime of monthly fees.  

Today, however, wireless technology has blown the DIY home security space wide open. Homeowners and renters can now build and maintain their own custom-designed home security system easily and inexpensively.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the options for DIY home security systems that offer similar -- and in some cases, better -- functionality to traditional systems, at substantially less cost. From connected cameras to smart sensors and whole home systems (with no monthly fees), to simple all-in-one gadgets, read on to find peace of mind for the right price.

The basic tenets of home security include:

  1. Surveillance (seeing what is happening inside and outside your home)
  2. Sensors (knowing when there is movement, water, fire or smoke in your home)
  3. Locks (securing your home with physical barriers)

To build your own security system, you need to determine what your needs are and then bring together the right combination of surveillance, sensors and locks to achieve a balance between convenience and security. Some rules of thumb:

  • If you have a large home with lots of access points, consider an expandable home security kit.
  • If you are a renter in a small apartment, a portable all-in-one device will suit your needs best.
  • If you are somewhere in between these two scenarios, then you are a candidate for an “a la carte” security system where you pick and choose different products to custom-design your own home security solution.

Remember, home security is no longer just about awareness of break-ins or house fires. The power of the Internet of Things, combined with the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, means we have access to an unprecedented level of control over our homes. From checking in on the new puppy while at the office, to shutting off the water when a pipe bursts, your home security system can now talk directly to you, cutting out the traditional security system middleman.

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Even better, you can talk back to it, so you can control your home from anywhere.

Choosing a surveillance system

Security cameras are an essential component to a home security system. Visible cameras deter burglars and recorded footage can help you recover items after a break-in and prosecute the perpetrators. Internet connected cameras let you see both the interior and exterior of your home from anywhere, helping you avert or mitigate disasters and keep an eye on inhabitants, as well as prevent theft.

There are many options when it comes to adding surveillance around your home: from wireless WiFi capable cameras that can be remotely accessed and controlled from your smartphone or tablet, to covert cameras that capture video and images from a hidden location, to complete DVR kits that can handle and record video from several camera locations.

Here’s a look at the two most common camera systems to consider adding to your home security set up:

* Wireless -- This is the closest thing to a traditional surveillance system, but because it is wireless you can install it yourself. With a minimum of four bullet style cameras hooked up to a digital video recorder, you can have professional quality interior or exterior monitoring for a fraction of the professional price.

Choose weatherproof cameras with infrared night vision and a good range (between 60 and 150 feet). You also need to have a DVR with enough storage to hold all the footage captured by your cameras—1 TB for four cameras is about right. Look for expandability, so you can add cameras to the system should the need arise.

Make sure your system comes with remote viewing software so you can connect it to your network and view live feeds, watch recorded video and get motion activation alerts to your phone or computer.

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This eight channel surveillance system from Samsung ($449) comes with four cameras, but the capability to expand to eight. Defender ($599) offers a similar product. Both come with weather resistant cameras, with the Defender offering more storage space on the DVR.

* WiFi cameras -- This is the new kid on the block when it comes to home security, made popular by companies like Dropcam. Connected to the Internet via WiFi, these cameras can be easily and quickly installed (just plug them in and turn them on) and provide a live feed of your home instantly. You can install just one, or several to provide whole home coverage.

Features to look for in a WiFi camera include:

  • Night vision capability
  • Two-way communication (so you can hear what’s happening in your home and talk to its occupants)
  • Pan tilt and zoom capability, to limit the number of cameras you need for full coverage.
  • Motion sensing software that will send you a notification when someone comes in a room.
  • If you have family members or roommates often home when you’re not, look for facial recognition capability, to cut down on the number of unnecessary alerts you receive.

WiFi cameras don’t need a DVR as they stream their footage to the cloud, allowing you to access live footage on a computer or mobile device. For a small monthly fee (usually around $6) you can access stored video to playback or download recordings. Most WiFi cameras are suitable for indoor use only.

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The Oco wireless WiFi indoor security camera ($149) offers cloud-based WiFi video monitoring, including night vision, two-way communications and digital zoom. There are many similar products on the market including models from Dropcam, Samsung and Foscam.

Select your sensors

Sensors help extend your home security system into all corners of your home. With the ability to detect motion and a wide array of potentially threatening environmental conditions, sensors are a crucial component of your system.

Today sensors not only detect problems and sound an alarm, but if they are connected to your home’s WiFi, they can alert you wherever you are. This is where DIY security has come into its own. You used to have to spend upwards of $30 a month to have someone continuously monitor your home for danger—now you can do it all yourself, for free.

Here’s a look at the types of sensors you should consider adding to your home security system:

* Motion sensors -- These are simple, slim devices that attach to your window or door and emit a loud noise if someone tries to open them. Basic models, such as the Doberman Door and Window Defender ($12.98) or the Swann Magnetic Window/Door Alarm ($7.95), operate as standalone wireless alarms, triggered by movement or vibration. They’re perfect for that window or door that should never be opened.

* Motion detectors -- These differ from motion sensors by sensing when a person or animal is moving in a space, rather than knowing when an object is opened or closed. Paired with outdoor lighting, such as the Defiant Motion Security Light ($149), you can have an excellent deterrent for prowlers. Wireless motion sensors can also be easily installed by a front or back door, as long as there is a power socket nearby, and can be set to make a noise or turn on a light when someone passes through an area.

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Outdoor lights with built-in motion sensors are an effective, inexpensive security and safety device.

* Smart motion sensors and detectors -- Smart motion sensors or detectors connect to WiFi and send alerts to your smartphone when activated. They can also communicate with other devices in your home to set off an alarm or initiate another action. For example, the Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion work together to turn a light on when someone enters a room—both a security feature and a convenience for a homeowner coming home in the dark.

You can also configure smart motion sensors to send you alerts when specific actions occur, trigger your cameras to start recording so you can log on to your surveillance system, see what’s happening and, if necessary, alert the authorities, in the same way a traditional security monitoring system would.

* Environmental sensors -- Every home should have a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide detector. These basic sensors have been proven to save lives. More advanced environmental sensors include the ability to detect moisture levels, humidity and temperature. Connected devices can often pair with other products to expand their functionality. For example if you have a Nest Protect sensor, it can communicate with a Nest Thermostat, which will shut off the furnace if it senses smoke.

Another smart solution for home safety is a water sensor. Water sensors, such as the Wally Water Leak Detection System, will detect water leaks and changes in humidity and temperature and alert you via WiFi, helping you avoid or mitigate disasters caused by burst pipes or overflowing dishwashers.

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Wally Water Leak Detection System ($299) also monitors the temperature and humidity in your home and can alert you to unhealthy levels of mold.

* Smart lights -- A tried and true home security method is having a light set on a timer to come on and off at certain times, giving the appearance that someone is home when they are not. A home that appears occupied is far less likely to be targeted for theft. Timers, however, are timed, meaning there is a routine that a thief might spot. Install some “smart” light bulbs, such as Philips Hue or GE Link and you can set any schedule you like for your two weeks in the Bahamas, and make it random enough to confound any burglar.

Get smart about locks

An open door is an open invitation, so locking your home is clearly the first step in security. But locks are also inconvenient, especially when you have your hands full of groceries, or your mother needs to get in to feed the cat and you forgot to leave her a key. This inconvenience leads to serious safety lapses, such as hide-a-keys under the doormat or leaving it unlocked when you’ll “only be gone a few minutes.”

It only takes a few minutes for a thief to clear a home of valuables. As part of your home security system, consider installing a smart lock to help mitigate this problem.

Electronic locks are relatively new in the security space and there are a variety of different levels of “smart” you can opt for:

* Keypad -- If you just want to avoid endlessly handing out keys, a keypad entry provides a safe and secure way to allow entry to multiple trusted people without cutting multiple keys. You can also change the code if you want to revoke someone’s access without changing the locks.

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This Kwikset SmartCode ($109) electronic deadbolt allows you to enter a code as an alternative to using a key, useful for controlling access to your home. It is also easy to “rekey” yourself.

* Smart locks -- Smart locks don’t require a physical key (although most still work with one). Instead, they use your smartphone to authenticate access, normally via Bluetooth. This technology allows you to send digital keys to visitors or other people you need to grant temporary access. Additionally, smart locks allow you to lock and unlock your door remotely and set it to unlock on approach, so you don’t need to get your phone out of your pocket. Plus, you can receive notifications about the comings and goings in your home.

* Smart doorbells -- Doorbells are also getting smart, and these once insignificant devices are poised to play a growing role in home security systems. Although there are relatively few products on the market currently, the concept is solid: when someone rings your doorbell, your phone will ring and a built-in-camera will show you who is at the door. Two-way communication can let you talk to the person, giving the illusion you are at home even if you are halfway around the world.

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The Ring WiFi doorbell streams live audio and video of a home’s front door, so you can see who is at your home even when you aren’t.

* Smart garage door openers -- Garage doors connected to WiFi, such as the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Door Controller ($129), let you open and close your garage door from anywhere, plus check to make sure it is open or closed. This is another great option for allowing secure access to your home when necessary.

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A smart garage door opener gives you another secure way to check your home, and allow people access without giving out keys.

Consider a Home Security Kit

If the idea of building your security system piece by piece is a little overwhelming, there are kits you can buy that come with a selection of simple plug-and-play home security components. These systems mimic traditional wired security systems, but with the benefit of being easier to install, easy to relocate and often include no monthly monitoring fees or long-term financial commitment. Also, because you are in control of these systems, you are less likely to trigger a false alarm, which can be costly in some communities.

This is another emerging space, and the options are limited but growing daily. There are three main categories:

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