It wasn't all that long ago that having a home security system meant signing up with a company that would send a professional installer to your house to drill holes in your walls and run wires throughout your home. In most cases the equipment was free, but you had to commit to a multi-year monitoring contract as part of the deal. There are still a handful of security companies such as ADT, Slomin's, and Vivint, that will send a consultant out to your house to configure a system specifically tailored to your home and then send a team of professionals to install everything, but more and more companies are offering do-it-yourself (DIY) home security solutions.
With DIY systems, you order everything online and the company ships you the equipment along with step-by-step installation instructions. You can monitor these systems yourself using a mobile app, but many DIY companies also offer flexible, no-contract professional monitoring plans.
Read on to find out all you need to know about buying and installing a DIY home security system.
Types of DIY Security Systems
DIY home security systems come in all shapes and sizes. Some systems come with an LCD panel that serves as the brains of the system. The panel is typically installed on a wall in a central area of your home and connects wirelessly to your home network. Most of these panels use capacitive touch screens and contain multiple radios that allow them to wirelessly control Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Bluetooth sensors and home automation components. Most panels also contain a cellular radio that connects them to a monitoring center if you subscribe to a professional monitoring plan, and they almost always have a speaker and a microphone for two-way communication with a monitoring agent. The cellular radio is also used to push updates to the system.
Some companies use a hub device for system control. As with LCD panel controllers, hubs contain the circuitry and radios needed to control a variety of components, but they are typically low-profile devices designed to complement your home décor and can be placed on a bookshelf or any available flat surface.
Another type of home security controller, the all-in-one, is actually a security camera that usually contains several wireless radios, motion and sound sensors, and a siren designed to scare off uninvited guests and warn you of an intrusion. Some all-in-ones are also equipped with environmental sensors that monitor things like room temperature, humidity, and air quality.
As with just about every smart home device out there, many DIY security systems can be armed and disarmed using Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands. Many also offer support for IFTTT applets that will allow them to do things like turn lights on when there is an alarm, change thermostat settings when armed, and automatically turn on when you leave home.
DIY Security System Components
Before ordering your DIY system you have to figure out what kind of sensors you want and how many you need. Ideally you'll place door sensors on every doorway into your house. You'll also want to put a window sensor on every window, or at least every window that's large enough to provide access to your home. You don't have to install a motion sensor in every room in the house, but you should place them in main hallways, stairways, foyers, or any place where an intruder would have to walk through while entering or exiting your home.
There are several types of motion sensors out there, the most common being PIR (passive infrared) sensors that detect body heat. These are ideal for home security use as they are cost effective and work well indoors in any lighting environment. Active motion sensors emit microwaves to detect movement and are better suited to harsh environments, including outdoor use, but are prone to false alerts due to wind-blown debris. A dual motion sensor combines both active and passive technology to reduce false alerts and provide an extra measure of reliability.
Many DIY security systems offer indoor and outdoor cameras that will record video when motion or sound is detected. Some cameras will store the video locally and some will store it in the cloud and usually require a cloud subscription to access the recordings.
Video doorbells are also an option for DIY systems. These devices will record video when the doorbell ringer is pressed or when motion is detected, and in most cases can be programmed to trigger other system devices such as door locks and interior cameras.
Other components include flood/freeze sensors, thermostats, sirens, glass break sensors, smoke and CO detectors, and key fobs.
Self Monitoring vs. Professional Monitoring
Nearly all DIY systems can be self-monitored using a mobile app that allows you to arm and disarm the system remotely, monitor sensor status, and view live and recorded video. You'll get push alerts (and in some cases email notifications) when a sensor is triggered, but it's up to you to contact the local authorities if there's a break-in or a fire.
However, many DIY vendors are now offering professional monitoring services; some require a contract and some allow you to pay as you go so you're only being monitored when you need it, such as when you're away on vacation. With professional monitoring you'll still receive alerts, but the monitoring center will try to contact you as well. If they can't reach you or someone on your emergency contact list, they will have the local authorities respond to the alarm.
How to Install DIY Security Systems
DIY systems are typically easy to install, but you'll have to give some thought as to the placement of the hub, sensors, and security cameras. Some hubs will require a wired connection to your router, while others use Wi-Fi to connect to your home network. Either way, the hub should be in close proximity to your router for optimal connectivity. If you're installing a system with a touch-screen panel, make sure there's a power outlet nearby.
Once you've installed the hub and mobile app, it's time to start installing the sensors. More often than not, the door/window sensors and motion sensors are pre-paired to the hub so all you have to do is remove a battery tab to activate the sensor, tap Add a Device in the app, and name the sensors (front door, back door, etc.).
Physically installing the sensors is easy as they use double-sided adhesive tape and can simply be pressed into place in seconds. Cameras and doorbells are also easy to install, but you'll have to pair them yourself. Fortunately, nearly all of these devices offer detailed instructions and voice prompts to help you add them to the system without much effort.
How Much Do DIY Security Systems Cost?
Pricing for DIY security systems varies from company to company and will depend on the size of your home and the number of sensors and add-on components that you order.
For example, the $229 SimpliSafe Foundation is a starter kit that gives you the hub, a door/window sensor, a motion sensor, and a yard sign. Additional door/window sensors go for $14.99 each and you can order glass break detectors for $34.99 each, smoke detectors for $29.99 each, and water sensors for $19.99 each.
Professional monitoring prices also vary from company to company. Ring offers one of the better deals around: For $10 per month you get 24/7 monitoring with police and fire department dispatch, full remote use of the mobile app, and unlimited cloud storage for your Ring cameras. SimpliSafe's monitoring plan goes for $14.99 and gives you 24/7 monitoring with emergency dispatch, but you'll pay an extra $10 per month for remote use of the mobile app and to receive email and push alerts. Access to recorded video costs another $4.99 per month per camera.
Check out our reviews for more detailed pricing information, as well as the specific components, monitoring options, and installation instructions for each home security system we've tested. And for more, head over to ExtremeTech's guide on how to get started with DIY home alarm and security systems.