Home Security Systems 101

In grade school, I wanted to grow and live in the future. Today, when it comes to home security systems, those futuristic days are here. There are many, many different features you can get in a home security system that is sophisticated while being cost-effective. Here is a brief rundown of some of those technologies — and some features that are just simple common sense.

Master Control Panel

The master control panel is the brains of any home alarm system. All the components — sensors, keypads, motion detectors, etc. — will be tied into this controller and feed it information about the security status of your home at all times. In an emergency, the master control panel will send relevant information to the monitoring company.

The master control panel is usually going to be in a locked box. It consists of a motherboard, much like your computer. Your alarm technician must reach the unit to program it on day one and connect it to other devices. But beyond that, you don’t think about it much once it is installed.

Home Security Systems

You’ll want to mount it on a wall in a locked box. It should be in a secure location that is easily accessible. Suitable areas might include a closet, a basement, or a main bedroom.

Master control panels come in three types: Good, Better, and Best. The most basic control system contains a control, keypad, siren or alarm bell, and backup power supply — all in one box. The upside is that it is straightforward to install. The downside is that if a burglar breaks into your home and finds the unit, they will smash it with the single blow of a hammer, quickly and easily turning off the system.

A better system will cost you a little bit more money. One of the benefits of these systems is that, while a single component (like a sensor or a camera) can be knocked out of commission, the rest of the system continues to function.

The mid-range master control panel comes with multiple zones of control, giving you the flexibility to control the security throughout your home.

For example, if you stay at home, you can shut off the inside motion detectors while keeping the door and window sensors armed. Or, say you’re relaxing in your backyard. With a better master control panel, you can program the system to allow you to go in and out of the back door, bypassing the door and motion detectors on just that portion of the house.

The best master control panels have even more flexibility. For example, you can preset many different security configurations and then activate them with a single button. Another feature is that they can be serviced remotely when changes are required, saving everybody money and time.

Professional Monitoring

Ever heard a car alarm go off in the distance? Did you ever give it a second thought? Of course not. Unfortunately, the same thing applies to your home security system. You might be disappointed if you rely on a siren or alarm bell to scare off a home intruder. Just like a simple yard sign might stop some (but not all) potential home invaders, a simple siren or alarm bell may deter a burglar — but not for very long. And don’t rely on your neighbors to react. Get professional support around the clock.


While you’re at it, your monitoring company can also notify the local police department (and/or fire and emergency medical services) of an intrusion.

Backup Power Supply

Even the best home security system is worthless if your power goes out. For example, I live in south Louisiana. During hurricane season, it’s not unusual for us to lose our power. Before that, I lived in Michigan, where power outages were common during winter. Your home security system should be able to shift over and use an alternate power supply automatically. The best option is to use rechargeable batteries. This has the added benefit of lowering maintenance costs while giving you 24/7 protection during weather.

Multiple Door- and Window-Sensors

Not all burglars come through the front door. Some might enter through a rarely used side door or a random window. So, multiple door and window sensors should be a part of your home security system.

A simple windows sensor can detect if a window is opening. More sophisticated sensors can sense when the glass has been broken. These kinds of detectors are also known as “audio discriminators.” They work by detecting a burglar trying to get into your house by sensing the sound of breaking glass. The sensor mounts high up on a wall or ceiling in a central location. It sets off the alarm when it hears the sound of breaking glass.

The technology of these devices has come a long way. Once, these sensors could only detect the sound of glass. You’d set off the alarm if you clinked two glasses together doing the dishes. Now, false alarms are rare. These glass break detectors must hear a specific sequence of sounds, such as a bump and then the sound of glass breaking (in that order), before sounding the alarm.

Smoke And Fire Detection

Once you have installed the infrastructure for a home security system, it is relatively inexpensive to add a couple of smoke detectors to the master control panel. The system can notify your monitoring company and/or the local fire department of a potential fire- even when you are not home.

Multiple Keypads

Of all the devices in your home security system, the keypad is the one you and your family will use daily. You need at least one to communicate with the control panel.

You should seriously consider multiple keypads if your home has numerous entry doors (or multiple floors). For example, you can disarm your home security system with extra keypads after arriving home from either the front or garage entry doors. In addition, you can (for example) arm your home security system — the last thing at night — using a keypad in the main bedroom. Using an externally mounted keypad, you can also get secure, keyless entry into your home for all family members.

Keypads come in many different levels of sophistication (and price). The simplest units use a series of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Green light: system disarmed; Yellow light: a door or window is open; Red light: a system is fully armed and ready to detect an intrusion. Another type of keypad uses a liquid crystal display (LCD). This will have a display window that’ll tell you what’s happening. This display (the better ones can be backlit to read in the dark) can show the words “system armed” or “zone 2 open.”

Similar to this is the unit that uses an alphanumeric readout. You can program these units to talk to you about what’s happening with your system. For example, it might say, “Master bedroom window is open” or “Motion in a basement.”

Some other handy features of keypads:

Keys or buttons that are lit to make it easy to read it in the dark Single button arming and disarming An exit button that will allow you to open the door for a few seconds (if the alarm is on) to let your pets in and out without having to disarm the system. Many keypads also have buttons for calling medical services with the fire department or the police department. The keypad should be programmable, with a separate code for each person in the home. Or you can have one code for the entire family and another for professionals who come in and out of the house, such as maintenance companies, friends, or even the babysitter. You can remove the code anytime or even expire it automatically after a set number of entries.

Your keypad should also allow you to program an emergency distress code. For example, when the system is turned on and off with this code, it stimulates the system’s normal functioning. It sends a signal to your monitoring company that you’re in a dangerous situation. Many people don’t know they have this feature on their keypad. Ask your home alarm installer about it.

Portable Activation Devices

Your car alarm comes with a panic button on a keychain, so why not have a similar device for your home security system? These remotes are also known as four-button keychains or key fobs. One button might arm the system; another button might disarm it. Another button might arm the system, allow you to be in the house, and bypass any motion detectors. And yet another button might be a panic button that summons the police or sounds the siren.

Yard Sign/Window Decals

OK, this one is pretty low-tech, but studies have shown that it is proven effective at deterring a certain percentage of home invaders. However, on the downside, it is important to realize that a yard sign will do nothing to protect you once a burglar breaks into your home. Here are a few more features to consider. Depending on your situation, they’re not required, but you might consider them.

Wireless Capability

Many homeowners like the idea of a wireless home security system. In these systems, signals are sent via low-power radio frequencies, similar to those used by garage door openers.

The upside to this kind of system is its flexibility, ease of installation, and appearance- there are no unsightly wires or moldings to install. Many do-it-yourselfers enjoy this convenience.

The downside is that if you ever have to upgrade or add new devices (or swap out components like the main control panel), it can be quite costly, as not all systems use the same technologies.


Alcohol scholar. Bacon fan. Internetaholic. Beer geek. Thinker. Coffee advocate. Reader. Have a strong interest in consulting about teddy bears in Nigeria. Spent 2001-2004 promoting glue in Pensacola, FL. My current pet project is testing the market for salsa in Las Vegas, NV. In 2008 I was getting to know birdhouses worldwide. Spent 2002-2008 buying and selling easy-bake-ovens in Bethesda, MD. Spent 2002-2009 marketing country music in the financial sector.