Home Security Systems 101

When I was in grade school, I wanted to grow up 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 plain simple common sense.

Home Security Systems

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 will need to get to the unit to program it on day one and connect it to other devices. But beyond that, once it is installed, you don’t think about it much.

You’ll want to mount it on a wall in a locked box. It should go in a secure location that is easily accessible to you. Suitable locations might include a closet, a basement, or even a master bedroom.

Master control panels come in three types that we’ll call 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, disabling the system rather quickly and easily.

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 entire system continues to function.

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

For example, you can shut off the inside motion detectors while keeping the door and window sensors armed if you stay at home. 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 lots of different security configurations and then activate them with the touch of a single button. Another feature is that they can be serviced remotely when changes are required, saving everybody money and time.

Professional Monitoring

Ever hear 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. If you rely on a siren or alarm bell to scare off a home intruder, you might be disappointed. 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.


And while you’re at it, in addition to notifying you of an intrusion, your monitoring company can notify the local police department (and/or fire, emergency medical services) as well.

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 not uncommon during the winter months. 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 your maintenance costs while giving you 24/7 protection during any weather.

Multiple Door- and Window-Sensors

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

A simple windows sensor will be able to 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.” The way they work is that they detect a burglar trying to get into your house by sensing the sound of breaking glass. The sensor mounts somewhere high up on a wall or ceiling in a central location. When it hears the sound of breaking glass, it sets off the alarm.

The technology of these devices has come a long way. Once, these sensors could only detect the sound of glass — any glass. If you clinked two glasses together doing the dishes, you’d set off the alarm. Now, false alarms are rare. These glass break detectors have to 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. Besides notifying you of a potential fire, the system can notify your monitoring company and/or the local fire department — even when you are not home.

Multiple Keypads

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

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

There are many different levels of sophistication (and price) in keypads. For example, the simplest units show a series of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Greenlight: 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 actually have a display window that’ll tell you what’s happening. This display (the better ones can be back-lit 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 and tell you 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 who lives in the home. Or you can have one code for the entire family and another one for professionals who come in and out of the home, such as maintenance companies, friends of the family, or even the babysitter. You can remove the code anytime you want — or even expire it automatically after a set number of entries.

Your keypad should also be able to 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 — but also 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 actually breaks into your home. Here are a few more features to consider. They’re not required, but you might consider them, depending on your individual situation.

Wireless Capability

Many homeowners like the idea of a wireless home security system. In systems of this sort, signals are sent via low-power radio frequencies, not unlike your garage door opener.

The upside to this kind of system is flexibility and ease of installation and appearance — 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 even 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.