This is the post I wish I had when I was first trying to decide if I needed a home security system:
The most straight-shooting guide to understanding home security systems – also known as alarm systems, or smart security systems.
One of our company values is transparency, and so we thought that while explaining how security systems work, it was also important to give you a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at how the home security industry works overall, and who the major players are – in other words, we show you how it really works, and who makes money on what.
Who is this for?
This article is for anyone looking to understand the essentials of how a security system works, what the different elements of a home security system are, who the major players are as well as what questions to ask home security system providers during your decision making process.
The goal of this guide is to help you answer the following questions:
- What is a security system?
- What different options are available?
- How does a security system work?
- What happens when an intrusion occurs?
- What’s the difference between a DIY (do it yourself system), and a professional security system?
- What’s the difference between a monitored and non-monitored alarm system?
- Who are all the players in the security industry?
- How do I choose the right alarm system for my needs?
Let’s get started.
What is a security system?
A security system or alarm system is a set of objects working together that keeps you, and your valuables (family, assets, business) safe.
While you may not have a ‘professional’ security system installed today, you likely already have elements of a security system in place to keep your home, business, family, and possessions safe.
If you have a deadbolt lock, motion lights, and a fire alarm – you technically have a home security system. This may not be what you want or even need depending on your unique situation, but you technically already have a set of objects working together to keep you and your valuables safe.
If we take a more traditional approach and look at the types of solutions most people think of when they search for ‘home security system’, there are two components of a system:
In most cases, security systems and alarm systems have a significant hardware component. The hardware consists of the physical equipment installed in your home or office, and may include things like:
- A control panel
- Motion sensors
- Door sensors
- Glass break detectors
- Smoke detectors
- A high decibel alarm
In more advanced home security and automation setups, additional alarm system and smart home hardware could include:
- Security cameras
- Smart thermostats
- Wireless door locks
- Flood / freeze sensors
- Automatic garage door openers
Security systems also have a software component. Security system software is a collection of computer instructions that tell the hardware how to operate. Different pieces of software for a home security system enable your system to do things like:
- Trigger an alarm if a door opens or window breaks
- Detect someone rummaging through packages at your front door
- Warn you if the basement is starting to flood
- Close the garage door when you leave it open
What security options are there?
When we look at what’s available, there’s a wide range of ‘security systems’ and we find it helpful to categorize them according to the following questions:
- Are they physical or digital?
- Are they low tech or high tech?
Here is a visual example:
Let me give you an example of some current solutions that fall into those categories:
Physical / Lo Tech: Some of the most common physical/lo tech options we hear about are dogs, baseball bats, outdoor motion lights, deadbolt locks, strike plates, etc. These are all relatively low investments (except for maybe dogs!) that are ‘table stakes’ – these are things that everyone should do regardless of their need/desire for more advanced solutions.
Digital / Lo Tech: Some entry-level low-technology digital-enabled solutions include things like programmable deadbolts (key entry to unlock), and do-it-yourself motion sensor alarms. Growing up, my dad went through all of these options trying to prevent vandals from breaking into our shed and stealing our bikes (sadly, it didn’t work – Windsor criminals had a thing for 10-speed kids bikes!).
Physical / Hi Tech: On the physical/high tech side we’re starting to see a lot of new technology in the security camera and video space, as well as integrated smart home technology for thermostats, flood/freeze sensors, garage door openers, etc.
Digital / Hi Tech: On the full digital high-tech end we’re seeing fully integrated wireless security and home automation hubs that control everything from ‘essential’ home security, through to lighting, audio, and even sprinkler systems.
How does it actually work?
It’s helpful to think of security systems like a hub-and-spoke.
The hub is the central ‘brain’ of the system. The hub is built into the control panel, which is typically placed near a main entrance. Modern control panels include a keypad, allowing users of the system to interact with the system (arm, disarm, call for help, etc.). In older systems, a larger control panel was placed in a discreet location (often in the basement) and had a number of unsightly wires hanging from it.
The ‘spokes’ of the system are all of the other devices that communicate with the control panel. This would include any other hardware (as mentioned above), such as: motion sensors, door sensors, glass break panels, etc. The ‘spokes’ communicate wirelessly with the control panel, which will then ‘react’ to a given input.
How does it wirelessly communicate?
Back in the day, these devices used to be hard wired into your home or office. Typically builders, would do this during the construction phase to minimize unsightly holes in your walls. Today, most of the modern security and alarm devices are wireless. They communicate in a number of different ways (for those that want to go full geek-mode):
Power G Wireless: PowerG offers all the benefits of traditional wired security without the hassles and vulnerabilities of wires. In short, it makes home and business owners lives more secure and convenient. Compared to ‘normal’ wireless technology, it is more secure, more reliable, and has a longer range.
Z-Wave: ZWave technology is used primarily for home automation, or smart home functionality. ZWave technology is similar to Bluetooth, but the difference is that the devices connect to the hub instead of individual devices or one another. All of the top smart home products (door locks, garage door openers, thermostats, lighting, blind controls) are controlled using Z-Wave technology.
Bluetooth: Bluetooth has been around for a long time. The main way that we’re using Bluetooth technology is to connect your mobile phone to your smart home security system. The main use case here is to be able to automatically arm/disarm your system when you leave your home, or arrive at home. We have many customers who are concerned that they’re going to forget to arm their system from time to time – thankfully, you can program your system to automatically arm when you leave, and disarm when you arrive home. This minimizes false alarms, and ensures your home or business is safe when you’re away. By the way, you can control the times/days that this setting runs so that the alarm doesn’t arm when you leave the home but someone else is still there!
What happens when an intrusion occurs?
If the security system has been armed, and the system has been programmed to sound the alarm immediately, then the control panel will trigger the (very loud) alarm.
I’ll illustrate with an example:
Let’s say that a door contact is mounted to the surface of a front door. When the door is opened, the door contact wirelessly communicates to the control panel that there has been an ‘event’ and the control panel will decide how to react based on how it has been programmed.
What happens next depends on whether you have a professionally monitored system, or a non-monitored or DIY system:
Professionally Monitored Security Systems
If a security breach occurs, and you have a monitored security system installed by an alarm company, the alarm will sound, and the monitoring company will be alerted immediately via the wireless communications device built into the control panel. Depending on your particular system, and company, an escalation could include notifying you via a mobile app, calling you directly and sending the appropriate emergency response personnel to respond to the alarm.
Non-Monitored, or Do It Yourself Security Systems
If you purchase a do-it-yourself type system, in the event of a security breach, the alarm will sound (providing one has been installed), and the homeowner is responsible for contacting emergency response personnel by calling 911. DIY home security systems may also allow for text message or email notifications to be sent to the home owner depending on the provider, and level of service you subscribe for.
What do all these security companies actually do?
From hardware, and software, to monitoring, and mobile integration, there’s a lot to do to make a security system work reliably. The approach that most companies take is to partner with experts in the industry who are the best at what they do, and act as a ‘system integrator’: doing the rigorous selection process to find the best solution, test it, install it, support it, and make sure all of the pieces work seamlessly together.
Step 1: Hardware / Software
The first step is to find a reliable hardware company. There are many players in the industry, and some who have been doing it successfully for a very long time. Companies like Interlogix, Honeywell, and even Nest (part of Google) are called OEMs, or Original Equipment Manufacturers, which means that they design and build their own hardware and equipment.
These different hardware manufacturers have their own line of control panels (hubs), and compatible add-ons (spokes) like motion sensors, door sensors, wireless locks, etc. It is the role of the alarm company to choose a vendor that is reliable, proven, and as widely compatible with commercially available add-ons as possible.
The equipment selected comes pre-installed with its own operating systems or software. The software systems allow the different components to talk to one another, and ultimately ensure the system is doing what it is designed to do: keep you and your valuables safe.
Step 2: Monitoring
When a security system triggers an alarm, a monitoring system needs to be contacted. A monitoring system is a call center dedicated to responding immediately to security events.
How does it work?
The control panel within the home will communicate to the monitoring center via a secure cell network built into the panel. The notification is picked up immediately at the monitoring center, and an agent will immediately contact the person on file.
When completing your contract, the alarm company would have had you complete a contact form listing who should be contact in case of emergency: this is the person that the monitoring center will attempt to reach.
If they are able to reach the homeowner, they’ll confirm the nature of the emergency and immediately send the authorities as required. If a false alarm has been triggered, the homeowner can speak with the monitoring center to ‘call off’ any emergency response personnel. If the monitoring company cannot reach you, emergency responders will be dispatched immediately.
Where are the monitoring centers located?
Monitoring centers can be located around the world. As a Canadian company, we’ve chosen to work with an industry-leading, professional, Canadian monitoring center located within the same time zone as our customers. We chose them because they use state-of-the art response equipment, have a long track record of success, and have the scale to achieve record-breaking response times.
Step 3: Mobile Integrations
In order to allow all the different devices to speak to one another, there is a unifying layer in a company called Alarm.com. Alarm.com communicates with the security system and control panel via an LTE cellular connection, and provides customers with the ability to control their entire system remotely. It also allows the alarm company to get status updates on the systems under management, and remotely troubleshoot common issues as required.
A partnership with Alarm.com allows JM Security Canada to revolutionize the way that customers interact with their homes, and add new smart home capabilities. The Alarm.com interface allows users to login, program their smart devices, automate lights and thermostats, and even provides advanced integrations with smart home devices.
Alarm.com has a vast network of partners and does not sell directly to consumers.
Step 4: Sales & Service
Security and alarm companies like JM Security Canada package up the hardware, software, monitoring, and integrations and put a name to it. We chose the name JM Security Canada due to our close affiliation to JM Controls & Electric, a trusted, local electrical contracting company started by one of our co-founders, Jeff McFadden.
Once all of the components of the system are selected, customers need to learn about them. It is the role of the security company to educate potential customers about security systems, various use cases and even alternatives.
From the beginning, we decided we wanted to be the most responsive, transparent, professional, and easy to do business with. That meant we needed to develop systems to ensure we had great response times to incoming questions or inquiries as well as customer questions. We also built a custom quoting software that allows us to go from ‘quote to signed contract’ on the spot – all digitally.
Step 5: Install
A critical component of the services that home security companies provide is the installation of the entire solution. We train expert teams to take the initial assessment, and contract and turn it into a fully installed, operational, and tested home security solution.
Do I really need an alarm system at all?
Let’s be honest, most people don’t look at their bank account at the end of the month and say: “I’ve got a bunch of money left over, maybe I should go out and buy an alarm system.” Some people have always had one and for them it’s a must to give them peace of mind if they’re working a late shift and the family is home alone, or if you travel a lot and want to make sure things are safe while you’re away.
Most often, people call us for one of three reasons:
- They’ve recently had a ‘trigger event’ (they had a break-in, family/friend/neighbour had a break-in).
- They’ve just moved to a new home and either don’t feel comfortable in their new neighbourhood, or they used to have a home security system and are looking for a new one.
- There has been some sort of life change: new baby, new job, change of hours at work (night shift, travel, etc.).
Sure there are others, but those are the reasons we hear most often.
Ultimately the decision is yours but if you’d like to have a more informed conversation with one of our Solutions Experts, we’re happy to take the call, bring you a coffee and have a conversation with you.
How do I choose what’s best for me?
Now that you understand the different companies in the ecosystem, and how a security system works – how do you decide what the right solution is for you?
- Home Assessment
We know that an alarm system isn’t for everyone. We spoke with local stakeholders, police, Neighbourhood Watch, Crime Stoppers, and put together some best practices to keep your home more safe with or without a security system. The guide is free to download here.
The cheapest way to secure your home is to go analog/basic (based on our framework above). Get new locks, great exterior lights, and new strike plates.
But, if this is a top priority for you then determine whether the extra few hundred dollars is worth having a professional team come in to give you an assessment and build a solution that actually works long-term.
DIY systems can go as low as a few hundred dollars, but reviews are mixed.
Complaints range from issues around longevity:
And others are concerned with the follow-up service availability:
Professionally installed systems start around a few hundred dollars (depending on the promotion being offered) but generally end up costing around $500 up front and around $1/day for monitoring and remote access.
- Local crime risk
If you’re moving into a new neighbourhood in Southern Ontario, it’s worth investigating crime rates in your new area. When I moved to Windsor, I was actually surprised to see the high rate of crime where I was moving in Walkerville.
- Start with basics – expand from there
We always suggest starting out with what you need and building from there. Our systems are slightly more expensive but we do this because first we care about great quality, and second, we want you to have a system that you can grow into. Sure, we could sell you the cheapest device on the market, but we know that home automation and more smart security technology will be fully integrated into one-third of all homes within the next three years. So, we’d prefer to sell you a system now that you can add features and functionality onto later.
Want to add a smart thermostat? New door lock? Remote garage door opener? Remote lawn sprinkler control? Automatic blinds? With our systems, no problem.
Thanks so much for taking the time to educate yourself on alarm systems. If you found value in this resource, we’d appreciate you sharing it with someone in your family or personal network.
For more resources like this one, visit our Learning Hub.
Want to speak with one of our representatives about your security options? Contact us here.