DIY Security System

Install a reliable security system in just one day

Overview: Big savings with a DIY home security system

The wireless security systems of 20 years ago were notoriously unreliable. They produced so many false alarms that many homeowners stopped using them. That's all changed. Today you can buy professional-grade wireless security equipment that's extremely reliable, easy to install and affordable. A basic system starts at about $225 and tops out at $800 or so. If you add wireless smoke/heat detectors, plan to spend about $1,300. That's about half of what a professional alarm company would charge. Monitoring service, which notifies the police or fire department, can cost $40 or more per month. But if you shop around, you can get it for about $10 per month.

We'll show you how to plan your system so you can get it up and running in a single day. Plus, we'll show you how you can save money on equipment and neaten up the installation at the same time. Installation is easy. You just mount the transmitters at doors and windows and connect a control panel to phone lines and a power supply. All you'll need are basic tools—a drill, screwdrivers, wire stripper and a small pry bar.

Save $100s Now—And $30 Every Month

Installing a wireless security system can be as easy as mounting transmitters on doors and windows and connecting a control panel to your phone line. You'll save $300 to $600 in parts and labor costs. Better yet, you'll avoid an expensive long-term monitoring contract with a security company. Instead, you can shop around and choose any monitoring service you like. That will save you about $30 every month—forever.

Wireless transmitter on window
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Step 1: Plan your system

Some alarm installers recommend eliminating window transmitters and installing motion sensors instead. These sensors are similar to the motion detectors that turn on outdoor floodlights. That approach can cut costs, but we don't recommend it. Motion sensors cause the majority of false alarms. Worse, they detect burglars only after they've entered your home. That can create a dangerous situation where you come face to face with a burglar in your hallway. Door and window transmitters are the only way to detect break-ins immediately. Don't let anyone convince you that motion detectors alone are a substitute for them. Glass-breakage sensors are available too, but are optional. Most burglars only break glass in order to unlock a door or window. Then, when they open the door or window, a standard transmitter will detect the entry.

To figure out how many transmitters you need, start by sketching all of the doors and windows on the ground level of your home. Number each opening, beginning with the front door and moving in a clockwise direction. Be sure to include the garage service door if you have an attached garage. Then count only the upper level openings that can be reached without a ladder (burglars rarely use ladders). Don't forget to count the patio door on an elevated deck.

Fire poses a greater danger to your family than burglary. So you may want to add wireless smoke detectors (about $90 each) to your system. That way, the alarm panel will notify your monitoring service of a fire condition and the service will call the fire department. You'll need a minimum of one wireless smoke detector on each floor. Add a smoke detector in each hallway leading to a bedroom, and one in each bedroom. If you have a gas furnace, water heater or clothes dryer, install one rate-of-rise (ROR) heat detector over each of these appliances and wire them into a transmitter.

Next, decide what kind of control panel you want. There are two types: A “cabinet-style” panel consists of a keyboard that mounts near the door and a circuit board that mounts near your phone interface. A “self-contained” panel is a single unit that mounts near the door. This one-part panel is easier to install but has one weakness. An intruder entering through the door can tear it off the wall before the panel finishes notifying the monitoring service. With a two-part panel, the circuit board keeps working even if the keypad is disconnected. With either type of panel, you’ll need a special phone jack (called an “RJ31X”) to connect the panel to your phone lines.

Figure A: How the Security System Works

When a burglar opens a door or window, the transmitter senses a loss of contact with the magnet and sends a signal to the panel. The panel places a call to the monitoring service, which then contacts the police or fire department. The monitoring service can also call you or anyone else you've listed as “first contacts.”

Figure A: Wireless security system
Don't Forget the Permit

Most cities require permits for alarm systems (about $25 per year). Contact your city licensing department to get one, then stick it to a window in or near the front door. If you don't, your first false alarm may get you a fine plus a stern lecture from the police.

Alarm permit
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Step 2: Shop online

You won't find professional-quality alarm equipment at a local electronics retailer. Instead, fire up your computer and search for “security alarms” or “security systems.” Look for suppliers that carry multiple brands and models so you don’t get locked into equipment that's not right for you. In addition to good selection, look for a supplier that offers free system programming and technical support. Make sure the supplier doesn't require a high-cost, long-term monitoring contract. Before you place an order, call the supplier and discuss your plan. The staff will help you develop a materials list and program the alarm panel appropriately. Ask to have the components labeled for each zone.

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Step 3: Select a monitoring service

Your system doesn't have to be connected to a monitoring service that calls the police. It can simply trigger an alarm siren. But don't dismiss the importance of alarm monitoring. Crime statistics show that burglars aren't scared away by sirens. They know it will take at least three to five minutes for neighbors to call the police and just as long for police to respond to the call. A monitoring service can contact the authorities much faster. Insurance companies understand the importance of faster police/fire notification, and many offer discounts to offset some of the monitoring costs. So check with your insurer.

Alarm installation companies typically charge you $40 per month with a three-year minimum contract for alarm monitoring. By installing your own system and dealing directly with a monitoring service, you can save at least $360 per year. Simply search the Internet for “alarm monitoring.” Make sure the company is UL (Underwriter's Laboratory) listed.

If you've switched to digital phone service or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), make sure the monitoring company is equipped to handle those types of calls. If not, it may provide other means of transmitting an alarm signal, such as Internet, cellular, satellite or radio communicators. Ask how much the additional equipment costs and if there are any additional service fees.

Scare Off Crooks

Burglars want easy pickings, not challenges. So be sure to let them know that your home is protected by an alarm system. Post yard signs, window stickers and your alarm permit so no crook can mistake your home for an easy target.

Alarm window sticker
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Step 4: Install the system—Installation tips

Surface-mounted transmitters and magnets (Tip 1 below) are the easiest way to protect doors and windows. But there are approaches that add convenience, provide a neater installation and even save you a few bucks.

Tip: Use the system for about a month before you officially connect to your monitoring service. That way, your “training” false alarms won't lead to police calls.

Tip 1: Get Fresh Air—and Security

If you have double-hung windows, mount the transmitter and a magnet 6 in. above the sill. Then mount a second magnet near the bottom of the sash. That way, you can leave the window open a few inches and still turn on the security system. If a burglar opens the window farther, the alarm will activate.

Two magnets on window
Tip 2: Use Hidden Magnets in Casement Windows

Plunger contacts can make casement windows harder to open or close. Instead, use “recessed” magnetic contacts. Just drill a hole in the sill near the side of the window that opens. Mark the location on the sash and drill another hole for the magnet. Then drill an angled hole at the edge of the side trim. Use a bent coat hanger to hook and “fish” the wires out toward the transmitter.

Hidden magnet system
Close-up of magnets
Tip 3: Get a Neater Look With Hidden Contacts

If you don't like the look of transmitters and magnets, use “plunger” contacts on doors, double-hung windows and sliding patio doors. The plunger is a simple mechanical switch that triggers when pressure against it is released. When a door or window opens, the plunger triggers a separate transmitter, which then sends a signal to the control panel. To install a plunger, drill a hole for the plunger and another hole in the drywall for the wires. If you paint it to match the wall, the transmitter will be barely noticeable.

Hidden door contact
Close-up of plunger contact for doors
Tip 4: Use One Contact for Multiple Windows

If you have banks of windows, you can connect all the contacts (whether they're the plunger or magnetic type) to a single transmitter. On a bank of three windows, that saves you about $60. Plus, you get a neater look. The catch is that you have to remove the bottom piece of trim so you can run wires under the sill.

Two contacts with a single transmitter
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