How we picked and tested
We narrowed down our list to six systems for testing. Here’s some of the aftermath. Photo: Grant Clauser
For this article, we considered only self-installed wireless security systems with continuous professional monitoring via a cellular connection. Professional monitoring means that someone is always available to respond to an alarm and can contact local emergency services for you if necessary. Most home insurance companies offer premium discounts for monitored alarm systems, but not for unmonitored ones. A cellular connection means the system can’t be disabled by cutting your landline or cable connection. The control panel also needs a battery backup, so the system still works if your power goes out. We also looked for companies with short or no contracts, and without high cancellation fees. (A few newer companies are now offering pay-as-you-need systems without contracts. We didn’t consider any for our main pick, but called in several as a possible alternate recommendation.) In addition to our testing, we sent a lengthy questionnaire to each vendor and asked about not only its technology, but also asked for such information as UL certifications and details about its user contracts and policies.
We didn’t consider any alarm systems that required professional installation, because a reader survey we conducted showed us that people are much more interested in DIY systems. Modern wireless security systems are easy to install, and professionally installed systems usually cost a lot more and have much more onerous contract terms. We also didn’t test any of the thousands of local and regional alarm companies, because there are far too many to account for. The self-installed systems we tested should be available throughout the US.
We called in six self-installed security systems and used them for four weeks, testing their control panels, motion sensors, contact sensors, sirens, cameras, and smartphone apps.
LiveWatch offers short contracts with no early termination fees and includes a feature that lets your household group chat in the event of an alarm. Photo: Grant Clauser
The LiveWatch Total Home + Video system offers the best combination of reliable equipment, comprehensive smart-home options, and flexible, no-contract professional-monitoring plans. In our tests, it proved easy for us to set up and dependable in operation. Its touchscreen control panel and smartphone app are simple to use, with its most important functions easily accessible from the main screen. You can expand the LiveWatch system to include security cameras, smart locks, garage door openers, and other Z-Wave devices. It also has a reasonable up-front price and monthly monitoring fee, which, when coupled with the lack of a lock-in contract, makes LiveWatch a safer investment than similar home security systems.
One of LiveWatch’s unique features is a system called ASAPer. When an alarm is triggered, it sends your family and emergency contacts a text message with a link to a text chat. Users can confirm the emergency or declare it a false alarm. This way, the person with the best knowledge of the situation (such as the person at home who accidentally tripped the system) can let everyone else know that things are fine (or that they’re not fine). It’s a nice feature, works fast, and should help put your family’s mind at ease and reduce false alarms.
A good budget option
SimpliSafe’s equipment looks a bit clunky compared with LiveWatch’s seeker touchscreen. Photo: Grant Clauser
If you’re looking for much cheaper monitoring without a contract, and you don’t mind paying more up front for the equipment, we like SimpliSafe. It is easy to set up and doesn’t require a contract, and its monthly monitoring is half the price of LiveWatch’s. Unlike LiveWatch’s system, SimpliSafe’s system doesn’t integrate with other home-automation or smart-home devices, and it doesn’t have video cameras (yet). Still, the equipment and smartphone app, though basic, do their one job well. As with LiveWatch, you can cancel SimpliSafe’s monitoring at any time, and then start up again later if your needs change—although both systems are effectively useless without monitoring if you’re not at home.
Setup, care, maintenance, and local fees
Most security companies offer preconfigured starter packages, but those packages may not be enough to cover your whole house. But adding loads of sensors can drastically increase the initial price of the system, so don’t rush to cover every square inch.
You should have contact sensors (that trigger when opened) on every entrance door to your house, but you probably don’t need them for every operable window. If there’s no easy way into your second floor, for instance, you can probably skip sensors for those upstairs windows. You likely also don’t need motion detectors in every room—one or two on the main floor are usually enough. Once you get a system, the company should let you put it in test mode to check for obvious holes.
When you order your security system, the company should also let you know whether your municipality requires an alarm permit and should walk you through the steps to get one. Without one, you could face hefty false-alarm fees. You should also make sure you know how your local police department treats alarms from monitored security systems or reports from owners based on unmonitored systems. In Los Angeles, for instance, all alarm calls must be verified, either by an eyewitness, or video or audio from a surveillance camera or microphone.
Low batteries in sensors can trigger false alarms, and so can sensors that have fallen off the wall due to worn out double-sided tape. To avoid a visit from the police—and a fine—it’s important that you test your sensors frequently to make sure they’re still reporting to the system the way they’re supposed to, and you should also give the devices a tug now and then to make sure they’re secure.