What Is A Security System And How Does It Work?

Lisa Melillo
Updated Oct 22, 2020
3 min read

Each year, more than 7 million property crimes take place in the United States, and one in six is a burglary. While that number may seem harrowing, the good news is that home burglaries are down 44% overall from just a decade ago. 

While there are many different reasons for the decline in home burglaries, one of the main deterrents at play is home security systems, which are becoming more and more prevalent. These systems not only scare off burglars who’ve targeted your home, but they often prevent them from happening in the first place.

So how do alarm systems work, and are they really worth the cost? As it turns out, installing a home security system is much easier and cheaper than it was only a few years ago. Many systems can be installed on your own in a single day. But before you start buying security cameras and other components, there are a few things you should know about choosing the right security system for your home.

What is a home security system?

A home security system is a network of devices designed to deter break-ins, help monitor your home and notify you in real time of what happens while you’re away.

Home security companies typically sell devices both in packages or a la carte to allow homeowners to build a tailored system for their home. Many companies also offer ongoing monthly memberships that could include 24/7 professional monitoring, cloud storage for security camera footage and emergency service notification in the event of a detected issue.

How do home security systems work?

A home security system gathers information from the various devices within its network, using technology to detect activity that’s out of the norm.

The home security company Vivint lists six essential components of a security system:

  • Control panel: The control panel essentially acts as the brain of your home security system, connecting all the various parts, like cameras and sensors. You can also use the control panel to arm and disarm your system, manage settings and set advanced options.
  • Smartphone app: The majority of modern security systems come with associated smartphone apps. Functionality varies by company, but apps typically serve the purpose of sending push notifications if your security system detects movement, unwanted entry or an emergency — like a fire or flooding from a broken pipe. In many cases, you can also use these smartphone apps to view your security cameras in real time.
  • Motion sensors: These devices sense motion in your home, notifying you if anything out of the ordinary is picked up while you’re away. Motion sensors are placed near doors and windows to monitor when someone opens them. They can also pick up movement within a room or around the perimeter of your home and detect shattered glass.
  • Cameras: If your security system utilizes cameras, you’ll be able to keep a set of eyes on your home at all times to monitor exactly what’s going on. Cameras can be set to record constantly or can be connected to a motion sensor so that they only start rolling if movement is detected. Many modern security systems give you the option to view live camera feeds from your smartphone via an app.
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors: Every home needs smoke detectors, but thanks to security systems, they’ve gotten an upgrade from the devices that beep intrusively when the batteries are low. Most home security systems offer compatible smart smoke detectors that sound the alarm and send emergency notifications to your phone when smoke or carbon monoxide is detected. 
  • Signage: Installing signage around your home that advertises the security system you have installed is an important but often overlooked part of the equation. Signage acts as a deterrent to would-be burglars. In fact, studies have shown that presence of security signs is one of the top 10 factors criminals take into consideration when deciding which homes to target.

What are the pros and cons of security systems?

For many families, the peace of mind you get from having a security system is worth more than the cost. There are many additional advantages, though — and some of them could even save you money.

  • You can respond to home emergencies faster. With a home security system, you’ll never arrive home to find that a thief has come and gone. In most cases, authorities are notified instantly and can arrive within minutes to prevent anything from being taken from your home.
  • Merely having a security system deters burglars. Security systems are designed to respond to burglaries, but they can also prevent them in the first place. Criminals are highly unlikely to attempt a break-in if they know they’ll be caught on camera.
  • You’ll save money on home insurance. Because security systems help cut down on theft and damage that your home insurance policy covers, chances are that your insurer will give you a break on your premium for having one.

While the pros to security systems are clear, there are also a few drawbacks to think about before having a home security system installed. These cons can generally be avoided by carefully reading the fine print and understanding the different types of costs that can be associated with securing your home.

The downsides of having a security system include:

  • The cost can add up quickly. The cost of purchasing all the devices required to set up a full home security system can easily add up. What’s more, any services you wish to add, like professional monitoring or cloud storage, will incur additional ongoing fees. These fees are likely to continue for as long as you’re using your system.
  • Many security companies require you to pay for professional monitoring. Depending on which home security provider you choose, you may not have a choice in paying for ongoing monitoring. You may have to commit to a service contract, and in some cases for years on end.

What happens when something breaks into my house?

When a home security system detects a break-in, one of two things will happen. 

  • If the security system is professionally monitored, the triggered alarm will notify the security company’s monitoring professionals. A security professional will look into the situation and determine whether there is a real threat. If they find reason to believe that there is a crime or emergency occurring, they’ll contact your local emergency services. Of course, you’ll also get real-time updates as to what is going on.
  • If the security system is self-monitored, you’ll only receive a notification through the channel(s) you’ve chosen. This typically means getting a push notification on your smartphone, although it may also involve a text message and/or email alert. You’ll be responsible for calling 911 yourself if emergency assistance is necessary.


Installing a home security system is an investment with a long list of potential rewards. Homes with alarm systems are less likely to be burglarized and cost less to insure. You’ll also get the peace of mind that comes with knowing what’s happening in your home — no matter where you are. By familiarizing yourself with exactly how home security systems work, you’ll be able to better choose the right system for your home.

Lisa Melillo

Lisa Melillo is a freelance writer and entrepreneur with a background in personal finance, insurance, and international business.

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