In this post we'll help you find the best self-monitored home security and alarm systems. We are looking exclusively at home security providers with no monthly fee, no contract, and no installation costs beyond the equipment.
The Top DIY Security Systems
Important: We compared several more companies. See this Google Doc for a comparison of more systems and additional features. Click the table heads to read more, or the Amazon links at the bottom of the table to check prices.
|Fortress Security Store||Mace Wireless||SmartThings|
|Base siren||140 dB||110 dB||N/A|
|Extra siren||140 dB||110 dB||106 dB|
|Glass break sensor||Yes||No||Yes|
|Carbon monoxide sensor||Yes||No||Yes|
|Indoor security camera||Yes||No||Yes|
|Outdoor security camera||No||No||Yes|
|Video resolution||720p||–||1080p (many)|
|Video on phone through WiFi||Unknown||–||Yes|
|Free video storage time||N/A||–||Yes, depending on device|
|Premium video storage (1 cam)||N/A||–||Yes, depending on device|
|2-way audio on camera||Yes||–||Yes, depending on device|
|Notes||GSM version available||Echo and Google Home integration|
|Amazon link||Fortress Landline||Mace||SmartThings|
See the full table in this Google doc.
A Quick Warning on Self-Monitoring
This post covers the best monitored home security solutions, and which we'd generally recommend professional monitoring. Self-monitored systems leave it to you to call the authorities. If you're in a movie, in a meeting, or sleeping somewhere else, there's a chance you'll miss the alert on your phone. It's also not ideal to be in charge of contacting the authorities during a crisis moment with a possible intruder just feet away from you.
That said, self-monitored systems save you a lot of money each month, and much of the security in a security system comes from the alarm that goes off when someone enters your home. Realize, though, that you're paying for more of a deterrent, much like a car alarm. It won't usually call the police for you, but many thieves will be deterred by the loud noise and attention. You'll also get a notification from any of these systems, making them ideal for lodges, cabins, second homes, and even RVs with connected power.
Best for Most People
Fortress Home Security
The relatively unknown Fortress Security is a reliable and efficient way to handle basic DIY home security. Based in Seattle/Tacoma, the company has a solid lineup of sensors. It offers a hub with landline technology and a GSM (cell) version. We recommend the landline version to those who still have landline service, and the GSM version as an alternative. Unlike most providers it also allows you to use a camera without a contract, though cloud storage is currently not available.
Fortress offers several features common to monthly-fee-charging providers. For example, you can enter up to 6 numbers to dial with a pre-recorded message in case of an emergency. That of course requires a landline. If you're intent on avoiding phone company fees you may also set up a VOIP bridge with no monthly fee, but at that point you might consider a WiFi-enabled security system with more modern features.
Best for Techies with Time & Money
Getting SmartThings to function as a security system requires a lot of time, a willingness to tinker with technology, and a fair amount of money. Money, because you'll need power backups for everything you really want to work in an emergency. You don't need to be a programmer, but if lots of buttons and interfaces scares you, look for an out-of-the-box security solution instead.
The good news is that once configured SmartThings has more integrations and devices than you can shake a fist at. With IFTTT compatibility you can even create events based on what non-compatible IFTTT devices (like Nest) are doing. Most home automation dreams are possible – if you're willing to take the time to figure it out.
Best for Even Less Money
GE Personal Security
Fortress is actually quite good for the money, but if you're willing to forego automation, calling, and convenience, the GE Personal line of products is a dead-simple approach to home alarms. There is no true “hub” as all of the devices function independently. They don't call, there's no app, and each device needs to be armed or disarmed. But if you're short on cash for a fancy system sometimes an alarm is all you need.
What to Look For
No technology is perfect for transmitting a warning to you and/or the police. If Tom Cruz shows up with his Mission Impossible team they could jam cellular and WiFi signals, cut power, and disconnect phone lines. That said, the average home robber is not so thorough or skilled. The most common thing you need to worry about is power being cut, and even that is rare.
The ideal for most people is cellular transmission. Not only do you not need a landline, which is increasingly rare, but you can place the device wherever you'd like. SimpliSafe and Fortress both have a GSM-enabled systems, though SimpliSafe requires a fee to make use of it.
Landline technology is fine to use if you're willing to pay for phone service. It's a little more reliable due to not relying on reception, but it does limit your placement of the hub.
WiFi-reliant technologies are generally not recommended for pure home security without power backups. It's not that burglars are cutting internet lines (extremely rare), but because WiFi needs power, and power is sometimes cut. See the section on power below.
Keep in mind what happens when the power to your house is gone. A battery backup is nice, but doesn't really do anything unless your system can also broadcast on a landline or GSM (cell) network. For example, it won't matter if your Piper is still running if it can't broadcast because your modem/router has lost power. This is why cellular systems and landlines are preferable to WiFi.
A second option for those who want WiFi devices is to get a UPS (basically a big battery backup) for your router and modem. (Do not connect everything, as it won't last long with your computer and/or monitors connected.) You can then use something like Piper and potentially still have an alarm and some evidence.
Remember that most burglars are not experts in home security. A sturdy lock on your power box outside can go a long way in preventing your power from being cut. Do that before you worry about whether your entire system is backed up on battery.
Sensors and Home Automation
Think carefully about what sensors you'll need to keep your home secure. The most important sensors are generally window/door connection sensors, motion sensors, and smoke/CO detectors. Glass break sensors are effective at early prevention, but well-placed motion sensors can detect more.
Things like water sensors and smart switches are nice, but not really necessary for home security. Some buyers are afraid of fragmenting their smart home and home security across too many apps. This is definitely a valid concern for home automation. Having a Nest, smart sprinklers, and light switches on 3 different apps can be annoying and limiting. That said, it's not terribly inconvenient to split security and automation into two apps and two sets of sensors. Let the quality of the system and safety be your first concern, and worry about convenience second.
Integrations and IFTTT
There are lots of reasons you want devices talking to one another. You may, for example, want your some/all of your smart lights to turn on when an alarm goes off. You may want to expand notifications, or set specific conditions for when notifications are sent to specific people.
Having devices work directly with each other is nice: e.g. Alexa working with SmartThings and Scout. But you can't expect full integration for every device. This is where IFTTT (if this then that) comes in. SmartThings, iSmartAlarm, and Piper all work with IFTTT. You can, for example, set your system to automatically arm when you leave by detecting your phone's GPS. If that's too aggressive you can have IFTTT send you an email reminding you to arm the system. Or you can have video automatically added to your Dropbox. For tech-savvy users looking for future-proofed integration, IFTTT functionality is almost a must-have.
In general cameras should be seen as supplementary to home security, and not the backbone of your system. The reason is that cameras consume a lot of power, and rely on both electricity and WiFi to continue functioning. Even with a battery backup you shouldn't expect the camera to last long.
We include some cameras because they do at least have alarms, which makes them better-suited to home security than something like Nest, which is even less reliable as a home security solution. Try to view alarm-in cameras as either supplementary or less-than-ideal first steps towards home security rather than your final security solution.
Camera Resolution and Angles
The higher the resolution on your camera, the more clear the picture will be. All else being equal, a 1080p image will be much more clear than a 720p image. Keep two things in mind, however.
First, the wider the field of view the more “spread out” pixels become. A 720p camera at 180 degrees will be very pixelated, where a 720p camera with a much-smaller 135-degree view will be more clear. As a general rule you must have higher-resolution cameras if you plan to cover a full 180 degrees or if the camera is very far away. A 720p camera will work fine if the view is closer or the angle on the camera isn't more than 145 degrees.
Second, all the cameras in all the systems above use WiFi to save images. If your internet service or router is not very good, you'll have very choppy video at 1080p. You should have at least 5 Mbps free when trying to stream 1080p video, and at least Mbps free for 720p video capture. If your internet is too slow (as tested by a phone, laptop, or tablet on your WiFi), note that we do have a handy tool that shows internet speeds and providers available in your zip code.
More On These Systems
#1: Fortress Home Security
Fortress's flagship product is landline-based rather than cellular. While it also has a cellular version, the reviews for the landline version are much higher. Fortress includes most of the equipment you can get with other home security providers. You can also use a camera to record, though the lack of an app or cloud storage shows that the company is running slightly behind technology-wise.
Customers also love the number of included sensors and low cost of additional hardware. Notifications are excellent with Fortress, and there's not even a monitoring option that the company will try to sell. Fortress wins in reliability and features, and its cost is reasonable for how many sensors you get.
Recommended: Landline version
Also good: GSM (Cell) Version
#2: Mace Wireless
Mace is best known for tasers and pepper spray, but they also have a home security system that pulls its own. The “wireless” in “Mace Wireless” is a reference to the sensors rather than the hub. This is (was) in contrast to older home security systems that ran wires all over your house from the hub to the sensors. The Mace hub itself actually requires a landline.
Overall Mace is a solid and reliable system. Its cost makes it attractive starter system for small residences.
#3: Samsung SmartThings
The nice thing about SmartThings is that it works with most compatible Z-wave devices, meaning it works with hundreds of products. Smart locks, smart sprinklers, smart garages: you name it. There are dozens of excellent home security cameras to choose from, and they generally cost less than Nest or other home security cameras. It's also the best home automation system out there. To top it all off, advanced users can set up complex recipes in IFTTT (if this than that) to create custom alerts and
SmartThings can do just about anything. So why isn't it the top pick for home security? First, SmartThings isn't built to be an out-of-the-box home security system. Each device needs to be programmed and set up separately. Setup may take more time, patience, and technical expertise than you'd prefer.
SmartThings is also highly reliant on wired power and an internet connection. If either is disturbed you can get notifications, but that's it. The home security solution here is to get a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) or two. In the event that the power goes out the UPS will kick in and power devices. You'll need your router, modem, and SmartThings hub all plugged in. A UPS like this should power a hub, router, and modem for at least 4 hours – ample time for you to respond. Note that this time drops quickly if you plug in computers, displays, or anything else.
Finally, keep in mind that there are currently no SmartThings devices that will call the police with a recorded message, as is possible with some of these other DIY systems. If you're looking for something to do more than make noise and send you notifications, however, you could consider paying the monthly fee for a Scout system, which integrates well with SmartThings.
If you're looking for a one-app solution for home security and automation, this is your best bet. Just be prepared to pay for it in learning time, setup time, and in dollars.
iSmartAlarm is a more modern home security company. You can tell from both the equipment design and the punctuation of the name. Its biggest problem as a home security system is that it relies entirely on WiFi for all devices to work. If you want a battery backup, you'll once again have to buy your own.
What differentiates iSmartAlarm from SmartThings is that it's good to go out of the box as a home security system. It requires far less tinkering to get it right and far less technical knowledge. Of course it also has far fewer devices, but if you want simplicity and home automation isn't your thing iSmartAlarm is a good option.
Piper is a home security camera with several extra features that make it preferable to a typical WiFi smart camera. First, it has a significant alarm that functions as a warning and a deterrent. It also has notifications that are easier to configure. Finally, it offers free cloud storage for the most recent 100 clips of detected/recorded motion.
We recommend Piper over Canary because it can integrate with other Z-wave devices. While using Piper as a hub won't give you as many options as the SmartThings hub and community have devised, you can connect it to window/door sensors, flood sensors, etc.
Piper is also unique in that it has a battery backup of its own. Of course you'll need a battery backup on your router and modem for that to do the most good, but the camera's internal storage by itself may capture intruders if undetected or untouched by burglars.
Canary, like Piper, is a home WiFi camera built with home security in mind. It has an alarm, motion sensor, and arguably the best app among DIY providers. The main thing Canary offers over Piper is a much more reasonable price point for a camera with night vision. You'll also get a slightly-better picture quality. The view angle isn't as wide, but that means more resolution spent on the in-view image.
For both cameras, though, we agree with this Amazon review:
The Canary device is excellent at making movies of your home being burglarized, and horrible at actually preventing burglaries and notifying the police. If you purchase this, do not have any illusions. You are purchasing a $200 motion sensor camera, NOT a reliable security device.
Of course the same could be said of most DIY home security. If you're not interested in integrating other devices, consider Canary as a solid all-in-0ne home intrusion detection and monitoring device.
SimpliSafe is a tried-and-true system. Its equipment isn't flashy, but it works and doesn't require obsessive battery replacement. The company produces a wide variety of sensors that can be placed wherever you feel necessary, and the system can be expanded at will. The cellular connection and battery backup make SimpliSafe a good choice for simple security reasons. It's very hard to disable the system if it's working.
If you ever decide to increase your protection by ordering monthly monitoring you can also do so whenever you like. This makes SimpliSafe unique in that it can be upgraded or downgraded month-to-month and still retain some of its functionality when no monitoring is running.
Unfortunately, the system loses a great deal of its benefits when monitoring is not enabled. Namely, the following things cannot be done without a monthly subscription:
- Arm or disarm the alarm with the app
- Send notifications to your phone
- Use a camera at all
While it makes sense that cloud storage doesn't work without a contract, the camera and app could at least work! The company seems to have strong ethics, so we don't think this is a money grab. The severe lack of features without monitoring points to a lack of imagination in our opinion. We hope SimpliSafe will consider what features it can reasonably keep without monitoring.
#8: GE Personal Security
While this isn't a security system in the traditional sense, the GE Personal Security should be mentioned as the lowest-cost alarm we could recommend. It really is just that – an alarm. The door sensors and window sensors work independently. The door will sound very loudly when you open the door (after a delay) and has a keypad. If you want alarms on multiple doors, you'll need to arm and disarm each one separately. Window sensors are activated and deactivated by pushing a button. Again, you'll need to arm or disarm each sensor individually.
Look at the Personal Security line as more of an early-warning system than anything else. It's not intended to contact anyone, but it will perform the basic function of alerting you and those around you to an unskilled intruder. Due to its low price point, it's our best alarm for starving college kids.
Companies Reviewed and Not Included
There were some systems we looked at that we honestly can't recommend for anyone. Some of these may be fine products, but not ideal as unmonitored DIY systems.
We were asked to review this by curious Amazon shoppers. DecisionData can't recommend Golden Security due to massive gaps in information and concerns about system reliability. It's definitely a China-based value provider, but the poor language use on official marketing materials. That's being generous: from the app naming to the company website to the Amazon listing there's a lot of contradiction and a lot of nonsensical word combinations. To give just one example, the camera is listed as “one million HD” to “make sure your home safety.” Getting the system to work right required an extremely detailed study of the manuals, and we'd still feel uneasy recommending a system from a company that appears questionable at best.
Scout would have been on this list a year ago, but they've effectively killed the option for a self-monitored system. It's apparently still possible with a work-around, but “work-around” and “home security” isn't a good idea. We do still love Scout, though, and they're listed on our best monitored systems page. Their integration is second to none: they're probably the best software maker of all home security companies. Now if they could just improve the battery life of sensors…
Nest (and Other Smart Cameras)
Nest, Dropcam, Iris, or any other general-purpose smart camera wouldn't be the best idea for a few reasons. For one, you're at best going to get notifications when movement is detected. These options have no security alarm. So while it might be nice to know who robbed you, it's generally preferable to prevent the theft in the first place. Second, you'll lose all your video if your electronics are stolen unless you pay for something like Nest Aware, which is at least $10 for video storage. Now you're paying most of the cost of a monitored system. Finally, these products are reliant on both WiFi and power, making them less reliable (or more expensive) than standard home security options.
Have questions about home security? Leave a comment and we'll get back to you.