Wired vs. Wireless Home Security Systems
Both security setups offer peace of mind, but real differences exist in cost, convenience, reliability, and flexibility
Over half of convicted burglars surveyed in a 2012 study said they'd call it quits when they found out that a building had an alarm system. They also reported that when there's no noise, no nearby police, and nobody's home, alarm systems become the most effective deterrent to a break-in. Of course, beyond warding off crimes, security systems also tend to stop them when they’re in progress.
But with more technological choices than ever, there’s a common question among homeowners who decide to upgrade to this kind of protection: is wireless security better than wired?
In this article, we look at the pros and cons of wireless security systems and their hard-wired counterparts, examining installation, reliability, portability, and other key features shared by effective home setups.
A revolution in the home security industry paved the way for system advances
In 1966, electronics technician Marie Van Brittan Brown filed for a patent on an early closed-circuit television system. Her invention combined several devices familiar to anyone using a security system today—a motorized camera, remote-controlled locks, a television monitor, and a panel designed to sound an alarm.
Early home systems like these were all hard-wired. They required considerable effort to install. And most were unmonitored, leaving the task of contacting police or local security forces to homeowners, neighbors, or bystanders.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, home security systems grew more affordable. The emergence of reliable wireless sensors—including door and window sensors and glass-break detectors—allowed the industry to take its early first steps toward fully-wireless systems.
Security underwent a technological revolution in the following decades. Decreasing prices for cellular technology and services paved the way for the adoption of cellular backup and later, fully-cellular monitoring. Interactive Internet monitoring services emerged, allowing users to control and observe their home security systems remotely by phone, tablet, or computer. And wireless sensors became more powerful and more affordable, making install-it-yourself systems possible.
Answering these questions determines which type of system is better
Many of today's wireless home security systems meet and exceed the standards set by hard-wired systems, and their advantages center around the needs of individual consumers:
- How difficult—and costly—is installation? Can I do it myself?
- How reliable and secure is the system? What support does my alarm dealer provide?
- How long do I plan to live in my home? Do I want to renovate or expand in the future?
These factors aside, two recommendations hold true across the board:
- First, monitored systems offer more security than monitor-it-yourself (MIY) systems. Professional monitoring ensures that someone is ready to contact local authorities around the clock—including when you're in a business meeting, on a plane, or asleep.
- Second, choose your monitoring technology carefully. Control panels connect to monitoring stations via traditional phone lines, the Internet, or cellular communication. Crucially, some telephone service providers plan to phase out landline use by 2020, meaning the first option is basically about to become obsolete. And Internet-based monitoring, while convenient, is vulnerable to both unplanned outages and direct sabotage.
In contrast, cellular monitoring, available with both wireless and wired system types, provides no physical outbound connection for an intruder to cut and is vastly more reliable.
Installation Differences Between Wireless and Wired Security Systems
Wired security systems connect sensors and detectors to a central processing unit or alarm control panel via copper wires. These hardwired setups may have an advantage in some very large buildings, where long distances between sensors and control panels can make some wireless solutions impractical. But installing wired devices typically requires a professional installer and comes with considerable expense. Installers must drill holes, run wires, possibly solder connections, and program the system onsite. Wired surveillance systems alone, for example, cost 50–100% more per camera than wireless cameras.
These installations also require a degree of trust between the consumer and the installer. Even brand-name alarm dealers may farm out the task of installation to subcontractors, leading to mishaps ranging from sub-par installations to stolen goods. The credibility of the installer is crucial.
In contrast, wireless security systems enable a do-it-yourself approach to installation. Many of them integrate easy-to-use smart home technology with the same detection and monitoring capability found in wired systems. The best wireless systems even allow alarm companies to remotely provide troubleshooting and confirm that your system is working.
One critical feature of many wireless systems is pre-programming. A single home security solution usually features several motion sensors, window sensors, door sensors, cameras, and a range of other devices. Pre-programming ensures that each device connects immediately to a control panel—and only that control panel. Pre-programmed kits like Frontpoint's Safe Home packages provide out-of-the-box functionality and a simple, DIY installation.
Which Home Security System is More Reliable and Secure?
As long as the wiring between devices and the control panel remains intact in a wired security system, the panel and the connected devices should interface easily. But for some hard-wired setups—particularly older ones—a loss of power can spell trouble. While some systems feature backup battery power, those that don't are increasingly vulnerable to the number of power outages in the United States.
In addition, wired systems may be vulnerable to tampering. The term “wired” could refer to how the individual detection elements communicate with the alarm control panel within the home and/or how the panel sends outgoing signals to a homeowner and/or a monitoring service. This is important because burglars tend to cut wires when they target a home, especially one that they know, or suspect, is alarmed. Snipping the right cords may prevent individual device signals from making their way to the control panel and, if the signal from the panel goes out via a phone line, crafty criminals may be able to disable monitoring altogether. An otherwise wired system that uses outbound cellular to contact a monitoring service would not have the latter problem, however.
In contrast, many of today's wireless home security systems are truly wireless—meaning the signals from the devices to the control panel and those from the panel to a monitoring system are all transmitted without wires. They feature battery-powered sensors that are supervised to keep track of battery life. If the battery dies or the device is disconnected, the control panel can send a report to the monitoring center and the homeowner. And alarm system manufacturers have developed sensors with expected battery lives of six years or more.
Supporting the long battery life seen in devices like Frontpoint's Door and Window Sensor are several low-energy protocols—ways of transmitting data from one place to another—that allow security sensors to more efficiently communicate over long distances. Two of these protocols stand out in home security: ZigBee and Z-Wave, now followed by the improved Z-Wave Plus. These were designed for smart homes and the Internet of Things (IoT)—the networking technology widely used in smart devices of all sorts—and have wide use in home security systems. Both defend against hacking with AES-128 encryption, which is so secure that some estimates measure the time needed to decrypt it in billions of years.
And both use much less power than WiFi, while having a longer range than Bluetooth connections: a maximum of about 100 meters in open spaces for ZigBee and Z-Wave, and 167 meters for Z-Wave Plus. That said, walls and objects impair the signal, and it’s recommended that home devices enabled with this tech sit no more than a few dozen to 100 feet from the control panel to maximize power efficiency.
Portability and Customization: Wireless is a Clear Winner
Any device installed in a hard-wired home security system remains fixed in place throughout its lifetime—at least until more wire is run. That vastly raises the cost of upgrades, downgrades, and additions. And some alarm dealers will only rehome wired alarm systems for customers who have a 1–2-year track record and agree to sign a new contract.
The devices featured in wireless home security systems, however, simply sit on a shelf or stick to walls with a peel-back adhesive. Not only can this equipment be rearranged while you're living in the same place, they easily transfer from home to home.
Full-service home security companies offer back-end systems and control panels that provide an all-in-one approach to whole-home automation—and wireless has a clear advantage here, given the ability for the control panel to seamlessly interact with other home automation devices. Homeowners can control lights, locks, thermostats, and security cameras through a single interface. Customizable programs can send mobile alerts when freezing temperatures threaten to burst pipes in an unheated home, while others use smoke detectors to provide an illuminated escape route when a fire is detected.
WiFi and Hardwired Cameras Each Have Certain Advantages
Both wired and wireless security cameras gather evidence, deter theft, and, with interactive monitoring, prevent false alarms. There are differences in cost and capability, however, with each option having certain advantages over the other.
Wired systems may need as many as three cables for a single camera. But wired cameras have the edge over their wireless counterparts in terms of video quality and storage space. Video has far greater demands, both in terms of data transmission and storage and power consumption, than other security sensors like glass-break detectors. This is where wired cameras shine: they typically send footage to a digital video recorder (DVR), and a one-terabyte DVR can store an impressive 40 days' worth of continuous, high-resolution video. Many of these specifications go far beyond the needs of an average homeowner, however.
To make WiFi transmission and live streaming less data-intensive, most wireless security cameras only activate for a short period when motion is detected. Frontpoint's WiFi Outdoor Camera, for example, uses a built-in motion sensor to record in fifteen-second bursts. These cameras provide high-resolution live streams and make footage available online.
It’s important to understand that while wireless cameras don’t use cables, they also don’t utilize the low-energy protocols employed by the other wireless security monitoring devices, nor do they send a cellular signal. For the time being, cameras must be connected to WiFi to ensure that there is enough bandwidth to send relatively large video data. Thus, wireless cameras generally require connection to a power outlet and the home’s Internet must be working for them to transmit—but they still eliminate the need to run cable through walls, and they can be easily repositioned.
Wired vs. Wireless Home Systems: The Bottom Line
Both types of home security system could be enough to ward off a would-be burglar. But for consumers looking for convenience and to benefit from rapid technological advancements, wireless is a far better option. Wireless home security systems—especially those that also exclusively rely on outbound cellular communication—are portable, cost-effective, and even more secure than a hard-wired option.
Perhaps most important, they are reliable and flexible. A wireless system can quickly be reconfigured for expanded security or a move to a new residence, as well as easily integrated with smart home technologies. And while burglars may avoid a potential target with any security system, the smarter ones certainly steer clear of homes with equipment that is always on, connected, and transmitting—and with no wires they can cut.