Security and Monitoring Systems for the Homestead

Many modern devices will track temperature and movement around your home.

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by Getty Images/dszc

On a warm and sunny day in January, my wife and I sat on the porch of our friend’s home in Arizona. We live in a rural area in northern Minnesota, so we felt like we were in paradise compared with the frigid weather and heavy snow back home.

As we were sitting there, my cellphone notified me of an incoming email, and I took a quick glance at the message. The email had been sent from my house by my Wi-Fi enabled thermostat. It was warning me that the temperature in my house was down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. With the outside temperatures at 10 below zero and falling, if I didn’t get my furnace restarted and running, I could possibly experience frozen pipes and the potential for thousands of dollars in repair costs. Fortunately, because I was notified of the problem, I was able to call a local repair company and get it fixed in time to avert any damage.

Rural homeowners — especially those in areas of the country with extreme weather conditions — are sometimes reluctant to travel because they worry about what could happen to an unattended home while they’re away. Security and monitoring systems have come a long way in recent years, enabling services that allow you to monitor your home’s heat, electricity, and security.

Internet Access

Many options are available for monitoring and receiving notifications for your rural property, but almost all rely on good internet access. In my home state of Minnesota, 90 percent of all residents have access to high-speed internet, but only 79 percent of rural residents have the same bandwidth. High-speed internet usually has the ability to download information at 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload at 3 Mbps.

While not having high-speed internet doesn’t preclude you from taking advantage of some automation options, some products require high-speed connections to function properly. The four connection options usually available to rural internet users are: DSL, cable TV, satellite, and Wi-Fi. Here’s a brief primer on the various methods available for receiving internet in rural locations.

Digital subscriber line (DSL) is a means of using your telephone line to connect to the internet by transmitting digital data over the wires of a local telephone network without interfering with the telephone service. The obvious advantage of using DSL is that you get internet and phone capabilities from one phone line. The drawback is that DSL tends to be slower than other services, and it isn’t always available through rural phone carriers. Also, using DSL may require you to purchase additional equipment, such as a DSL modem.

If you have cable television, you’re likely familiar with cable internet service. The cable internet connection is accomplished by connecting your standard cable connection to a cable modem. This connection allows you to use wireless communication throughout your home. While the speed of cable is usually twice as fast as DSL, its availability in rural areas may be limited, or even nonexistent.

Satellite internet access is provided through communication satellites. These satellites can offer high-speed data to virtually any location in the continental United States, giving even the most remote rural user access to the internet. Because satellite requires a dish and installation, users may incur higher installation costs, activation charges, and monthly leasing fees for equipment. Most satellite providers also require a longer contract than other internet providers.

The connection speeds for satellite providers have improved in recent years, and they’re generally equal to entry-level DSL and cable plans. To successfully mount a satellite dish, you must have an uninterrupted line of sight, which can be a problem in heavily wooded areas. Inclement weather may also create disruptions in your signal. Users may also have monthly data caps, which, when exceeded, will either shut down your service for the month or decrease your internet speed until the next billing cycle.

If you have good cellphone service where you live, Wi-Fi internet may be an option for you. Internet service is transmitted to your cellphone, tablet, or computer through a series of cellular telephone towers over large geographical areas. Wi-Fi may be slower in some coverage areas than DSL, but you don’t have the expense of a landline plus the internet. Also, you can take your internet service with you when you travel. However, with most Wi-Fi plans — regardless of the method used to deliver your internet connection — you’re only allowed as much usage as your plan provides. If you go over the amount of allotted data in your plan, you may be billed the excess at a much higher rate, or have your access limited at the end of the month.

Wi-Fi Thermostats

After experiencing the benefits of home monitoring firsthand, I now understand its value. As mentioned previously, if I wouldn’t have been notified of my furnace malfunction, my costs could’ve gone well into the tens of thousands of dollars from damage caused by burst water pipes. Wi-Fi enabled thermostats are one of the least expensive methods of providing essential monitoring of your home’s temperature, no matter where you live.

Wi-Fi thermostats are a fairly simple installation if you have some DIY experience. The thermostats can be purchased at most home improvement stores, or online. The thermostat can be programmed based on your heating and cooling preferences, and some can also “learn” your preferences by following your heating and cooling cycles over a period of time. The thermostats can also be set to follow schedules for heating and cooling, and to send alerts based on heating or cooling thresholds that you select. If the temperature in your home goes above or below a preset temperature level, the thermostat will generate an email, text, or both to one or more contacts.

For Wi-Fi connected thermostats to work, you must have wireless internet capability in your home. A variety of products are available, with prices ranging from about $70 to $300 based on quality and features.

Home Security Systems

One of the main attractions of living in a rural area is privacy and peacefulness. But it can also have its drawbacks, such as slower emergency response times. In some cases, being in a rural area can come with even more risk for break-ins or property damage, because fewer people are around to observe and report suspicious activity.

A dog can be a great security system, but dogs can’t use a telephone to call for assistance if they smell smoke or detect a home break-in when you’re away from home. Home security systems can give you the ability to monitor your property 24 hours a day, no matter where you are.

A lot of options are available for smart security systems, from DIY to professionally installed and monitored systems. Some DIY systems also offer monitoring capabilities. Even if you aren’t ready for a full-blown home security system, you can choose from a variety of individual devices to monitor your home remotely, such as indoor and outdoor cameras, smart doorbells, motion sensors, and smart door locks.

DIY Security System

A DIY system is a great option if you prefer to tackle your own projects. There are a lot of different components and configurations. These range from a single door sensor to a system with motion sensors, broken-glass detection, and cameras. DIY systems allow you to tailor the system to fit your individual needs. To get the alerts via email or phone, you’ll need wireless internet or cellular connectivity with most systems. There’s also an option for a third party to remotely monitor your property. Systems can be left on continuously, or only turned on when you leave.

Pricing for DIY systems varies, starting at about $150 for basic door, window, and motion sensors, and ranging upward to $500 for multicomponent systems. Some DIY systems offer home monitoring with voice-supported commands starting at $15 per month. Because there are no installation or setup fees, a DIY system is an affordable choice for home security.

Professionally Installed Security System

While a DIY home security system provides a good option for many people, professionally installed security systems tend to be more sophisticated and all-encompassing. And for that reason, they require expertise to properly set them up. (The technician will also show you how to operate the system after installation.) It’s easy to spot houses that have these systems, because they usually have signs or window stickers advertising their presence. Professional systems have been around a long time, and, because of that longevity, most are well-tested and come with good coverage, reliability, and service. Most of these systems are configured with a good mix of sensors and monitors, plus they have the ability to incorporate new technology.

Professionally installed security systems normally have a two-way control panel that allows the company to contact you if an alarm is triggered. If the company can’t contact you via the panel, their representatives may try to call your listed telephone number. And if that fails, they’ll call 911 to report the incident.

Professionally installed and monitored systems are expensive. Expect to pay upfront equipment costs ranging from $90 to $400, as well as a monthly monitoring fee that’s usually about $45. And you’re typically required to sign a multiyear service agreement with the company.

Wi-Fi Cameras

Another option worth exploring in a rural environment is the Wi-Fi enabled security camera, which can function as a stand-alone security system at a low price. You can also use these cameras around your property to monitor livestock or keep an eye on the pasture.

Almost all stand-alone security cameras need to be connected to your home’s Wi-Fi system, so you can monitor them from your telephone or computer. The cameras can detect motion and sound, and you can be notified by the camera via email when an event occurs. A lot of cameras are weatherproof and can be located outdoors, as long as they’re plugged into a GFCI outlet. If there’s no electricity near the location where you want to place a camera, consider opting for a battery-powered Wi-Fi camera.

You can also create camera schedules to automatically turn them on at certain times of day or night. Most have good night vision capability and high-definition picture quality. Most of the time, the video is saved to the company’s cloud. The cameras typically come with free limited storage, and offer extended monthly storage packages for a fee.

If you’re interested in monitoring a remote building on your property, be aware that you’re limited to the range of your Wi-Fi system. You can purchase Wi-Fi boosters that’ll significantly increase your Wi-Fi coverage, but they’ll still depend on the strength of your existing system as a starting point. Costs for Wi-Fi cameras vary by the number of cameras and storage capability, but expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $250 for a single camera, depending on features, or from $250 to $600 for bundled packages — which usually include a modem and multiple cameras.

Basic Monitoring Options

Although most security and monitoring systems are designed around computer and internet access, some monitoring systems don’t require Wi-Fi or cellular capability. Landline-based temperature and moisture sensors will tell you if your home temperature drops below or above a predefined temperature range, or if the moisture sensor is activated. These systems are programmed to dial multiple telephone numbers if an alarm goes off, and they’ll also notify you if your home loses power.

Security systems may also be landline-based. And, in some cases, these systems are more secure from power loss failures. In addition, some landlines have the ability to dial without power to the home through the fiber optics of the landline.

Product Recommendations

A lot of companies offer security or home automation products that accommodate rural users. Here are a few companies that I recommend:

Tim Nephew lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres of wildlife habitat. He’s a regular MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor.