I’ve written about my move to a new home and the technology I’m using. With the move came a search for a new alarm system. I looked at “smart alarm” solutions, but ultimately, I installed a system from SimpliSafe. It’s not fancy, and it’s certainly not tech-forward. But it was friendly on the budget and after a few initial hiccups seems to work as advertised.
For years I’ve had a traditional hard-wired alarm system installed and serviced by a security contractor. These systems are usually installed for a teaser price but require a 3–5 year service contract that cost $40 - $50 a month depending on features.
As a single woman, I always liked the peace of mind a monitored alarm system gave me. Years ago, when I was home from college, I walked in on burglars who were robbing my parents home. While thankfully no one was hurt, the experience left me shaken, and my family deprived of several thousand dollars worth of our belongings. As a result, there’s great peace of mind when I come home from work to an armed alarm system that lets me know there’s no one unexpected in the home.
When I bought my new home, I was out of contract with my current alarm provider which left a world of choices open to me when it came to home security. There were a couple of categories of products I looked at. The first was “smart alarm systems” that were installed by traditional alarm companies. These were upgraded systems from the ones I was familiar with and would allow you to integrate video cameras, smart door locks, have companion smart phone apps and more. Unfortunately, these systems were costly. Installation could range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the type of system, most of the technology was proprietary, and the monthly cost was typically upwards of $50 per month and required a 3–5 year contract.
Next, I looked at new emerging smart home category of smart home devices. I wondered whether it would be possible to create a reliable home security system using Internet-connected motion sensors and security cameras. Popular solutions are available from SmartThings, Nest, Canary, D-Link and others. Top of my list was the $199 Canary, which claims to be an all-in-one security solution with HD camera, siren, and air monitor that when armed will send motion-alerts to your phone. However, to be useful, you have to add a cloud storage component which can range from $10–20 a month. While these solutions sounded like a lot of “fun” to setup, they probably weren’t the most reliable as I would be required to self-monitor and call the police in the event of a break-in. Given my schedule, I can’t always do that.
Finally, I looked at DIY install security systems. These systems are growing in popularity in response to expensive traditional systems. The user pays up front for the equipment, or possibly receives a discount if they agree to a monitoring contract. There was a broad range of options with system ranging from simple to higher tech. The Wirecutter reviewed a few systems. These systems had the advantage of lower startup cost, minimal or no contract but still had professional monitoring. I ultimately choose this path, purchasing a system from SimpliSafe.
SimpliSafe has been on my radar for a while. I’ve heard their ads on the radio pitched by Dave Ramsey, a personal finance personality. The company is known for inexpensive monitoring starting at $15 per month with no contract. You pay up front for the system, which can be purchased through the SimpliSafe website or retailers like Amazon.com.
Installing the system was ridiculously easy. However, as a Mac user I experienced many problems and ultimately had to fall back and setup the system manually, which worked but was frustrating.
The system includes an adhesive to place components around your house. The instruction manual provided a few tips for placement. Peel off the backing and slap the sensor up on the wall, simple as that. I had a few sensors I relocated because I didn’t like their placement and had no problems. Mounting screws are also included which I saved but have not used as I didn’t want to put more holes in my wall until I was sure the system worked for me.
Although I’ve only been using the system for a few months, I haven’t had any trouble with sensors becoming falling off. If it becomes a problem, I’ll use the included screws for more stability. The removable adhesive makes SimpliSafe ideal for people living in apartments or rentals as they can move the system with them.
Unfortunately, setup was anything but simple. I inserted the keychain remote (which is also a USB drive) in my Mac and ran into nothing but trouble. First, I had to install Adobe Flash (the Chrome workaround trick wouldn’t work). Then, I found the out-of-date setup tool would only work with Firefox, which I didn’t have installed. Finally, after repeated crashes and problems, a call to customer service confirmed that their setup utility isn’t compatible with Sierra. Here’s the response from customer support:
“Thanks for letting us know about the issue. We have found that since the introduction of MacOS X 10.9 (Mavericks), the SimpliSafe app in your Keychain Remote may have trouble launching the Easy Setup Wizard consistently. Our engineers have created a workaround that may be able to help. Please download the following disc image file: http://SimpliSafe.com/files/easysetup/SimpliSafe-easysetup.dmg”
It’s obvious Mac Support isn’t a priority. Notably, the above workaround doesn’t work with Sierra, which by now has been out almost a year. Of course, no mention of this before you buy the product. I finally resorted to manually configuring the components of my system using the keypad. Since I only had a few components, this wasn’t too bad, but still felt woefully antiquated.
Once I was ready to connect my system to monitoring, SimpliSafe uses a cellular connection via either T-mobile or Verizon to contact their monitoring system. Except…I couldn’t. I relocated my base station to a few different places in my home but could establish a reliable connection.
I learned that SimpliSafe base stations ship by default with T-Mobile SIMs. Unfortunately, T-Mobile has bad coverage in my area. After another call to customer support, they shipped out a new circuit board for my base station with a Verizon chip. The swap-out was easy but still delayed me a few more days.
By this time I was pretty frustrated with SimpliSafe and about ready to pack up the system and send it back. Once the new Verizon card was installed, my system came online and started working as advertised. While I imagine most users probably won’t run into the problems I did, they were frustrating nonetheless.
The SimpliSafe hardware is nothing fancy. In fact, it looks like it came straight out of the 90s. Maybe the 80s. The components are made of chunky white plastic, and the display is monochrome text. The core of the system consists of a base station, wireless keypad and master keychain remote. From there you can add entry sensors, motion sensors, glass break sensors, panic buttons, smoke, and carbon monoxide detectors, freeze and water sensors, and a new camera.
You can buy pre-configured packages range from $235 - $550. You can also build a system to give you exactly the number of sensors you need. Most people will find a package in the $300 - 400 range will work. I was able to save by picking up a basic refurbished package and adding additional motion sensors.
Since I have many windows on my first floor, I opted to place several motion sensors and a few glass break sensors on the first floor rather than arming each window with an entry sensor. I put entry sensors on the doors and configured the system to chime when a door opens.
The keypad and sensors are all powered by user-replaceable batteries which SimpliSafe says will last about five years with average use. The system is designed to alert you when batteries are low. The base station is AC powered with a 48-hour backup battery in the event of power loss.
Using the System
The system is straightforward. “Home” mode activates door and window sensors (and optional sensors if you so configured) and is designed to be used at night while people are moving around the house. “Away” activates all sensors. The base station speaks to the user and announces the various modes.
If a sensor is triggered, a user has 30 seconds (or less if configured) to enter their PIN or the siren activates, and an alert sent to the monitoring system who will attempt to make contact with the owner by phone. The owner can cancel the alarm by providing a “safe word.” If the dispatch center is unable to reach the owner, they send law enforcement. The system can optionally be configured to call additional contacts after sending emergency responders. I’ve setup SimpliSafe to call me first, but then to alert nearby family members if I don’t cancel an alarm.
In my testing, the alarm worked as advertised. I received a call from the monitoring center within seconds of the alarm sounding.
The big draw to SimpliSafe is the inexpensive monitoring with no contract. SimpliSafe has two plans, a Standard plan for $15 per month and an Interactive plan for $25 per month. Either plan is less expensive than traditional monitoring companies which typically charge between $40 - $60. The system can also be used without monitoring, but will only trigger and sound alarms.
The standard plan includes 24/7 monitoring and will contact you, local authorities and additional contacts if an alarm is triggered. For $10 more per month, the Interactive plan adds SMS and email alerts and a smartphone App to arm and disarm the system. The Interactive plan also includes an online dashboard that gives you finer control over the system, custom configuration options for each sensor and the ability to tweak your settings.
Given the current state of SimplySafe’s software, I would argue they should make the dashboard available for all customers and move setup online. Doing so would alleviate many of my complaints about the initial setup and configuration of the system and improve the overall user experience.
I currently use the standard monitoring plan and figure within the first year I will save enough on monitoring costs to recoup my initial investment in the system compared to my previous provider. Additionally, my homeowner’s insurance offers about a $40 a year discount for having a monitored alarm.
Despite being relatively low tech and some initial setup woes, I decided to keep the SimpliSafe system and am reasonably happy. It’s a basic alarm system that meets my most pressing need of detecting a break-in and automatically contacting law enforcement. Its best feature is the low cost of entry and reasonable monitoring costs with no contract. As technology changes, I can upgrade or switch systems as needed. I can also supplement SimpliSafe with smart home tech like Internet-connected cameras, light bulbs, and more.