Do you understand what you’re getting with your security system? Are you getting all the sensors you need? Or is the alarm company adding on useless junk? Learn the industry terminology so you don’t get taken advantage of. This page discusses some of the most commonly used home security systems terms and explains what they mean in layman language. After reviewing these terms, visit our home security systems reviews page to compare the leading alarm providers.
Security System Definitions and Terms
- 24 Hour Zone
- Access Code
- Arming Away
- Arming Stay
- Backup Battery
- Bell Cut Off
- Carbon Monoxide Detector
- Cellular Monitoring
- Central Station
- Control Panel
- Door or Window Sensor
- Entry Delay
- Exit Delay
- Flood Sensor
- Freeze Sensor
- Glassbreak Sensor
- Hardwired System
- Heat Detector
- Hybrid Alarm System
- Image Sensor
- Key Pad
- Master Code
- Motion Sensor
- Periodic Test Transmission (Pinging)
- Security Phrase
- Security System
- Smoke Detector
- Test Mode
- Voice Dialer
- Wireless Alarm System
24-Hour Zone: A 24-hour zone is active and functioning 24 hours per day (even when the alarm system is disarmed). Examples include smoke or carbon monoxide detectors, panic buttons, and low temperature sensors.
Access Code: A code that home security system users can use to arm and disarm their security systems. Access codes are usually four digit codes and can be individualized to specific users such as maids and children.
Arming: Arming an alarm system means turning on the system so that it is actively monitoring the home. Some home security systems allow for full or partial arming of the system. For instance, if your bedrooms are upstairs, some systems allow for the arming of only the downstairs area of the house, so you are free to move around upstairs.
Arming Away: Away arming refers to arming the home security system completely so that the entire home is protected when the homeowners leave the house. Generally, this means that all of the motion detectors are activated.
Arming Stay: Stay arming is a method of arming the house alarm system when the homeowner intends to stay at home. This type of arming will activate the exterior sensors of the home such as doors and windows but will not arm the interior components of the home security system such as interior motion detectors.
Backup Battery: This is a rechargeable battery that provides power to the home security system in the event that the AC power is no longer functioning. This battery is usually found in the control enclosure of the alarm system and on occasion it may also provide additional current to the alarm system if needed. The backup battery is also often referred to as a standby battery.
Bell: This term is used in the security system industry to refer to any sound made by the device, rarely are these devices actually bells. They are most often sirens that either speak or make a loud noise to indicate that the alarm is armed or that the alarm has been set off. The term bell originates from the primitive home alarm systems which actually did use bells on the outside of the building.
Bell Cut Off: The term bell cut off refers to the amount of time that a “bell” will ring before it shuts off automatically. This may seem counter-intuitive, however, many areas require cut off times of five to ten minutes after the alarm has sounded in order to prevent nuisance noise complaints.
Bypass: This term is in reference to the ability to deactivate specific zones of the building or home before arming the system. Bypassing allows for certain areas of the home to be unmonitored while the rest of the home is monitored.
Carbon Monoxide Detector: This device detects the presence of carbon monoxide and will sound an alarm before a dangerous level is present. Most detectors are used without being connected to the alarm system, they provide an audible warning to the homeowner. When the carbon monoxide detector goes off, open as many windows as possible and vacate the house. If anyone is sick (headaches, dizziness or vomiting), call 911 immediately. If everyone is okay and out of the home, call the gas company and they will advise the best procedure to move forward.
>>These are our favorite carbon monoxide detectors on the market.
Cellular Monitoring: Some home security systems use a cellular transmitter that uses a cell phone line to call the monitoring station rather than a landline or broadband communication method. In the past, cellular monitoring services were used primarily as a backup option with landline phone service being the primary means of communication for the alarm system, but more companies today are transitioning toward 100% cellular monitoring in the interest of added security. The advantage is that there is no risk of intruders cutting the communication line since it is there is no physical line.
>>Here are the top cellular security systems.
Central Station: The term “central station” is used interchangeably with the term “monitoring center.” This refers to the location that alarm monitoring companies use to monitor alarm systems. There are a number of ways that personal home security systems can communicate with central stations including telephone lines, broadband internet or cellular communication. This central monitoring station is responsible for contacting the correct emergency services in a timely manner in case of an alarm.
Chime: This refers to the sound that home security systems can be programmed to make whenever a door or window within the home is opened or closed. This type of sound allows for homeowners to monitor comings and goings in the home.
Communicator: This is a module within the home security system that digitally dials into the central station. The communicator is responsible for relaying information about the home that is ascertained by the home security system.
Contacts: These are the small sensors that are placed on doors and windows of the home so that the home security system can monitor whether a door or window is open or closed. The most common type of contact used in modern alarm systems is a magnetic reed switch.
Control Panel: This refers to the main components of the alarm system which contain the backup battery and the main circuit board of the system. These components are contained within an enclosure. In some alarm systems, the keypad is integrated into the control panel as well, but this is not the case with all systems.
Disarm: Disarming a system means turning the system off. This does not mean removing power to the system but it does mean that the system is not actively protecting the home against break-ins or other emergencies. Please note that disarming an alarm system will not disarm 24-hour zones such as panic buttons and smoke detectors.
Door and Window Sensor: These sensors are usually two parts. One sticks to the door or window, while the other sticks to the stationary part of the home. There is a magnetic connection, so when the connection breaks, the alarm knows that the door or window is open.
>>These are the best door and window sensors on the market.
Entry Delay: A time delay that allows the homeowner a period of time before the alarm triggers due to an event. This is most commonly the period of time that allows for homeowners to get into the home to turn off the alarm system before it sounds. Most systems default to a thirty-second delay.
Exit Delay: This is the delay after an alarm is armed which allows the homeowner to exit the home before the system becomes active. Like the entry delay, this can also be adjusted to meet the homeowners’ specific needs.
Flood Sensor: This component detects the presence of excessive water so that it can alert the monitoring station of a potential flood concern. The flood sensor is often placed near the water heater since that is the most likely area for flooding to occur. Other common places for flood sensors include: in or beside a basement sump pump pits to alert you of a defective or non-functioning pump before your entire finished basement gets flooded; behind the washing machine to alert if a hose has burst.
>>Check out our top picks for flood sensors.
Freeze Sensor: More commonly known as a “Low temperature sensor”. This element detects temperatures that are approaching freezing, generally close to 40 degrees. This way you are alerted before an actual freeze occurs in the home that could cause damage to pipes or other important parts in your home. It can also detect issues with a furnace that may not be operating correctly.
Glass Break Sensor: This component detects the sound or vibration from shattering glass to trigger your alarm. This can be an excellent alternative to normal window sensors when you have a window at floor level that is more accessible by intruders or one that contains more glass such as french doors or a bay window.
>>See our top-ranked glass break sensors.
Hardwired System: This is a system that is installed using physical wires, often hidden mostly behind the walls of the home. Most older home alarm systems rely on hard wiring where most new systems are gravitating towards wireless or hybrid alarm systems.
>>Read on for how to utilize a wired security system in your home.
Heat Detector: This alarm component detects extreme or rapid changes in heat within an area of the home as a detector for fire. Heat detectors can also be pre-programmed to sound at a specific temperature. It is important to know that a heat detector is not the same thing as a smoke detector. It is possible for a smoke detector to have a heat sensor built into it.
Key Pad: Also referred to as a touchpad, the key pad of a home alarm system is the numbered pad on the system that allows for the homeowner to arm, disarm and otherwise communicate with the alarm system. Most key pads have lighted keys and accompanying chimes that sound when keys are pressed.
Master Code: A master code is the main code used for an alarm system that the homeowner uses to arm and disarm the home security system. The master code for an alarm system has the ability to control other sub-codes of the system. The master code, like the access code is usually a four digit code.
Motion Sensor: These usually detect motion based on body heat in a 90-degree angle and generally up to 45 feet away. Every company’s motion sensors differ, so it is best to read your specific instructions for your system to ensure maximum coverage.
>>See our roundup of up our favorite motion detectors on the market.
Panel: The panel of a home alarm system is the box or “can” that contains all of the components of the home alarm system such as the backup battery and the main circuit board. Most often the panel of the home alarm system is located in a basement or in a coat closet of the home.
Periodic Test Transmission (Also known as Pinging): The alarm control panel can be programmed to send “test signals” to the monitoring station at a scheduled frequency. Some security companies do this automatically, so be sure to check with your provider. This is an especially useful alarm panel function since most homeowners do not regularly test their alarm system’s ability to communicate to their monitoring station. To take full advantage of this option, have the installer program the alarm system for a periodic test transmission once every 24 hours. Then make sure that your alarm service provider will notify you when your alarm panel “misses” its daily test so that appropriate action is immediately made to correct any issue. Also, pay attention to the trouble indicator light on your keypad(s) since it will be lit if your security system cannot communicate to your monitoring station.
Important information: a periodic test transmission once every 24 hours is only a useful tool in confirming the alarm panel’s ability to “talk to the monitoring station”. It does not remove the homeowner’s responsibility of testing each of their alarm system’s individual sensors on a regular basis to confirm that each sensor or device is “still talking to the alarm panel”. If a monitored smoke detector does not “talk to” and trip the alarm control panel, the control panel will not call the monitoring station.
User Programming refers to the ability of the homeowner to set behavioral characteristics of the home security system. An example of this is the ability to program the system to chime or not chime when doors and windows are opened.
Installer Programming refers to the ability of the installer (who may also be the homeowner who self-installs an alarm system) to set characteristics of the security system that customize and configure it according to the home or business. An example of this is the ability to program the system to define Zone 1 as being a smoke detector, a door contact or a motion detector.
Security Phrase: This term varies by alarm company (Pass Phrase, Security Code) but it is usually a word or short phrase that only the homeowner should know. When the monitoring station calls to report an alarm, the person answering the phone can declare it a false alarm as long as they provide the correct security phrase.
Security System: The term “security system” is used interchangeably with the term “alarm system” and refers to all components of the system that protect the home.
>>Check out our recommended security systems article.
Smoke Detector: This component detects the presence of smoke in the home. Smoke alarms sound their own high decibel warning. Many smoke detectors are used without being connected to the alarm system. When moving into a home with an existing system, be sure to confirm that all detectors are connected to the alarm system or at a bare minimum that one close to the kitchen is monitored with your home security system (can get expensive to monitor all).
>>These are the best smoke detectors on the market.
Test Mode: An alarm system owner can call their monitoring company and have them put the system in test mode. Once in test mode, the owner can set off the alarm and then call the monitoring station to make sure they received the signal.
Voice Dialer: This component will automatically call into telephone numbers that are programmed into the system. After calling the numbers, the voice dialer will play a recorded message (or a live person will be on the line) once the home alarm system has been triggered to notify the individual answering the number of the event that has been triggered. New systems also have the ability to send text messages and emails in alarm situations.
Wireless Alarm System: A wireless alarm system depends upon radio frequency to transmit and receive signals from the home alarm system. These types of systems are easier to install and generally preferred by homeowners because they do not involve running wires in the home. All of the sensors are wireless as well and these components can be used as additions to wired alarm systems to create a hybrid alarm setup.
Zone: This term is used to refer to an area of the home as it is “seen” by the home alarm system. This type of area is generally determined by numbers and is mapped out by alarm components like the sensors in a particular area of the home.
Each zone is specifically defined by the alarm panel’s “reaction” to the sensors on the zone. A “24-HOUR FIRE ZONE” for a smoke detector will pulse the alarm’s siren(s) when activated, at any time, whether or not the alarm system is armed. Other common alarm panel zone definitions, such as “DELAY ZONE”, “INSTANT ZONE” or “INTERIOR ZONE” have different “reactions” from the alarm panel when these zones are “tripped” or activated.