DIY High-Tech Security For Your Apartment

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Photo: Derek Croucher / Getty

Apartment living can be great: you don't have to worry about paying for new appliances, someone else does all the landscaping, and that busted pipe (which ruined the carpet, which ruined the floor), isn't your responsibility. One can also claim, however, that renting isn't so great because you are limited in what changes and upgrades you can make. Since it's not really yours the owners likely won't want you making changes that could make the apartment (or house) a little more comfortable.

You know, putting holes in the walls (for pictures), running wires to and fro (inside the wall so you can keep the floors clear), or even adding security cameras. Besides, why would you want to put a bunch of money into upgrading an apartment that you don't own?

Given the issues above, you might think that making security improvements to your apartment would be a no-go, but there are still quite a number of non-permanent security upgrades you can make without upsetting your landlord, and best of all, when you decide to move, you can take them with you. Here are some examples of products, but there are also others on the market.

Keyless Entry Systems

Are you tired of locking yourself out of your apartment and wish you could open your apartment door with a smartphone app, keypad, or maybe even your smartwatch? Maybe you’re tired of fumbling for keys altogether or maybe you need to give a key to someone but you don’t really want them to have it for a long period of time or risk them making a copy of it before they give it back to you.

A company called August has you covered. They have a solution that won’t require you to change anything on the “key-side” of your lock. Instead, it replaces the mechanism on the inside of your apartment. The August Smartlock is a battery-powered lock that will allow you to still use your good ol' standard apartment keys on the outside of the door, but additionally, it will let you open the door using a smartphone app, exterior keypad, or smartwatch.

The outside lock remains the same, so your landlord and maintenance can still use their key to access your apartment and probably won't get mad at you for using it (just make sure you save the old inside part of the lock and replace it before you move out).  When it’s time to move, just take out the two mounting screws and put the old inside mechanism back. Installation of this lock literally took 5 minutes and only required a screwdriver and a piece of masking tape (to hold the outside lock in place while working on the inside part).

One of the great features of the August lock is that you can send virtual keys to people so they can open your door without a real physical key. These “keys” can be as temporary or as permanent as you prefer. For example, say you have someone coming to perform a home repair and you aren't going to be there. Assuming you trust them with entering your apartment, you can text them a virtual key that expires at say 5 pm that day. Have a babysitter that needs access during the day for multiple days? You can set her key to only work certain days for certain time-frames.

August has even partnered with Air BnB to provide a virtual key distribution system for rentals equipped with August's Smart Lock, which means no more meeting renters somewhere to give them a key and also no worrying about them copying that key.

Another company, Candy House, is offering a competing product called the Sesame Smart Lock. It is said to be even easier to install than August’s Smart Lock. This product is not available (as of publication), but the company is accepting pre-orders.

High Tech Apartment Home Monitoring

One of the biggest dilemmas for apartment dwellers is how to add things such as security systems or cameras without drilling holes in the walls or running permanent cables. Thankfully we are living in a world that strives to become as wireless as possible, and now, this is true for home security systems as well.

The “old-school” security system has evolved.

Devices such as door and window contact sensors that used to require wiring into a central alarm console are now available in wireless form using wireless technologies such as Z-Wave and ZigBee. These technologies provide a mesh network which helps allow both extended connectivity and redundancy, which are important features for security system applications.

Wireless Self-Monitored Apartment Security Systems

If you’re like me, when you did have a security system, you loathed paying the monthly monitoring fee. It seemed like such a scam to pay $30+ every month just to have the system monitored by a central monitoring service which was probably thousands of miles away. False alarms eventually caused me to disable my system completely because I didn’t want to bother police when the system malfunctioned or the cat (somehow) set it off.

There are now systems that allow you to avoid the monthly monitoring fee altogether by letting you “self-monitor." That means when the system detects a break-in, the system alerts YOU via text message or via an app notification, then YOU can decide if it’s a false alarm or if the police need to be involved.

Iris Home Management System and SimplSafe are two seemingly traditional security systems that are more high-tech than they may seem at first but these systems are wireless and can connect to a variety of different sensor types such as door contact, glass break, etc.

ISmartAlarm offers fee-free monitoring options for those who don’t want yet another monthly bill to pay.

Multi-function Security Camera / Home Monitoring Devices

The new trend in home security is the multi-function security camera. Some available choices for this kind of device include Canary, which features a fixed HD camera that can stream video to an app and also record to cloud-based storage when triggered by a motion sensor event. Canary also monitors sound as well as temperature, humidity, and air quality. It can send you notifications based on temperature, moisture, or air quality events as well.

Piper, a device similar to canary has the unique feature of integrating a home automation hub that allows you to control lights and other ZigBee-enabled devices.

Again, these are self-monitored devices, some of which will allow you to remotely sound a siren to hopefully scare the bad guys off and alert your neighbors.

Pros and Cons

There are obviously pros and cons to using self-monitoring vs. alarm service monitoring. Self monitoring obviously cuts out the middleman when an alarm happens and allows you to assess the situation remotely, usually by viewing a live feed from your IP security cameras. This practically eliminates false alarms being called into the police department because you can see what's going on, assess the situation, and call the police yourself if necessary. Remember, an alarm service isn’t likely going to have access to your cameras so all they know is that a sensor was tripped. They can’t really make a judgement call as to whether or not an alarm is false or not, they have to follow their alarm protocol, hopefully they will notify you so you can check out the situation before police are called.

Cons? Well, you are the one who makes the call to the police. It also means if you are away, you are essentially on call 24/7. That's one advantage a monitoring service has: They're the ones on duty around the clock.

What you ultimately decide to do for a monitoring solution is dependent on what your equipment supports, what your budget is, and what you’re comfortable with.

Pet Cams

Another hybrid security camera that you might want to use in your apartment is the pet cam. Pet cams allow you to keep an eye on your animals while you’re away. They can serve both as a security camera and a way to reassure your pet that all is well because many allow you to remotely talk to the animal via an intercom system. Some models even feature the ability to trigger a treat dispenser remotely so that you can give Fido a little something for being a good boy while you're out.

Doorbell Cameras

The Ring Doorbell Cam and The August Doorbell Cam are exactly what you would expect them to be. They are a door bell and a security camera. They will let you see who’s at the front door without having to open the door.

Doorbell cams are also remotely viewable via a smartphone app so that even if you aren’t home you’ll know who’s at the door. In some cases (depending on which device you’re using) you can even talk to the person who is at the door. This can be used for pretending that you are home or for giving delivery persons instructions, etc.

Remote Operated Lights For Giving The Illusion That You Are Home

If you want to make potential thieves think you’re at home when you’re actually not, you could use those old-school light timers, or you could go the high-tech route. Phillips Hue Lights can be remotely controlled via a smartphone app and can be set up to turn on and off at random times while you’re away. These lights can also be integrated with some wireless security and/or home automation hubs (such as the one in the Piper security camera). Lights can be triggered when sensors are tripped or other conditions are met.

Mounting Solutions That Shouldn't Anger Your Landlord

One of the downsides of apartment living is not being able or allowed to drill holes to mount things such as security systems or cameras. You should consider damage-free removable mounting options such as those available from 3M. 3M’s Command Adhesive product line is quite extensive and the strong adhesive can be easily removed so you won’t damage your walls when you remove mounted items when you move out of your apartment.

Look for the version that holds items up to 4 or 5 pounds, this should hold most security camera mount plates and easily hold door and window sensors as well.