DIY home security without the pitfalls

Piper is one of many DIY home security systems that thumbs its nose at traditional subscription-based services. Instead of a call center monitoring signals from your security system, Piper alerts you via your smartphone and lets you decide whether to call the police.

After I recently evaluated the crowd-funded Canary and deemed it not ready for prime time, thanks to an utter inability to filter out pet movement (though that capability is reportedly on its way), I decided to check out some alternatives. Soon, I'll be weighing in on Myfox. But another competitor, Piper nv, has proven itself to offer almost everything you could want in an affordable security system.

Like Canary, Piper is a single, self-contained unit that sits on a shelf or table. It has a super-wide 180-degree camera that you can use to zoom or pan around the room from your smartphone. (It even has a clever mode that lets you set up four viewing zones and zoom in on them separately, as if you had several cameras mounted around the room.)

The "nv" in the product name stands for night vision, and it delivers a sharp, clear view in both daylight and at night because the camera employs 1080p resolution and an infrared sensor.

But Piper isn't just a camera. It's bristling with tech, including sensors that detect motion, sound, temperature and humidity. It also has a speaker and microphone, and a truly terrifyingly loud siren. That gives you a lot of ways to use Piper. You can set up rules for what it should do if it detects sound or motion, for example, or if the temperature changes beyond a certain threshold.

Piper is a self-contained security system. In testing, it was effective at notifying me about "intrusions" into its monitoring zone, though you can add optional door and window sensors to extend the range of its awareness.

And Piper is Z-Wave compatible, which means you can add "smart switches" around your home. These are electrical plugs that communicate wirelessly with Piper. If the temperature gets too high, set up a rule for Piper to turn on the air conditioner. Or set it to automatically turn on the living room lamp when you arrive home, tripping the "Away" mode rule.

This kind of automation might seem needlessly geeky, but it all works so elegantly that it could be the gateway drug that lures ordinary people into trying out smart-home technology.

Piper nv sells for $280. True, accessories can add up: Smart switches are about $50 each, and sensors are $40 (Piper offers the door/window sensors and a water sensor for detecting leaks and floods). But you don't pay monthly fees, even though you can view video in real time as well as save and even download video clips from the cloud. Most competitors charge a recurring fee for the privilege of saving recorded video.

And what about pets? This was Canary's fatal flaw. Despite boasting face detection, it really didn't do anything with this information and was unable to learn to ignore furry household members.

Piper doesn't do face detection, but it has a pet mode with adjustable sensitivity. It took some experimenting to find the right setting for it to ignore dogs and cats but not humans. However, once dialed in, Piper made a far more practical security system than Canary for the pet owners.

One Canary feature I missed in Piper was the ability to automatically arm and disarm itself based on sensing household members' smartphones. With Piper, you need to set the alarm manually from your phone each time.

But those are small quibbles. The bottom line is that Piper is a compelling alternative to subscription-based security systems, and a well-designed DIY security system that works smartly and elegantly as both a security and home automation tool. It's an affordable, no-fee system that delivers on the promise of emerging smart-home tech.