Basics of a Home Security System
Here are products, features and FAQs for you to consider when setting up home security.
Do-it-yourself security is all the rage.
For best results, however, consider a comprehensive, professionally monitored alarm system that ensures emergency crews will reach your residence fast. This will also help you save on your homeowner’s insurance.
Here’s a look at the key elements of a security system, and what each entails.
CENTRAL ALARM MONITORING
- A central station monitoring service verifies alarms before dispatching authorities.
- Typically, users do not pick their central station; the security dealer has its own relationship with a UL-listed station.
- Communications can be via land line, cellular, Internet or a combination.
- Cost: $25 to $45 per month (cellular backup may cost extra).
- Optional two-way alarm verification enables
monitoring personnel to listen in—only in the event of an alarm—and communicate with residents to verify the alarm before dispatching. In most areas verification escalates the alarm response.
- Most insurance companies will give a substantial discount on premises with monitored systems.
- Motion sensors provide a second line of defense if an intruder gets past the door/window sensors.
- Sensors are often called PIRs, because they use passive infrared technology to detect the heat emitted by an intruder.
- Advanced PIRs will detect body heat and motion, and even distinguish between a person and a pet, up to a certain size.
- Motion sensors also serve as occupancy sensors. A security dealer can program the system to turn off lights in the room if there is no activity for 15 minutes.
- Mount PIRs in areas that burglars would have to pass if they gained entry.
- Window stickers and yard signs tell would-be intruders: Don’t even think about trespassing here.
SECURITY CONTROL PANEL
- As the hub of the system, the security panel communicates with all of the devices including sensors (wired and wireless), sirens, keypads, central monitoring station and the Internet.
- A UL (Underwriters Laboratories)-approved system will provide battery backup for 24 hours if electricity goes out.
- The number of “zones” refers to the number of sensors tied into the security system.
- Wireless self-contained systems include keypad, audio/siren and the system smarts.
- The first line of protection, door/window sensors (sometimes called “contacts”) detect the opening of doors and windows.
- A system can be programmed to sound a chime when a door or window is opened in an unarmed mode.
- Be sure to secure upstairs decks and balconies.
- Don’t forget the basement; window wells are a common point of entry.
- Most systems have one tone for a burglar alarm and another tone for fire.
- Consider a system that also provides voice feedback so it can annunciate the specific issue: “Intrusion, master bedroom window.”
- Many municipalities prohibit outside sirens to avoid annoying the neighbors.
- A good system will have a siren time-out feature, typically 15 minutes, in the event the system should go off accidentally.
LIFE SAFETY/ENVIRONMENTAL SENSORS
- Most homes have standalone smoke detectors (required by law), but tying them into a security system ensures rapid response from the fire department.
- Heat detectors are used to detect fires in areas that are naturally smoky or dusty, such as kitchens, basements and garages.
- Additional sensors can monitor for carbon monoxide, natural gas and LP gas.
- Water sensors are often placed near water heaters, sump pumps and washing machines to detect leakage.
- Freeze detectors can report a low temperature; they’re great for travelers or those with second homes.
- A variety of health-related sensors can be tied to an alarm system, including panic pendants and fall detectors.
- Use driveway sensors to notify you when a car pulls into the driveway.
KEYPADS, TOUCHSCREENS AND APPS
- Typically, homeowners can arm the system to all (all sensors active), perimeter (ignores interior detectors) or some variation, and the homeowner can select which sensors or zones to ignore.
- In an automated home, the automation touchscreen may double as a security keypad, but at least one dedicated security keypad should be installed in the house.
- Mount your keypads in a place where outsiders cannot see its armed/disarmed status through a window.
- Alternatives include biometric (fingerprint), card and proximity readers, mobile device apps as well as wireless key fobs.
What’s the deal with bargain-price security systems? Those may require a two- or three-year contract, much like a new mobile phone plan, and the monitoring rates are often higher. Beware: These subsidized systems include just the basics: typically two door sensors and one motion detector. Expect to pay more to get all of your doors and windows covered.
What’s the difference between hardwired and wireless systems? The installed cost of a wireless sensor is typically about the same as a hardwired sensor. The wireless sensor itself costs more but the installation is quick, so the added cost is a wash. The tradeoff is that wireless sensors are generally larger than their hardwired counterparts because they include a radio and a battery. Batteries in a good wireless system should last three to five years or more. Wireless range might be an issue in a very large home or with some construction materials such as metal or plaster and lath. Still, wireless solutions are generally as reliable as hardwired and a great option for retrofit installations.
Why pay for a monitoring contract? Some security systems can be monitored via the Internet, smart phone or email, but such monitoring may not serve you well in an emergency. What if your cell phone is off, for example? On the other hand, professional monitoring provides 24/7 protection and the ability to dispatch emergency crews immediately. Moreover, most insurance companies will provide homeowners with a 15 percent to 20 percent discount for a monitored alarm system.
What else can you add to a security system? Most security systems can communicate with lighting controls, so an installer might rig the system to flash the inside and/or outside lights in an alarm event. Also consider a scenario in which the fans for your heating/AC system turn off if the smoke detector trips. Likewise, your water valve can be shut down automatically if a flood sensor trips.
Will I get charged for false alarms? Some communities charge a false alarm fee, but typically only after the second or third false alarm in a year.
Do I need a land line for alarm monitoring? No. You can use cellular or Internet as your primary or back-up communications.
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