The Ultimate Guide to Waterfront Living
  The Ultimate Guide to Home Security
Security Alarm Systems
A complete guide to home alarm systems and what components will provide the best protection for your home.


Photo courtesy The Home Security Store

Security Alarm Systems
In theory, if a burglar is aware a house has an alarm system, he might just move on to another easier target.

Most systems rely on a combination of contacts placed on doors and windows plus motion sensors to provide complete coverage. Motion sensors detect thieves once they are already in the house. Motion sensors should therefore never be used alone as the primary alarm. It is best that all windows and doors have contacts that sense when they are open. Glass break sensors are also available and are highly recommended.

The elements of a basic home security system include:
Photo courtesy The Home Security Store

Master Control Panel:
Every system has a master control panel or CPU (Central Processing Unit). This is the location where the system wiring, and battery backup, is located. The battery backup insures several hours of operating time, even during a power outage. The control panel is also where the system is connected to the phone lines, if it is a monitored system. In most home security systems, the control panel is concealed in a closet or utility room and only the controls necessary to operate the system are located in a visible location.

This is where the system is armed and disarmed, by punching in a secret code. Most end users find it convenient for all members of the family to use the same security code, but most systems are capable of multiple codes, which can be used with guests or workers and then changed. The keypad is usually mounted in a convenient location close to the main family entrance. Additional keypads can be installed at other entrances, like near the garage door. A keypad can also be installed in the homeowners bedroom. This way, if the alarm sounds at night, the keypad display will indicate which door, window, motion detector or zone caused the alarm, warning the homeowner. Some systems are also capable of using arm codes with one less digit that the disarm codes, allowing you to have a household worker turn the system on when they leave, but unable to turn the system off. Be sure not to mount the keypad within eye sight of any window. Most pads have a green and red light system, indicating whether the system is armed or not. Keeping the key pad out of sight prevents criminals from obtaining this vital information.

Siren and strobe lights:
A loud exterior and separate interior mounted siren sounds when there's been a break-in and it also lets the thief know that their presence has been detected. Sirens typically alarm for a preset amount of time, usually 10-15 minutes. Old systems did not have this feature so in the event of a false alarm the siren would continue to blast for hours until the homeowner returned. This did not make for happy neighbors. Strobe lights operate with most sirens. On some systems these lights can be set to continue to flash even after the siren has stopped sounding. This feature is nice and visually alerts the homeowner that his alarm system had been triggered before entering the home.

Photo courtesy The Home Security Store
Interior Motion/ Heat Detector:
A passive infrared, microwave, or photoelectric detector, can sense changes in a room caused by an intruder. Special motion/heat detectors are available for people who have pets. These motion detectors can be set, for example to only alarm for targets that weigh over 80 pounds. Interior motion or heat detecting devices are typically wall-mounted. The least-susceptible to false alarms are the passive infra-red sensors. These are basically thermostats which detect the presence of a human by comparing the 98.6 degree body heat to the usual surrounding temperature. Pets and rodents do not create enough heat and therefore should not set off these devices. Motion detectors are also great for providing coverage in attics and locations like crawl spaces and garages.

Door and Window Contacts:
Contacts are the backbone of any alarm system. Covering every door and window is recommended for the best protection but can get expensive. The decision on whether to have contacts on all windows or just the lower level should be guided not only by budget but also based on the ease of access to the homes roof or second story. Magnetic contacts and wiring form a circuit between a door and doorframe or a window and its sill. With the alarm on, when a door or window is opened, the circuit is then broken and the alarm sounds.

Central Monitoring Station :
If the system is monitored, in the event of an alarm, the control panel automatically sends a message over a telephone line to a central monitoring station. Central stations should be maned 24/7. The Central Station operator will attempt to contact the homeowner to see if it was a false alarm. If the homeowner is not reachable or the operator is not given the correct code word the police are immediately called. Central Monitoring is a service that is usually contracted and billed monthly. A good reliable central monitoring service is highly recommended.

If the system is to be used when the home is occupied as well as when it is vacant the system should have an adequate number of "zones". Zones permit arming the perimeter while leaving occupants freedom to move about without setting off the alarm..

Additional items that can be added to most basic alarm system are:

Smoke and Heat Detectors can be wired to the security panel. If the smoke detectors go into alarm, the security panel will notify the central monitoring station that smoke or fire has been detected.

Photo courtesy The Home Security Store
Smoke detectors can be either an ionization device or photo electric. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The photoelectric detector operates when light within a collection chamber is scattered by the presence of smoke. This type of detector alarms a bit faster that the ioization device, uses house current for power but provides no protection during a power outage. Ioization devices monitor a small electric charge within the unit and detect changes in current flow caused by smoke particles. These devices run on house current but can also operate on a battery backup. The best solution would be to install one of each, getting the fastest alarm with coverage during power outages.

Smoke and heat rise, so detectors should be attached to a homes ceiling or high up on a wall. The location should be selected so that the largest area is covered. A detector placed at he top of stairs for example, will detect smoke or heat from both floors.

Photo courtesy The Home Security Store

Glass Break Detectors recognize the sound of glass breaking and will sound the alarm. Acoustic glass break sensors use an omnidirectional microphone that hears the sound of breaking glass. Some sensors even draw their electrical energy from the motion of the breaking glass itself. They can also detect sudden shockwaves of a breaking object such as glass or a door being kicked in. In this case, it is the shockwave of the breaking glass, not the sound itself that is being detected.

False alarms can occur when occupants drop a glass. Other sounds like jingling keys may set them off as well. New glass break sensors incorporate additional infrared sensors which help minimize false alarms.

Photo courtesy The Home Security Store

Panic Buttons can be mounted or hand-held. They should be located in strategic places such as next to beds and doors. Pushing the button will send a message to the central monitoring station for help. These devices can be worn on a chain or mounted on a key chain. These are great for family members with health problems or who have limited mobility.

Photo courtesy The Home Security Store
Remote Operation Devices allow the homeowner to alarm and disarm the home alarm system from a phone or small wireless remote control.

Flood Sensors
Flood sensors operate when water is detected. These alarms are useful in vacation homes because they will alert you of leaks and storm flooding even when the home is unoccupied.
Photo courtesy The Home Security Store

Flood alarms should be installed near sump pumps, washing machines, kitchen plumbing or anywhere flooding is possible. Flood sensors are also sold with valve shut-off kits. These systems not only monitor for moisture but then close off the water pipe to protect everything downstream from a flood.

Photo courtesy The Home Security Store
Temperature sensors
Temperature sensors can be used to monitor specific water pipes that are prone to freezing. These are also very popular in vacation homes when the house will be left empty for long periods of time.

Gas Detectors
Each year hundreds of people die in the United States from carbon monoxide (CO2) poisoning. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless and invisible gas. Installing gas detectors can save lives.
Carbon monoxide alarms indicate when gas levels are hazardous. If the carbon monoxide alarm goes off the home should be evacuated immediately.

Driveway Alarms
Driveway alarms are triggered when an object enters your driveway. Many are battery-operated and use motion detection technology to send a signal to the wireless receiver. Inside the home, the alarm will give an audible signal when someone is approaching.

Driveway alarms can be incorporated into a residential alarm system or they can simply be stand alone systems. Stand alone systems provide a door bell type audible signal. These alarms can be set so they do not alarm for small animals. However, branches being blown around can unfortunately trigger the alarm. Another option to avoid false alarms utilizes a pressure pad installed under the driveway. The pad senses pressure from any vehicle entering the driveway.

Photo courtesy The Home Security Store
Wireless system
Modern wireless systems use radio frequencies to connect system components. No wires means easier instillation. Wireless technology is used in driveway alarms, car alarms, wireless motion sensors and security cameras. The sensors used can be infrared sensors, acoustic sensors or dual technology sensors. If planning to self install an alarm system, wireless systems provide all of the desirable features without the time consuming need to run hard wire to each window, door and motion detector.

Pressure Mats
Pressure Mats can be placed under rugs in hallways or on stair treads. They react and alarm due to pressure from footsteps activating the alarm.

Exterior Pool Gate Alarms are an excellent addition for anyone with a swimming pool. Once set, the alarm will ring once when anyone opens the gate to your pool area. This alarm can even be set up to be left on when the rest of your system is off.

Extended Coverage for valuables
For any high-value assets like paintings, art, or collectibles there are optional devices available that will extend alarm protection. You can, for example, alarm a display case, a safe, or even wall-hung artwork.

Monitored System vs Unmonitored Systems

Unmonitored systems
Unmonitored systems usually have an audible alarm and flashing lights. The system uses the same type of door and window connections , motion detectors and keypad, but does not utilize a central station to alert the police. These systems rely on startling the thief and on nearby concerned neighbors to hear or see the alarm and then call police.

Although not recommended as a first choice in alarm systems, if you can only afford an unmonitored system itís better than not having an alarm at all. The alarm siren and light should be located on the street side of the house where it can be easily seen.

Remember that a burglar's primary goal is to gain entrance to the house, without being noticed. All but the most determined burglars should leave once alarms and lights have been activated. The disadvantage to the unmonitored system is that it relies on neighbors who may not be at home or who just may not pay attention to the noise.

Monitored Systems
Monitored Systems contact a central station via a phone line whenever the alarm is set off. The alarm system senses a door or window opening. If it is an entry door the system waits for 30 to 60 seconds before going into alarm mode. This delay is normal and is meant to allow the homeowner time to enter the home and deactivate the system during normal daily activity. Most systems will have a buzzing sound during this time that lets the homeowner know that the alarm is armed and needs to be deactivated before the siren goes off and central station is called.

If not deactivated, the alarm sounds and sends a message to the monitoring company over the phone line. The monitoring company receives the automated call, and verifies the alarm by placing a phone call to the home. If they are unable to contact the homeowner or do not receive the correct password from the homeowner they call the police.

Many newer alarm systems come with a cell phone or radio back up. This way even if the phone line had been cut by the thief, or is just not available, the alarm still broadcasts to its central station and the police are summoned.

Choosing an Alarm Company
Choosing an alarm company can be confusing. For example, the homeowner needs to find out where the central monitoring office is located and if the alarm company owns the monitoring service or just sub-contracts the work. It is sometimes best to check with neighbors and friends for recommendations on reliable local companies.

Find out how quickly the alarm company will actually install your system once purchased, many companies sell systems faster than they can install them. Also find out what brands of equipment they provide, if they require a contract and how long equipment is warrantied for. These systems always need some type of service, especially if you have kids or pets who can accidentally do damage to window and door connections from time to time.

Determine how quickly they respond to requests for service after installation. Ask for references and talk to these people.

Obtain quotes from at least three different companies. Make sure each is bonded and insured, in case any damage is caused during the instillation. The alarm should also be installed by a licensed vendor.

Call the local police department and ask how long it takes them to respond to a home security system alarm call. Also ask if there are any fines for false alarms. Most police departments will not charge for the first couple of false alarms but will if it become an ongoing problem.

Lastly, many security companies offer alarm systems for free in exchange for long-term monitoring contracts. When comparing companies remember to compare detection coverage and features aside from just the price.

About Security Alarm Systems
Burglars realize the majority of alarm systems use telephone lines to contact the central station. In many cases phone lines are exposed and easily accessible on the outside of homes. Basically, any competent thief just has to cut the phone line and he has just reduced your systems capability to a non-monitored bases.

There are several things which can be done to protect the systems ability to contact central station. If the phone line is run underground until it is inside the home then its relatively safe. If the phone line is exposed you can route it through a metal conduit to prevent it from being cut, hide it or pick a security system with a cell phone backup.

Please remember that alarm systems can never completely stop someone from breaking in. The security system is usually only activated once the burglar has already broken into the house. Also, by the time the intruder is detected and someone responds to the alarm, the intruder could already be gone.

Insurance Discount
A good home security system can actually save the homeowner money. Insurance companies usually offer a discount on homeowners' policies to those that have properly alarmed homes.

Warning Signs
Warning signs, such as window stickers and lawn signs can be very effective. These let burglars know that the house is protected. These signs can be obtained from your alarm company. Phony "Warning SignsĒ however are usually not very effective at all. Any serious thief knows the names of the real alarm companies in the area and most alarm companies will not let non-customers display their window stickers.

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