Buying a Security System – Part 2

A few days ago I wrote a post as a very rough primer on home security systems.  Crime is steadily creeping up locally, and a decent security system provides peace of mind (not to mention a degree of protection) for not much money.  I’m a big advocate of security systems partly because they’re fun to design and program, but also because they’re such an effective crime deterrent.

Most of the wireless systems on the market today are designed to be simple enough that an average end-user with no experience can install one on their own.  This post is going to cover designing and placing your system.  For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume that you’re protecting a multi-story home and that money is a concern (we’re not securing Ft. Knox here).  Also, some of the ideas below don’t apply to complex installations such as protecting a large retail store or office building.

Most systems work in pretty much the same way.  Everything you want to protect is broken up into zones.  For most residential applications, you can safely assume that “zone” = “sensor”.  A very basic system might have three zones:  “Front door”, “Back door”, and “Living room”.  Zone #1 (“Front door”) would have a magnetic door sensor.  Zone #2 (“Back door”) would also have a magnetic door sensor.  Zone #3 (“Living room”) would consist of a motion detector.  Simple enough?  When you’re dealing with a basic residential system, for all practical purposes, there’s only one sensor per zone, and only one zone per sensor.  1:1.  Easy.

The first step in planning a system is to tally up what you need to protect.  This determines how many sensors you need to buy, and thus affects your purchase price:

  • How many doors / windows do you have?  Doors and windows generally use the same type of sensor, so they get tallied together.  Don’t skip the upper levels — this is a common practice, and burglars know it.
  • How many motion detectors will you need?  Consider placing a motion detector in any room that contains a large number of valuables (such as a home theater room).  Also consider placing a motion detector in any room that serves as a central passageway to the rest of the home.
  • How many smoke detectors will you need?  You should have at least one per level.  Some local codes require one in every bedroom.  While optional, monitored smoke detectors can summon the fire department long before your neighbors notice the smoke.
  • Do you have any other special needs?  Flood detectors and gas detectors can provide additional peace of mind.  Glass break sensors can help protect against a shattered window, although for my money, I recommend relying on the motion detectors.

Accessories like sirens, keypads, keyfobs, and cellular adapters don’t usually take up a zone.

Very few people need more than 30 zones, and most people will have at least 10.  If you get more than 20-something, you’ll need to make sure the panel you’re looking at buying supports enough zones.  If you find yourself going over 30, consider going with a hardwired or hybrid system, as you’ll be able to expand some of these (the GE Concord is an excellent choice) to well over 100 zones.

Play around on sites like SafeMart and Home Technology Store.  Home Technology Store actually has a pretty decent system builder.  You may find that after pricing out your system, you need to remove or add a few options.  To give you an idea of price, I just built a system with 16 door / window sensors, one motion detector, one keyfob, and two smoke detectors for $805.  This includes one year of monitoring, which will only be $11.95 / month afterwards.  An identical system with only two door / window sensors, one motion detector, and one keyfob would cost about $300, including monitoring.

Doing the physical installation is probably the worst part.  It’s not difficult, but it requires a lot of time and patience.  Your installation instructions will vary slightly depending on the brand of system you buy and type of sensors your purchase, but here are some placement guidelines:

  • Your door / window sensors have two parts:  the switch and the magnet.  Always install the magnet on the moving part (ie, the window or the door) and put the switch on the frame.
  • Door / window sensors should be mounted high on the fixture.  Not only does this help improve signal strength in wireless systems, but it will help reduce the likelihood of damage through bumps and brushes (especially from pets).
  • Standard motion detectors work best at 45-degree angles.  They also have a very difficult time seeing someone walking directly at them in a straight line.  Ideal placement is usually at a 45-degree angle in the corner of a room.
  • Most motion detectors will ignore most pets most of the time.  However, pointing your motion detector at your cat tree is just begging for false alarms.  If your dog has a favorite couch or your cat likes to walk on the countertop, take this into consideration when placing your detector.
  • Infrared motion detectors (the most common type) can not see through walls, bookcases, or anything else.  Walk around the room and look at your potential mounting point.  If you can’t see it, it won’t see you.
  • Carefully read the instructions to see how your particular device’s tamper mechanism is applied. 

Once you have all of your sensors installed, it’s time to install the panel.  In my experience, the best way to do this is to program all the zones BEFORE physically securing the panel to the wall.  This way, if the signal from a sensor is too weak, you can easily relocate the panel for better reception.

When considering placement of your panel, try to place the panel in a location that is not immediately obvious or that is awkward to reach.  The wall right next to your front door is probably the worst possible location.  As long as the panel can survive for 20-30 seconds following an event, it should have enough time to report the event to the monitoring station.  To be truly secure, consider adding a remote keypad and remote siren, then hiding the panel far away from prying eyes.

Each panel has different programming instructions.  The Visonic / Abbra system is, in my opinion, the easiest of the wireless bunch.  The basic process is similar across the board:  Put the panel into listen mode, trigger the zone (open the window), assign a zone number, repeat.  Programming can be tedious, but is rarely difficult.  If you can program your Tivo, you can do this.  When you read through the instructions for the first time, the process will likely seem overwhelming — it really isn’t.  Consult your alarm’s Installer Manual and/or call the store’s tech support for assistance.

in a few days I’ll have a final post going over the basics of using the system.  If you’ve been reading along thus far and all of this seems completely overwhelming to you and you’d just rather have someone else do the job for you, I’ve had excellent experiences with both Select Security and SSA.  Both of them do quality work at lower-than-average prices, and both of them maintain their own monitoring centers.  Since SSA’s nearest local office is State College, I’m not sure if they’ll come out this far for a residential system, but they’re worth a shot.