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Electronics for home security: vital questions.

Electronics for home security: vital questions

The electronic revolution has reached every part of our lives, from the way we answer telephones to the way we cook, wash, tell time, and dial a TV show. Just look around your house and count the number of appliances and gadgets which incorporate electronic controls that didn't even exist a few years ago.

Home security too has been revolutionized by the boom in electronics. Today's burglar alarm systems use sophisticated minicomputers to control sensors and responses. They're smarter and easier to use than ever before.

Unfortunately, they're also becoming more necessary, especially in California, where the mild weather, wide-open spaces, and network of freeways that make life easier for the good guys also make "work' easier for the bad guys. You probably know someone who has been recently victimized by a burglary--according to one recent poll, more than two-thirds of us do.

But Westerners are also self-reliant, and prudent homeowners have made this the leading market for home security systems. This report will bring you up to date on the advances in home security and show you how these systems work.

Corroborating our research was the panel of experts you meet on page 138. Their real-world experiences--from policemen to alarm installers to a former burglar-- support our basic premise: common sense, knowledge, and vigilance can put the percentages in your favor. Incorporate a few basic precautions into your daily routine, and the likelihood of your home being burgled will go way down. Where should you start? See the first question and answer in the box at left.

The new electronic security systems take over where these basic precautions leave off. If these systems are somewhat of a mystery to you, read the other questions and answers below. Then turn to the following pages for a closer look at the basic components and for a glimpse of a fully monitored house.

What steps should you take first?

These common-sense steps can sharply reduce your chances of being burglarized.

Make the house seem occupied--burglars don't want to encounter anyone. Signs of household activity--a radio or TV playing, a dog barking, lights on in a room--will persuade most to try elsewhere. Silence, drawn curtains at midday, or yesterday's newspaper lying on the driveway is an invitation to trouble. Timed switches can help provide the noises and the lights; if you're relying on a dog, encourage it to yap its head off when a stranger comes near.

Next, make sure you have a tight house. "Try to get inside your own locked house without a key,' one security expert suggested. "Most people can manage it in less than 4 minutes--without breaking anything.'

That experience will underscore the need to install good-quality deadbolt locks, sliding glass door locks, and window locks--and then use them. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, one in five burglaries starts with an open window or door. Every time you leave, remember to recheck all possible break-in points.

Also check into neighborhood watch programs that can supply additional information; if none exists, consider starting one. Finally, consider an alarm system.

How do you choose an alarm system?

Ask neighbors who have systems what they like or don't like about their units. If you don't know any system users nearby, get references from the companies you're considering.

Choose one with an established, successful record in your community. Confirm that it is licensed by the state; if it can meet certain industry criteria, it will likely also be a member of the local industry association.

Ask the police for advice; they know which companies provide reliable service.

Where do the police stand?

In general, the police welcome reliable alarm systems maintained by careful, well-informed homeowners. But they've become disenchanted by the appalling level of false alarms--more than 90 percent in many cities--that are usually triggered by homeowners as they try to arm or disarm their systems.

As a reaction, police now issue fines for false alarms in many areas--particularly ones with a high concentration of home alarms. This has raised the ire of alarm installers and some homeowners, but it is bringing down the false alarm rate.

Another factor to consider: as burglaries increase, undermanned police departments often can't respond quickly to meet the threats. In Los Angeles, for example, 7,000 uniformed police patrol 465 square miles; New York and Chicago have almost twice as many policemen to cover areas half that size. That's why the police are generally happy to get as much responsible help as they can get-- including alarm systems monitored by private patrols, armed or unarmed.

Many police departments will send a crime prevention officer to survey your house and recommend specific precautions you can take; if they can't come out, they'll send information.

What do the insurance companies say?

Insurance companies across the West are fully in favor of home security and give premium breaks accordingly. Rate reductions depend on where your house is and how much you've done to make it secure.

Usually there's a 5- to 7-percent reduction if you've installed deadbolt locks and have smoke alarms on each floor and a fire extinguisher in the house. Double that reduction for a burglar alarm, with further reductions of up to 20 percent for an alarm system that's hooked up to either the police department or a central monitoring station.

Though a few companies have been reducing rates this way for many years, most have begun offering breaks only within the last two to five years. Ask your insurance agent for details.

How does an alarm system work?

In concept, it is simple. A sensor detects a noise, motion, or pressure, or perhaps a window or door being opened. It sends a signal to a control box, which provides a programmed response: a siren or bell going off, all the lights coming on or starting to flash, an automatic call to a private monitoring company, an automatic call to the police, or all of the above.

The control box is linked to an access panel (or arming station). It tells you what's going on with the system in varying degrees of detail, from a blinking "system armed' light to a displayed message to a synthesized voice. It will tell you if the system is off, activated, or can't activate because something is open somewhere. The more sophisticated panels let you make more adjustments to the system; such panels may seem complicated, but they can be the easiest to live with.

See the following pages for more details.

How is the system hooked up?

Installations are either hardwired (every sensor is physically wired to the control box) or wireless (sensors send a radio signal to the control box).

A hardwired system is less obtrusive and more reliable, since each sensor is attached directly to the control panel. It's also permanent; you can't take all of it with you when you move, but it can add to the house's resale value.

The battery-operated wireless kinds are easy to install and move. The better ones alert you when the battery is running down; otherwise the sensors might become inoperative without your realizing it.

Systems run on household current, with an automatic battery backup. Response signals go out over telephone lines or radio signal.

What about the cost?

There's no one set price for a home security system, so be wary of a dealer who quotes a price over the phone without seeing your house. Typically, a professionally installed complete system will cost about $1 to $1.50 per square foot of floor space or about 2 percent of the value of your house. (Of course, a smaller, less expensive system may do the job for you. First assess your needs and budget, then work from there.)

That price would include all window and door sensors, as well as other interior heat and/or motion sensors, a master control box and main access panel, perhaps some individual bypass switches, a panic button, local alarms, and probably a hookup to a remote monitoring station. We describe these in the next few pages.

If you choose monitoring by a central station, you'll also pay a monthly fee of $15 to $50 or more, depending on where you live, the service provided, and whether or not you're served by a private patrol. With some systems, you can opt for intermittent monitoring, as when you're on vacation.

Install an alarm system yourself?

It depends on how complex you want it to be and how comfortable you are working with electronic gadgetry. Installing a simple system isn't much more complicated than hooking up a stereo with remote speakers.

But if the system is more sophisticated (particularly if it's the monitored kind), you might be wise to let a professional install it, or at least check it before it's armed.

Some systems, particularly the in-house wireless systems (no station monitoring), are sold as do-it-yourself systems through home improvement centers. The more sophisticated equipment is available only through specialized dealers.

How trouble-free are the systems?

A well-installed system tailored to your needs shouldn't lead you to make too many mistakes. The hardware itself is time-tested and essentially reliable. All equipment used should be UL-listed (approved by Underwriters' Laboratories, Inc.); look for the label. The company should provide a reasonable warranty (a typical one guarantees parts and labor for one year) and offer prompt service.

Good system design, tailored to your needs, and good installation are your safeguards against false alarms. When you're counting on neighbors calling the police when the alarm sounds, you'll find them unresponsive if your system cries wolf too often.

If you're doing your own installation, let common sense guide you: get an access panel that you're comfortable controlling, don't put a heat sensor facing the sun, don't put sensitive magnetic switches on windows that rattle in the wind, don't put a motion detector where a dog or cat could set it off by running through the room.

And make sure you have full ability to easily isolate and "shunt' (see page 134) parts of the system so you can move about your house freely with the system in operation. If you can't do that, you probably won't use the system.

Sensors--the alarm trippers--come in different guises

Imagine a continuous live wire through your house, with a switch at every entry point. When doors and windows are closed, the circuit is complete. Open any door or window and the circuit is broken, tripping the alarm. Essentially, this is how a perimeter alarm system works.

Mechanical sensor switches usually consist of a wired segment mounted to the fixed opening (door jamb, windowsill) aligned with a magnet mounted to the moving part. The magnet pulls spring-loaded contacts together, completing the circuit; move it away and the circuit is broken. Other sensors trigger when they're tipped, jostled, depressed, or released. These can be wired to windows and doors, screens, floor mats, and driveways --they are usually invisible.

Other types of sensors can be used to back them up; using microwave, ultrasonic, passive infrared, or photoelectric technology, they detect movement, heat, or noise, usually inside the house.

The microwave and ultrasonic sensors work like radar, sending out a room-covering signal and measuring it when it comes back. If the wave pattern gets distorted, the alarm goes off.

Passive infrared sensors detect rapid temperature changes within a room; body heat trips the alarm.

Photoelectrics (the old "electric eye') send out an invisible beam to a receiver; break the beam and you trip the alarm.

Some systems combine two different technologies, like infrared and ultrasonic; both kinds of devices must be violated to activate the alarm. This eliminates the high false alarm rate such sensors are prone to individually.

Additional kinds of sensors may be as complex as video cameras or as simple as trip pads hidden under carpets.

Another main type of alarm tripper is an extension of the master control box usually called a "panic button.' You can install one permanently as part of your access panel or operate one by remote control. It makes you the sensor: you detect an emergency, press the panic button, and the alarm goes off.

The access panel--how you control the system

The master control box that receives the sensors' messages (and initiates the response) is often concealed in a closet or in the garage. It runs on house current but has a built-in backup battery.

The control box is programmed and adjusted through a conveniently placed access panel (often called an arming station). In theory, this is the only part of the system you have to master; it's the only part you actively use.

Several panel choices are available, with the usual configuration being a keypad.

Different panels give you varying degrees of control of and information about your system. But most tell you these three things: Is your system armed or disarmed? Is it functioning properly? What is the shunt status?

The shunt (or bypass feature) is what keeps you from feeling like a prisoner in your own house. It lets you have the system on without having every window and door locked tight. Want the window open in your bedroom? Just shunt (bypass) the sensor on that window. Similarly, you can shunt all interior sensors when you're home so you can move through the house without tripping an alarm.

The response: bells, horns, a siren, possibly an automatic telephone call

Let's say one of the sensors has been tripped and has sent a message to your master control box. Now what?

First, something happens at your house. Bells, horns, or sirens mounted inside and outside the house go off--to scare the burglar, alert you if you're home, and alert your neighbors. They're hidden or placed so the intruder can't easily disconnect them.

Depending on where you live, that may be enough. But are there always some neighbors around? Would they immediately call the police? Will the police respond quickly? If you answered yes to all three, it is enough, and you're lucky to live in such a neighborhood.

Most of us aren't that lucky. "The usual call we get,' says Pasadena policeman Bob Ford, "is somebody saying, "Hey, my neighbor's alarm has been ringing for 45 minutes, can you guys come out and shut it off?' And we check our records and nobody else has called. Everybody figures, "Oh, somebody else probably called already.' That lets the burglar get away every time.'

The vast majority of burglaries--more than 80 percent--occur between 9 A.M. and 4 P.M. The reason is obvious: during that time on weekdays, more than half of all suburban homes are unoccupied.

"I'd go looking for a house between $125,000 and $185,000,' security consultant and ex-burglar Mike McCaffrey told us. "Why? Because probably the people there are in their 30s or 40s, both are in the work force, and so are most of their neighbors. You're not likely to have a 70-year-old peeking out the window across the street.'

So there's often a need to go beyond loud noises and reliance on your neighbors.

Connecting your alarm system to an outside source of help

Some systems can be hooked up to automatic telephone dialers. When tripped, these play a prerecorded emergency message to a number you've preprogrammed. But check with your telephone company and the police for restrictions; reacting to the high incidence of false alarms, many communities won't allow systems that place calls directly to the police.

The most secure solution is a monitored system (different from the "totally monitored house' discussed in the box above). Tripping the alarm sends a signal to a central station--one operated by the alarm company or contracted out to a local answering service or to a national service that could be located anywhere.

With some such systems, the central station can even recognize the kind of emergency (burglary, fire, medical), tell which sensors were tripped, and possibly eve tell if the intruder is still in the house.

Once the alarm is confirmed, the central station will call the police, hospital, ambulance, or fire station--or dispatch a private patrol.

The choice here depends in part on your community. In places like Los Angeles, there aren't enough police units on duty to guarantee a quick response; other crimes rate more immediate action. When the police finally arrive, it's more for report-taking than with any hope of catching a burglar. In some other towns and cities, a patrol car may be on scene in minutes. Ask your own police department what kind of response time you can expect; they'll be honest with you. If it isn't fast, the burglar will know that also.

Private patrols are usually operated by a specific monitoring company, and usually get dispatched only to houses equipped with systems that company has installed. But some companies take "subscribers' if their systems are compatible with the monitoring link and if they have been properly installed.

"We don't want to be responsible for dispatching the police or a private patrol to a house with a sloppily installed, malfunctioning system. Our reputation is at stake,' Bill Joyce of the industry association told us.

Shopping for a system that suits your life style

Your own life style is unique; the system you install should be tailored to it.

Unfortunately, most aren't, which brings up a disturbing statistic: half the alarm systems installed get turned off after the first month. "I won't live in a prison,' "It's too much of a hassle to use'--such comments are heard all too often.

The key is the access panel: operating it should become second nature. Depending on the system, using it can be as simple as turning a key--or seem as complicated as programming a computer.

Choosing an access panel is like picking features on a new car; most options are supposed to make it easier to use, but some seem so complicated you wind up never using them at all--and, as our security experts all agreed, "The only security system that works is one you'll use.'

It's important to specify one that gives the information you need in terms you can understand. For some owners, blinking lights are a clear enough message; others find a written display more friendly. Some systems now talk to you with a voice synthesizer and respond to your voice.

The dealer can explain all the possibilities. Finding a reputable, well-established dealer can make all the difference in the world; see "How do you choose an alarm system' on page 130.

When not to buy an alarm system

If at all possible, buy before you've been burglarized. "Most people buy a system right after they've had a break-in,' security editor Sharon Koelle told us. "They feel violated, and feel they have to be guarded like Fort Knox. Soon they've signed for $2,500, $3,000, or more. But if the same people had arranged a sales call before the break-in, they might have decided that an investment of half that for a much simpler system would do the job-- and they'd likely have been right.'

But Koelle concluded: "A security system is the badge of the prudent. The people with a security system are the ones on the block who aren't scared.'

For more information

Ask your police department first, for brochures to start you off. Your library may also have helpful literature.

Best books we've seen: The Burglar Alarm Book, by Doug Kirkpatrick (Baker Publishing, Box 8322, Van Nuys, Calif. 91409, 1984; $11.45 postpaid), provides detailed information on planning, buying, and installing a system. Micro Mansion, by David Bonynge (Tab Books, Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. 17214, 1984; $18.95 postpaid), details house monitors and how to hook up your home computer to run such house control systems.

Photo: She's activating her security system before going out; built-in delay gives her time to leave before it arms. Written display tells her which openings aren't secured

Photo: Private patrol responds to alarm signal sent automatically to remote monitoring station. Deterrent sign warns burglar house is protected

Photo: Throughout the house, ways to detect an intruder and activate an alarm

Window screen sets off alarm if it's cut or taken off, letting you open windows but still feel safe. Sensor grid is undetectable; only wired plug shows

Smoke detector is part of any complete system. When tied into a monitored control box, it can trigger an alert to the fire department

Shock sensor detects breaking glass or splintering wood. When used on picture or bay windows and banks of glass, it eliminates need for sensors on each pane

Infrasonic detector combines heat and motion sensors for more reliable operation. Lower third of "eye' is covered, creating safe pet corridor along the floor

Surface magnetic sensor works like recessed one above. If the magnet isn't adjacent to wired section of circuit, warning signal is sent to control box

Keypad should be tamper-proof and preferably located in a zone protected by some other sensor. This one uses blinking lights to tell system status

Control box can be tucked away in closet or garage. Communicator to alarm service is built in for automatic response. He's setting up the system; normally the box is locked up

Breakage detector can be attached to any pane of glass. It's in clear sight, so it can act as a deterrent to a would-be intruder

Recessed magnetic sensor is completely invisible. Small magnet on door closes circuit on jamb--open the door and you break the circuit, trip alarm

Panic button can instantly activate alarm even if system isn't armed. Hand-held unit works by remote control; similar buttons can be built into access panels

Photo: Ear-splitting siren to scare burglar, alert neighbors is demonstrated in this San Jose showroom. Keypad controls system. Small doors, window represent typical sensor scheme

Photo: Array of sensors shows the basic types available. Three boxes on right are wireless transmitters (no wiring needed). Rolled-up mat at left goes under carpeting. Recessed sensors just below screen are virtually invisible when installed--any system's goal

Photo: Ultra-long flexible drill bit makes it easier to run wires through wall. When drill reaches access point, you hook wire through hole in drill tip, pull bit back out

Photo: Central station monitors subscriber systems; when alarm comes in, dispatcher pauses briefly for user's cancel code, then alerts police and/or private patrol
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:May 1, 1986
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