Electronic Security (Alarm Systems)
The third and “highest” level of security, is “electronic security”. Here the market is ripe with over 180 local alarm companies only too happy to serve you with their version of a “high end” solution to the problem. Today, it is very much “buyer beware”in this market. Some words of caution are in order:
Do the simple, most cost-effective, things first that I have described in the first two parts of my article. Dollar for dollar, they afford you the best protection for your money, and keep on protecting you month after month with little or no upkeep. For many people, they may be all the protection they need – again depending upon the amount of risk they feel is present.
Even if you decide on an alarm system, good physical security is absolutely essential to prevent “smash and grab” break ins (It only takes several minutes to steal your valuables, and can take considerably longer for any manned response to a triggered alarm). Remember, alarm systems basically only warn after your home security has been breached. Good physical security helps ensure that doesn’t happen. (It is interesting to note that prime target shops such as computer and video rental stores are now required by many insurance companies to have bars on all windows as well as an alarm system, in order to obtain insurance coverage! Again, because of the high risk of “smash and grab”!).
The first decision to be made once you have decided to obtain an alarm system, is how you wish to pay for it. Before shopping, decide whether you wish to lease or purchase a system from one of the larger security firms , and pay high monitoring fees ongoing (always under contract), or pay a higher price up front to purchase the system , and enjoy lower monthly monitoring fees ongoing (often with no contractual obligations). It’s very much the old adage “pay now or pay later !!” It is always cheaper to purchase in the long run. Large alarm company salespeople are strongly encouraged to sell leased systems over outright sale systems for several reasons. Leased systems allow companies to advertise extremely low up front prices since they are retaining ownership of the equipment and don’t have to amortize the costs in their prices. Most important to them, it also ensures customers must continue to stay with them long term at their higher monitoring rates (Human nature being what it is, most customers will opt to re-sign a high priced monitoring contract once again, rather than switch out the equipment for another supplier, with all its associated hassles).It also ensures they don’t have to offer the latest technology alarm panels to attract customers, since most consumers are not aware of brand names/models etc in this market. If on the other hand, you opt to purchase your panel, you can be reasonably assured you will receive the latest technology of alarm equipment, since the medium and smaller companies don’t have large inventories of older equipment which they must first clear from their shelves. (Many of the larger firms have equipment made at the factory with their name and stamp on it, which implies a long term commitment with that firm regardless of the state of development of the hardware). If you decide on the purchase option, with no contract for the monitoring, or no monitoring, look to the smaller contractors, since all medium and large companies will only deal in the contractual monitoring option. (One of the secrets of the alarm industry is that there is a 97% retention rate for monitored systems after the initial contract period is finished, so it pays them to get the customer’s business any way they can !!) Leased and purchased systems from larger firms automatically include maintenance (at least for the first while); purchased systems from smaller contractors vary greatly for ongoing maintenance support, but reputable firms will go out of their way to ensure ongoing customer satisfaction.Typically, most companies (large or small) will warranty the system as long as it is monitored through them for everything except lightning strike and failure of the backup battery. Some of the larger companies however, will charge a maintenance fee of several dollars per month to provide maintenance after a certain period of time. When dealing with a large firm, ask before commiting whether or not their equipment is “proprietary”. What this means it that only they can monitor this equipment since it has communciation formats unique to their monitoring station. This is another unethical way to ensure that you must always deal with them. NEVER purchase equipment which is proprietary since this limits your future options to shop around. Also inquire about ongoing service visit costs, which can be significant through the larger companies (average $90 per visit and hourly rates up to $50 per hour). Remember that the lease or purchase of an alarm system is a long term commitment with the supplier of your choice, so be sure at the front end that you are going to be comfortable with your choice long term.
Alarm systems are currently being advertised for ridiculously low prices – many even being provided for free ! However, don’t be fooled – you still only get what you pay for in this business as in all others !! (Think of so called “free” purchased systems with their bloated monitoring rates as just another disguised finance arrangement !!) In recent years, competition has become fierce – even cut throat – and as I mentioned previously, all the major players in the alarm business have resorted to advertising ridiculously low prices to provide and install an alarm system to attract your interest, and get their foot in your door !! (Its not an exaggeration to say that at the current moment, the alarm industry is engaged in a cut throat price war with the “mass marketers” of alarm systems. (Even Bell Canada entered the alarm business for awhile with the usual “mini system”, hoping to “cream skim” the market of lucrative monitoring revenues). Many of their salespeople have strict quotas and are routinely fired when they eventually don’t meet them. As a result, they often resort to high pressure tactics to get you to sign a contract. Bear in mind again, that large companies push leasing over purchasing for the simple reason that it ensures you remain with them for monitoring. With a purchased system, you are free to shop around for your monitoring after the initial contract expires. Others actually telemarket alarm systems (it is beyond this writer’s comprehension why anyone would buy a system over the phone, when no one has even evaluated the needs of the home in question) But what they don’t highlight is they are also locking you into that very high priced contract for from 3 to 5 years for monitoring, with prices running from $20 to over $50 ($30 per month being the North American average), often calculated based on the amount of equipment installed (Another way to boost monitoring prices !!) Once they arrive on the scene, their low price rarely covers enough equipment to properly protect your home, so you may end up spending in many instances the same amount to install their rental system, as you would spend to purchase one from a smaller contractor – while still being obligated to pay inflated monitoring rates, and continue to be subject to all sorts of fees later for every little service you may need. Remember, larger firms have a considerable overhead in sales staff, administration, and especially advertising, which must be covered in their rates. Give serious consideration to whether or not you wish a “monitored” alarm system (monitored remotely over phone lines by the alarm company for a monthly fee) or a “local” alarm (which simply sets off a very loud horn inside or outside the building to scare off thieves, and depends upon the goodwill of your neighbours to call authorities). There are some valid situations where a non-monitored system can be effective, although the monitored system is far superior in that it provides immediate response to burglary, fire, and emergency situations . (False alarms where police are called to respond to a blasting outside horn can cost you money in some jurisdictions in addition to their obvious nuisance value !! In Ottawa, police will not respond to a local outside horn unless the party reporting the noise gives a proper address. Otherwise, police consider it an infraction under the noise bylaws) Most insurance companies will give discounts from 10 to 15% on home insurance when the alarm system is monitored for both burglary and/or fire. Remember, though, that the alarm company makes the majority of its revenues from the monthly monitoring fee assessed each and every month ($35 per month / 5 year contract the North American average). As you might expect, none of the larger companies will provide a “local” system (or if they will, it is typically double the price it should be if you shop around). As a result, you will not hear many advocates for a “local” alarm system, even though in certain specialized circumstances they can make sense.
Be very cautious of alarm companies offering “specials” of $199 or so (or even “free”) for a “complete” system. This is the installation price for a minimal leased system (2 doors and one motion detector) and is a “low ball” tactic to get in the door, after which they will boost the price significantly to cover extra options needed. Or , if it is a sale at this price, they may be using bottom of the line equipment which in itself can sometimes be the cause of false alarms. And always, they will lock you into that non-refundable contract for 2 to 5 years to recoup their costs and capture those highly desirable monthly revenues. (One particular company in the area demands written cancellation sixty days prior to the end of the 5 year contract – otherwise the term is automatically extended for an additional five year term. Should you wish to exit the contract prior to the end of the term, they may actually sue you for the balance). At the time of this printing, monitoring is available starting at $19.95+HST per month with no contract required, on purchased systems, and is available through a number of smaller alarm contractors (average purchase price $500 for four doors and two motion detectors installed). These firms, in turn, outsource to professional monitoring companies, which are as fully qualified and reputable as any of the larger “in-house” monitoring stations owned by major alarm companies (contrary to advertising by the larger firms which indicates otherwise). Many of these smaller contractors actually use the facilities of the larger firms on a subcontract basis. Should problems arise with your system (which sends trouble and alarm status to the monitoring station via your interconnected home telephone) they in turn will advise your alarm installer, who will rectify the situation. After sales service is very important with the purchase of any alarm system. These systems are intricate, quite sensitive, and although very reliable, may require fine tuning on occasion to continue to perform properly. In fact, with most larger companies using exactly the same hardware, after sales service quality and costs may well be the main differentiator between companies. Should the smaller firm go out of business in the future, any of the larger firms will be only too pleased to pick up your monitoring requirements, and your maintenance (this is a gift to them, since they don’t have to install the system). Smaller, one man outfits can often give a level of low or no cost personalized service, because their name and reputation is highly dependant upon word or mouth advertising. Smart business people know that a single dissatisfied customer is one too many !!! However, it always pays to look at the reputation, ethics, service backup capabilities, and longevity of any firm you plan to deal with, and this is especially important with smaller contractors.
Should you own your alarm system, and have come to the end of your original high priced monitoring contract, consider shopping for a new supplier of alarm monitoring services who doesn’t require a long term contract. However, if leaving the original supplier (who installed your system), insist they do two things before going – returning the installer’s code back to factory default, and unlocking the code so it can be changed. Without this, no one else can reprogram your system for the dial in numbers of your new monitoring supplier without physically swapping out the alarm panel (cost to you for a return to factory about $50). With many boards older than 10 years, this may not even be possible) Remember, you own this system and they have no right to refuse this service. They also should never charge for a visit to do this, since it can or should be able to be done over the phone line via their remote dial-in software at the station. However, don’t expect older alarm panels to provide anything other than basic service. Better to change the system out and get a modern system. You wouldn’t run your business using a 8088 vintage computer. Why expect the same vintage alarm panel to serve your current security needs ?!! (Remember, most companies will swap out your older equipment for a modern panel and keypad for about $100 to ensure they capture your monitoring revenues) In designing an alarm system, the contractor or salesman must consider whether you have pets (which can significantly affect the types of “space detection” alarm options used inside the home), and whether or not you are prepared to live with the technical aspects of turning on and off the alarm system religiously when you leave the house. Although modern alarms are very “user friendly” to operate (and will be explained properly to you by any reputable alarm company), it may not suit some people’s inclinations or lifestyles. The alarm system could end up being a waste of money if you don’t use it! One of the secrets of the alarm industry, is the fact that the alarm stickers prominently displayed on doors and windows provide a significant deterrent in themselves! (That is one of the reasons why all alarm companies jealously guard distribution of their stickers !!!) Normal layout of an alarm system will involve contacts wired to every entry/exit and patio door, plus some form of interior “space detection” device. This usually is a passive infrared motion detector which looks for the heat of a moving human body crossing an area subdivided into a number of zones. Professional quality devices today are quite secure against “false alarms” due to the sophisticated technology involved (and this is another reason to only install professional quality equipment). For difficult situations, “dual technology” devices are available at extra cost, which use infrared combined with microwave, and which will only alarm when both technologies detect a person (this is an improvement in that the common causes of false alarms for each technology are different, and both technologies must sense a person simultaneously to cause an alarm condition). Professional installers also know how to avoid problems caused by improper location of these devices within the home. Motion detectors can be masked with special lenses to allow normal movement of pets within the home (called a “pet alley” lens). (Recent development of this “pet immune” technology has put a number of excellent devices on the market many of which are rated for cats to 25 lbs, and even more expensive devices which ignore large animals such as dogs up to 100 lbs. Set up properly, they work very well !) Dual technology glass break detectors are available which are carefully tuned to alarm on the frequency of breaking glass combined with the compression wave created when glass breaks. A heat detector can be set above the furnace which will set off the 24 hour fire alarm circuit on the system. Special smoke detectors can also be attached to the alarm system to provide fire protection in the same manner. Low temperature devices can guard against freezing should the furnace malfunction during an extended absence. Water level switches can guard against rising water levels in the basement should the sump pump malfunction.. (Smoke, heat, low temperature, and water level detectors are always “on” even when the burglary portion of your alarm system is “off”). All of the latest technology panels also easily provide for the addition of options such as remote arming and disarming of the panel, and home automation functionality.
Be cautious of any company that insists they can wire upstairs or main floor windows with no wire showing, after the house has been completed. Although it is possible to do it on ground floor windows, it is usually not possible to do it without tearing the vapour barrier inside the wall. This can over time cause serious moisture damage to the home at the point of the tears. However, since this only shows up over time, many alarm companies will wire your windows this way to win your business. If you insist on having this done, have it done by someone experienced in doing this sort of installation, or have it done externally and use special moulding (which usually ends up being concealed by drapes anyway) to conceal the wiring. Remember, if the window is broken and they enter without actually tripping the window contacts and setting off the alarm, and you have no interior motion detectors, your security has been defeated.
Should you choose to purchase an electronic alarm system, do not take a “micky mouse” do-it-yourself approach to the situation in an attempt to save a few dollars!! Deal with a reputable firm of your choosing, after getting at least two or three quotes (they can vary widely), and go with the company and people that make you feel most comfortable, no matter what their size. Read all of the terms of any contract closely, since you may only be leasing the equipment when you think you are purchasing it. Beware of companies reluctant to allow you time to read the contract and who exert high pressure to have you sign right away! This is a pretty good indication that you are dealing with a reasonably aggressive company utilizing specialized sales people to capture your business (translation – the sales person is working on commission and has a quota to meet. His or her commission is included in the price you pay for your system!!!)
A home that is properly “prewired” can save you money on the alarm installation, provided it has been done properly by someone familiar with the requirements of an alarm installation, and is not just prewired for telephone. Many builders contract with security firms or subcontractors to have all their new homes prewired for their customers. They are generally charged $150 to $250 for this service by the security company, who often leave their stickers on one or two windows, hoping the new buyer will not bother to shop around and call them directly for their alarm system. Or as often happens, call that particular alarm company in the mistaken belief that they must deal with them and no other. My advice, shop around.! This prewiring should be worth $50 to you off the purchase of any alarm system from any dealer. If it isn’t, keep shopping !
Check to ensure that your phone line where it enters the house is not exposed. If it is (and those at most older homes are), you run the risk of having someone cutting your phone line before breaking in , in order to disable the monitoring capabilities .Although this seems an obvious security risk, in my experience I have never heard of this actually happening prior to a residential break in. I am amazed that it doesn’t actually happen given the ease of disabling an alarm this way. Many alarms have a built in telephone line monitor which can be set to trip the alarm if the phone line is cut when the system is armed. This will cause the system to activate and blow the local horn, but of course it will still be unable to communicate with the monitoring station.(Cellular backup is available for most panels at extra cost for critical installations.) However, the best thing is to have the phone line buried, armoured, or re-routed and concealed.
Never agree to pay a fee to interconnect the alarm to the telephone system. This is always done as part of the installation of any monitored alarm system. In order for the alarm to function properly, it must seize the line in an alarm condition and exclude any telephones on that line to ensure that a burglar can’t simply lift a telephone and deactivate the dialing capabilities of the panel. This requires a special jack and cable, and proper wiring (the vast majority of home owner installed systems purchased at retail are simply plugged into a phone jack and are absolutely useless for dialing out if a burglar picks up any extension telephone set on that same line).
The latest high technology professional wireless alarm systems have come a long way recently, and are no longer as prone to false alarming as they were. However, most professional companies avoid installing them as the prime system, since they remain far more trouble prone due to the need for periodic battery replacement (not always easily done by anyone but an installer). The best of these systems are very expensive as well. The cheapest of these devices available in hardware stores are strictly “do it yourself” projects, and usually encompass a phone dialer in an attempt to avoid monitoring costs. Professionally speaking, that sort of approach is very unwise, since phone dialers calling friends and relatives usually prove to be ineffective (someone once described installing a non-monitored alarm system as akin to throwing a drowning man a lifepreserver without a rope attached !!!) If you must do this, at least have the system dial your numeric pager (although most of these low end systems are not yet capable of this type of dialing either). It remains a far wiser idea to install a basic professional hardwired system, have it monitored professionally, and use wireless components to service points impossible to reach with wiring (there are actually very few of those !!).
Ask about the provisions to move the equipment if you move to a new home, to ensure that the contract allows this flexibility. As I said, the newer wireless alarm systems are considerably more expensive initially, but offer the option of easy transfer to another home at a later date. Many firms will box up your old system (hardwired or wireless) and re-install it in your new home for a nominal fee, to ensure they don’t lose your future monitoring revenues.
Whoever you decide to deal with, ensure that you will be able to obtain as many stickers as you need to adequately cover all vulnerable doors and windows. (The availability of custom stickers displaying a company name and phone number is one more indication of a company truly in the business long term). Many firms scrimp in this area to save money, and this is poor policy. However, don’t expect them to give you additional stickers (many of which are passed along to friends who don’t have the system to go along with them ! This reduces everyone’s security.) Probably the most important sticker is the one smack in the middle of your garage door, clearly advertising to the most casual observer the presence of an alarm system).
Check with your neighbours to get references to companies that have served them well. In the small business environment, “word of mouth” is often the best way to locate reputable businesses. Remember, there is no licensing requirement for alarm installers in Ontario yet, as there is in most other provinces, so you really have no way of ensuring a quality installation. If in doubt, check out the company or contractor with the Better Business Bureau.
Effective 18 May 1998, the Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton now requires a one time license of $26, which registers your alarm system with the police authorities. Each alarm in which police are dispatched, and which proves to be false, will involve a $60 charge. The only way to avoid this is to subcontract the actual response responsibilities to a” third party response company” (such as Pinkertons or Alarm Response to name only two) who are responsible to visit the home once notified of an alarm condition by the monitoring company (average charge per response $37.50). If they find proof of an actual break-in, the police are then notified and will always respond to their call . These firms always charge for every visit regardless of whether or not it is real or not. All the more reason to be sure you choose an alarm company which installs a professional system, and which is seriously interested in working with you on an on-going basis to prevent false alarms.
Lately several U.S.-based companies have begun marketing “over the counter alarm systems” which promise relatively inexpensive space detection monitoring of the area inside the home on a “standalone” basis. These systems measure the air compression of a door or window opening suddenly. I suggest you avoid these as a general rule. They are very susceptible to false alarms, and tend to be overpriced due to the multi-level marketing involved, and really don’t do anything more than the same type of hardware which has been available for years through such established retailers as Radio Shack. In this writer’s opinion, none of the equipment fitting this description can be considered professional quality equipment, and to my knowledge, no monitoring station will hook up to such a false alarm prone system.
Recently a new company on the scene in Ottawa has begun to aggressively market a minimal system (2 doors / 1 motion detector) which is completely wireless, and which you own immediately with no money down, with a four year $30 per month contract for monitoring. They have flooded the market using students to sell these systems who have limited knowledge of security systems and their requirements. Although the hardware is technically good quality, it is the bare minimum system necessary, and has all the false alarm problems inherent in all wireless systems. Their success in the Ottawa market is clear evidence of the success of high intensity marketing combined with the surprising number of consumers who buy security on impulse without doing comparative shopping. There is clear evidence on several installations that I have inspected that the system is not always correctly wired into the phone system, allowing the system to be easily defeated. I strongly suggest you can do far better, in spite of the very attractive pricing (As an addendum to the above, this firm has now gone out of business and sold all their accounts to another Toronto based firm, who (I presume) will do their best to clean up the mess!!).
Very recently, another very slick company has begun to sell alarm systems door to door, promising to save you monitoring fees by grouping with your neighbours and having the systems dial each other. Each system costs in excess of $2000, and is nothing more than an internal motion detector hung on the wall with a built-in phone dialer. To ease the pain, they throw in a few gimmicks such as air horns, and fire extinquishers which perhaps add to the marketing appeal, but doesn’t justify in any way their overpriced product. The system design is totally inadequate, and is sold using fear tactics, by people dressed in very official uniform dress. In this writer’s opinion, this is the most extreme case of excessive selling in this market I have ever encountered, and frankly borders on fraud !!
Another approach being promoted in the marketplace, is the ability for the monitoring station to listen in to the home after an alarm has occured, in order to actually challenge anyone on premises (called in the industry “two way voice”). While this may sound like an improvement over conventional monitoring, it sounds far better than it actually is, but it certainly has valid marketing appeal. I know that police agencies tend to like it, since they tend to see it as another way to verify false alarms; however, in reality, it is not as effective as it might appear at first glance. This ability, and the special equipment needed, has been around for some time, and has never really caught on with consumers (although at least one large national company has “hung their hat” on this technology). In this writer’s opinion, it is of very limited if any extra value, and certainly shouldn’t detract from your shopping for the overall best security value for your home.
Many alarm companies are establishing alliances with other firms such as retailers, real estate agents, and insurance companies to have their alarm services promoted along with the host’s services. While there is certainly nothing at all wrong with this approach, be aware that such services usually end up being no real bargain, and as one more part of the mass marketing scheme for alarm system promotion, usually are at the higher cost end of the scale in ways to obtain your system.
After you have narrowed down your search, ask your prospective supplier(s) whether their panel(s) incorporate the very latest in false alarm prevention features. While lack of these should not preclude you from accepting their service (everything else being satisfactory), it will at least position their hardware against the latest in the marketplace. Some of the best of the new features are:
1- Delay before transmission, giving you 30 or so seconds to shut off a false alarm before the panel grabs the telephone line and dials the monitoring station.
2- Recent close delay, sending a special code to the station along with the alarm codes, indicating that the alarm has occured within several minutes of system arming (a common false alarm).
3- “Intellizoning” or “cross zoning” , which requires a motion detector to trip twice within a given time frame, or two motions on a system to both trip within a set period, before an alarm is generated (This is probably the most important false alarm prevention development, since many alarms are caused by motions tripping due to environmental causes).
4-“Two button panic functions” to prevent accidental panic alarms when only one key is pressed by accident. Two key panic arming is the way the industry is going.
5-“User disarmed after alarm “ which is what it says. This code sent along with the other codes for the zone that was tripped, is interpreted by the station as a “cancel” code, and no action will be taken to dispatch.
Another significant development inherent in the latest panels is sophisticated software incorporating “event logs” stored in the software of the panel. This provides the capability of doing “real time” remote diagnostics of panel functions and operation. This allows the dealer to access the panel to investigate the causes of a particular event or alarm with precision accuracy. This is the single most important feature in the newest panels from a dealer’s perspective in analyzing problems and doing remote diagnostics. Ultimately, this provides a dealer’s customers with a significantly higher level of true support. In this writer’s opinion, as a consumer, I would not purchase an alarm panel from any supplier (regardless of size) unless he could assure me of the availability of such software in his panel, and also assure me his panels are put on line with his corporate computer (in addition to the monitoring station receiver which it must be to be monitored).