Safe at Home? Electronic security alarm systems can add peace of mind

| February 1, 2011

Sarah Dusto, with her daughter Julia, recently installed ADTPulse in her home in Frisco, Texas.

According to the FBI, there were an estimated 2,222,196 burglaries in 2008, and break-ins at residential properties accounted for 70 percent of those offenses. No wonder that electronic security products have seen a steady increase in sales in recent years.

“People buy alarm systems for three reasons,” says Ralph Sevinor, a board member of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC) trade group, and owner of Wayne Alarm Systems in Lynn, Mass. “Peace of mind is the biggest reason. The second is that many properly installed and monitored systems entitle the owner to a substantial discount on their homeowners’ insurance. The third reason is, the homeowners have already had an incident.”

Not surprisingly, deterring a would-be home invader is one of the goals of any security system. David Margulies, a spokesperson for SIAC in Dallas, notes,  “The first benefit of an alarm system is to have a burglar never go to your house because they see the alarm company’s sign. Burglars who know there’s an alarm system generally will avoid that house. The second benefit is, if you’re in the house when someone breaks a door or window, you are warned.”

In newly built, upscale communities, Margulies says, “You wouldn’t see a house without a pre-wired alarm system. Some homeowners associations even cover the monitoring cost. Buying a house without an alarm system would be like buying a house without a stove.” For an older home, he says adding a security system can improve home resale value, especially in today’s housing market, as “it is an enhancement that’s not very expensive.”

The basic components of a standard home security system are a control panel, a keypad to arm and disarm the system, an audible siren, door and window contacts that sound an alarm when the door or window is opened, a motion sensor (often several) that detect movement — typically in a living room or foyer a burglar would need to cross — and 24/7 connection to a remote monitoring center, if that option is purchased. In that case, when an alarm is set off, the control panel sends a message over a telephone landline or cellular line to the monitoring station. The station will then contact the homeowner and/or the police or fire department, if additional services such as fire alarm and carbon monoxide detection are included.

Industry spokespeople strongly advise having a home security expert provide an on-site risk assessment and then choosing a customized system, as working parents with kids and pets have different needs than retired empty nesters who may travel often. For example, motion sensors can be set to account for the height and size of a dog or cat roaming the house, instead of triggering an alarm for an intruder.

Alarm systems are either wireless or hard-wired. The latter operate on electricity, while batteries power a wireless setup. In a traditional system, wires are run from each sensor to the master control unit. If a house is already built and wires can’t be easily installed or concealed, then a wireless system can be a more practical choice and is easier to install. Noting that there are tradeoffs with either choice, “It’s really a homeowner’s preference,” says Bob Tucker, a spokesperson for industry giant ADT.

Costs vary widely, though many security companies offer free installation and/or equipment if a long-term monitoring contract is signed. According to a 2006 industry survey, the average customer price paid for the installation of a residential burglar alarm system was $1,500, and the average monthly monitoring fee was $24.

Today, the newest alarm systems are going beyond safety to enhancing lifestyles. ADT rolled out its new ADTPulse system last fall. “What you can do now is remotely access your security system from anywhere in the world, using a web-enabled device — smartphone, Iphone, laptop — to control house lights, thermostat, door locks, and whatever is plugged into outlets, from coffee pots to air conditioners,’’ explains Tucker. He says the system is targeted to multitaskers, busy parents, empty nesters, gadget gurus and conservationists. Some users already claim a significant savings on energy bills.

“Here’s a typical scenario,” he says. “FedEx arrives at your house and rings your doorbell. You’re at work, and you get a text alert. You can see the live video of the FedEx guy at your door. You can deactivate your alarm system, unlock your door, let him in, see him place the package in your foyer and see him walk out. Then you lock the door and turn the security system back on. That’s enhancing lifestyle…it saves time and offers convenience.” The ADTPulse packages begin at $399 for installation plus whatever  components are selected (such as multiple sensors and motion detectors) and a monthly monitoring fee starting at $48. At the high end, the package is around $1,200, plus a monthly fee of $57. Companies such as Honeywell, Verizon and Xfinity are or soon will be offering similar products as well.

“As today’s wireless technology keeps improving, it becomes more affordable and easier to use,” says Margulies. “An alarm system is the gold standard to protect your family and home.”

The Electronic Security Association (ESA), formerly known as the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, offers homeowners these helpful guidelines on selecting an electronic security company:

•Ask your home insurance agent, neighbors, friends and relatives for referrals. A walk down your street will likely reveal those “protected by” signs on front lawns, giving you leads on companies that already have a presence in your neighborhood.

•Call several companies and ask if their employees are trained and/or certified by a nationally recognized agency, such as the ESA’s National Training School.

•Ask the companies for proof that they have the applicable state and/or local permits and licenses. For example, in Texas all security alarm companies must be licensed by the Private Security Bureau in the Texas Department of Public Safety.

•Ask if the company conducts pre-employment screening such as background checks and drug tests. As Ralph Sevinor observes, “You want to be sure that the people who are coming to your home, observing your high-value items and installing your security system are not convicted felons.”

•Contact the Crime Prevention department of your local police or sheriff’s department and the Better Business Bureau about any past interactions with the security company you are considering. Also ask the local police whether they there are fines for false burglar alarms. Unfortunately, responses to false alarms take up a great deal of time and resources in many police departments.

•After you’ve shortened your list to three or four alarm companies, ask for the name of the representative who will visit your home. When that agent arrives, ask to see their company identification.

•Ask each alarm company representative for a home and property inspection, recommendations for a security system, and a quote in writing. Use this checklist to compare packages. Prices will vary based on the level of protection and type of technology used, so be sure to compare apples-to-apples bids.

•Never feel pressured to sign anything, and be cautious of anyone who does push you to quickly sign a contract, or is offering unusual deals or incentives.

For more guidelines and a listing of ESA member companies, visit Helpful tips for security system owners, especially about avoiding typical user errors that cause false alarms, can be found at

A smartphone away from home can control security, or a touchscreen at home with some ADT Pulse packages. Photos courtesy ADT.

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