This is one of those posts I’ve been thinking about writing for a while – ever since I saw one of those dumb-ass ADT commercials with the guy with the black knit cap breaking in through the front door while some ‘helpless’ woman was in the kitchen.

I’m definitely no home-alarm security expert, but being a geek I really dug into the design and technology when I purchased systems for the two homes I’ve lived in here in Phoenix. We’re in a nice area, but home break-ins are a bit more common here than in Boulder. In one home I added an aftermarket system, and in the other we had it wired as the house was built. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • If you purchase an aftermarket system it will almost always be wireless, unless you want to rip your walls open. These systems can be attacked via timing and jamming, but most people don’t need to worry about that.
  • With a wireless system you have a visible box on each door and window covered. An attacker can almost always see these, so make sure you don’t skip any.
  • Standard door and window sensors are magnetic contact closure sensors. They only trigger if the magnet and the sensor are separated, which means they won’t detect the bad guy breaking the glass if the sensor doesn’t separate. You know, like they show in all those commercials (for the record I use ADT).
  • The same is true for wired sensors, except they aren’t as visible.
  • Unless you pay extra, all systems use your existing phone line with a special “capture” port that overrides other calls when the alarm needs it. For (possibly a lot) more you can get a dedicated cell phone line integrated into the alarm, so the call center still gets the alarm even if the phone lines are down. You probably want to make sure they aren’t on AT&T.
  • Most of the cheap alarm deals only give you a certain number of contact closure sensors and one “pet immune” motion sensor (placed centrally to trigger when someone walks down your major connecting hallway). Pay more to get all your first floor doors and windows covered. Get used to the ugly white boxes on everything.
  • Most alarm systems do not cover your exterior garage doors. The standard install protocol is to put a sensor on the door from your garage to the interior of the house. The only time we’ve been robbed is when we left our garage doors open, so since then we’ve always had them added to the system. They take a special contact closure sensor since the normal ones aren’t good with the standard rattling of a garage door and will trigger with the wind. Now every night when we set our alarm in “Stay” mode it won’t enable unless the doors are closed.
  • None of the basic systems includes a glass break detector. Most of these are noise sensors tuned to the frequency of glass breaking, rather than shatter sensors attached to each window. I highly suggest these and recommend you put them near the windows most likely to be broken into (ones hard to see from the street). Mine has only gone off once, when I dropped something down the stairs.
  • Understand which sensors are active in the two primary alarm modes – Stay and Away. Stay is the mode you use at night when you are sleeping (or if you are a helpless female in the kitchen in an ADT commercial). It usually arms the exterior sensors but not the motion sensor. Away is when you are out and turns on everything. I suggest having glass breaks active in Stay mode, but if you have a killer stereo/surround sound system that might not work out too well for you. There are also differences in arming times and disarming windows (the time from opening a door to entering your code).
  • When your alarm triggers it starts a call to the call center, who will call you back and then call the police. I’ve had my alarm going for a good 30 seconds without the outbound call hitting the alarm center. It isn’t like TV, and the cops won’t be showing up right away.
  • Most basic systems don’t cover the second story in a multilevel home. While few bad guys will use a ladder, know your home and if there are areas they can climb to easily using trees, gutters, etc. – such as windows over a low roof. Make sure you alarm these. Especially if you have daughters and want some control over their dating lives.
  • Most systems come with key fob remotes, so you don’t have to mess with the panel when you are going in and out. If you’re one of those people who parks in your driveway and leaves your garage and alarm remotes in the car, please send me your address and a list of your valuables. Extra points if you’re a Foursquare user.
  • Most alarms don’t come with a smoke detector, which is one of the most valuable components of the system. You regular detectors aren’t wired into an alarm sensor and are just to wake you up. Since we have pets, and mostly like them, we have a smoke detector in a central location as part of our alarm so the fire department will show up even if we aren’t around. We also have a residential sprinkler system, and as a former firefighter those things are FTW (no known deaths due to fire when one is installed and operational).

My alarm guys looked at me funny when I designed the system since it included extras they normally skip (garage doors, glass break, second story coverage, smoke detector). But we have a system that didn’t cost much more than the usual cheap ones, and provides much better protection. It’s also more useful, especially with the garage sensors to help make sure we don’t leave the doors open.

The one thing I’m not really big on is cameras. For my home I worry a lot more about someone getting in than capturing them after the fact. And we live in a densely populated subdivision with neighbors we know well and inform before we leave on big trips. That and an alarm sign out front are better than any crazy camera system.

Finally, make sure you test the system from time to time. It’s possible to mess up your phone connection or for the monitoring center to lose track of your account. If something does go wrong beat them like dogs – your safety is at risk. If you are paying $20+ per month for monitoring, they really should monitor.