Home security systems not what they used to be, fortunately

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Home security systems have been around forever, starting with large dogs and burly men with clubs, evolving to the wireless, flexible, inexpensive digital systems offered today by companies like FrontPoint Security and Guardian Protection Service, which are quickly replacing the expensive, hard-wired alarm systems popularized by ADT and similar legacy companies.

It’s possible that Amazon Echo, Google Home and other general-purpose systems will eventually take over the home security market, but that may not be in the cards just yet. While it is no doubt possible to set up a home security system using the Amazon or Google digital assistants, it is likely to be a daunting task for anyone who is not a systems engineer or a dedicated tinkerer with time to spare.

Before popping the hood, let’s look for a minute at what a home security system does. Very simply, it uses a series of sensors to detect any suspicious activity that occurs when the system is armed. The sensors are connected to a control point in the home which in turn communicates with a monitoring center staffed by actual humans who respond when alarms go off and contact local fire, police and medical services.

There are several ways to do this. Until recently, it was fairly standard practice for the home control point to be connected to the monitoring center by either telephone lines or internet connections. The obvious flaw is that it is simple for a thief to cut the telephone or broadband wires leading into a home, thus disabling the connection to the monitoring center.

A better solution is to use cellular networks, so that the home control panel connects wirelessly to the monitoring center. This avoids the wire-snipping problem and is generally regarded as more reliable, although it should be noted that cell networks sometimes fail during extreme weather, wildfires and other disasters.

Easy to install

The wireless advantage also applies inside the home. Just 20 or 30 years ago, installing a home security system meant running wires throughout the building to connect the sensors to the control panel. Today’s systems use sensors that communicate wirelessly with the control panel. The best systems operate over their own network, not the home wi-fi system, which is vulnerable to criminal mischief as well as power failures and other glitches.

Back in the day, you had to be home to turn the system off and on but today, all modern systems let you arm and disarm the system through an app on your smartphone. You can also get a live shot from your cameras on demand. FrontPoint and others also offer a camera-equipped doorbell that lets you see who’s at the door, whether you’re home or not.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of a wireless system is that it is very easy for nearly any homeowner to install. The sensors are attached to doors, windows and other points with adhesive, eliminating the need for wiring. The consumer simply positions the sensors, plugs in the control point and goes through an initialization procedure.

This eliminates the need for a technician to come to home, which in turn makes it difficult for the security company to insist on a long-term contract, as was the practice until recently. You can read nearly any review site and find numerous stories of consumers who paid hundreds of dollars to have a system installed and were later told that even though they were moving away, they could not be released from their contract. The argument was that the installation fee had been built into the contract. This argument goes away when one installs the system herself.

Many, though not all, companies still require multi-year contracts but the better ones are flexible — allowing homeowners to take their equipment and move it to a new location when necessary.

More kinds of protection

Today’s systems also offer more types of protection than the old sensor-on-the-window set-up. The better ones provide fire and smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, window-smashing sensors and panic buttons that make it easy to summon emergency medical help, as well as remote thermostat controls and door-locking. The price you pay depends on how many and what type of sensors you have.

Companies like FrontPoint charge an initial price for the equipment — sensors, cameras, control panel, etc. — plus a monthly monitoring fee, which varies with the complexity of the system.

Interestingly, most home security companies get their equipment from the same manufacturers. It’s the monitoring and system integration that you’re paying extra for. You could, in theory, go buy the sensors, cameras, control panels and so forth and assemble a system yourself, perhaps using Amazon Echo or Google Home as the base. You can also find companies that will sell monitoring services directly to you, leaving it up to you to choose and install your own equipment. This may be fine but don’t expect much, if any, set-up help from these companies.

Later in this series, we’ll take a detailed look at some of the leading systems.





About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.