Alarm Systems

Deciding which alarm system is right for your home can be a confusing and frustrating task, but the installation of a residential alarm system (including burglar and fire alarm components) is one of the most prudent steps you can take to help protect you, your property and your loved ones. Here are some tips to consider when deciding how to secure your home:

Selecting a Security Company

Look for a company that has a strong history of quality and service. In most states, alarm companies and installers are unregulated, so it can be difficult to tell the difference between a qualified, dependable company and a fly-by-night operation. If you are interested in a company:

  • Speak to the local police department or Better Business Bureau to determine if they have any knowledge of or have ever received complaints.
  • Check if the company has appropriate state and local licensing, where required.
  • Ask if the company conducts pre-employment screening.
  • Make sure the company is listed with UL (Underwriters Laboratories).
  • Ask the company to provide you with references of existing clients to consult.
  • After you've agreed to an inspection and a quote, request the name of the company representative who will visit your home and require that the representative show proper identification when they arrive.

Choosing an Alarm System

For many people, a home security system usually means one thing: a burglar alarm. However, a fire alarm is just as important. Residential alarm systems consist of two parts: the components and the monitoring of the system. Following is a list of common alarm components:

Burglar Alarm Components

  • Motion detectors: These sensors use infrared beams to detect any motion inside the house and should be placed in central areas such as main hallways and stairwells.
  • Door and window contacts: These magnetic contacts create an electrical current between adjoining magnets located on a door and a doorframe or a window and a windowsill. If the door or window is opened, the current is broken and the alarm is tripped. They should be located on every door and window large enough to allow access to your home.
  • Window or door screen wires: These components activate if the screen is removed from the frame or if the screen is cut away from its frame.
  • Panic buttons: These buttons can be activated manually if you detect or suspect an intruder and can be placed near beds or doorways. Sometimes these buttons can consist of a wireless unit that can be worn as a necklace.
  • Glass breakage sensors: Components placed on windows that can detect vibrations when glass is broken to gain entry to your home.
  • Stress sensors: Sensors placed under rugs, carpets or floor joists that activate when stepped on. These sensors are often used in front of safes or valuable art.
  • Closed-circuit TV: An internal television system that allows you to view remotely a particular area of your house or property.

Fire Alarm Components

  • Smoke detectors: There are two types of smoke detectors, ionization and photoelectronic. Ionization units use chemical reactions to detect the presence of smoke and respond well to fast-flaming fires, such as paper. Photoelectronic detectors work best for slower, smoldering fires, which are more common in typical residences. Photoelectronic detectors may also be equipped with an internal heat detector.
  • Heat detectors: There are also two types of heat detectors, fixed temperature and rate-of-rise detectors. Fixed temperature components activate once a room reaches a predetermined temperature, usually 135° F or 190° F. Rate-of-rise heat detectors have fixed temperature sensors, but they can also detect rapid increases in temperature.

Smoke detectors can detect smoke from a smoldering fire long before a fire actually erupts. Heat detectors, in contrast, can only be activated by high heat levels generated by a fully engulfed fire. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends one smoke detector for every 900 square feet of living area. In addition, smoke detectors should be placed within 15 feet of all sleeping areas. Your home's specific needs should be confirmed with your security company.

Monitoring Service

Remember that no matter how advanced or extensive your system may be, it is only as good as the service that is monitoring your home. A key consideration when choosing your security company is the features of their monitoring service. Virtually all companies will offer 24-hour monitoring, but there are other aspects of service for you to research, including:

  • Cellular or radio backup: alarm systems are monitored through your telephone line. Beside the threat of burglars cutting your telephone line before they even enter your home, your telephone service can be disabled by inclement weather, accidents, equipment failures and various other reasons. A backup system, using either cellular or radio technology, provides constant monitoring of your service and can alert the security company when the standard telephone system is disabled.
  • System testing: Many security companies have testing capability for your home system. Signals are sent on an interval basis (usually once daily) to verify that the system is enabled and the telephone line is operable. Ask your company what type of testing they provide and what steps are taken if the test detects a system failure.
  • Maintenance: Look for a company that offers annual maintenance. Your security system should be tested and cleaned once a year to ensure optimal performance.

Avoid False Alarms by:

  • Knowing how your system works.
  • Knowing the cancellation code.
  • Ensuring that all users are trained with the system.
  • Calling your alarm company before you move, start renovations, purchase a pet or change your telephone number.
  • Knowing how to clear an incorrect code if you make a mistake with the keypad.
  • Knowing how to "bypass"(shut off) the motion detector when you are at home.
  • Having your alarm company replace batteries as needed; wireless systems generally require this more often.
  • Keeping smoke detectors covered during construction and renovation projects.
  • Have the system inspected and cleaned annually.

More Tips

  • Consider placing individual contacts on any home safes and valued personal belongings, such as paintings. These contacts will activate the alarm if your safe is opened without authorization or if a painting is removed from the wall.
  • If you own a vacation or secondary home in a northern climate, have a low temperature sensor installed. This sensor can help to prevent frozen pipes and resulting water damage.
  • Depending on your home and its location, consider the following additional components on your home security system: a gas leakage detector, a sprinkler system flow alarm and a seismic shut off valve system, which shuts off your natural gas in the event of an earthquake.

Next: Burglar-Proofing