Q: I'm in the market for a home security system. What can you tell me about home security systems in general? There seem to be so many aspects it's rapidly getting confusing. Should I be looking at a wireless system? If the price is too high, should I consider a do-it-yourself home security system?
A: I have a home security system in each of the two houses I own. Over the years, I oversaw the installation of security systems in many of the houses I built and remodeled. These electronic monitoring systems can bring you tremendous peace of mind, plus the added benefit of alerting you to other dangers beyond burglars and bad people.
My first experience with a professionally installed home security system was more than 25 years ago. It was placed in a custom home I was building. The owner and his wife were fearful about the woods behind their home. Even then, the quality of internal motion detectors and sound-attenuation devices was impressive.
A sound-attenuation monitor is a sensor that can detect specific sounds while ignoring others. A popular sensor is one that can recognize the sound of breaking glass, helpful when you want the alarm to go off the instant an intruder shatters glass to gain entry. This is not uncommon, as the bad guys know that a typical home security system will monitor doors and windows for movement. If you have a large window or patio door that is switched to make the alarm go off when it's opened, this will not do much good if the burglar just walks through the opening in the broken glass.
It's also very common for home security systems to have motion detectors. These clever devices are almost impossible to fool. I've tried in my own home by attempting to slowly sneak past them. I've yet to succeed. Motion detectors allow you to provide great protection at lower cost, as you don't have to worry about monitoring each door and window. If an intruder is indoors and moving about, motion detectors in the right places will trigger the alarm.
Be aware that a home security system needs to alert you or the authorities of other dangers. Fire, carbon monoxide, excessive heat, loss of heat, flooding and so forth are all threats to you and your property. Many different sensors can be installed that will automatically alert you or someone else that there's a problem at your home.
The vast majority of home security systems use a telephone line to communicate with a monitoring service. These companies then make the call to the police, fire department or other authorities. But there is a time delay with this method. Some communities offer radio communication from your home directly into the police or fire department. If you have interest in this nearly instantaneous response system, check with your local government to see if it offers this service.
Home security systems can be enhanced greatly with security cameras. Both wired and wireless cameras allow you to see what's going on, whether you're at home or away. The cameras record the images to a computer, where they are stored in case you need them. Some cameras even use infrared light to record in the dark.
I've seen do-it-yourself home security systems, but I feel they are just part of the package. One critical task your system should perform is communicate with a monitoring service in your absence. You need to make sure the monitoring service will accept your installation and equipment and take responsibility for your work. My guess is that few services will do that. If they are going to assume security liability, they will want to use their equipment and have it installed by their employees.
While I'm intrigued by the possibilities of a wireless home security system, at present the systems in both of my homes are hard wired. Tiny cables had to be extended to all the doors, windows and sensors and then back to the central control panel. This takes lots of effort and time, but there are distinct advantages to a hard-wired system.
If you can find a wireless home security system that is foolproof and has great reviews, I'd give it serious consideration, as it will be very easy to install. I just tested a wireless home security camera that worked very well. It was able to transmit what it saw to a Web site that allowed me to view what was happening at the house via the Internet, even though I was 1,000 miles away.
Tim Carter is a licensed contractor. To view previous columns or tap into his archive of information and sources of building materials, go to www.askthebuilder.com. You can write to Tim Carter at P.O. Box 36352, Cincinnati, OH 45236-0352.