Back in the dark ages of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon to hear homeowners cavalierly remark that placing an alarm company sticker on a prominent window was just as good as actually installing a security system. Today that adage is as outdated as the analog telephone-based alarm systems that still dominate the landscape.
Home security these days means much more than an alarm hard-wired to the local police and fire departments—and certainly more than a sticker. Technology is enabling new means of communication via email and cellular phones. It’s also bringing homeowners the ability to monitor when the kids arrive home via their office computers and the opportunity to link security mechanisms directly into other automated systems such as H/VAC, lighting control and entertainment systems.
Because the security industry is changing at such a rapid clip, it’s critical for homeowners to understand which solution best suits their family’s needs, whether they are planning security for a new residence, adding a system to an older home or simply updating an existing alarm system.
First, a few facts:
The average U.S. home built today is 30 to 40 percent larger than it was 15 years ago, while family sizes are shrinking, according to Dwight Gibson, general manager of portable security at Ingersoll Rand Securities. Simply translated, homeowners need to think about securing more square footage than ever before. Today about 28 percent of U.S. homeowners have a security system. At the same time, homes are becoming increasingly “networked,” with about 50 million U.S. residences having access to broadband technology.
In fact, it’s the sweeping trend toward networked home automation that’s driving homeowners to rethink their security options. “It sounds strange, but home theater systems are the main driver for the uptake of technology in security and monitoring,” says Mark A. Visbal, director of research and technology at the Security Industry Association in Alexandria, Virginia.
Structured Cabling: All For One
The real catalyst is not entertainment systems, but the structured cable wiring that enables them. Structured cabling—a network of wiring behind the walls that links voice, video and data functions—differs from the old-school method of having separate lines for separate systems. In short, the same network that can distribute music from one room to another can also connect cameras, motion detectors and other
security devices both around the premises and at remote locations.
“By all means, if you’re building a house from scratch, you want to go with hard-wiring in the walls,” Visbal says. “It allows flexibility regardless of where you get your media from.” Indeed, having an automated, connected system opens communication beyond the old-fashioned landline telephone, the staple of the home security industry since the inception of the alarm. Until recently, all systems were hard-wired directly to local police and fire authorities, with notification to the homeowner also traveling via analog phone lines.
Today, more and more homeowners rely on email and cell phone communication, and a small percentage of them no longer even install a landline in their homes. They want to be able to send and receive communication with their security system no matter where they are, and no matter which device they elect to use.
Additionally, experts note that traditional telephone wires are not particularly reliable. If phone lines are down, a land line-based system will not work. “A burglar could easily cut a phone line on the outside of the house and the monitoring company has no idea the phone line has been cut and simply doesn’t get an alert,” says Jason Domangue, director of marketing at uControl Inc., an Austin, Texas, company that sells devices that can upgrade an existing alarm system to communicate via cellular phone and broadband. “Today we suggest investing in IP devices,” Domangue continues. “They can always be controlled by whatever devices come along, and that’s where the industry is headed.”
Going the structured cabling route would seem a no-brainer when a homeowner is dealing with new construction. But not everyone has the luxury of open walls, and some may already have an alarm system in place. Fortunately, the home security industry is now teeming with new devices that can upgrade existing systems.
These devices, sold by large security companies like ADT and Honeywell as well as newcomers such as uControl, retrofit an existing system and provide redundant communication via analog phone, the Internet and cell phones. “The main thing is getting away from plain old telephone service and moving to browser-based applications,” notes Visbal.
Purchasers can expect to pay a one-time fee for the device, and they may be subject to increased monthly fees depending on whether they elect to have just land-line and broadband communication—usually part of a standard package—or to add cellular alerts, for which most companies charge extra each month.
Safewatch Videoview camera from ADT
Home Surveillance vs. Home Security
As security options evolve, the digital video camera is evolving as a key piece of the networked system. These cameras, most of which are connected with other systems and can be viewed remotely in real-time, pose another important question for homeowners: Is the desired goal to self-monitor the premises, as in being able to know the kids arrived safely from school while you are at the office, or to see who’s knocking at the door from a monitor in a third-floor bedroom? Or is the goal to communicate a security breach to local authorities? These considerations are different, though not mutually exclusive.
AT&T Corp. notched up the surveillance business when it launched a censor-based monitoring system last fall. “Having a big company like that make a move into this market is definitely a sign of the times,” says Domangue. “But the issue is whether or not there is a professional monitoring center actively watching the home that can react on your behalf. You need to determine whether you as the homeowner want to be the middleman and have to make the call if there’s a problem.”
Off the Shelf
While networked solutions are clearly the wave of the future, a full-blown system is not always the answer to all security concerns. Security-minded homeowners seeking off-the-shelf solutions will find technology has also advanced in the realm of outdoor lighting, garage door openers and even exterior door locks.
“The wonderful thing about the market now is technology is at the point where a homeowner can get additional functionality out of something as commonplace as a lock set,” says Ingersoll Rand’s Gibson.
But Gibson warns that just because so many new gadgets are hitting store shelves doesn’t mean they’re all ready for prime time.
Breakthroughs are being made in biometrics, for example, but some fingerprint recognition locks that work seamlessly in temperate weather tend to freeze up when the thermometer takes a dip.
“With biometrics in general there are still some issues to be resolved in terms of the integrity of the reader in an outdoor environment,” Gibson says. “There’s definitely an electronic learning curve, but we’re striving to get it right.”
HomeTech- Home, Smart Home
It may not be the sexiest ambassador of new technology, but the home security industry has stealthily become one of the most important. Options for securing our residences are transcending clumsy lock and key scenarios with new solutions that would have sounded like fodder for sci-fi movies only a few years ago.
Keyless entry locks that recognize fingerprints, hand geometry and other biometric imprints are surfacing in retail stores. Security cameras that can be monitored remotely via a PC or mobile device are commonplace. And networked security systems are increasingly tying in with other whole-home systems such as audio/video and thermostat control. Read on for some of the safest bets in off-the-shelf home security innovation.
Homeowners are busier than ever, whether traveling, clocking extra office hours or carting children from one extracurricular activity to another. Many homeowners find that the ability to survey their property while they’re gone has become a necessity.
ADT Security Services, which has been providing surveillance systems for businesses for decades, recently introduced a similar concept for homeowners, Safewatch Videoview. Safewatch comprises professionally installed, motion-sensing cameras that can be accessed via a high-speed broadband Internet connection. Users enjoy features such as live video feeds on their office PCs and automatic email notifications when a child gets home from school. From $699 to $1,699; www.adt.com.
For DIYers, Swann Communications offers several options for self-installed and -monitored digital cameras. Its Digital Private Eye automatically records images when it detects motion. The camera, which runs either on a nine-volt battery or AC power, accommodates viewing in three modes: It will take still photos whenever it senses motion and records them on an SD memory card or sends them directly to a PC if connected; it can be used in Webcam mode to capture video at 30 frames per second and record them to a PC; and it also enables viewing of memory card content on the PC when connected with a USB cable. These cameras are not linked to police or fire departments, but offer peace of mind for homeowners who want to monitor their properties. $199 per camera; www.swann.com.au.
Few homeowners have escaped the frustration of getting locked out of the house, or having to race home to let in a service person. Fortunately, a barrage of new innovations means keys may soon be a thing of the past.
Imagine pulling up to your garage and being able to open the door by simply touching a secure door-opening device. bioMETRX, a developer of biometric-based technologies, is working with security industry stalwart Master Lock on a number of products that do away with keys, PIN codes and access cards. Their first collaboration is the Master Lock smartTOUCH garage door opener, a weatherproof, shockproof device that works with the majority of existing garage door mechanisms and can recognize multiple fingerprints to accommodate multiple family members or house guests. $150; www.biometrx.net.
smartTouch key pad
Even the grandfather of home security, the front door lock, is taking a 21st-century step. Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies recently introduced a series of Schlage electronic keypad locks and deadbolts. The locks can be programmed with up to 17 different key codes. They operate on a standard nine-volt battery that lasts up to three years, and contain blue light emitting diodes (LED) for enhanced visibility. Ingersoll Rand reports that homeowners are not only using the deadbolts for their exterior door entries, but they’re also using them to safeguard interior rooms such as wine cellars and home offices. From $119 to $139; www.ingersollrand.com.
Broadband, Cellular Communication
The vast majority of the 28 million-plus home security systems installed today are hard-wired to use traditional analog telephones as their only means of communication. Problem is, today’s homeowners don’t necessarily rely on their landline phone. They want to be able to monitor their homes via the Internet, their cell phones, or both. Some people don’t even bother to install traditional phones in their homes. Here are a few ways to bring antiquated systems up to speed.
Relative newcomer uControl offers an easy and cost-effective way to upgrade existing home alarm systems. Homeowners can self-install the uControl Link, which automatically enables communication via traditional phone lines, broadband connections and cellular phones. uControl can monitor any service the existing system is configured for—burglary, fire, medical emergencies, carbon monoxide detection and more. $19.95 per month for broadband and analog phone; $24.95 per month for broadband, analog phone and cellular;
Honeywell recently launched a series of add-on devices that allow greater control and access to its security systems via the Internet. Its new Internet Connection Module enables control of security cameras and thermostats from a Web-based browser; notification of events via an email, text message or cell phone call; and real-time feedback via the Internet and mobile devices. Visit www.security.honeywell.com.
Operating a home safe used to mean another key to stash away or combination to remember. No longer. SentrySafe’s new Fingerprint Safe contains a biometric lock that recognizes up to seven unique fingerprints. One safe “manager” retains an access code that provides override capabilities and the ability to add six additional users. The safe has been tested for fire protection of digital media including CDs, DVDs and memory sticks for up to two hours at 1,850 degrees. And for those who still prefer the old-school method, it can also be programmed with a combination. Visit www.sentrysafe.com.
Writer Catherine Applefeld Olson is based in Alexandria, Virginia.