Electronic Security Alarm Systems

People always ask me if I think they should get a security system, and I say yes. I have one, and I recommend them highly. I’m a firm believer in alarm systems and think they should be part of any personal security plan. They’re the best way to deflect home burglary. I don’t know of anybody with a well- installed system who isn’t happy he got it.

Do alarms systems actually deter burglaries? Studies and experience say they do. A Temple University study says that a home without an alarm is nearly three times as likely to be bro ken into. In cases where a home with an alarm was burglarized, either the alarm wasn’t activated, or the burglar grabbed a few things before being scared off by the alarm. In rare cases the burglar defeated the alarm system, either because he had inside knowledge of alarm systems, or because the system wasn’t very well planned out.

Generally, burglars don’t even get inside a home with an alarm system, because once it sounds, they flee. Yes, there are crooks who can bypass alarms, but I’m not overly concerned with them. I figure if they can do that, they’re probably going to hit someplace really worth it to them—like Brink’s, or a much bigger house than mine. Statistics say that’s the case, too. So if you question whether or not it’s worth it to install an alarm system in your home, I say: How much is a good night’s sleep worth to you? People have reported to me that they really do sleep better at night after installing an alarm system. In fact, many said they didn’t know how lightly they had been sleeping until they got the system. For many people, the security and peace of mind alone are worth the cost of a system.

What Kind of System?

The subject of alarms is broad and widely treated. Entire books have been written on the design and selection of home security systems. I think there are a few basics that are important for everyone to know; these basics can help you put together a system that will, work well as part of your overall personal security plan.

When first contemplating the purchase of a home security system, many people have it in mind to protect their property when they’re away from home. But a security system does far more than that: It protects your person first, and your property second. With that in mind, consider the goal of your home security system. Is it to scare off an intruder who would attempt to break in when you’re away from home or, worse, when you’re home? Or do you want to catch criminals in the act? To protect your person, you wouldn’t want anyone to actually get inside your home. For this reason, a security system that makes a lot of noise to scare someone off would be the least you would want. There are silent alarms, which alert a monitoring station unbeknownst to the crook, but those are generally used on business properties. As a cop, I always enjoyed responding to a good silent alarm at a business after hours. I knew the suspect was still inside and I would have a chance to apprehend him without endangering the public. This is an alarm that’s truly crime prevention, because police can take the crook off the streets, at least for a while. On the other hand, an audible alarm will scare the criminal off, and if he doesn’t get caught, he may attempt to break in again some night.

In your home, however, you want to scare the intruder away so you, your family, and your neighbors aren’t injured. Basically, the goal is to keep the intruder out of your home, period.

As an aside, I know someone who actually got a basic alarm system not only to keep intruders out, but to keep a fun-loving teenager in at night. After discovering that the kid had been slipping out the bedroom window to party with friends, Mom installed the alarm so it wouldn’t happen anymore. Talk about peace of mind!

When deciding how much—or how little—security you need, remember that your primary goal is to keep intruders from get ting into your home. If they do happen to get in, you want them to be frightened away.

Buying suggestions:

Before you buy, or if you already have a security system and you want to update it, consider the following suggestions:

1. Contact several reputable alarm companies for quotes and design options. Get recommendations from friends, family, or business owners you know. Compare prices and advice.

2. Is the proposed system easy to use? The main point is to be able to turn it on and off easily. You don’t want to get bogged down in technology so complex you can’t under stand or use it, or turn your home into a fortress. You want to be able to move around freely and enjoy your home, while still having an electronic “barrier” to criminals.

3. Don’t overspend—select a system you can afford. Other wise, you may create a monster that’s so intimidating, you postpone the purchase or give it up entirely. Some security is better than none at all.

4. Choose a system that can be easily expanded and upgraded. You may build an addition on your home, or decide to add some options at a later time. With forethought, you won’t have to install a completely new system.

5. Consider a system that includes smoke alarms. This way your alarm will go off in the presence of smoke and either someone will hear it or (if your system is monitored) the fire department will be called. The smoke detectors are in full operation at all times, whether the alarm system is armed or not.

6. Involve the whole family in the discussion and investigation of an alarm system. You can address and consider every family member’s concerns. You also want to make sure you’re buying something the kids can understand and use properly, too.

I want to mention that if you happen to have a dog, you’ve already got one of best security systems I know of, especially if you have a big, well-trained dog. I can recall investigating only one burglary case in which someone had a big dog in the house. It happens, but I’m equally sure that it can’t be very often. Big dogs make a lot of noise, which burglars don’t like any more than they like bright lights. Dogs bite, and the bigger they are, the harder they bite. Listen to a big dog crunching a thick bone between his teeth—no human, least of all a burglar, wants to know what that feels like firsthand. At the end of the day, a good dog is a far more enjoyable home alarm than a key pad and a loud horn. It’s not necessarily the cheapest system, and in some ways may not be the best, but a dog can bring you your slippers, lick your hand, and keep you warm at night. This doesn’t mean you can’t have both dog and an alarm system, however.

The Basic System, Plus Options

The most basic home security system can offer you a great deal of protection. By using the preceding Home Security Assessment, you’ve located your home’s weak spots. In most homes, those weak spots are doors, windows, basements, and attic crawl spaces, collectively known as the home’s perimeter. For viable, basic security, all you need to do is protect your perimeter by covering your entrances. (Don’t forget the door between your house and attached garage, as well as any other doors into the garage, including the big door.) Magnetic contacts set off the alarm if doors or windows are opened. With this measure alone, there’s a high probability that a would-be intruder will set off the alarm, and it will have served its purpose. Many alarm companies offer this type of basic system for very little money to install, and a contract for monthly monitoring service. I’ve even seen some companies offer the system for free in exchange for signing a multiyear monitoring contract.

This is a very basic system, and it has weaknesses. But they can be covered with options.

Security system options:

Monitored or unmonitored.

A monitored system sends a signal directly to a twenty- four-hour monitoring station. Personnel there will do one of several things upon receiving a signal from your security system, from calling your home first to sending police immediately. You choose what you want the response to be. You can install a security system and choose not to use central monitoring, too. At this point, you have a major noisemaker, which is still good because it can alert neighbors and frighten away intruders. This does, however, require you to have neighbors, and for them to be home, which you can’t always rely on.

If you want more protection, and a more immediate police or fire response, you need a monitored system. I prefer monitored systems and recommend them if you can afford them because they’re highly effective—so effective that insurance companies often give a noticeable discount on homeowner’s insurance if you have a monitored system. Monthly monitoring charges vary, but run from twenty dollars per month and up. They’re usually less than the monthly charge for cable TV, however, and even a year’s worth of monitoring charges can be cheaper than long- term sleep loss.

Cellular phone or radio backup.

This backup system is a safeguard that will allow your monitored system to still call into the station even if your phone lines have been cut. This is a good option to consider if your phone lines aren’t underground and are vulnerable to being cut.

Wired or wireless.

The standard wired security system takes time to install, and skilled installers to do it in such a way that your home doesn’t look like spaghetti is hanging from all the windows. There used to be an advantage to wired systems in that they produced fewer, if any, false alarms. But wireless technology has improved greatly these days; false alarms are far less of a problem. Wireless systems may be less expensive to install, but they use more battery power, requiring more frequent replacement of expensive batteries.


Designing a system with zones can allow you to turn off certain areas of your house if you wish. I used to spend a lot of time working in my backyard, but didn’t want to lock up the whole house when I did. So I used zones with my security system and “zoned out,” or turned off, only the back door. I could move freely in and out of the house all day, while the alarm system was on fully in the rest of the house.

Motion detectors.

The owner of an alarm company recently told me that he didn’t like to install motion detectors in residences. “My job is to keep an intruder from getting inside,” he explained. “If I put in motion detectors, then it implies that I’m not doing my job because I’m assuming someone is going to get inside.” Interesting point. I agree, and am not a big fan of motion detectors in the general residence. Pets can set off improperly installed motion detectors, although there are some devices available that can be “tuned” to how much motion to sense according to how much the creature creating the motion weighs. There are places in the home where a motion detector can be quite useful, especially garages, basements, and crawl spaces.

But in general, I believe motion detectors are better used in business settings. The best kind sense not only motion, but heat as well, thus decreasing false alarms because they’ll go off only when detecting a warm, moving body. A curtain waving around can set off a regular motion detector, but not one that also senses body heat.

Glass-break detectors.

These devices used to be rather unsightly, with thick silver contact tape encircling the glass pane. But now their appearance has improved. If magnetic contacts alone are used on windows, they only detect when the windows are opened. A determined intruder can still break the glass and get inside without setting off an alarm. A major weakness in many homes for this reason is sliding glass doors. This is one place where glass break detectors can be useful.


Crooks break into your home to find loot, and once they get in, they’ll look everywhere for it. Usually they start in a master bedroom, opening doors and drawers in search of jewelry, cash, and firearms. They can’t resist a closed door, especially the bedroom closet door, and that makes a perfect place to put a trap. An alarmed interior door that no one would expect to be alarmed is one way to make up for the inability to completely secure sliding glass doors or other weaknesses in your perimeter. Yes, someone still gets in, but he does eventually set off the alarm system. I know someone living in a second-floor apartment who has installed a minimum number of alarm contacts: the exit doors, and the bedroom walk-in closet. It’s economical and viable. There’s no way a burglar would break into that apartment and not open the closet door. An alarmed closet is also the perfect place to put your alarm system’s transmitter, since an intruder can’t get to it to disarm it with out setting off the alarm. Traps aren’t limited to closet doors—use your imagination when coming up with a good trap. You might think about a jewelry box, cabinet door, even a medicine cabinet. (You might even have fun with that one. Do you know many people who can resist a peek in a medicine cabinet?)

Remotes and panic buttons.

I think it’s a good idea to have a remote panic alarm for every member of the household, if possible. It’s a small push-button transmitter, not unlike your car remote, about the size of a standard pager. When activated, it sends a radio wave to a receiver connected to the alarm system so you can arm and disarm the system without using the key pad. For panic-button use, it should be designed to send a panic signal to the monitoring station and set off your audible alarm, whether you have armed the security system or not. If installed properly, your transmitter may work fifty yards or more away from your home. This allows you to use your remote as protection walking to and from your car late at night, walking to a neighbor’s house, or to protect your self while inside the house. You can also use it in case of a medical emergency if you can’t get to the phone. I know of one instance where someone found a child unconscious in the swimming pool. Rather than leave the child, the person hit the panic alarm, then pulled the child out of the water and began CPR, knowing that police were on the way. This may have contributed to saving the child’s life.

“Hostage codes.”

If someone should force you to turn off your alarm system, you can do it and stilt summon help if your system is programmed with a hostage code. This is a code programmed into your system that turns your alarm off as usual, but sends a silent SOS signal to your monitoring company. Police are sent immediately, but to the home invaders, it appears that you’ve simply turned your system off. Generally, a hostage code is your regular access code plus one additional number. So if your regular code is 12345, the hostage code might be 123456. (Note: Don’t ever make your security system code a series of consecutive numbers. The above example was only an example!)

Alarmed screens.

Alarmed screens are great—a regular window screen is refitted with new screen that has fine alarm wire woven through it and a magnetic contact on the frame. When installed, it allows you full access to opening and closing your windows while protecting your home from intrusion. If the screen is moved or sliced, the alarm goes off; an intruder thus triggers the alarm before even getting to the window. If you like to sleep with your window open at night, this is the perfect solution. It’s also great for those high-rise dwellers who, like me, enjoy sleeping with balcony doors open. Use a sliding screen door and have the screen alarmed. This may not work for cat owners, however.


Like an electronic eye that sounds a bell when you enter a shop, an infrared beam will protect an entryway by setting off your alarm when someone passes through the beam. This is another good solution to the security problems of sliding glass doors and balcony doors. An additional advantage is that they can be installed taller than any pets in your home.


In some settings, you may think about alarming a fence surrounding your home. One way to do this is with pres sure-sensitive cables that are buried just beneath the ground surface. You can literally ring your home with this, and it can be adjusted to various sensitivities so that a raccoon or small animal prowling in your backyard won’t set it off, but the weight of a human will. Unfortunately, the weight of human children may not set them off. These systems work fairly well, but tend to be pricey.

As you can see, you have plenty of options to choose from. Learn all you can about security systems before making a decision on what to buy. Keep in mind that you also want a system that eliminates false alarms. My current system has been operating for more than five years and has not had a single false alarm due to system malfunction. Guests in the house have accidentally set the alarm off on perhaps two or three occasions, but the system itself has never sent out a false signal. You don’t want false alarms because it’s like crying wolf. If it goes off all the time, your neighbors will no longer pay attention. My neighbors wouldn’t even know I had an alarm if I hadn’t told them and asked them to keep an extra eye on my apartment if they ever heard it go off. Some jurisdictions levy fines against homeowner and businesses for excessive false alarms, which can run from fifty to several hundred dollars per false alarm over a set number. I don’t agree with this, because it discourages monitored alarm system use. I’d rather see the fines levied against the companies that installed a faulty system.

Do-It-Yourself Alarm Systems

There are many alarm systems that don’t require professional installation. You can purchase them at home improvement stores, hardware stores, and even department stores. Individual security devices to do specific jobs are also available, some rather inexpensive. I’ve seen small vibration detectors that attach to a glass window pane—they sound an alarm if the window is opened or the glass is broken. They sell for less than twenty dollars each. While my alarm systems have always been professionally installed, I know people who have successfully installed viable systems they bought at such outlets for economical prices. If you consider this option, remember your goals: to make enough noise to dissuade an intruder, alert your neighbors, and alert you if you’re at home. If an off-the-shelf system you install yourself can accomplish this to your satisfaction, then go for it. Any properly installed alarm system as part of your personal security plan is what’s important, whether it’s professionally designed and installed or not.

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