Home Secure Home

Security-system innovations mean someone’s always watching.

by Christianna McCausland - July 2014

Home Security Systems Get a Facelift

Security-system innovations mean someone’s always watching.

by Christianna McCausland - July 2014

-Illustration by David Saracino

The days of dial-and-dash are over. It used to be that setting an alarm system meant hustling kids out the door while holding a pet inside the house with one’s foot, or juggling bags and car keys while setting the key code only to make a dash for the door as the beeps got increasingly closer together. No more—the era of the “smart home” has arrived, and with it, major innovations in home security driven by online and cellular technology.

“In recent years, ADT, along with others, has started to move from traditional home security to home-automation products, where you start to automate things like lights, door locks, and the garage-door opener,” says Andrew Droney, director of innovation programs at ADT. With more than six million customers, ADT is still the largest company of its kind in the U.S. and Canada, though the marketplace is getting more crowded. “We’re getting more into a mobile world of home automation and control that provides home-security aspects, but also provides lifestyle enhancements.”

In the old days, most alarms consisted of sensors on doors and windows, perhaps some motion detectors, or even a glass-break sensor. When these were tripped, the alarm company called the house. If no one responded, the police were dispatched.

Now, systems can be customized. Most security providers offer advances like water sensors that can be placed in the basement or near a sump pump to detect flooding, as well as smoke and carbon-monoxide sensors. Depending on the provider, if the smoke or carbon-monoxide sensor goes off, the furnace automatically shuts off so poisonous air doesn’t circulate through the house.

Wireless, infrared cameras can be set up inside and outside the home. When a door sensor is tripped, a 15-second video clip can be sent via text message or e-mail to the homeowner. This is particularly popular with parents who want to be sure children have gotten home safely from school—and to see who may have entered the home in their company.

Most importantly, no one needs to be home to access these services. Rather, a homeowner can watch video on a mobile device and arm or disarm the system online or from a cell phone. (With the ADT “Pulse” system, you’ll soon be able to use voice commands to manage your home system, so you won’t be texting while driving.) For that matter, you don’t have to arm the system at all; some can be set to arm automatically.

But that’s just the beginning. As homes have become “smarter,” security companies have increasingly started to widen their sphere of services into the lifestyle realm. Not only can one turn the lights off and on in the house from a computer, tablet, or cell phone, but, depending on your service and provider, you can get a text alert if the power goes off.

You can also remotely access the settings of the thermostat in your home, so if you’ve been away on summer vacation, for example, the house can be nice and cool by the time you get home from the airport.

Comcast, which is getting in on the home-security wave through its XFINITY Home service, offers something called EcoSaver. When paired with an XFINITY home thermostat, the system learns your home’s heating and cooling abilities as well as your personal temperature preferences and uses an algorithm to adapt the HVAC system to your needs by making small changes, which are designed to save energy.

Perhaps the best defense against an intruder is to simply lock the front door, but how often have you left for work and forgotten if you turned that deadbolt? New innovations allow for remote door locking. Or you can simply do away with the key altogether, says Peter Rogers, co-founder and senior advisor of FrontPoint, a security company based in McLean, VA. FrontPoint offers a slightly different solution than some providers in that theirs is a customized “plug-and-play” system that the DIY homeowner installs on his own.

“We’ve essentially gotten rid of our front-door key because now we have a key-pad door lock, and you can remotely open and close that lock and also set up codes so people can let themselves in and out and we can remove those codes,” says Rogers of his own home. Imagine, no more waiting around for the handyman: Now you can provide him an access code, get a text and a video showing him entering and exiting the home, lock the door when he’s gone, then erase the access code so he cannot enter again. This is also a useful function for owners of rental properties—no more chasing down spare keys or swapping locks.

As telephone landlines have disappeared, alarm companies have increasingly moved to new technology to connect their systems. Comcast’s XFINITY home app is available for both OSX and Android, which replaces the old dial-in pad, and the system works over broadband with a cellular-system backup in the event the Internet goes down.

Some providers, like FrontPoint, are relying solely on built-in cellular so there is no line of any kind that can be cut. Because most providers are producing strictly wireless systems, they can be disassembled and reconnected in a new home and can be used even in older homes.

A monitored home security system has many advantages. If the fire alarm goes off, instead of just making a lot of noise—which isn’t very helpful if the family is overcome by smoke or not home—it will alert the fire department.

And simply having that alarm company sign in the front yard is a deterrent to would-be burglars. For this reason, insurance companies often offer discounts on home policies if a house has a security system.

How much smarter and safer can a home get in the future?

“The home-automation element is at a plateau of sorts, so what’s happening now is enhancements to technology that exists,” explains FrontPoint’s Rogers. He points to geo-sensing as an example. “If you elect to use your phone to track where you are, when you leave home, it will automatically adjust your thermostat when you’re five miles from home or, if you did not arm your alarm system, it will alarm your system for you.”

“It’s adding a level of intelligence and analysis to events that are happening, so you now feel not just protected but more connected to your home,” he states.

Is it real, or just a drill?

One annoyance that might have kept some homeowners from getting a security system sooner is the false alarm. They drive the neighbors crazy, they flip out the dog, and if the police are called for no reason, you may even be fined.

But keeping false alarms to a minimum is not only about the homeowner using the system properly. It’s also about the level of support he or she gets from the alarm company and from manufacturers.

One security firm whose customers boast a relatively low false-alarm rate (about 98 percent nationally) is Baltimore County-based HS Technology Group.

“There are certain steps companies can take to reduce false alarms,” says company president Stuart Forchheimer, “including what we call enhanced call verification, which some jurisdictions, like Virginia, now require. On an intrusion alarm, many alarm companies will make one call, and if they can’t reach the homeowner and get a password, will call police, and then go through the homeowner’s alternate call list.” HS Technology, which has a false alarm rate in Baltimore County of .18, according to police there (that’s an average of one false alarm every five years per customer), goes a step further and makes two calls to different numbers the customer has provided to check that it’s not a false alarm.

“A great majority of false alarms are user error,” says Peter Rogers of FrontPoint, “but, over time, manufacturers, too, have come together to create a standard for ease of use . . . to make user interfaces much simpler than in the past, and that has significantly reduced false alarms.”

Alarm registration laws and police fines are also making a difference, says Rogers, who agrees that enhanced call verification is helping, as are verified response requirements by some jurisdictions, where a third party must confirm it’s a real break-in.

Whitey Miller, service manager at 47-year-old Maryland Burglar Alarm, takes the burden of false alarms off the people who build them: “Every major manufacturer out there has built so many safeguards into the panels and how they respond that it’s up to the installers and customers to use them right,” he says. “For instance, one thing a lot of people don’t know—and many installers don’t tell them—is that you can program a transmission delay into the panel” to give you a few more seconds to cancel an alarm.

“There are three primary reasons for false alarms: Mother Nature, equipment failure, and user/operator error,” says Forchheimer. “And when it comes to user error, it’s a small minority of customers causing the majority of problems.” When a client has multiple false alarms in a 60-day period, they make a service call to check the equipment and/or to re-train the user on the alarm system, at no charge.

“If you’re afraid of using the system because of false alarms, then you’ll cancel and we lose a client,” he says, “So it’s in our interest, even though it costs us money, to make these free client visits.”

Home Security 101

Even in this high-tech world, sometimes it’s the basics that matter.

“Lighting is the number one deterrent to crime,” says Baltimore County police detective Paul Ciepiela, who teaches crime prevention through the department’s Youth and Community Resources Bureau. Often, his suggestions are common sense.

“People will store an unsecured ladder against the house and when they leave their home, they leave second story windows unlocked,” says Ciepiela. “Guess what? A person comes along, sees the opportunity, picks the ladder up, and comes in the second story of the house.”

To avoid these simple missteps, Baltimore County, like many jurisdictions, will come to your home and do a free vulnerability survey and offer recommendations.

Following are more tips from Ciepiela—while some might seem obvious, you’d be surprised how many homeowners ignore them.

  • Always use deadbolts.
  • Lock the front door when you’re in the back yard.
  • Don’t leave shelter for burglars—keep bushes trimmed.
  • Lock windows or, in summer, use security locks so windows only open a few inches.
  • Secure sliding doors so they can’t be lifted off their tracks.
  • Make sure exterior lights aren’t blocked by trees and are mounted high enough to not be disabled by a burglar on foot.
  • Never leave a key under the porch, doormat, etc. Leave it with a trusted neighbor.
  • Check that all doors and windows are locked every night before bed.
  • If you’re away, make sure newspapers or packages don’t collect out front, and keep some lights on inside. In particular, the changing light of a TV screen that’s visible in the windows is a good defense against intruders.

For more information, visit the National Crime Prevention Council, ncpc.org.

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