Burglar Alarms and Home Security Questions and Answers

How does my alarm system communicate with a monitoring service?

If you are in the market for a new alarm system, you have probably found that most alarm companies advertise several things on their websites: the systems themselves, associated merchandise, and direct correspondence with emergency dispatch centers. Even though a tripped alarm alerts people in the area of a possible break-in and helps to deter criminals, many systems communicate with monitoring centers as an additional precaution. This correspondence acts as an automatic 911 call and (depending upon your system) can protect your home or your office from burglary, fire, water, and property damage in the event that you are not there or are unable to call the authorities yourself.

For those of you unaware of how an alarm system corresponds with an emergency monitoring center, here is a brief overview. When someone or something sets off your alarm, the security system seizes your phone line, dials the call center, and dispatches the alarm information. Most companies allocate a short amount of time for you to disarm your alarm, but once that time expires, the call center will receive your information in about 10 seconds. In order to avoid false alarms, most companies will have a representative at their monitoring center call your home or your office number immediately after they receive the alarm information. If no one answers the phone to explain that the alarm was tripped accidentally, the call center will alert the local authorities of the problem and call anyone that you have listed as an emergency contact.

Some systems also have a panic alarm, which you can set off by pressing a button on your system’s control panel or by activating a wireless pendant. Once activated, the monitoring center bypasses the initial step of calling you and contacts the local police directly. Emergency call centers often provide service 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. On average, companies charge about a dollar a day for this feature.

What is the standard price for an alarm system?

Along with its pricing, the concept of an alarm system has evolved dramatically over the past few decades. When monitored systems were first introduced in the 1980s, alarms shifted from being considered a product to a service, and many companies established a monthly fee for clients in addition to an introductory installation charge. If they opt for an alarm that links directly to an emergency call center, homeowners can expect to pay anywhere from $25 to $45 dollars a month, depending on the intricacy of their system.

Most monitored systems come with a minimum 3-year service contract, but some allow for a month-to-month obligation. The contract locks in your rate and warns that if you exit the agreement prematurely, you will have to pay a fine. Therefore, if you sign up for 3 years of service from a company and decide that you want to terminate the contract after 6 months, you may have to pay the monthly fees for another year in a lump sum. In addition to protecting against intrusion, some systems also monitor for smoke, heat, dangerous carbon monoxide levels, freezing temperatures, and rising water. These features usually cost extra and are more common with the security systems installed in office buildings, as they often store valuable records and inventory.

The cost to install an alarm system in a residential location typically ranges from $100 to $800, which covers the price of equipment like motion detectors, glass sensors, keypads, and door contacts. Adding a warranty to cover these products could tack another $5 to $10 onto your monthly monitoring rate. Security systems for businesses and larger homes can cost upwards of $4,000 for installation and equipment, with surveillance cameras or CCTV (closed circuit television) representing the majority of this expense. Employers usually install these cameras to prevent theft, vandalism, and workplace harassment. CCTV also allows business owners to keep watch over large property areas that cannot constantly be monitored in person.

Larger businesses also commonly install access control, a commercial security system that allows employers to track when staff members enter and leave the office. A lot of companies store sensitive information and materials on their premises and only allow approved employees to enter. In order to restrict admission into a facility, an alarm company will arm the building with a system that is only penetrable with the necessary smart cards, bar codes, and photo badges. If business owners want open and close schedule monitoring, which tracks who arms and disarms an office’s security system, this service will cost an additional $200 to $600 each year. Furthermore, some of the larger commercial security systems come with an annual service rate, as opposed to the monthly monitoring fee that most homes have.

As you can see from this outline of estimates and ranges, there is no such thing as a standard price for an alarm system. With each company offering competitive prices and an endless list of features, your budget and your personal security needs will likely determine which system works best for you. Once you contact a specific alarm company and express interest in a system, the company will usually send a representative to assess your property and give you a more specific quote. The following are several details to consider that may affect the pricing of your alarm system.

For residential security systems:

1. Do you live in a single family home, a townhouse, a condo, or an apartment?
2. Do you own or rent this property?
3. Is your home prewired for a security system?
4. Does your home exceed 3,000 square feet?
5. How many levels is your property?
6. Are there more than five bedrooms?
7. How many doors and vulnerable windows do you want to protect?*
8. Does the main door have a deadbolt lock?
9. Do you have a finished basement or attic?
9.1. This will affect the cost of hard-wired systems only.
10. Do you have kids? If so, what are their ages?
11. Do you have pets?
12. Do you travel often?
13. Do you have a residential phone line? If so, do you often lose phone service?

*A vulnerable window is a lower level window hidden from plain site or an easily accessible second-floor window that a burglar could potentially enter.

For commercial security systems:

1. Does your property exceed 5,000 square feet?
2. Do you have more than 25 employees?
3. Does your property have an existing alarm system?
4. Do you have more than two major entry ways?
5. Are there overhead/rolling doors than need to be guarded?
6. Do you have a drop-tile, open, or closed ceiling?
6.1. Exposed wiring may be a factor with open and closed ceilings.
7. Do you have a safe that needs extra protection?
8. Does your business require a monitored fire or sprinkler system?
9. Does your insurance company mandate a UL-certified alarm system?*
10. Do you want a tracking system with your alarm that can verify who disarms the keypad and at what time?
11. Do you need more than one control panel/keypad?

*Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) tests and certifies products for safety in over 100 countries throughout the world. In 2006, over 21 billion UL Marks appeared on over 70,000 manufacturers’ products, and many insurance companies require businesses to install UL-certified alarm systems before they offer coverage.

Will my alarm system still work if I lose electrical power?

In most cases, alarm systems are now equipped with backup batteries that activate immediately after your electrical power is lost. A backup battery usually lasts for several hours, during which time the alarm system continues to protect your home or your office until power is restored. In order to combat the effects of prolonged power outages and frequent activation, installation specialists recommend that you check the batteries in your system regularly. Some systems actually send a low-battery signal to the call center monitoring your property so that they can notify you of the problem directly. Backup batteries come standard with many alarm systems now, but you may be responsible for the cost of replacing them.

Will my alarm system still work if I lose my phone connection?

Power outages, maintenance work, and severe weather conditions can all contribute to the loss of phone service from time to time. Many intruders will also cut or manually disconnect a residential phone line if they suspect that an alarm system is in place. Traditional land lines represent a liability in the alarm industry, which is why more and more companies are offering the option of a built-in cellular connection with your system. If your residential line isn’t working properly during an emergency, the wireless system will kick in and transmit an alarm signal over a separate cellular network.

Many households and businesses are also opting to use VoIP technology now instead of land lines. VoIP (voice-over internet protocol) allows you to route calls over the internet using a computer or a VoIP-enabled phone. Despite the technological advantages that VoIP offers, power loss or an interruption in your internet signal can still affect the dependability of this service. If you rely on VoIP technology or a cell phone as your primary phone line, this built-in cellular connection is a necessity.

Because it operates independently of any other phone line that you use, this cellular capability provides a definite means of communication between your alarm system and its affiliated monitoring center. Some companies can also install a radio connection and a speakerphone with their systems. When your alarm sounds, the radio connects directly with the company’s call center so that you can explain to them what help is needed, if any. Cellular and radio services will normally add about $10 to your monthly maintenance fee.

Can I still let my pets roam the house with motion detectors?

Most alarm companies now offer systems with pet immune motion detectors, which can overlook animals up to a certain weight. These devices often use PIR (or passive infrared) technology because it senses rapid changes in temperature. Therefore, a PIR sensor can differentiate between the movement of small a pet, which alters the temperature less, versus the movement of an adult or an intruder. The weight limit on a pet immune sensor typically ranges from 40 to 60 pounds, and some of these devices can also adjust their motion placement, pulse counts, and beam patterns to avoid detecting animals. You can purchase these specialized sensors individually if your alarm company doesn’t offer them, but make sure they are compatible with your system beforehand.

Will an alarm system lower my insurance rate?

Installing a monitored alarm system in your house or your office building will ordinarily reduce your insurance rate between 10 and 20 percent. If the system isn’t monitored by an emergency call center, you most likely won’t receive this discount. Also, some insurance companies require that the systems installed be UL-certified. Although this is more common with businesses, some homeowner insurance policies also mandate UL-approved systems. Underwriters Laboratories Inc. tests and approves products in over 100 countries and ensures that your alarm system provider meets the organization’s worldwide safety standards.

Alarm companies that have their products certified by UL usually have their monitoring centers approved as well. Before awarding a facility with its endorsement, UL examines its building structure, receiving and monitoring equipment, and the staffing methods that the company uses. This ensures that customers will receive the proper monitoring services they have paid for. Even if your insurance provider doesn’t require a UL-certified system for this discount, it is a good idea to check if products that you buy in the future carry the organization’s approval. A UL Mark guarantees a quality product and a fair price.

Will there be wires to connect windows and doors to my alarm system?

A hard-wired alarm, by nature, uses wires to connect doors and windows to the main system. If you decide on an alarm with hard-wiring, it is best to have it professionally installed so that the wires are routed through your walls and out of sight whenever possible. For more information on the technology used in hard-wired alarms, take a look at the overview of how alarm systems work.

If you want to avoid wires altogether, as well as a complicated installation process, choosing a wireless alarm is the way to go. Even though they sound impressive and contemporary, wireless systems have been in use for a lot longer than most people assume. For over 20 years, customers have bought and used wireless alarm systems to protect their homes and offices. Original wireless systems operated over radio frequencies and customers sometimes encountered problems with false alarms and short battery lives. For example, use of an electronic device like a television remote could interfere with radio frequencies and trigger the alarm. Wireless systems have progressed significantly since then, and many installation specialists now consider wireless alarms as reliable as hard-wired ones.

What are the benefits of a wireless system?

As mentioned in the overview of how alarm systems work, many buyers are drawn in by the mobility of wireless alarms. In this respect the systems are economical because you won’t lose the hundreds or thousands of dollars that you invest into your alarm system and its accessories when you decide to move. A wireless alarm is especially helpful in today’s variable real estate market, with younger couples and emerging entrepreneurs often changing property locations multiple times before settling into their ideal home or office building.

With a wireless system, your installation time is reduced dramatically. Because there are no wires to run, installation companies are less likely to encounter construction issues, and most alarms take less than a few hours to set up. A wireless system also makes for easier sensor placement, and you will have no trouble expanding your system with more sensors in the future if you decide that is something you would like to do. Many wireless alarms offer the option of remote arming and disarming as well. If you forget to set your alarm before leaving for vacation, you can use something as simple as a keychain touchpad or a telephone to activate your system.

Will there be a warranty on my system? If so, for how long?

Warranties vary greatly between alarm companies, with some systems guaranteed for years and others for just a month and a half. Some experts advise buyers to choose a system or a company with at least a limited warranty, as it shows confidence in the product being sold. An ideal warranty will cover your system through the standard 3-year contract. Many alarm companies also offer extended warranties on their systems. These warranties take effect after the initial agreement expires and cover the cost of parts and labor during repairs. This is the $5 to $10 warranty fee mentioned in the alarm pricing summary, which is typically added to your monthly maintenance bill. Without a warranty, a service call can cost upwards of $150, not including parts replaced.

How long does it take to install a system?

The length of time that it takes to install your alarm system is contingent upon a number of different factors, the first being whether your system is wireless or hard-wired. The overview of wireless alarm system benefits lists a shorter installation time as one of the primary reasons that buyers are attracted to the mobile systems. Wireless alarms can take as little as 30 minutes to set up, but most companies guarantee that they can have a system installed in under a few hours. Hard-wired alarms, on the other hand, are usually installed within a few days. It is important to remember that the intricacy of the system and the size and the layout of your property can all impact the length of the installation process. When an alarm company representative assesses your property and offers you a price quote for your intended system, he or she can typically provide you with an estimated installation time as well.

Can the burglar and fire alarms be on the same system?

If you decide to purchase a monitored burglar alarm, it is relatively easy to wire the system so that it senses dangerous changes in the environment as well. Most alarm companies offer fire and burglar detection on the same system, but make sure to check before committing yourself to a contract. Installing a joint alarm system is especially helpful for protecting your home or your office when it is vacant. Once the fire alarm senses hazardous levels of heat or smoke, it operates through the same phone line/cellular connection as your regular alarm and informs the monitoring center of a possible emergency. A representative at the call center will then contact the proper authorities. Depending upon the system you choose, your fire alarm will still function when your burglar alarm is disarmed.

More extensive systems also offer protection against hazards like carbon monoxide, temperature change, and rising water. Because carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, an alarm that detects the gas is essential. A temperature sensor operates differently than a heat sensor because you can set a target range for your temperature. Whereas a heat senor only detects a rapid change in temperature characteristic of a spreading fire, a temperature sensor can prevent food or supplies from spoiling. This option is especially useful for a restaurant or a business with sensitive inventory that must keep its temperature at a constant level. A water sensor is useful in both homes and offices because it immediately alerts a monitoring center that your property is under water, preventing it from being destroyed. When your system contacts the call center during an emergency, it transmits a code so that the representative responding to the call knows exactly which sensor has been tripped. This allows you to have several sensors on the same system.

On a side note, the major difference between commercial and residential security systems (besides optional CCTV surveillance and access control) is the regulation of monitored fire alarms. Legislation created by the National Fire Protection Association demands that commercial businesses abide by a strict code. This code includes timely inspections and sprinkler systems. Businesses usually pay anywhere from $1,000 to over $20,000 to install a suitable fire alarm system from scratch, while the monitoring fee costs roughly $50 a month.

What happens if I have a false alarm?

Because of reoccurring false alarms, most monitored systems incorporate a short grace period for you to disarm your alarm before the call center is contacted. Some alarm systems come within a built-in delay, while others allow the user to program the time manually. Most monitoring centers will also either call your home, office, or cell phone before contacting the police. If you disarm your system before the call center receives the emergency signal or you answer your phone and tell a company representative that the alarm was activated accidentally, this is not considered a false alarm.

A genuine false alarm is when the authorities are dispatched to your home or your office when there is no sign of forced entry or emergency to attend to. The consequences of a false alarm vary depending upon your location. The city or county that you live in will often issue an ordinance from the police department explaining the fines involved with false alarms. Some municipalities allow up to five false alarms per year before asking you to pay a fine. However, in areas where false alarms are more frequent and burdensome, property owners can be charged for each occurrence. No matter what policy your town or city enforces, you should always remain vigilant about false alarms. They exhaust the money of tax payers everywhere and prevent the authorities from responding to emergencies where citizens are in actual danger.

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