Security Tips and Industry Musings

Motion Detectors

Lew Stouffer - Monday, October 13, 2014

The most commonly used motion detector in alarm systems uses passive infra-red (PIR) sensors to detect movement. These sensor are sensitive to the surface temperature of the object in contrast to the background’s temperature. Some higher end motion detectors are dual technology devices. These devices add a microwave emitter to the PIR detector. The microwave emitter operates on the same principle as Doppler radar.  Both sensors would have to indicate movement in order to go into alarm, thereby reducing false alarms.

Motion detectors are ideally used as “internal traps”. What this means is they are used as another layer of the security system in case the previous layer is penetrated. For instance if a window contact is bypassed, the motion will alert you as the intruder moves through the viewing area.

When deciding on the placement of motion detectors consideration for the way you live in the home, children and pets must all be taken on account. For instance, while a hallway is a great place for a motion detector to catch an intruder it is a difficult place to have one if your children may get up to get a glass of water in the night. Likewise if you have pets that you allow to roam the house, a motion detector may not be a good fit. With some thought there are compromise solutions available in most cases. 

Doors and windows

Lew Stouffer - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Security systems require sensors to tell it in what condition monitored parts of the premises are in. The sensors we use on doors and windows are called contacts. This is a generic term for small switches that let the control panel know a door or window has been opened or closed. There are many different styles of contacts. These contacts can be activated through magnetic or mechanical force. Whether the contact is connected to the control panel by a wire or through a wireless transmitter makes no difference. As part of the "Guided tour of the security system" series,  I'll illustrate several of the more common contacts and their uses below.

Recess contacts- These devices are installed inside the door jamb facing the side of the door. The switch is pushed into the jamb so that it is flush with the jamb itself. Directly opposite of the switch, a magnet is pushed into the side of the door so that it is also flush. They are installed similarly into a window, with the switch in the sill and the magnet in the sash. Once installed these switches are not visible until the door or window is opened. When the door is open, the magnetic force is removed, sending a signal to the control panel. These contacts are most commonly 3/8” or 3/4”.  The magnet must be within 2” gap (typically) of the switch to maintain “contact”.

Surface contacts- These switches have many applications. When they are used in home security systems they are typically mounted on the exposed interior of the door or window. The switch is installed on the molding surrounding a door and the magnet is attached to the door itself, directly opposite of the switch. The application for windows is very similar. The magnetic gap is the same for these contacts is the same 2” as the recess contacts. Most wireless transmitters have surface contacts built into the circuitry of the transmitter. This allows the transmitter to be used as a contact as well.

Rollerball contacts- The rollerball contacts (or plunger) are switches that use mechanical force to sense the condition of the door. Unlike the other styles of contacts, these switches should only be used on doors that require the contact to be on the side of the door where the hinges are located. They are installed in the door jamb (on the hinge side) in a hole usually 3/4“. Like the recess contact above they are not visible when the door is closed. Unlike the magnetic switches, there are no magnets used with these contacts.

Overhead Door contacts- These switches are much more robust versions of surface switches. They are typically encased in a steel housing and mounted on the floor of the garage or warehouse. A large magnet is attached to the garage door directly opposite the switch. They are typically used in business security systems in an industrial location. 

Life Safety

Lew Stouffer - Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Smoke detectors, heat detectors, panic buttons and carbon monoxide detectors are some commonly used devices that contribute to the protection of the premises, while at the same time adding an essential layer to the safety of the people who live or work there.  We will take a look at the variety of life safety devices in this installment.

Smoke detectors detect the presence of smoke in the atmosphere. When they have detected smoke they will cause the security system to alert the premises with an intermittent siren tone, while sending a signal to the monitoring center. Using atmospheric sampling makes the smoke detector able to read false positives under certain conditions. Dust, water vapor and aerosols are some contaminates that can create false alarms. Care should be taken to avoid areas that may make it easy for these to enter the smoke detector. Avoid areas next to bathrooms and air vents as well as non-air-conditioned spaces. Smoke detectors are the most useful in the air-conditioned spaces of the premises. It is recommended to have at least one monitored smoke detectors per level of air-conditioned space. As most areas have an existing code requirements for number and location of smoke detectors which must be met before occupancy is granted, these smoke detectors are largely of a secondary system in nature. As a secondary smoke detection system, the smoke detectors are placed in addition to the currently existing units.


Heat detectors are similar to smoke detectors except that they only detect the heat produced by a fire. Because of this they are typically used for spot detection in areas that a smoke detector would not be appropriate. As heat detectors do not use atmospheric sampling they are not affected by the same conditions that may cause false alarms in smoke detectors. Areas that should be considered for heat detectors are garages, near furnaces/ water heaters, rooms with fireplaces and kitchens.



Carbon monoxide (CO) detectors detect dangerous levels of CO gas in your home or works atmosphere. These devices have gained from rapid improvements over the years. When they were first introduced you could expect 1-2 years of service before they needed to be replaced. Today their life expectancy is rated at 5-7 years. It is recommended to have at least one CO detector on the premises.



Panic buttons allow the user to quickly alert the monitoring center to send the authorities when they are activated. Panic buttons can come in a wide variety of forms depending on the needs and uses of the client. Most commonly encountered are the three panic buttons included on the keypad. One for each of the emergency response agencies. Additionally, there are single alert type buttons. These buttons are set up at install to alert a pre-arranged agency. For older clients we may set up a key fob type button to call the medical services in case of a fall. While for a business we may setup a hard wired button under a counter to call the police in case of a robbery. The variety of panic buttons available allow us to tailor the system to the specific needs of the client and their expected risks. 

Security Systems communications

Lew Stouffer - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Today, we have many methods for the security system to communicate with the monitoring center. The days of having to have a traditional land line from the telephone company are gone. It’s a field ripe with choices. I’ll touch on several of them and the pros and cons of each.

POTS- Plain Old Telephone Service, is a reliable form of communication. The POTS system allows voice transmissions through a direct wired point to point connection. The security system is connected to your existing home phones in a manner that will disable your phones temporarily in the event of an alarm condition that it needs to call out. After the communication is sent to the monitoring center, the phones will be restored for regular use. Some of the benefits of this system include no additional monitoring charges and reliable service. The drawbacks include the ease with which the service can disconnected (By a burglar or storm cutting the wires to the premises) and the need to insure that your security system is still functioning properly if ever there is service performed on your phone system.

VOIP- Voice Over Internet Protocol, is very similar to POTS system in the manner that they are connected to the security system.  The major difference between POTS and VOIP is how the voice signal is transmitted. The VOIP system utilizes a portion of the bandwidth available from your internet service to send its signal. They are not recommended for security system use. There seems to be a wide gap in ability to use these systems for security systems between the different providers. The basic rule of thumb that we have seen is the old adage of you get what you pay for. The less the VOIP system costs the less likely it is to be able to transmit alarm signals reliably. These systems have the same limitations as a POTS system with the added problem of needing a battery backup to work in power outage conditions. Additionally, if you have service performed on your phone or data network it is possible to affect the security systems connectivity.

Internet Monitoring- Utilizes the current internet bandwidth to transmit signals to the central station for security system monitoring. It has the drawbacks of being easily defeated by cut wires or power outages (as in the above examples). The costs involved are similar to a primary cell system (below) because of the need to purchase an internet module and server time.

Cellular Monitoring- Also popularly known as wireless. A cellular system requires the purchase of a cell communicator that is designed to work with the security system. It is essentially a cell phone that is mounted with the control panel equipment. Like all cell phones there are airtime fees involved to keep the system active. The advantages are that they are completely independent of the other systems on the premises. They are not subject to cut wires and are connected to the security systems back up power supply in the event of a power outage. They do suffer, to a lesser degree, from some of the same issues as cell phones. 

Do you have a system?

Lew Stouffer - Thursday, April 03, 2014

This is one of my first questions when talking with a prospective client. Many times there is some confusion on the client’s part of what they actually need. While we can’t cover every possible situation, here are the most frequent situations and how we proceed from there.

I do not have any security system. This is pretty straight forward, you need a new installation. One factor that will significantly affect the price is whether or not the premises is pre-wired.

Pre-wired premises have had the wiring for the security system already run throughout the home; usually at construction. It is rare to see a commercial space that was pre-wired. The pre-wiring usually dictates a lot of the characteristics of the security system. Example: location of motion detectors, master control panel, etc. Pre-wired systems are generally “trimmed out” at a substantial discount when compared to installing the same system from scratch.

I have a working security system on premises. This is the simplest service to perform. We come out and reprogram the existing system to call our monitoring center and make sure the system is in good working order. Proprietary or locked out panels may impact this. I’ll come back to this below.

My current security system is not working or its condition is unknown. This may require service and reprogramming to get it operational or to upgrade it altogether. It is difficult to forecast without seeing the individual system however, a good rule of thumb is if the system is eight years or older it is likely that it will need to be upgraded.

Proprietary systems are security systems that are designed to work with a specific security company only. They typically have their programming access restricted in one way or another. This restriction can be in the programming itself or require the need of a special programmer that is not generally available. Either way, the system will need to be upgraded.

Locked out panels are similar to proprietary systems in that their programming has been restricted however, they can be unlocked with the correct installer code (this would be supplied by the company that installed it.) thereby allowing the system to be reprogrammed. Proprietary and locked panels would require an upgrade to the security system.

Upgrading a security system involves replacing the control panel and the keypad(s). Most other devices on a system are universal regardless of the manufacturer or the proprietary nature and as a result, should not need to be replaced.

Control Panels

Lew Stouffer - Thursday, March 27, 2014

The brains of any security system is called the control panel (panel), or more universally, the motherboard. It can come in several different styles that we’ll go over later. As a rule, the control panel is the center of your security system. It determines the functions that you and your security company have available for programming. The specifications of a panel can be quite extensive. Generally speaking though, the average user will be a good fit for most of the panels available. The three most important considerations that we face with the average user is the number of zones available, the number of user codes available and the ability to upgrade the panel for future needs.

As I stated earlier in the series, the manufacturer of the panel really doesn't matter too much. As long as your choice stays inside the major manufacturers you will find this to be relatively true across the board. They all produce a high quality product. They all offer a wide variety of options. The difference for most applications usually comes down to the preference of the installation company. This preference is very similar to the age old Ford/ Chevy argument; personal preference.

There are two major panel styles available. Self-contained and the traditional panel.


The self-contained panel has all of its components inside one box that has the keypad on the front. They offer compact size (in comparison to the traditional panel) and ease of installation. While some of these of these offer hardwired zone connections, most current panels of this type do not. Most self-contained panels are designed to use wireless security equipment. Typically the only wiring necessary for these type panels is for the power supply and the communication connection if you are choosing a source other than cellular. These units are more expensive and due to the wireless nature of the systems are quicker to install.



The traditional panel arrangement consists of a circuit board that is contained inside of a metal box. This type of system typically offers a wider variety of options than the self-contained type. Most of these type control units are designed for use with a wired security system, adding a wireless receiver allows for the incorporation of wireless devices as necessary.




The self-contained units are a good fit for applications where the owner may move frequently. Their nature of installation makes them easy to remove and reinstall at the new location, often without the need of reprogramming. The more traditional panel is Atlanta Home Alarms recommended system for almost every other application. The additional time and lower cost allows for a more personalized installation.

The user interface

Lew Stouffer - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The keypad is the standard user interface for your security system. It allows you to turn the system on and off as well as giving you access to system controls, such as assigning new user codes. Every system needs one. They come in many different variations.

LED or Icon displays are the lower end of the keypads available. Typically they display system information by lighting a led light or an icon that the user then needs to interpret. For instance, the “number 1” will illuminate to show that zone 1 is open.


Fixed displays are the most common these days. They display the system information from a fixed selection of words and numbers on an LCD screen. Zone violations are typically displayed as a number. These keypads do require a little interpretation on the part of the user.


The next step up in usability and price would be Custom displays. These keypads display the system information using a customizable list of words and numbers. For example, instead of the keypad displaying a “1” to mean that zone 1 is open, it would display “front door”. Many of the security systems higher functions require this type of keypad for them to be displayed. These keypads are typically a little more user friendly because of the way they display the information.

Touchscreen keypads have been available for several years now. They offer the flexibility of the custom keypad with a much cleaner look. Many of these kind of keypads offer the ability to act as an electronic picture frame as well. There is a pretty steep price climb to this keypad though. Touchscreens also allow some aspects of home automation to be utilized through one device.

How many keypads are needed? Generally speaking, it is best to have a system control on each floor of the premises. This allows for the most flexibility when using your security system. A typical installation would have one within reach of the entry door(s) and one in the master bedroom. Which leads us to the other forms of system controls available.

Key fobs are an inexpensive convenience item that can expand the usability of your security system considerably. They key fob is a small remote control for your security system that is limited to about a 50 feet range. It can be put on your keychain and used much like your cars remote fob. They typically have several buttons (we only install 4 button key fobs) Armed Away, Armed Stay, Disarm and a police Panic button. An interesting use that a customer of ours uses their key fob for is to allow the cleaning crew access to their home without giving them a code. They have a prearranged location to leave the key fob on cleaning day. On days the cleaning crew is not to have access to the home the key fob is moved from that location. Simple but effective.

Another control that is gaining in popularity is the smartphone app. It gives the convenience of the key fob, minus the Panic button. It also allows the user to see the systems event history. For instance, if you are at work you can see what time you kids get home from school. Smart phone apps also allow the user access through a standard web browser. 

A guided tour of the security system

Lew Stouffer - Friday, March 14, 2014

Whether you are currently in the market for a security system or simply need some additional information; I hope to provide you with enough information to get an idea of the different devices usages and capabilities. Armed with this information, you should be able to better assess your security system requirements and your specific needs.

Most of the information will be universal in its application. Security system manufacturers have similar products in terms of products and capabilities. 


On Apples and Oranges

Lew Stouffer - Friday, February 28, 2014

You can never truly compare an apple with an orange. Because many alarm companies essentially finance the installation costs with contracts and higher priced monitoring, home security systems are, just as hard to compare. Here are is a method to help you with the comparison.

Select the components you want in your security system. Once you have identified your needs, have all of the companies you are interested in quote exactly the same system. Different brands of equipment are fine. The components of the system need to be the same. Be sure to have companies include in their quotes the free items that other companies may include with the sale.

Note which of your prospective companies have contracts (and their term lengths) and which do not. Make note of any cancellation fees and if the system is leased or purchased outright.

Here’s the formula:

Cost of Equipment + Activation Costs + Labor + (Total Monthly Monitoring * Length of Contract) + Cancellation Fees = Total Cost of System

Once you have run each of the quotes through the formula a clearer picture will emerge. From there you will be able to make an educated decision.

Avoiding false alarms

Lew Stouffer - Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Here are some simple tips to help you avoid false alarms and the fines that police departments often apply because of them.

Make sure that everyone who uses the system know how to use it. This includes the occasional user like the cleaning service, dog walker and babysitter. Be sure to give them both the code (we recommend a user code) and the password. This one is particularly important for our business clients.

Do not go in and out of the premises once you have activated the alarm. Instead turn the alarm off each time you go into the premises. Rearm when you leave. This is another one our business clients should pay attention to.

If the alarm goes does sound off; be sure to answer your phone for the next 5 minutes. It may be the monitoring center trying to confirm the emergency dispatch.

Ensure that your pets are kept out of secured areas. This is something that would have been set up by you and your technician at the time of installation.

Avoid leaving balloons in an area covered by a motion detector.

Ensure that the maintenance is up to date on your security system. A low system battery can cause false alarms on its own.