Archive for Alarm System

Alarm System – Bells and Whistles

I’m a big fan of the DSC 1832/1864 series of alarm systems. It’s a robust system with all sorts of functionality right out of the box. A few of the features we’ve made use of include;

  • Scheduled auto-arming – On a preset generic schedule the system will automatically arm itself to “away” mode bypassing any faulted devices. You can specify days of the week and time of day for this.
  • PGM – Progammable outputs – These are extremely handy. In our system the PGMs are used for;
    • Activating an LED by the back door indicating the system is armed (our keypads are not prominently displayed).
    • Linked to our garage door so we can open the garage using our alarm system keyfobs.
    • As a “false alarm reduction tool” for our hardwired smoke detectors (the system automatically shuts down, then restarts the smoke detectors in the event of an alarm – if the smoke detector STILL detects smoke after the reset the system considers it a legitimate alarm and notifies the monitoring centre and activates the siren).

DSC ws4939 remote

My personal favorite feature is being able to open the garage door using the keyfob – Lisa just enjoys the convenience of pressing a button on the remote to arm/disarm the system without messing with codes and entry/exit delays.

Eyez-on Envisalink EVL-3

I purchased a DSC TL-150 card for my alarm system ages back. It is designed to allow IP monitoring of an alarm system, and as an added bonus allows local (or remote) access to the system via http or through smart phone apps. It was this last item, the remote arm/disarm feature that appealed most to me.

When I began monkeying with Home Automation I learned that the company the manufactures the TL-150 for DSC also makes the EVL3 card for Envisalink. This card is functionally the same as the TL-150 card, but is tailored towards the Eyez-On self monitoring service.

Eyez-On offers a free internet gateway to interact with the EVL3 card and your connected DSC or Ademco system, including network supervision and text message/email notification of alarms.

Eyez-On also offers ULC listed alarm monitoring at the most economical price I have yet to find ($8.99/mo, $8.50 a month if you’re prepared to prepay two years at a time) through their Envisalarm service.
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Power on? Hard to be sure.

I had hoped to use the Vera to send shutdown messages to other devices in the house if the power went out, but it turns out Vera doesn’t track whether the power is on or off (it IS plugged into a UPS, so that would kinda limit that).

My first solution was simply to trigger some Vera events based on a “vendor code” generated by the alarm system, after all it switches to battery power when the power goes out.

No good. Turns out it doesn’t kick that vendor code out to Vera – I can get it to warn Vera when a “trouble” status is triggered (an “AC FAIL” generates a trouble indication), but it might be a different trouble (“Low Remote Battery”, “Communications Issue” etc etc) and that doesn’t sound like a reliable kludge.

The vera forums discuss using a wall wart 12vdc power supply, a relay and a wireless zwave door/window contact to monitor the AC Status – it’s clever – the wall wart voltage triggers the relay keeping the alarm circuit closed, as soon as mains power drops the relay loses power and breaks the circuit, triggering the zone.

I can do that, but using our alarm system to instead of a zwave door/window contact.

simple ac sensor

As luck would have it I have a pile of generic 12vdc wall warts, a number of 12v security relays and I happened to have a zone free on my alarm system.

About 30 minutes of monkeying around, running wire back to the alarm system and making sure the new “AC Sensor” was plugged into the same circuit as my home automation gear and we were away to the races.

I’ll have to double check the programming in our alarm system to make sure it doesn’t trigger a burglary alarm when the power drops, but otherwise it seems pretty slick.

I’ll do a little quick programming in Vera, and some monkeying with ssh and I should have something that saves our hardware from an unexpected shutdown.

The anatomy of a burglary

The video below shows a few kids breaking into a house just before new years. Not a lot of technical expertise here. Give it a watch, and you’ll see a team of young burglars tackle a residential burlgary on a Saturday night at about 8:30pm.

This looks to be a fairly typical B&E, they ring the doorbell repeatedly and peer in the windows to make sure the occupants are not simply ignoring their efforts. The last thing these guys want is to run into a homeowner. An alarm system would likely not have prevented the burglary, but it would have certainly reduced the kids time on the ground inside the house.

My garage, my playground…

When we bought the house the garage was clearly used for storage only. The garage door opener was thrashed (it appeared previous occupants had, on occasion, pushed the door open by force – in the process stripping the plastic gears in the door opener) and required almost immediate replacement, and as there is NO man door into the garage, the garage door opener is kinda important.

I’ve since rerun the wiring out to the garage (electrical, cat5, RG6 and alarm runs) and the garage now has cable TV, a hardwired telephone and is integrated into the alarm system for our home (smoke detector and burglary protection) – not bad, eh?

my garage

I also installed an RFID reader / Keypad so we could gain entry without using the two remotes included with the new garage door opener (in practical terms this means I can ride the bike out of the garage and close the door behind me without having to dismount etc).

Yesterday I reprogrammed our alarm system the remote keyfobs (attached to our keys) and a key on the keypads inside the house will open/close the garage door. A truly neat little feature using the programmable outputs of our DSC alarm system.

Its not quite home automation, but it’s handy as hell.

Missed Opportunities..

A few weeks ago I answered an evening knock on the door. At this point I have come to expect it to be one of Jillys neighborhood friends, and was a little surprised to see it was a man with a clipboard.

He introduced himself by saying “I’m with blahblahblah alarms, and as we’re installing several alarm systems in your neighborhood we’re offering an amazing promotion – we’ll install a FREE alarm system in your house if you allow us to display our lawn sign on your property.”

This is the trunk slammers mantra, and as I was a bit under the weather I admit that I got irritated instead of winding the conversation out as far as I should have.

“No thanks, we already have an alarm system.” I instantly replied, moving quickly to stick to my resolution not to heap abuse on any more door-to-door salesmen.

“I’m sure our system is more up to date, and our monitoring costs are extremely competitive!” he shot back with skipping a beat.

“I doubt it, but if you can beat $10 a month fill yer boots” I grumbled.

He took the hint and left without further effort and it wasn’t until a few days later that I started feeling regret for not having him assess our current alarm system, tell us about how we can cancel our contract with his company at any time, and explain how a wireless system is far more reliable than the hardwired system we have now.

Of course I already know the pitch, and the kid is a salesman with no security clearance. I think I’ll pick up one of those mini spy-pens, as the only way I’d let one of these guys into the house is if I could record him and then address the misrepresentations one by one.

Maybe next time.

(And for the record, our system – which cost in the ballpark of $600 for hardware – includes 4 smoke detectors, 4 motion detectors, 2 glassbreak detectors, a dozen door/window contacts, freeze and flood protection and smartphone integration)

Alarm Systems

I know I know, our house is kitted out like Fort Knox, and it is my love of techno-gadgets more than a sense of impending criminal activity that has me running miles of cable through the walls. It does provide me with some peace of mind, but probably not the kind that most people would think.

I have heard more than a few “alarm systems are useless” arguments, and I’ll respond to the most common here now:

Burglary alarms are low on Police priority lists, and security companies take forever to respond. It’s not like they’re going to catch the burglars anyway!

True. A quick smash and grab is likely over before the alarm company has started making phone calls. A smash and grab however is entirely different from a long casual exploration of your residence followed by a determined effort to steal valuables from wherever they are hidden or secured.

Speaking as someone who has spent years responding to alarm calls, I can say with some authority that the criminals tend to hit a few key “high probability” areas then skedaddle out of there while the siren sounds.

Burglary victims without alarm systems will tell tales of criminals tossing the house, using the homeowners own tools to compromise safes or locked rooms etc.

As a firearms owner I trust that thanks to the alarm system the criminals would lack sufficient time to locate, then penetrate the firearms safe before responding authorities arrived.

It’s inconvenient to remember to turn on and off the alarm, it’s a nuisance.

No more than locking or unlocking the door. Newer systems have all sorts of fancy options included in them, remote keyfobs to arm/disarm, scheduled arming times, some even allow incorporation into Home Automation schemes that will disarm automatically when your cellphone is detected nearby, and arm when it leaves the area.

The solutions are out there, you just need to articulate the problem to a professional and they can help.

What are the odds you’ll be broken into anyway?

Fairly low all other things being equal. Ask any victim of a burglary how they feel about it however, an alarm system is an essential part of “target hardening”, and considering the low cost of the technology should not be discarded as an option.

A further benefit is the “asset protection” element of a residential burglary system. Our system is monitored for fire (all smoke detectors in the residence are powered by the alarm – no battery changes needed – and are monitored off site), low-temp (should the furnace fail in the winter when we are away the alarm system will notify the monitoring station before the interior temperature hits 0 degrees) and flood (a water sensor in the basement drain warns when water is just below the floor level).

It’s far from the immediate armed response images that the alarm company commercials push on us, but it’s a more pragmatic peace of mind.

No alarm system will ever stop someone from entering your home if they truly want to. Thicker doors, stronger locks, better lighting, alarm systems and cameras are all designed to slow entry down and draw attention to the act.

Ethical Business Practices, or not…

I spend some time trolling the inter-webs looking at alarm stuff, and I’m always pleasantly surprised to find people helping others, like at the DIY Alarm Forum. Of course the other end of the spectrum isn’t hard to find either.

For example, take a look at Canada Home Alarm Reviews, browse for thirty seconds and it’s clear that in the words of Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others”.

Lets review:

  • ADT Dealer – MHB Security – 16 reviews, most of them 5 star
  • Voxcom Security – 4 reviews, all three stars or lower
  • Sears Home Alarm – 1 review, negative
  • The Monitoring Centre – 1 review, negative
  • Reliance Protectron Security – 5 reviews, all negative

See a pattern here? Yeah, it doesn’t take an expert to see that site is hardly an impartial review site as it presents itself, rather it looks like a shill site meant to direct traffic to MHB Security.

The reviews appear to be taken from Alarm System Reviews, but strangely any positive reviews from each of the non-MHB providers are absent. It seems clear that the reviews have been “cherry-picked” to cast the non-MHB providers in the worst possible light.

An alarm company advertising it’s own services is not unethical, but creating a site that appears to host “impartial” reviews is questionable at best, and downright sneaky at worst. I’m sure their ethical shortcomings are limited to their advertising practices however, and not their business dealings.


Home Alarm Systems – Fire Detection

Setting aside the burglary detection features of our alarm system for a moment, let’s look at the fire detection/notification features of the alarm system in our home.

Our smoke detectors are hardwired, which means no battery changes (and no 3AM chirping noises to track down and identify) and the alarm system siren sounds if a smoke detector activates, which should draw a lot more attention to the alarm.

There are also false alarm reduction features in place. This system has been configured to automatically reset the detectors when they report an alarm condition. If the condition still exists when they come back on 20 seconds after the initial report then the system goes into alarm.

Finally the smoke detectors are monitored off-site as part of the alarm system, which means if we are not home and a fire breaks out then the alarm company will be able to dispatch the fire department and minimize the damage. If we are home then I can concentrate on getting my family out of the house, ignoring the telephone and the fire department will be automatically dispatched. If it is a false alarm I can answer the phone and cancel the response.

Altogether this entire arrangement falls under “peace of mind” and convenience. The expense was nominal (and as we are already monitored for burglary costs nothing extra in this regard).

Edited to add: I would prefer to have the CO detector hardwired as well, but haven’t really found an appropriate detector. Wireless (as usual) is not really the direction we’re going here.

Total cost:
$40 – Hardwired Smoke Detector X2
$45 – Hardwired Smoke / Rate of Rise Heat Detector X1
$0 – 4 hours my labour fishing wire.
$125 – Total Cost – Cheap at the price.