Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Alarm Contracts-What you need to know.

If you read the reviews of various national alarm monitoring companies, you will quickly realize that the fairly small number of reviews out there for every one are overwhelmingly negative. The reality is the overwhelming majority of customers are happy, and happy customers take their alarm for granted and typically do not write reviews. The most common reason stated by the consumer is almost always something along the lines of, "It was costly to cancel because I was still under contract." 

All alarm companies that provide equipment with no up front cost require a contract-usually 3 years. (Although 2-5 years is the range) This is to recover the costs they've incurred for equipment and installation. All of these contracts are auto-renewing for a period of time if the customer does not proactively cancel with a minimum of the industry standard 30 days notice prior to the initial agreement being up. This is usually outlined by a representative for a reputable alarm company at the time the initial paperwork is signed. 

Typically the first document you will sign is the "Notice of Cancellation." This document outlines the fact that your alarm contract will not be in effect until three business days after the alarm is installed and activated. This is to give you a period of time to proactively cancel without penalty or obligation if you object to any part of the transaction. Once this period of time has passed, you are locked into the terms of the contract including any early termination fees. 

If the person you are signing paperwork with does not take the time to go over the pertinent details of the contract with you, then you need to take thoroughly review the contract within your 3 business day cancellation window to ensure you understand the agreement and can cancel if you object to the terms. 

I personally use Central Security Group for monitoring the contract systems I install. I chose Central because they require every new contract customer sign a "No Secrets" document that clearly outlines the terms of the agreement in plain English so there is no room for any misinterpretation on the part of the consumer. I go over this document in detail with each and every customer. Not every alarm company has a "No Secrets" form, but all will have the full terms of the contract printed on the agreement itself. Read each document and make sure it is clarified to your satisfaction before you sign.  

If you do not wish to be under contract, you always have the option of purchasing equipment and installation up front. You can then engage monitoring services on a month to month basis with a monitoring center that offers short or no contract service. This option involves a large out-of-pocket expense, but leaves you without the long term contractual obligation. Be prepared that the most basic alarm system in a modest home with installation is going to start in the $800-$1000 range.  If you live in a large residence, or add items you want to make your house fully secure and the cost could easily climb significantly higher. Compare this to a typical three year contract and you'll find that signing a contract is often cheaper overall. 

As a consumer, you should weigh your options and make an informed decision based on the facts. You ultimately have the power to decide what is in your best fiscal interest. Read contracts, ask questions and walk away from anything that doesn't "feel" right. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

I'm shopping for an alarm system...What are my options?

I get this question regularly. "I want to help protect my family, I'm interested in electronic home security. Where do I start?" There are several factors that determine the answer to this question. My intent with this posting is to simplify the options available and make it possible for you to make an informed decision.

Step 1: Which business model is right for me? 

DSC PowerSeries 
There are really only two business models in the electronic security industry. The traditional model of purchasing equipment and installation from a reputable local custom alarm company is alive, well and highly recommended if your budget allows it. You can easily expect to pay from $1500-$2000 for a traditional basic consumer grade burglary system in a medium sized home. The more areas you want protected, the more you can expect to pay for equipment and labor.
GE Concord IV

This will typically be a "hard wired" or "hybrid" system that uses a separate panel box and keypad. Wireless devices may supported 'on-board' as is the case with the GE Concord or may require the addition of a wireless transceiver.  Typical panels used are the Honeywell/Ademco Vista/Via Series, GE/ITI Concord Series and DSC PowerSeries.
Honeywell Ademco Vista 20P

In this scenario the installing custom alarm company is usually who provides the monitoring-either at their own in house facility or by contract with a national monitoring provider. In the Chattanooga, TN/North GA market the type of services described here are available from Action Alarms, Dependable Security, PM Alarms and ADT Corporate. Please note that I do not specifically endorse any of these companies. Plenty of information is available online to help you determine whether the alarm provider you have chosen is reputable.

GE Simon XT Wireless All-in-one panel
The second choice is the alarm dealer business model. Typically alarm dealers provide basic systems at little or no up front cost in exchange for a specified contract term, commonly 2-3 years. Usually a minimum credit score is required. The ads you see for a $99 system are typically alarm dealer ads. The monitoring is provided by a national monitoring company such as ADT or Monitronics. The systems initially offered are usually wireless all-in-one systems such as the Honeywell Lynx Series, GE/ITI Simon series and DSC Impassa series. Wireless all-in-one units have the keypad, sounder, panel circuitry and wireless transceiver all in one self contained unit. The installer simply has to set up a connection to power and to phone and mount it on the wall. Hard-wired and hybrid systems are also offered with no up front cost by reputable dealers to customers with an existing system of this type.

DSC Impassa Wireless All-in-one panel

Alarm dealers make their money by selling the monitoring contracts to a national alarm monitoring company. This action makes you direct customer of the national monitoring company and effectively removes the dealer from the transaction-usually after your unit has been installed for 90 days.  If you require service, the national company can at their option send a technician from the installing dealer, another dealer or one of their own corporate technicians.

Honeywell  Lynx/QuickConnect Plus

Here are the main bullet points of comparison:

 Custom Alarm Company 
* Up front cost for equipment                                                                                                              
*  Hard wired or hybrid system                                                    
*  Short or no monitoring contract                                                

Alarm Dealer
 *  Little or no up-front cost
 *  New installs will usually be a Wireless system
 *  2-3 year monitoring contract

Now you have the basic information to make an informed choice about purchasing an alarm system. 

Stay tuned for the next segment!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Bob Seger Burglary-Family, Friends and Alarm Systems

Bob Seger

Bob Seger's house in Orchard Lake, Michigan was broken into last August and his prized 1978 Gibson Les Paul guitar, and personal valuables such as cash, a Rolex watch and autographed Shaquille O'Neal Sneakers were all stolen.

The suspect arrested Tuesday and charged with larceny from a building was identified as 20 year old Andrew D. Thompson of Waterford Township, MI-a close family friend. Police say Thompson attended a party thrown by Seger's 16 year old daughter last August and broke into the house afterwards to pilfer the items. The 1978 Les Paul is seen in Seger's hands on the cover of his 1994 "Greatest Hits" album. Its retail value is approximately $8000-$10,000 but it was reportedly 'priceless' to Seger.  

Interestingly, that guitar all of a sudden appeared later in Seger’s backyard.

Thompson denies stealing the guitar although Detective Darrell Betts said it turned up right after he questioned Thompson about the incident.

Betts also suggested Thompson broke into the back door after the small party had ended to steal the items.

The story:

This heartbreaking scenario is all too common. Very often people are burglarized by a friend, relative, or coworker. A substantial percentage of burglaries are committed by persons that have been inside your home that you trusted implicitly.

A burglar alarm system could have helped prevent this tragedy by alerting the authorities and Seger of the intrusion. Remarkably, apparently no burglar alarm was present or the alarm was not in use because Seger was reportedly moving.

Of course the best home security system in the world can be defeated by poor management of the alarm code(s). Only people who absolutely need access to your home should have an alarm code and the corresponding telephone "safe word" password.

You should also regularly change your alarm code to ensure that access to your home stays controlled. If you have a maid service or babysitter that needs access to the residence-give them a separate "user" code that will only disarm the alarm-NOT your "Master" code that can be used to access system settings. Many security companies also allow you to track online when and what code is used-which can help in the event a theft is discovered without a break in.

I will be happy to answer any questions regarding home security. You can contact me at acoker@ctshomesecurity.com

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Alarm Monitoring-Why the cost varies wildly.

As a security industry professional I have had the opportunity to work with multiple alarm companies and their central stations. A central station is the location where your alarm signals are received and processed for dispatch. Large national brands such as ADT and Monitronics own and operate their own central station locations. Your local alarm company may have their own central station-but this is not as common as it used to be. It is far more likely that a larger dedicated monitoring company provides this service to many smaller alarm companies-including yours. 

Now for the facts that every consumer should know-All reputable monitoring companies provide essentially the same service. You read that correctly. It doesn't matter whether your monitoring is provided by a large national brand or a smaller regional operation so long as you are doing business with a reputable company. This brings me to my next shocker-The price you pay for monitoring has almost no bearing whatsoever on the quality of service you receive. 

So, you ask, "Why is my monitoring so much higher than my neighbor's?" This is a perfectly legitimate question and there are multiple reasons why this could be.

If you signed up for a 'FREE w/ $99 installation fee' system then your monitoring cost will be higher because the monthly fee includes the amortized cost of the equipment. In this scenario, monitoring will typically range from $30 -$100/ month depending on the amount of equipment you received at the time of install.

The alarm industry national dealers borrowed this business model from cell phone providers, who figured out long ago that offering a 'free' or reduced cost phone with a 2-3 year contractual commitment sold better and substantially increased their business. This due to the fact that most people live paycheck to paycheck and can't come up with the $800-$1500 an average basic residential alarm installation costs-but they can easily budget the monthly expense.

If you purchased your equipment at the time of install, or you have completed your contract with a national company you own the equipment outright. You can purchase monitoring on a month to month basis as a separate service and comparison shop. You will find options ranging from $15-$50 for basic monitoring services depending on whether you are communicating your signals with a telephone line, a GSM (alarm cellular communicator), or a Wi-Fi or IP communicator. 

Whichever way you choose to purchase an alarm system, once you experience the peace of mind of having an electronic security system, you will never choose to live without one again. Feel free to contact me via email with your questions.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Home Automation-The Alarm Industry and the future...What's in it for me?

Electronic security has exploded in the last several years with All-In-One wireless systems making security installations easy and convenient for homeowners with existing construction. Wireless panels typically give you the option of an on-board GSM (or cellular) unit which makes the installation even easier because no phone wire needs to be pulled to the demarc location to complete the install. The additional monthly monitoring cost for a cellular unit averages $12 or so with the national brand alarm companies. This is more than offset by most customers simply by eliminating the now largely unnecessary land line phone in favor of using a mobile, resulting in a net savings for the customer. The proliferation of GSM units has a further benefit because you are now fully prepared for the sunset of analog P.O.T.S (Plain Old Telephone Service) land lines the telco industry is pushing for. This could happen as soon as 2014.

In addition on board GSM units installed in an all-in-one wireless panel can be used in internet connected households in conjunction with an enabled central station to allow the alarm panel status to be monitored from internet connected devices such as smart phones, tablets and notebook computers. The user can arm and disarm the system and get text notifications for any event the user desires. (This could be a disarm event when a child gets home for example.)

More recently alarm panels have become more capable still. Thanks to wireless Z-wave technology you can use a modern touch screen wireless all-in-one alarm panel to control thermostats, lights, door locks and monitor IP video cameras.  You can hop on your iPhone or iPad or similar Android device before you leave the office, check your cameras, turn on your air conditioner and lights. Once you get home you can disarm the alarm and unlock the door from the same device! These new systems give the customer conveniences and peace of mind. As of this writing, basic home automation has been made affordable for the masses via the integration of home automation technology into security systems.

ADT (Pulse) and Vivint (Home Automation Package) are among the national brands offering modern streamlined touch screen panels with all of the features mentioned above. There is typically some up-front cost involved for equipment and/or installation fees. The monitoring of systems with home automation can be more than double the cost of standard home security monitoring. A typical basic home-automation and security system has an up-front cost of about $200, and a recurring monthly cost of approximately $70/month on a 36 month monitoring agreement that includes an IP camera, a wireless thermostat, light control modules and wireless door locks.

Honeywell Lynx Touch is used by ADT Pulse

2Gig's Go is used by Vivint Home Automation

These technologies will ensure the relevance of electronic home security in the future. If you haven't seen this technology in action, check out www.adtpulse.com  or www.vivint.com. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A customer question-Replacing a door.

While driving between installs, I received a call from a gentleman from Harahan, LA. he obtained my contact number from this blog and contacted me to ask a question.  His question was a common one and I felt it would be good to share the answer in case others encounter this issue.

He had replaced his sliding glass door with outward opening french doors and in the process the existing door contact was damaged. His alarm is a standard Honeywell hard wired alarm system. He correctly acted to bypass the missing door contact so he could continue to arm the remaining alarm sensors. His alarm company quoted him $165 for the part and to send a technician out to install the replacement. Their reason included the technician 'programming' the new door contact. The customer wanted to know if he could obtain a hard wired door contact and replace the sensor himself. The short answer is probably yes.

Flush Mount Hard Wired Door Contacts

Prior to calling me, this customer had correctly surmised that since a hard wired door contact is essentially a type of magnetic switch that reprogramming the alarm would likely not be necessary. He is correct. If you replace an existing door contact with a similar contact normally no further programming is necessary. You must verify that everything functions after replacement and also that you are satisfied with the current zone number and/or description.

Recessed Hard Wired Door Contacts
You can obtain flush mount or recessed door contacts from a security or electronics supply store in your local area. These type of stores are geared to supply the low-voltage professional but are usually open to the general public also. Hard wired door contacts are inexpensive. The Honeywell variety this gentleman preferred typically are priced at $10-$15 per piece.

Installation is simply a matter of attaching the new contact to the existing wire and securing it with a low voltage electrical 'B-connector' also called a 'beanie' or 'crimp.' Secure the flush mount door contact and magnet to the door with the supplied screws. At this point you should be able to go to your keypad, remove the bypass from the zone and your new contact should function normally. A simple test is to turn on your door chimes and pull the door open and closed a few times. Each time you should hear the door chime beeping. Next arm your alarm normally, exit, wait a few minutes and re-enter and disarm.  If all of these tests are successful, it is most likely that your door contact will continue to function perfectly with your alarm.

This customer had this alarm for several years and his system was no longer covered by a warranty or maintenance plan. If your system is under a warranty or maintenance plan with your alarm manufacturer or monitoring company you should check with them first to ascertain your options. It is entirely possible that a DIY repair may be unnecessary.  If you have a maintenance plan to cover this repair-you may only have to pay a small one-time cost. It is also worth noting that a DIY repair could void your existing manufacturers or monitoring company warranty. In all cases you assume liability for any functional changes to your alarm system that you make on your own. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

R.I.P P.O.T.S...Telephone as we knew it.

Chances are if you have an alarm system your primary communication to your monitoring central station is through P.O.T.S lines. This is an acronym for Plain Old Telephone Service. This is the old fashioned two-wire ring and tip, positive and negative copper wire plug in phone connection. This type of connection has reliably provided voice telephony services to the masses in this country since the dawn of the 20th century.

Those of us with a little age on us recall the days when Ma Bell ran everything and everyone had the plain black or ivory tabletop rotary phone that weighed a ton and could cave a man's head in if used as a blunt force weapon. Dialing was accomplished by rotary pulse dialing. This remained the standard until phone company deregulation began to accelerate the adoption of newer technologies. I'm old enough to remember how exciting Touch tone dialing was when first began to be adopted by the masses. Caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, three way calling and telco issued voicemail would all follow in quick succession. All of this was delivered on copper trunk lines-many of which had been in place for decades. The peak of standard land-line telephony had been reached. The dawn of the internet age would undo all of that in a few short years.

Initially, computers were connected to the internet by dialing up through these same P.O.T.S lines. The max speed of 56K/sec quickly proved to be too slow for customers who found themselves wishing to download music and watch streaming video. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) allowed the customer to access a faster internet...once again through the aging P.O.T.S infrastructure. DSLwould quickly find itself in competition with other faster internet services, and the telcos themselves threatened by mobile phones supplanting landlines and a multitude of other home phone options.

The Cable television companies began running fiber-optic infrastructure into cities and towns in the mid to late nineties. This allowed cable providers to provide blazing fast cable internet, access to hundreds of digital television channels and most importantly-begin to provide home phone service. These 'triple threat' packages greatly increased the market share of cable companies because consumers could now get television video quality that rivaled mini dish satellite with fewer signal problems, reliable home telephone service, and blazing fast internet.

Cable's sudden lunge in market share forced the telcos to change their approach. AT&T began modernizing their infrastructure to digital so they could offer faster DSL and also provide television through a new service they dubbed U-Verse. The result is that many areas now have access to this service or a similar service from another large telco.

The sticking point for alarm companies has been the digital communicator device common to all alarm panels. This device was designed to pick up a standard P.O.T.S line and transmit a digital packet of information to the Alarm Central Station. The cable phone and internet phone providers such asVonage use Voice over IP (or VoIP) technology. This technology is designed to convert a human voice to a data packet and back again. It has proven unreliable in converting alarm data signals to VoIP data packets and back again. It may work 100 times in a row and fail when it really counts.

Further complicating the issue is the stage is now set for the next step-eliminating P.O.T.S lines altogether. This could happen as early as 2014. The FCC is currently examining how to sunset out of existence the remaining PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) and POTS lines. AT&T in particular is lobbying hard for this 2014 deadline because they have much of the infrastructure backbone in place to capitalize on this seismic shift.

Telguard's radios are an excellent option for primary or secondary alarm communication

So now the inevitable question-"How does all this affect me?" If you are using an alarm panel that is monitored by a central station via telephone lines you will have to switch to another method of communication. Options include a GSM  radio/cellular alarm communicator or an IP based internet communicator. Both of these options are available today and are reliable alternatives to P.O.T.S.

I recommend making an existing account radio primary. This typically costs $150-$200 for the cellular alarm communicator plus an additional average monthly cost of $12 for cellular data transmission. I further recommend disconnecting your land line service-chances are you seldom use it anyway. Prepare for the switch by having your security company install a cellular alarm communicator. This presents a net monthly savings that quickly covers the up-front costs because you are replacing a $30-$40 monthly expense with a $12 monthly expense. In addition, you are prepared for the upcoming sunset of P.O.T.S lines because you have a technology that will continue to work after 2014.