Overview: Big savings with a DIY home security system
The wireless security systems
of 20 years ago were notoriously
unreliable. They produced
so many false alarms that many
homeowners stopped using them.
That's all changed. Today you can buy
professional-grade wireless security
equipment that's extremely reliable,
easy to install and affordable. A basic
system starts at about $225 and tops
out at $800 or so. If you add wireless
smoke/heat detectors, plan to spend
about $1,300. That's about half of what
a professional alarm company would
charge. Monitoring service, which notifies
the police or fire department, can
cost $40 or more per month. But if you
shop around, you can get it for about
$10 per month.
We'll show you how to plan your system
so you can get it up and running in a single
day. Plus, we'll show you how you can
save money on equipment and neaten up
the installation at the same time.
Installation is easy. You just mount the
transmitters at doors and windows and
connect a control panel to phone lines
and a power supply. All you'll need are
basic tools—a drill, screwdrivers, wire
stripper and a small pry bar.
Wireless transmitter on window
Save $100s Now—And $30 Every Month
Installing a wireless security system
can be as easy as mounting
transmitters on doors and
windows and connecting a
control panel to your phone
line. You'll save $300 to $600
in parts and labor costs.
Better yet, you'll avoid an
expensive long-term monitoring
contract with a security
company. Instead, you can shop
around and choose any monitoring
service you like. That will save you about
$30 every month—forever.
Step 1: Plan your system
Some alarm installers recommend eliminating
window transmitters and installing
motion sensors instead. These sensors are
similar to the motion detectors that turn
on outdoor floodlights. That approach
can cut costs, but we don't recommend it.
Motion sensors cause the majority of false
alarms. Worse, they detect burglars only
after they've entered your home. That can
create a dangerous situation where you
come face to face with a burglar in your
hallway. Door and window transmitters
are the only way to detect break-ins
immediately. Don't let anyone convince
you that motion detectors alone are a substitute
for them. Glass-breakage sensors
are available too, but are optional. Most
burglars only break glass in order to
unlock a door or window. Then, when
they open the door or window, a standard
transmitter will detect the entry.
To figure out how many transmitters
you need, start by sketching all of the
doors and windows on the ground level of
your home. Number each opening, beginning
with the front door and moving in a
clockwise direction. Be sure to include the
garage service door if you have an
attached garage. Then count only the
upper level openings that can be reached
without a ladder (burglars rarely use ladders).
Don't forget to count the patio door
on an elevated deck.
Fire poses a greater danger to your family
than burglary. So you may want to add
wireless smoke detectors (about $90 each)
to your system. That way, the alarm panel
will notify your monitoring service of a
fire condition and the service will call the
fire department. You'll need a minimum of
one wireless smoke detector on each floor.
Add a smoke detector in each hallway
leading to a bedroom, and one in each
bedroom. If you have a gas furnace, water
heater or clothes dryer, install one rate-of-rise
(ROR) heat detector over each
of these appliances and wire them into a
Next, decide what kind of control panel
you want. There are two types: A “cabinet-style”
panel consists of a keyboard that
mounts near the door and a circuit board
that mounts near your phone interface. A
“self-contained” panel is a single unit that
mounts near the door. This one-part
panel is easier to install but has one weakness.
An intruder entering through the
door can tear it off the wall before the
panel finishes notifying the monitoring
service. With a two-part panel, the circuit
board keeps working even if the keypad is
disconnected. With either type of panel,
you’ll need a special phone jack (called an
“RJ31X”) to connect the panel to your
Figure A: Wireless security system
Figure A: How the Security System Works
When a burglar opens a door or window, the transmitter senses a loss of contact
with the magnet and sends a signal to the panel. The panel places a call to the
monitoring service, which then contacts the police or fire department. The monitoring
service can also call you or anyone else you've listed as “first contacts.”
Don't Forget the Permit
for alarm systems
(about $25 per year).
Contact your city licensing
department to get one,
then stick it to a window in or
near the front door. If you
don't, your first false alarm
may get you a fine plus a stern
lecture from the police.
Step 2: Shop online
You won't find professional-quality alarm
equipment at a local electronics retailer.
Instead, fire up your computer and search
for “security alarms” or “security systems.” Look for
suppliers that carry multiple brands and
models so you don’t get locked into
equipment that's not right for you. In
addition to good selection, look for a supplier
that offers free system programming
and technical support. Make sure the supplier
doesn't require a high-cost, long-term
monitoring contract. Before you
place an order, call the supplier and discuss
your plan. The staff will help you
develop a materials list and program the
alarm panel appropriately. Ask to have the
components labeled for each zone.
Step 3: Select a monitoring service
Your system doesn't have to be connected
to a monitoring service that calls the
police. It can simply trigger an alarm
siren. But don't dismiss the importance of
alarm monitoring. Crime statistics show
that burglars aren't scared away by sirens.
They know it will take at least three to five
minutes for neighbors to call the police
and just as long for police to respond to
the call. A monitoring service can contact
the authorities much faster. Insurance
companies understand the importance of
faster police/fire notification, and many
offer discounts to offset some of the monitoring
costs. So check with your insurer.
Alarm installation companies typically
charge you $40 per month with a three-year
minimum contract for alarm monitoring.
By installing your own system and
dealing directly with a monitoring service,
you can save at least $360 per year. Simply
search the Internet for “alarm monitoring.”
Make sure the company is UL
(Underwriter's Laboratory) listed.
If you've switched to digital phone service
or Voice Over Internet Protocol
(VoIP), make sure the monitoring company
is equipped to handle those types of
calls. If not, it may provide other means of
transmitting an alarm signal, such as
Internet, cellular, satellite or radio communicators.
Ask how much the additional
equipment costs and if there are any additional
Scare Off Crooks
Burglars want easy pickings, not
challenges. So be sure to let
them know that your home is
protected by an alarm system.
Post yard signs, window stickers
and your alarm permit so no
crook can mistake your home
for an easy target.
Step 4: Install the system—Installation tips
Surface-mounted transmitters and magnets (Tip 1 below) are the easiest way
to protect doors and windows. But there are approaches that add convenience, provide
a neater installation and even save you a few bucks.
Tip: Use the system for about a month
before you officially connect to
your monitoring service. That way,
your “training” false alarms
won't lead to police calls.
Tip 1: Get Fresh Air—and Security
If you have double-hung
mount the transmitter
and a magnet
6 in. above the sill.
Then mount a second
magnet near the
bottom of the sash.
That way, you can
leave the window
open a few inches
and still turn on the
security system. If a
burglar opens the
window farther, the
alarm will activate.
Tip 2: Use Hidden Magnets in Casement Windows
Plunger contacts can make casement windows harder to open or close.
Instead, use “recessed” magnetic contacts. Just drill a hole in the sill
near the side of the window that opens. Mark the location on the sash
and drill another hole for the magnet. Then drill an angled hole at
the edge of the side trim. Use a bent
coat hanger to hook and
“fish” the wires out toward
Close-up of plunger contact for doors
Tip 3: Get a Neater Look With Hidden Contacts
If you don't like the look of transmitters
and magnets, use “plunger” contacts
on doors, double-hung windows and sliding
patio doors. The plunger is a simple
mechanical switch that triggers when
pressure against it is released. When a
door or window opens, the plunger triggers
a separate transmitter, which
then sends a signal to the control panel. To
install a plunger, drill a hole
for the plunger and
another hole in the
drywall for the wires.
If you paint it to match
the wall, the transmitter
will be barely noticeable.
Two contacts with a single transmitter
Tip 4: Use One Contact for Multiple Windows
If you have banks of windows, you can connect all the contacts (whether they're the
plunger or magnetic type) to a single transmitter. On a bank of three windows, that
saves you about $60. Plus, you get a neater look. The catch is that you have to
remove the bottom piece of trim so you can run wires under the sill.