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Home Security — Ratings of Home Alarm System installers and advice on home security systems
(From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2012)
 
Go to Ratings of 19 Washington Area Home Security Firms

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Home Security

Several measures of securing your home are more effective—and much less costly—than alarm systems: Secure all doors with good deadbolts; secure all windows that are accessible from the outside; set up lighting systems that deter burglars; and improve your own home security habits. Good habits include consistently locking doors and keeping track of keys, having someone pick up your newspapers and mail when you are away, and keeping valuable items out of sight. 

While an alarm system will also improve the security of your home, it may not be worth the cost if— 

  • You live in a very low-crime neighborhood. 
  • Your house is well-secured physically (with locks and other measures). 
  • Someone almost always is at home. 
  • Your neighbors will keep an eye on your house and call the police if they notice anything suspicious. 
  • You possess little of substantial value that could be stolen and have good insurance coverage. 
  • You don’t worry much about break-ins. 
  • Children, houseguests, or others are likely to frequently trigger false alarms. 
  • The hassle of setting the alarm and avoiding false alarms might make you avoid using it regularly. 

If you decide you want an alarm system, choosing a good installer is essential to making sure the system is effective, convenient, and unobtrusive; minimizing false alarms; and controlling costs. Our Ratings Tables show ratings of area alarm system installation companies, most of which serve all or large portions of the Washington area. Some companies are twice as likely as others to get top service quality ratings from their surveyed customers. 

Have several companies come to your home to propose system designs and quote prices. Some will be much better than others at designing a system that meets your needs conveniently and at a reasonable cost. Even for the same basic design, you will find substantial price differences. For one particular job, including three years of monitoring service, our shopper got quotes ranging from $2,634 to $6,545. 

When pricing a system that will have central station monitoring, take into account the cost of monitoring. Some installers will lock you into using their monitoring services for several years. Many installers give hefty discounts off equipment and installation costs to customers who sign long-term monitoring contracts. 

Don’t agree to pay more than half of the cost of a system installation before the work begins. Ideally, arrange to hold back at least half of the payment until two weeks or a month after the system is up and running—enough time to see if the system needs any fixes. 

If you’ve ever locked yourself out of your home and had to play burglar, you know it doesn’t take a lot of smarts to make a living as a thief. Most burglars enter homes in one of two ways: (1) Test doors and windows, find an unlocked one, open it; or (2) Test doors and windows, find a vulnerable one, push and kick it until it opens. 

So while the bad news is it doesn’t take a genius to get at your stuff, the good news is the incidence of burglaries is slim: Only about one in 50 U.S. homes gets broken into each year. But over time, the odds can turn against you. And given the financial, physical, and psychological damage that can result from a burglary, it makes sense to do what you can to become more secure. 

For millions of American households, one component of a home security plan is an electronic alarm system. There is evidence that these systems do make a difference: It is estimated that homes with security systems are about one-third as likely to be burglarized as homes without them. Although part of the difference no doubt has something to do with location and other protections alarmed homes have in place, electronic alarm systems clearly matter. In addition, these systems can help prevent fire damage, and some will alert you or a central monitoring agency to power outages, water leaks, and other problems. 

The discounts homeowners insurance companies give households that have alarm systems is one indication of their value. Many insurers discount policies from two to 10 percent (most typically five percent) for homes with systems that have central station monitoring. 

This article evaluates alarm system installers for quality and price (including prices for central station monitoring), and describes alarm system features. It also discusses many possibly more important and much less expensive measures you can take. A report on locks and locksmiths is available here

Take Care of the Basics 

Whether you’re considering an electronic home security system or not, it’s important to evaluate your home’s overall security. There are many things you can do to enhance protections that cost much less than an alarm system but do just as much good. 

Consider the Threat 

Almost all intruders are male, and more than one-third are in their teens or early twenties. Professionals capable of picking locks and circumventing alarm systems commit a very small portion of burglaries. 

Although it is commonly believed that illegal intrusions are primarily a risk during summer, rates actually vary by less than 10 percent from month to month. It is also widely presumed that most intrusions occur at night, but about half occur during the day. Intruders usually don’t have to force open doors or break windows; most burglars enter through unlocked doors and windows, or with the unauthorized use of a key. And not all thieves are strangers—ex-spouses, relatives, and acquaintances commit a significant portion of break-ins. 

The most common points of entry are exterior doors and ground-level windows, sliding glass doors, doors to an attached garage, and basement windows. 

Burglars most commonly enter by opening unlocked doors or windows, lifting sliding glass doors off their tracks, and prying open locked doors and windows. Few intruders break windows to enter homes if they can’t get in through unlocked doors or other methods. They prefer visual obscurity, silence, easy entry, and quick exits. Your primary objective when planning security for your home, then, is to beef up its locks and latches. More on this later. 

Buy Insurance 

Despite the best precautions, your home might still be penetrated. Homeowners and renters insurance policies do not provide reimbursement for personal injuries suffered during assaults, but they do cover property losses due to burglaries. The coverage limit for personal possessions is usually 50 to 75 percent of the amount of coverage purchased for the dwelling, but certain items (jewelry, silver, cash, computers, and guns) usually are covered at low limits. 

In addition, unless you purchase a replacement cost provision, homeowners insurance policies cover only the “market value” of personal property, not “replacement value.” Market value is defined as the replacement cost minus depreciation. Insurance companies offer the option of covering the full replacement cost (with no deduction for depreciation) for about 10 percent more than the standard policy. If burglars clean out your home, coverage for full replacement cost could save you thousands of dollars. Most companies also offer riders that increase coverage on jewelry and other items covered at low limits under standard policies. 

(See our article on homeowners insurance for more information on insuring your home, including ratings of local insurers for quality and price.) 

If you suffer a major loss from burglary or fire, an inventory list will help you get compensated. Ideally, the inventory should include a brief description of each possession, its purchase date, and price. Unless you have taken a vow of poverty, preparing a list like that will take days. An alternative is to list expensive items, and record the number of smaller items—for example, “12 miscellaneous cooking utensils.” If you do have to file a claim, the list could jog your memory for the additional details that your insurance company might request. Or make a video of possessions, with a voiceover providing details about each item. 

If you own antiques, expensive jewelry, original paintings, or other items of substantial value that require authentication to establish value, get written appraisals—but first make sure your appraiser is acceptable to your insurance company. Because some appraisers are also dealers, specifically tell the appraiser that you want the evaluation for insurance purposes. If they think you want to sell the items, they might lowball the estimate of their value. 

Keep copies of the inventory, videos, and appraisals in a secure place outside your home, such as a safe deposit box or a friend’s house. Because appraisals indicate your name and address, in the wrong hands they can invite burglary. Update your inventory every couple of years. 

Get a Security Audit 

A home security audit is a good start in the battle against intruders. Most police departments provide such services. Call your local police department and ask for the crime prevention or community services unit. Ask for an officer to come to your home to assess its vulnerabilities and recommend additional security measures. There is no charge for the service, and evening appointments usually can be arranged. 

ID Your Stuff 

Many experts recommend participating in Operation Identification, which involves engraving an ID number on your valuables and putting a decal in your window. The decal will deter some potential intruders because clearly marked items are harder to sell. Although only about 10 percent of burglarized homes recover any stolen items, positive identification improves your chances. Most police departments recommend engraving your driver’s license number. 

Metal engravers cost from $8 to $25. Some police departments lend them out; call yours to see if one is available. You can use a large nail or kitchen knife to engrave on wood, plastic, and aluminum, but on steel such devices make a shallow score that can be obliterated by 30 seconds of sandpapering. 

There are also various ways to “fingerprint” fine art, jewelry, and other items without damaging them. An appraiser or jeweler can provide more information. 

Keep Valuables Out of Sight 

Households often open their front doors to strangers and near-strangers—the pizza delivery guy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the sketchy home improvement salesman who’s “doing work in the neighborhood” and wants to give you a big discount, and others. So it makes sense to place articles of ostensible value out of the view of anyone at your front door. 

The layout of some houses makes it easy for strangers on the sidewalk to look through windows. Keep your valuables out of their line of sight. 

Tradespeople working in your home also represent some risk. While they are unlikely to steal anything you’re likely to notice right away, they might grab a single piece of jewelry from a full box. Always hide away small valuables. 

Organize Your Neighbors 

One of the most effective and least costly ways to protect all the homes in the neighborhood is for community members to get involved in crime prevention. Involvement can range from making sure neighbors keep an eye out for suspicious activity to setting up shifts for foot patrols. 

Neighborhood Watch groups can be organized to cover a single block of 10 or 12 houses or dozens of blocks with 1,000 houses. 

Neighborhood Watch groups usually set up a system for members to exchange information. Typically, leaders (or “block captains”) work with police and neighbors to compile activity occurring in the neighborhood and distribute the information to members via newsletters, emails, or listservs. 

Neighborhood Watch groups get started when police officers train neighborhood residents on security measures, ways to spot “suspicious activity,” and ways to keep in contact with the police. Neighbors also are asked to define the geographical boundaries of their “neighborhood.” After these initial steps, block captains and residents take responsibility for keeping the ball rolling. 

Members typically develop a map of the neighborhood listing addresses and phone numbers of group members, distribute crime alert information, and regularly welcome new neighbors into the group. Some Neighborhood Watch groups bond further with regular meetings and social events. 

Some neighborhoods even form Citizen Patrols (called “Orange Hats” in the District), a cadre of volunteers who walk or drive a designated area looking for suspicious activity that they report to the police. 

Keep Up Appearances 

Most burglars strike when no one is home, so make sure your house appears to be occupied. 

When You Are Away During the Day or Evening… 

  • Leave a radio or television on. Silence suggests an unoccupied house. 
  • Don’t let your phone ring for a long time. Either turn down the volume of ringers or lower the number of rings before voicemail or your answering machine picks up. A long-ringing phone tells passersby and prowlers that nobody’s home. 
  • Consider removing your address from phone listings. There is no extra charge, and if you have this type of listing potential thieves who dial random numbers looking for unoccupied homes won’t find out your address. Similarly, someone who cases the neighborhood and learns your name from the mailbox won’t be able to obtain your phone number. An alternative is an unlisted phone number: Your name, address, and phone number are omitted from the phone directory, but directory assistance provides your number. Or have a non-published phone number, which means your name, address, and phone number are omitted from the directory, and directory assistance does not reveal your number. 
  • Always leave your garage door closed. An open door to a car-less garage indicates that at least some occupants are away. 
  • Plug a light or two into timers. The timers should turn lights on at dusk, and off at bedtime. 

When You Are on Vacation… 

  • Don’t let newspapers and mail pile up. Have a neighbor check your mailbox every day and pick up anything left on the porch. You could have mail and newspaper deliveries stopped, but be aware that these stops reveal your absence to several people at the post office and the newspaper. 
  • Arrange for your lawn to be mowed during the summer and your sidewalk shoveled during the winter. After new snowfalls, have a neighbor traipse from the street to your front door a couple of times. 
  • Park a car in your driveway. 
  • Ask a neighbor to put some of his or her garbage in your garbage cans. 
  • Leave blinds, shades, and curtains closed unless that departs from your normal pattern. Even then, close off windows that are particularly vulnerable to observation and leave other curtains open. 
  • Do not let more people than necessary know you are leaving. 
  • Consider hiring a trusted house sitter. 

Keep Your Landscaping in Check 

Intruders prefer to invade unseen. They favor entrances through doors and windows hidden by garages, bushes, fences, and trees. Keep areas around your doors and windows visible from the street, to your neighbors, and from within your house. 

If it’s impractical or unattractive to hack back your home’s jungle, consider planting thorny varieties close to the house so prowlers won’t hide behind them. You can get advice on what to plant, and help planting it, from garden nurseries, landscapers, and landscape designers

Large trees may provide access to upstairs windows or, more often, to a porch roof with access to a window. Consider pruning them. 

A high fence is a double-edged sword. It can make it more difficult for an intruder to get in and out, but it also can hide a burglar. If you have a gate, keep it locked so an intruder knows the fence would slow his escape. 

Crowbars, hand tools, or yard tools lying about outside the house or in open garages are inviting trouble. Lock up any implements that could be used for prying or bashing. Also secure ladders: If they won’t fit in a locked garage or tool shed, chain them to a tree, fence, or other immovable object. Ask your neighbors to secure their tools, too. 

Let There Be Light 

Most nighttime prowlers flee the moment indoor lights go on, but bolder ones might hide until you go back to sleep. On the other hand, an outside light will chase away all but the nerviest. 

You can use outdoor lights to illuminate the entire exterior of your house or just a few vulnerable areas. In either case, they can be set for all-night operation or to go on only when a prowler is detected. Some incorporate heat and motion detectors that turn the lights on whenever someone comes within about 25 feet of the lights. 

For the greatest security, external lights should have break-proof lenses, strong mountings, hidden wiring, and tamper alarms. Security lights are available at some hardware stores, electrical equipment suppliers, and locksmith shops. 

Professional installation of a whole-house security light system costs $1,000 to $3,000—and increases your electric bill. A do-it-yourself installation at one point of vulnerability may cost less than $200. Unsecured outdoor lights with outdoor sockets (which usually take reflector lamps) cost much less, but a careful intruder can remove the bulbs before attacking the house. 

Place the switch for any outdoor light or lighting system intended to provide security in a convenient location away from the light. You probably won’t want to go down to your basement to turn on a light when a prowler is breaking through the door. 

Use Bluffs 

Signs in many affluent communities have proclamations like “Warning: Houses in this community are protected by an integrated alarm system.” Some of them are bluffs. 

Similarly, you can post a “Beware of Dog” sign at the front entrance of your house even if you have no dog or the dog you do have is scared of strangers, cats, the wind, and pretty much any moving object. If you want the bark but not a barky dog, you can buy electronic dog barkers that emit barks for a few seconds when triggered. Hang a vibration detector on a doorknob so the device barks when the door is rattled, or hook up the device to motion detectors hung outside the house. They cost about $60 to more than $100. 

Most alarm system companies provide decals for doors or windows indicating that your home is “alarmed.” Some homeowners purchase fake decals. But be aware that knowledgeable burglars claim they can identify fakes. Also, if you have a decal on your home and live in a neighborhood where most houses do not have alarm decals, it suggests your house has more valuables than your neighbors’ and may attract intruders without providing any real protection. 

Get a Dog 

Dogs can offer several levels of protection from intruders. First and least is the family pet with no particular training in sounding an alert. Performance varies tremendously, depending on its breed and genealogy, gender, individual idiosyncrasies, and life experiences. Dobermans and German Shepherds get a lot of respect from intruders. A concern, of course, is that your untrained dog will attack innocent strangers, your neighbors, or their children. 

The second level is to train your dog to bark at strangers but not attack. This will usually require the assistance of a professional trainer. 

The third level is a personal protection dog professionally trained to attack on command or when he or she thinks a family member is being assaulted. Unfortunately, even after such training most dogs have trouble distinguishing between a friendly slap on the back and a real assault. Many are unreliable except when handled by their masters. 

Secure Your Perimeter 

Since most intruders break in through doors and windows, you’ll want to make yours as difficult to penetrate as possible. Intruders prefer unlocked doors or windows; however, many burglars can quickly and almost silently pry open locked ones. Some break a pane of glass so they can reach in and unlock the window or door. Only a few really determined burglars break out enough glass to walk or crawl through, or bash in a well-secured door, and they seldom try to pick locks. 

Lose Lousy Locks 

Good locks are essential. Our locksmiths article describes various types of locks, how they can be strengthened, and how to find a good locksmith to do the work. 

Secure Sliding Glass Doors 

The locks on sliding glass doors are notoriously flimsy—many doors can be lifted right off their tracks. If you have a sliding glass door, consider paying a locksmith to evaluate its vulnerability and, if necessary, install reinforcements. 

Figure 1 shows several do-it-yourself ways to secure sliding glass doors. One door is usually fixed (screwed or bolted at several points to the track) so you have to worry about only the other door. A sliding glass door can resist a pry bar attack if you place a broomstick or piece of lumber in the lower track to prevent the door from sliding open. Aluminum “Charley Bars” mounted waist high function the same way. Well-designed ones require moving one or two parts before they can be lowered, making them somewhat more resistant to persistent intruders than wood in the track. Charley Bars cost $20 and less. 

Figure 1—Securing Sliding Glass Doors

sliding glass door

If both doors slide, secure them by drilling two 9/32-inch holes where their frames overlap at the top and bottom. Drill through the inside door’s frame and halfway into the outside door’s frame; then insert 1/4-inch bolts in the holes (see Figure 1). This will prevent intruders from prying the doors open, and make it difficult to lift the doors off their tracks. The danger is that if your drill hits the glass, the glass may break. Usually the glass extends less than 1/2 inch into the frame, so position the hole as far from the glass as possible while keeping the drill perpendicular to the door. 

To prevent burglars from lifting a sliding door off the track to open it fully, drill vertical holes through the overhead track every 12 inches or so, and drive screws into these holes just far enough so that the doors slide under their heads but can’t be lifted off the track (see Figure 2). Before trying this, use a pencil or piece of wire to feel whether the top of the door frame is solid or hollow. This technique will not work on some hollow frames. 

Figure 2—Using Screws to Prevent Sliding Doors from Being Lifted

screw to prevent door from being lifted

Replace Weak Doors 

Although hinged doors are much safer than sliding glass doors, intruders can get through even securely locked ones. 

Hollow wood doors are usually made of two 1/8-inch sheets of plywood separated by cardboard spacers. You don’t have to be Jackie Chan to punch through them. And for outward-opening doors, hinge pins located on the outside can be pulled out with a pair of pliers. 

Exterior doors should be solid wood (usually plywood surfaces over wood planks) or foam-filled steel. If doors do not open inward, the hinges should have non-removable pins. Hinges should also be installed so that the screws attaching them to the door and frame cannot be removed when the door is closed. Doors should fit snugly within the door frame, with no more than a 1/16-inch gap on either side. 

If you replace a glass door with a wooden one, you do not necessarily forgo an opportunity to view whoever rings your doorbell. Wide-angle peepholes are available, but before you buy one look through it at objects two feet to five feet away. The focus should be clear and the view at least as wide as the distance. 

The last word in door security is a heavy-duty steel door in a steel frame with a high-security lock. These cost $800 to $2,000, installed. 

One step down is a metal bar door installed a few inches outside an existing door. Set into a brick or concrete block structure, defeating them generally takes a lot of time and makes a lot of noise. On wood frame houses their resistance to attack depends on the strength of the framing to which they are attached. The simplest kinds of metal bar doors, which are usually installed along with bars over the windows, make your place look like a prison. But some fabricators make attractive, decorative ones, and a few custom-build them as individual pieces of art. These doors typically cost $400 to $1,200, when professionally installed. 

Don’t Forget About Your Garage, Porch, Etc. 

Intruders love unlocked attached garages. They enter the garage, close the door, and can then work at breaking into the house without fear of being seen or heard. 

Standard twist handle locks on overhead garage doors can be easily defeated. Most electric door openers ($150 to $300) provide more resistance, but because even these may yield to a crowbar attack it’s good to have a backup lock. One simple and inexpensive solution is to drill holes in the track on each side just above the closed door and put U-bolts or padlocks through the holes. This arrangement permits the door to be secured only from inside the garage when the door is closed. Alternatively, the door can be secured from the outside with a right-angle hasp and padlock (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3—Hasp

hasp

A preference for hidden entries leads intruders to also favor utility rooms and enclosed porches. Make it difficult for them to get inside them; and if that’s not possible, make sure a solid-core door with reinforced locks separates one of these areas from the rest of your house. 

Take Care of Your Keys 

Intruders also invade homes by using an unauthorized key—not one the intruder painstakingly fabricates, but rather a key “hidden” under your doormat or on top of an adjacent window frame, or kept by a contractor, or held by a friend of the prior occupant, or made from a key loaned to a plumber or since-dismissed housekeeper, or found on a key ring with an ID tag with your name and phone number, or copied by a parking lot attendant, or...you get the idea. 

You can easily guard against these risks. Don’t hide spare door keys in any obvious places—which means any place that’s convenient. Instead, give a spare to a trusted neighbor. Or put an unmarked spare key and some children’s trinkets in a jar or can, and bury it near a permanent landmark. 

When you move into a house or apartment, consider having all the lock cylinders replaced or re-keyed. If you must give a house key to anyone you don’t fully trust, install restricted key cylinders in the doors that they will be using. Duplicates of restricted keys, which require unusual key blanks and special key-cutting equipment, can be made only with the written authorization of the homeowners. 

Never put identification on your key ring—even a phone number is risky because someone might get your address by doing a reverse match. 

Secure Your Windows 

There are five common types of windows: 

  • Double-hung (sash) windows open vertically; sometimes the top half is fixed and sometimes not. Frames may be wood, vinyl, or metal. 
  • Horizontal sliders are like small sliding glass doors and usually have metal frames. 
  • Casement windows swing outward and are usually opened and closed by a lever attached to a geared hand crank. 
  • Jalousie windows are a series of panes about four inches wide set in metal frames interconnected by levers. 
  • Fixed pane windows do not open. 

To secure a window, you must make it resistant to being pried open. In addition, it should be difficult to open the window frame after a pane of glass has been broken. Most intruders are not keen on breaking glass, but it still happens often enough to justify concern. For the highest level of protection, the window should have unbreakable glazing or steel bars across it. 

Quick Fixes 

The most difficult-to-secure type of window is the jalousie. Even when closed tight, someone can quietly remove a pane. If you have this type of window anywhere accessible to intruders, consider replacing it, adding bars over it, or attaching an alarm to it. 

Casement windows, when closed, often will withstand a prying attack. The geared hand crank mechanism resists prying, and most have an additional lock on the window frame. If a casement window is open a few inches, however, someone can easily reach in and turn the hand crank to fully open the window. You can make that more difficult by removing the handle, but intruders can still substitute a pair of pliers for the hand crank. If you have a ground-level casement window that you commonly leave partially open, back it up with bars or cover it with an alarm screen. 

Locks on horizontal sliders are often flimsy enough to be snapped with gentle prying. Auxiliary locks for these windows include small devices that clamp onto or bolt through the track. However, the former may not resist prying, and the latter generally are unsuitable for securing windows in partially open positions because attackers can reach through openings to remove the bolts. 

A homemade stop that works well on some frames is drilling a 1/4-inch hole through the inside rung of the bottom track, then placing a small padlock through the hole. A hole drilled as far as five inches from the fully closed position can still prevent an intruder from entering when opened. Figure 4 shows this technique. 

Figure 4—Securing Sliding Windows

securing sliding windows figure

Double-hung windows are relatively easy to secure, but many commonly available locks are not effective. A simple way to secure this type of window is to pin the two frames together (as shown in Figure 5). Drill a 9/32-inch hole on each side where the lower and upper frames overlap. Drill entirely through the inner frame and three-fourths of the way through the outer frame. Use a 1/4-inch bolt as the pin. To allow the window to be left slightly open, drill a second hole as far as five inches up from the fully closed position. Unfortunately, intruders can remove such pins easily after breaking the glass once they notice them. Also, with the windows partially opened, intruders can use a stick to reach in and knock out the pins. 

Figure 5—Securing Double-Hung Windows with Pins

securing double-hung windows figure

The same basic arrangement, using smaller diameter holes and two-inch, #14 screws, would require the intruder to have a screwdriver and patience. You can even obtain screws with strange heads that cannot be removed without a special socket. 

Improve Glazing 

The next level up in window security is to get impact-resistant glazing. Two types of plastic material are commonly used: clear acrylic plastic and clear polycarbonate plastic. The best-known brand of acrylic is Plexiglas, and the best-known brand of polycarbonate is Lexan, but there are several other comparable products. 

For moderate-sized windows, the acrylic should be 1/4-inch thick; polycarbonate is stronger and can be as little as 3/16-inch thick. Premium grades of acrylic are virtually free of visual distortion and are more resistant to abrasion during cleaning. The polycarbonate will weigh less. These materials cost $2 to $5.50 per square foot. Follow manufacturers’ instructions for mounting these glazing materials. Temperature increases make them expand more than glass, and intruders can bash in an entire improperly mounted pane. 

Unfortunately, plastics are subject to scratching and slight losses of transparency. At considerably greater cost, you can have a professional replace particularly vulnerable windows with the type of glass used in automobile windshields, which is not difficult to break but is difficult to remove. 

Install Bars 

The ultimate in window protection consists of protective metal bars. These bars (also called grates and grills) come in straight prison-issue and various decorative versions. Most are fully welded on a semi-custom basis by local installers who do not sell them for do-it-yourself installation. 

Hardware stores, however, often stock bar sets that can be adjusted in size to fit your windows; they come in several heights and expand up to 42 inches wide. These bar sets cost $20 to $80. Although they won’t resist attack as well as fully welded bars, if properly installed they will discourage all but the most determined intruders. Some hardware stores have begun to stock fully welded window bars, although the selection is limited and may not be suitable for your windows. If the width doesn’t fit exactly, you can cut the fasteners with a hacksaw. 

Both expandable bars and fully welded bars should be installed with large one-way screws—or with carriage bolts, as long as they are punched with square holes and the nuts would not be accessible to intruders (see Figure 6). 

Figure 6—Hasp Fasteners

hasp fasteners figure

Custom-fashioned bars vary not only in decorative patterns but also in quality. Some are heavier gauge than others. Some put the “pickets” (vertical bars) through holes in the “spreaders” (horizontal bars), which is stronger than just welding them to the sides of the spreaders. Some have better welding than others, some have more coats of paint, and some can be more securely attached to the wall. 

Be sure to check how the bars will be attached to the house. They should be attached with bolts or screws positioned parallel to the wall (see Figure 7), and then welded to the bars. This kind of installation makes it very difficult to remove the fasteners and also difficult to pry off the bars, because prying away from one wall tends to push the whole bar assembly against the other wall. 

Figure 7—Steel Window Bars with Installation Bolts or Screws Parallel to Wall

steel window bars figure

Professionally installed, fully welded bars cost about $100 to $300 for a 30-inch-by-60-inch window if you get bars for several windows at one time. 

Don’t Block Emergency Escape Routes 

Metal bars on windows or doors or difficult-to-remove locking devices (such as screws in window frames) pose hazards in the event of fire. Most building codes specify that any sleeping room without an exterior door should have an easily opened window. Window bars with hinges on one side and a lock on the other are risky because the keys can easily be misplaced. Hinged bars with an extended mechanical latch release are safer: No one outside can reach them, but they can be easily operated by someone inside. 

If windows are secured with screws, make all occupants aware that to escape through the window they’ll need to knock out the glass, place a blanket or other padding on the bottom frame, and carefully climb out. Even then, escape through broken glass will be hazardous. 

Block Other Access Routes 

Once you have taken care of your doors and windows, you have secured against 95 percent of all entries. But a burglar might still get in through an attic hatch or skylight, or by removing a window air conditioner. 

If someone could conceivably enter your attic from the outside, lock the attic hatch or door. Instead of glass, most skylights are now a thin plastic that is easily broken. Consider shatter-resistant glazing or adding metal steel bars. 

Most window air conditioners can be removed easily from the outside or by pushing the unit in. The first precaution is to secure the partly raised window frame tight against the A/C case by pinning or screwing the frames together (as shown in Figure 5). Resist pivot attacks by filling any gaps between the bottom of the case and the windowsill with lumber. The easiest way to prevent pushing attacks is to screw a piece of lumber to the top of the windowsill. You can improve the aesthetics by extending the board from one side of the frame to the other and painting it the same color as the sill. 

Consider Backups 

Even if you have strong physical barriers, an intruder may still penetrate your perimeter. There are several things you can do to protect yourself. 

A phone in your bedroom is a real asset. It’s the room where most of us spend about half of our time when at home. You may also want to put a solid-core door with a heavy lock on your bedroom entrance. If you don’t have kids, you can then sleep with your bedroom door locked. If you have kids, sleeping behind a solid, locked door probably sounds like a fantastic idea in terms of getting more sleep and privacy, but it’s a bad idea in terms of safety. On the other hand, if you have a bedroom door that locks you can retrieve your kids and use it to lock out home invaders. 

Safes provide secondary security against burglary and fire. Small fire-resistant ones with about one cubic foot of storage space cost $100 to $200. A safe-cracker can open these units, but most other burglars will not be able to. These units weigh 60 to 100 pounds and can be screwed to the floor. Highly secure—but much more expensive—safes are also available. 

Other ways to secure your possessions inside your home include hiding cash and expensive jewelry in unlikely places—for example, in a large manila envelope, among many paper files, in the toe of a shoe, at the bottom of a bag of thread and sewing materials, or in a hollowed-out book. Be sure to select containers no one will accidentally throw away. 

Securing valuable possessions in a safe deposit box may be inconvenient, but it provides a level of security against theft and fire that cannot be duplicated at home for less than several thousand dollars. A small safe deposit box costs $15 to $40 per year; some banks throw in use of a box for free with some accounts. 

Burglaries are major sources of guns for criminals, although estimates of the percentage of crimes involving stolen guns vary widely. Each year more than 100,000 guns are reported stolen—no one knows how many more gun thefts are unreported (some studies estimate over 60 percent). Trigger locks can prevent accidental shootings but not thefts. If you have guns, store them in locked gun boxes or on gun racks that cannot be easily removed. Bolt gun boxes and racks to solid timber with several three-inch, #14 screws. 

If you keep a gun for personal protection, you may be reluctant to do anything that would impede access to the gun in an emergency. One solution to this dilemma is a Simplex lock that is opened by pressing five buttons in a specific order, a process that can be done quickly even in the dark. Steel gun boxes with Simplex locks usually cost $150 and up. Another option is to keep guns locked up when you’re away from home and unlocked when you’re home. But that does not guarantee that children won’t get their hands on them. 

Planning an Alarm System 

We recommend that homeowners first improve physical barriers to intrusion, as discussed above, before considering alarm systems. Alarms can add protection against intrusions, but they also involve a significant expense and create some inconveniences. Should you get a system? We think it depends on several factors: 

  • How well is your house physically secured against intrusions? 
  • What is the rate of burglary and other crime in your neighborhood? 
  • Is your house regularly unoccupied during the day or evening? Do you take long vacations? 
  • Do you have neighbors around most of the time to keep an eye on your house and call the police when they detect suspicious activity? 
  • How much are you likely to lose in a burglary? Is it replaceable? Is it insured for replacement value? 
  • Are children, frequent houseguests, pets, or forgetful family members likely to trigger false alarms? 
  • Does your family worry about break-ins? 

An alarm system is an especially good option for people whose homes have limited barriers for aesthetic reasons or who want easy egress during fires. And discounts on homeowners insurance for burglary and/or fire alarms could make alarms less expensive. 

Weighing Pros and Cons 

Home alarm systems provide several kinds of protection. They notify you when doors and windows are inadvertently left open. Publicizing their presence—even the possibility of their presence—will deter some intruders. The sounding of an alarm will cause most intruders to flee and notify occupants of a present danger. The sounding of a siren will notify neighbors to call the police, and systems hooked up to a central monitoring station will notify the company to call the police. 

The amount of protection provided by a burglar alarm system depends on how well you have secured the physical perimeter of your house, the design of the alarm system, the quality of the installation, and how often you activate the system. 

Basic alarm protection should cover all exterior doors (including sliding glass doors) and any windows easily reached by intruders. The system should also activate a siren and/or notify a central monitoring station. Professional installation of a system meeting these criteria usually costs $800 to $2,000. Some companies give steep discounts to customers who agree to sign long-term monitoring contracts. With these companies, you can get a basic system for less than $200 if you sign a three-year monitoring deal. 

Moderately heavy alarm protection covers other points of potential entry, including second-story windows, attic doors, and skylights. It will also use motion detectors, pressure pads, and sensors on cabinets and bureaus to detect intrusions past the perimeter when the family is asleep or away. Such systems usually cost from $1,500 to more than $3,000. 

Although the more time an alarm system remains in operation the more protection it provides, homeowners continually turn their systems off to prevent false alarms. Every time a person opens a monitored door or window, the system has to be reset, and motion detectors must be turned off when any human or pet is likely to enter their view. Living with an alarm system is at best an inconvenience, at worst enough of a hassle that a family doesn’t use it regularly. 

False alarms are not merely inconvenient: They cause fear, erode neighbors’ goodwill, and in many jurisdictions result in fines. According to various estimates, 80 to 98 percent of alarm alerts are false—a serious problem for police departments. 

Most local jurisdictions have ordinances to minimize false alarms by prohibiting alarm systems from directly contacting the police. Instead, the system must notify a third party, usually at a central monitoring station, which is supposed to verify the emergency before calling the police. 

In addition, most police departments fine homeowners for excessive false alarms. Although fines are seldom assessed for the first two or three mishaps in a calendar year, most police departments begin issuing fines for each subsequent occurrence—and increase the fine for each additional false alarm. 

Several ways to reduce the chances of false alarms are summarized below. 

Components 

An alarm system has five main parts: sensors, control panel (the brains of the system), keypads and other inputs used to deactivate the system and adjust control panel settings, alert mechanism, and a means of connecting components. 

Sensors 

There are dozens of sensor types. Some detect the opening of doors or windows, some detect broken glass, and others detect an intruder’s body heat or motion. 

Magnetic contacts are the most common type of sensor. A pair of magnetic contacts is installed with one contact on a door or window and the other on the adjacent frame. Contacts are separated when a door or window is opened, sending a message to the control panel, which in turn triggers an alarm (see Figure 8). With a third contact, magnetic contacts can be placed on sash and horizontal slider windows so that the windows can be left in either of two positions—closed or partially open—without setting off the alarm. A false alert can occur if doors or windows are opened by family members while the alarm is on, or if heavy winds rattle a loose-fitting window. These sensors provide no protection if an intruder breaks the glass and crawls through. Contacts cost between $3 and $15 each. More expensive miniature versions are also available. 

Figure 8—Magnetic Contact Sensor

magnetic contact sensor figure

(Note: Prices listed in this discussion apply to parts purchased for do-it-yourself installation. Professionally installed systems and components generally cost much more.) 

Glass breakage vibration sensors are glued to glass panes. About the size of a quarter, they detect the vibrations of rattled or breaking glass. Acorns hitting windows, strong winds, truck vibrations, and earthquakes can trigger false alarms. While still available (from $5 to more than $20), their susceptibility to false alarms makes them less popular than they once were. 

Glass breakage sensing devices trigger an alert when they detect the sound of breaking glass. Unlike vibration sensors, one of these devices can cover all the windows in a room. A broken wineglass or bottle may trigger a false alarm. Many installers consider these devices unreliable, others consider them useful. Glass breakage sensing devices cost from $25 to more than $100. 

Wired window screens are fiberglass screens with fine metal wires woven within. An alarm sounds when the screen is broken. Except when accidentally broken, these screens seldom trigger false alarms. They are the most practical way to place an alarm on windows you often leave open. These screens are sold mainly by professional alarm installation companies for $150 to $200 per screen. 

There are two kinds of motion detectors: passive infrared and dual technology.  

Passive infrared motion detectors are equipped with an “eye” that detects moving heat differentials within their field of vision. They are normally turned on when the homeowner is not in the house or asleep. Midnight snackers or unwary houseguests can cause false alarms. Other changes in room environment also can cause false alarms—for example, a dramatic shift in light from a blown curtain or a bug crawling on the lens of the device. 

A dual-technology motion detector combines passive infrared detection with microwave technology. In addition to “looking” for moving heat differentials, this type of motion detector bounces sound waves off everything in a room. When something interrupts the consistency of the sound waves returning to the device, the detector checks the passive infrared detection. Unless both technologies are tripped, the alarm will not sound, enabling the dual-technology detector to verify a change in environment and be slightly less prone to false alarms. 

Some motion detectors can be specially set to accommodate pets, creating a “pet alley.” Basically, the eye of the detector is aimed at a level above the pet’s normal path so that it will not detect the pet’s movement. While convenient in theory, pet alleys are far from foolproof because pets don’t always stay low. Cats climb on things, and dogs jump up and interfere with the detector’s line of sight. 

There are many brands and models of motion detectors. They range in price from $20 to more than $200. 

Control Panel 

The control panel receives and processes signals from the sensors, and activates one or more alarm mechanisms. It also communicates with the keypads and other inputs to turn the system on and off and make adjustments. Whenever a sensor detects an opened door or window, or broken glass, or movement of a warm body, the control panel is alerted. If someone inputs the correct code or uses an appropriate key fob or remote 10 to 30 seconds before or after the alert, the system presumes it was caused by authorized occupants of the house. Otherwise, it activates an audible alarm and notifies a central monitoring station. 

Control panels usually have from six to 32 zones. A single sensor or multiple sensors can be “grouped” into individually identified zones, allowing the control panel to indicate more precisely the location of a tripped sensor. The fewer sensors in a zone, the easier it is to pinpoint what caused an alarm. In a burglary, you seldom need to know more than which room an intruder has entered, but in order to identify a malfunctioning sensor it is preferable to put each sensor on a separate zone. 

The panel should have a self-recharging backup battery that allows the system to continue operating during power failures. 

Panels are available with various other features, including fire detectors, flood detectors, and medical alerts. And some trigger different-sounding alarms for each type of problem. 

Some panels can be set so that frequently used windows will not trigger an alarm if they are closed quickly upon opening, or if they are opened so that they align a third set of contacts. It’s a convenient feature because you don’t have to enter a code every time you open these windows. 

Most panels can produce a pre-alarm warning, a moderate-level sound indicating that an alert has been received; unless canceled within 15 or 30 seconds, the full alarm will be triggered. This gives homeowners a chance to cancel alerts caused by their own mistakes—a good way to prevent false alarms. The pre-alarm warning should be audible throughout the house and outside all doors. A buzzer in only the control panel is insufficient. 

The pre-alarm feature also notifies intruders—who usually flee, but may instead try to destroy the control panel or prevent it from sending a signal. Good practice places the control panel in a securely attached locked metal box with no exposed wires. Alternatively, install it in a locked closet or a difficult-to-find place. 

Many control units are now equipped with self-silencers. After a siren has sounded for five to 15 minutes, it automatically turns off. Your neighbors will love this feature, and local ordinances may demand it. Some units automatically re-arm the system after the self-silencing; if an intruder leaves a window open or a malfunctioning sensor causes an alert, the siren will cycle on again until the alarm system is reset. The best compromise often is for the system to automatically silence the siren, turn off the triggered zone, indicate that the triggered zone has been turned off on the keypad, and leave the other zones active. 

Very simple control panels start at $100, but models offering a moderate array of features cost $250 and up. 

Keypads and Other Inputs 

Keypads and other inputs allow you to control your alarm system. Some keypads come with alphanumeric readouts, meaning that the keypad can be programmed to display words such as “back door” to indicate a particular zone. Alphanumeric keypads cost slightly more than those with readouts such as “Zone 1,” which require users to refer to a small panel listing areas of the house and their respective zones. 

Keypads cost $50 to $125; the more expensive ones generally are equipped with more features. 

In addition to keypads, several other options are now available to control systems, including remotes, key fobs, and smartphone apps. 

Keypads or key fob readers should be installed near all frequently used exterior doors so occupants can enter the code or use their key fobs each time they go in or out. Many families place keypads in their master bedrooms so they can arm their alarms before going to sleep at night and disarm them in the morning. In addition, if an alert sounds at night they will know which sensors triggered it without going elsewhere in the house. 

Some controls and keypads are easier to operate than others. Ask the company representative to show you how your system is controlled (or at least to show a picture of it), and explain exactly what you need to do to set the alarm, cancel it, reset it, and get information on alerts for specific zones. 

Most keypads allow occupants to manually trigger a burglary, fire, or medical alert by punching a clearly marked “panic button.” Some control panels can also receive signals from ill or elderly occupants wearing small wireless medical alert pendants. 

Alert Mechanisms 

The most popular alert mechanisms are sirens or horns mounted inside and outside the house. Outdoor devices more likely to attract the attention of your neighbors, passersby, and the police are also loud enough to be heard within the house. But if your false alarms are more than rare, an external siren will antagonize your neighbors. 

Mount your outdoor siren as high up on the front of the house as possible. If you will not be using central station monitoring, place the siren in a steel protective enclosure with hidden wiring and a “tamper switch” that triggers an alert if anyone tries to disable the siren. Sirens cost between $15 and $50, not including the protective enclosure. 

Systems that include fire, flood, or medical alert sensors should have multi-tone sirens that distinguish between various kinds of emergencies. Since it is easy to forget which noise indicates which type of alert, some systems feature enunciators that alternate a loud blaring noise with a verbal description of the emergency. 

Although central monitoring stations will inform the police of your address, some homes do not have street numbers prominently displayed. Because the sound of an external siren often echoes, making it difficult to know which house is emitting the alarm, many experts suggest also mounting a strobe light on the front of your home. 

Connections 

The components of an alarm system can be “hardwired” to the control panel with low-voltage wires or wirelessly communicate via small battery-powered radio transmitters and receivers. 

Wiring for hardwired components may be fully hidden, partially hidden, or fully exposed. Fully hidden wiring is common practice but expensive to install in houses without unfinished basements or attics, and impossible to install in houses with concrete slab foundations and solid masonry walls. Have representatives of companies that propose to install hardwired components show you exactly where the wires for each component will run, and specify who will be responsible for the cost of any carpentry, plaster work, or painting needed to repair the damage incurred by the installation process. 

Some wireless components are “supervised,” which means that each transmitter periodically sends a test signal to the control panel; if it fails to send the signal, the homeowner or central monitoring station is notified of the malfunction. Otherwise, you have to test the transmitters by going around and activating them, a chore few homeowners perform as often as advised. 

Both types of components wind up costing about the same: Wireless components initially cost more, but hardwired components have higher installation labor costs. 

While ease of installation is a big advantage of wireless components, disadvantages also exist. There is the expense and bother of periodically replacing batteries, although batteries for most components should last several years. Another disadvantage is that wireless transmitters at doors and windows are more conspicuous than hardwired sensors, though the devices have become much smaller as technology has improved. 

Central Station Monitoring 

Most control panels communicate with central stations by transmitting signals via landline or cellular phones. Central station monitoring provides only limited additional protection if your home is usually occupied or you have neighbors who are usually home and will call the police or fire department when they hear your alarm siren. If that is not the case, monitoring is the only effective way to make police and fire departments aware of problems. Although burglars usually flee soon after sirens go off—and well before police arrive—the police will come by to close any open windows and doors, and the monitoring station will notify the homeowner. Central station monitoring provides extra protection against determined intruders who defeat the siren, locate and destroy the control panel, or simply disregard the alarm. 

Different jurisdictions have different policies for what central monitoring stations are supposed to do when alerted about potential intrusions, and policies change over time. Before signing a contract for monitoring—and then periodically during the monitoring contract period—check with the monitoring company and local police on the current rules. Possible policies include— 

1.    The monitoring company calls a prearranged number—usually your home phone number—when an alarm is triggered. If no one answers and gives the correct password to confirm it is a false alarm, the alarm company notifies the police, who are expected to respond. 

2.    Same as 1, except that the monitoring company calls several numbers—typically the home phone number, your cell, and a neighbor’s number—before notifying the police. 

3.    The monitoring company is required to verify that an intrusion has taken place before notifying the police. It might verify by reaching you or a neighbor by phone, sending a monitoring company representative to the site, watching a video monitor, or other means. Without verification, the police will not respond. 

4.    Same as 3, except that the monitoring company is expected to notify police even if verification is not successful, the police are expected to notify patrol officers, but the patrol officers are expected to respond only if convenient. 

In some jurisdictions, your monitoring status might go from numbers 1 or 2 above to 3 or 4 if you are responsible for more than a certain number of false alarms in a year. 

If your monitoring service is set up to call you before calling the police, test the service’s response by deliberately triggering an alarm and seeing how long it takes the station to call. Some control panels have a “test mode” in which a siren emits a low-level noise or silences it so it won’t disturb your neighbors. 

Just as the alarm industry is upgrading its technology, professional burglars are improving their bags of tricks. If you live in an affluent neighborhood, or are known to have valuable possessions, ask alarm installers about the precautions you can take to protect central station communication. 

Also, consider enhancing your system with video monitoring. Set up cameras to either record or transmit to a central monitoring station a video of activity around the outside and inside of your home. Systems can be set up either to start recording or transmitting only when some other sensor has been triggered or on a continuing basis. If the video is being transmitted to a central monitoring station on a continuing basis, the station will not ordinarily monitor the signal unless a sensor activates an alarm notification. 

The large national alarm companies operate their own central stations. Some have stations in each major metropolitan area, while others have a single station. Large independents may also operate their own stations, but most of the smaller independents contract with a station for this service. 

Before contracting with a monitoring service, make sure the communications will work. In the past, some systems had problems receiving alarm notifications from homes with phones that use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or DSL. And if your phone service is set up to reject unidentified callers, make sure your monitoring service can get through to verify an alarm. 

Standards for Alarms 

Underwriters Laboratory (UL) “lists” equipment that meets specified standards. Equipment UL-listed for safety means that it has been tested and proven not to cause harm or injury when used in the appropriate manner. Equipment also can be UL-listed for a specific purpose—for example, alarm equipment might be UL-listed for “intrusion detection.” 

Because new and more technologically advanced alarm equipment is constantly coming onto the market, not all quality products will be UL-listed. It takes time to test some of the newer devices. While purchasing products with a UL-listing is desirable, it is not essential. It is better to select an alarm installer with a track record of satisfied customers than one using UL-listed equipment. 

If an alarm system uses wireless sensors, their transmitters must, by law, be approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

UL also certifies alarm installations in individual homes based on specified standards. The certificate for “Basic Systems” requires contacts only on external doors and one motion detector. Since the motion detector usually is turned off when the house is occupied during the day, easily accessible windows are left vulnerable during those hours. The certificate for “Extended Systems” requires extensive protection. Because UL certification involves random inspection of installations, it is expensive for installers and few participate. And even among those that do participate, not all their installations are designed to meet the standards. 

If you use an established installer with high customer satisfaction ratings, you probably don’t need to worry about UL certification. But if your house is a high-profile target for intruders, Extended Systems certificates provide extra assurance of adequate protection. If you want this assurance, inform installers when you call them, and make sure the contract specifies that the installation will be awarded a UL certificate for Extended Systems. You will probably pay a premium for such an installation. 

UL also certifies central security stations that monitor alarms, with UL standards for the building, equipment, and staffing, and inspections to ascertain continued compliance. A facility can be certified as a “Central Station Burglar Alarm (CPVX),” “Central Station Fire Alarm—Full Service (UUFX),” or “Central Station—Monitoring (CVSU).” There are only a few such facilities in this area. Again, while we would prefer UL certification, we would still do business with a station that has generated high customer satisfaction even if it is not certified. 

Hiring the Right Installer 

When hiring an installer, consider several points: 

What Their Customers Say 

Our Ratings Tables list ratings of area alarm installers, most of which serve all or most of the area. The ratings come from surveys we send to area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) asking respondents to rate companies they had used “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on various aspects of service, including “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” “letting you know cost early,” “advice on service options and costs,” and “overall performance.” Our Ratings Tables list all companies that received 10 or more ratings on our surveys, and reports the percent of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on each question. Our Ratings Tables also report the percent of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for “overall performance.” (Click here for more details on our customer survey and other research methods.) 

As you can see, some companies were rated “superior” for “doing work properly” by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers, but several others received such favorable ratings from less than 50 percent. 

The main problems reported by customers: systems that don’t work right, installation-related damage to property, messiness, and slow response to requests for service. 

Complaint Histories 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables also show tallies of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period, and the number of complaints on file with local government consumer protection offices for a recent two-year period. 

Where we were able to, we have also reported on our Ratings Tables complaint rates, calculated by dividing the number of complaints by our measure of the number of full-time-equivalent alarm installers performing residential work for the companies. The complaint rates take into account volume of work and the fact that companies that do more work are exposed to a greater risk of incurring complaints. 

You can check current BBB complaint information on any company by visiting www.bbb.org or calling 202-393-8000. You can check current customer survey ratings by clicking on the company’s name on our Ratings Tables and, in the details under our listing for the company, click a link to go directly to the BBB’s most up-to-date report on the company. 

Consumer protection offices in Fairfax and Montgomery counties also maintain online databases that let you check complaint histories on any company. Click here for links and contact information. 

When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. Also be aware that some companies are at greater risk of incurring complaints than others because of the specific types of work they do. And remember that the measure of business volume we use in calculating complaint rates (the number of full-time-equivalent alarm installers performing residential work) is at best a very rough indicator. 

How Much Installations Cost 

We did not prepare price index scores to compare companies’ average prices because no two companies offer exactly the same installation approaches, options, or materials. Instead, to illustrate the range of prices you might encounter, we had two shoppers get bids from companies for installation jobs at homes that needed systems. Although our shoppers asked each company to bid on exactly the same work, there would certainly have been differences between what each company would have done if they actually did the job. 

Table 1 shows the prices for the systems and companies’ charges for three years of central station monitoring. As you can see, price differences were large, ranging from $2,634 to $6,545 for one of the homes and $1,492 to $4,300 for the other home. 

Table 1—Prices Quoted for Alarm Installations and Central Station Monitoring

Table 1
Prices Quoted for Alarm Installations and Central Station Monitoring
Company Home A Home B
  Cost for system Monitoring for 3 years Total costs Cost for system Monitoring for 3 years Total costs
ADT Security Services $1,179 $1,548 $2,727 $2,019 $1,468 $3,487
Allied Alarm Specialists $1,590 $9001 $2,490 $2,450 $1,3681 $3,818
Burtel American $3,112 $1,188 $4,300 $4,961 $1,584 $6,545
Fire Burglary Alarms $1,4002 $900 $2,3002 $1,9003 $900 $2,8003
5 Star Security       $3,155 $1,620 $4,775
Guardian Alarm $1,215 $756 $1,971 $1,925 $1,296 $3,221
Guardian Protection Services       $1,304 $1,438 $2,742
Hofheimer Security       $3,545 $1,692 $5,237
Interamerican Security       $2,390 $1,260 $3,650
Maximum Security $772 $720 $1,492      
National Security       $2,560 $1,564 $4,124
Potomac Security Systems $1,825 $864 $2,689 $2,800 $1,404 $4,204
Sentry Installation $1,3494 $1,438 $2,7874      
Splaine Security Systems $1,995 $1,006 $3,001 $3,170 $1,546 $4,716
Vector Security $1,149 $936 $2,085 $2,244 $1,366 $3,610
Vintage Security $835 $1,044 $1,879 $1,590 $1,044 $2,634
Shoppers requested prices to install the systems described below. Some companies may have intended to install different equipment than requested.
Home A—1 control panel, 1 keypad, 9 window contacts, 4 door contacts, 1 motion detector, 1 siren, and landline monitoring.
Home B—1 control panel, 3 keypads, 13 window contacts, 3 door contacts, 1 glass breakage sensor, 3 monitored smoke detectors, and cellular monitoring.
FOOTNOTES:
1 Offered one year of monitoring service for free for new customers. That discount is not included in price shown here.
2 Company representative suggested and priced a different system than requested by our shopper. Cost shown is for: 1 control panel, 1 keypad, 1 remote, 1 indoor siren, 2 door contacts, 3 audio detectors, 1 wireless receiver, 1 heat detector, and 1 smoke detector.
3 Company representative suggested and priced a different system than requested by our shopper. Cost shown is for: 1 control panel, 3 keypads, 2 remotes, 1 indoor siren, 2 single window contacts, 2 door contacts, 1 shock contact, 4 audio detectors, 1 wireless receiver, 1 passive infrared sensor, 3 heat detectors, and 3 smoke detectors.
4 Company representative suggested and priced a different system than requested by our shopper. Cost shown is for: 1 control panel, 1 keypad, 1 indoor siren, 1 wireless receiver, 1 battery backup, 3 door contacts, and 5 glass breakage sensors.

Other Considerations 

Other business policies and approaches that may affect your choice of installation company include— 

Apparent Expertise 

In our experience, expertise of home security representatives varies greatly. Some appear to know little about actual alarm installation, spend minimal time inspecting homes, and have no clear idea of how their installation crews will complete the work. Many representatives seem more interested in explaining their home security products and systems than figuring out how to give customers what they request. You’ll find that with some salespersons, it takes considerable time and energy to get an explicit price for your job. With these salespersons, when you finally get an estimate, you can only hope that the representatives understand the nuances of the job and will communicate them to their installation crews. 

On the other hand, some companies’ representatives are true experts. Many salespersons have personally performed installation work in the past and some install the alarm systems they plan themselves. These representatives take a good look around the house, check inside closets, inspect the basement and other unfinished spaces, and bang on walls. They seem to know exactly what the customer wants and what it takes to do the job. 

Choice of Monitoring Service 

Once equipment is installed, some companies allow you to contract with any service you choose for monitoring, while others require you to use their monitoring service for a specific period of time (usually two or three years). If you’re not satisfied with the quality or price of a company that locks you into its monitoring service, it will cost plenty to take your business elsewhere because you’ll have to continue paying for the duration of the original contract or pay a hefty cancellation penalty. 

Payment Terms 

When getting bids for alarm system installation, discuss payment terms. The more you can pay after the job is complete, the better. The best arrangement is to pay a chunk of installation costs 15 or 30 days after completion: It gives you maximum leverage if any problems need to be corrected. 

Dealing Appropriately with Paperwork 

Many jurisdictions require homeowners to register their alarm systems. Whichever company you use should provide the required paperwork, and many will submit it for you. Most registrations either are free or require a nominal administrative fee. Some registrations must be renewed every few years. Your installer should inform you of the requirements in your area. 

Hiring the Right Monitoring Service 

If you want your system connected to a central station monitoring service, you will have to choose a service. If you already have a system, it makes sense periodically to shop the alternatives. Some companies lock you into a contract for as long as three to five years, but you can check out others before renewing. If you are getting a new alarm, keep in mind that some companies give big breaks on equipment and installation costs if you sign on with them for monitoring. 

With most types of equipment, it is easy to switch companies. The new company just has to come to your home and reprogram the device that communicates with the central station. Most companies don’t charge for switchovers; others charge a one-time setup fee of $25 to $150. Companies that offer term contracts often waive setup fees if customers commit to a long-term contract. 

Our shoppers collected monitoring prices from the companies that provided estimates to install alarm systems. Table 1 shows monitoring costs for three years. Most alarm installation companies do not actually perform the monitoring service, but simply act as sales agents for monitoring companies. Monitoring costs vary widely—from $720 to $1,692 for three years for our sample homes. 

Extra Advice:
Apartment Security

Special concerns and resources pertain to apartment dwellers. 

Door person. Buildings with security personnel posted at the front entrance are safer. While door persons are generally not trained as security guards, they monitor the comings and goings of residents and their guests, and their physical presence deters would-be thieves. 

Call box. If your building does not have a reliable call box system, ask management to install one. Guests use call boxes to call the person they are visiting to get “buzzed in.” Call boxes make it easier to distinguish between legitimate guests and others. In buildings with call boxes, guests generally will not be waiting for someone entering or exiting the building to be let in. 

Entrance etiquette. Most apartment dwellers are familiar with the often-awkward etiquette of entering and exiting their buildings. Do you hold the door open for someone right behind as you enter or exit? If someone is waiting at the front door (perhaps even using the call box), do you let the person in? Unless you know the person, it’s better to close the door behind you without letting him or her in. This is easier in theory than in practice, however, since closing the door on someone—even a stranger—comes off as rude. But this is a security issue, and a simple “nothing personal, but I can’t let you in” should suffice. 

Get to know your neighbors. Find out whether there is a Neighborhood Watch group; many buildings have their own. 

Get a security audit. Ask your local police department to perform a security audit of your building. If there are weaknesses, such as poor lighting around an entrance, the officer will write them up and submit them to the building manager or owner. 

Consider using security devices. There are inexpensive do-it-yourself ways to secure your apartment, such as wireless motion detectors that you arm at night for the front entrance area. You can also attach wireless contact sensors to vulnerable windows or doors. 

Remain vigilant. Never assume that your building’s hallways are any safer than the streets outside. Always lock your front door and avoid poorly lit and communal areas—such as laundry rooms—late at night. 

Extra Advice:
False Alarms—Causes and Cures

Causes 

  • Failure to enter the required code or use key fob to turn off alarm before or after opening a door or window. 
  • Failure to close a door after entering or exiting the house. 
  • Failure to close all doors, windows, and other protected points before activating the system. 
  • Entry by human or pet into room with an activated motion detector. 
  • Someone accidentally hitting panic button. 
  • Vibrations and noise setting off glass-breakage sensors. 
  • Strong winds rattling loose windows or doors and swelling window frames triggering contact sensors. 
  • Electrical noise, power voltage dips, brownouts, and blackouts. 

Cures 

  • Use an experienced, skilled, and reputable alarm installer. 
  • Read instruction materials thoroughly. Show family members, housecleaners, babysitters, and guests how to use the system and check their operation of it. 
  • Place a keypad or other input device close to each frequently used door. 
  • Make sure the pre-alarm signal is audible throughout the house and outside frequently used doors. 
  • Use a central monitoring station that calls you to verify an alert before it calls the police. 
  • Install a central panel with at least eight zones and preferably twice that number. Place each frequently used door on a separate zone. Place glass breakage detectors and motion detectors in separate zones. 
  • Use only high-quality motion detectors and glass breakage detectors. “Dual-technology” or cross verification between two detectors enhances effectiveness. 
  • Make sure that all doors and windows equipped with contact sensors fit tightly and do not rattle. Make sure contact between sensors is maintained when doors and windows swell. Set motion detectors to a sensitivity level that accommodates the shifting of curtains and other objects likely to move. Aim detectors so pets are unlikely to trigger them. 
Extra Advice:
If Your Protections Fail

What if all your locks and alarms fail to thwart an invasion? 

If you return home and find signs that your house has been entered, don’t go in. Call the police and wait for them to arrive. If you inadvertently surprise an intruder already in your home, don’t antagonize or stall him. Most intruders want only to grab a few valuables and make a quick exit. Let him take the goods and leave. 

Most burglars avoid houses they think are occupied; if mistaken, they will flee as soon as they realize their error. But if your prowler does not scare off easily, prepare for the worst. Do everything you can to scare him away. Turn on exterior and interior lights, hit the panic button of your alarm, and call the police. 

If you can’t scare him off, you may have several options. Exiting the house and running to a neighbor’s is your best bet. Or retreat into a room with no vulnerable window and a strong door and lock and barricade the door with furniture. A third option is to grab your best weapon and take a stand where you think the prowler will enter; it may be easier to overpower the intruder at that point, but any confrontation is dangerous. 

If the intruder confronts you, unless you have a loaded gun in your hand and the intruder is unarmed, cooperate until it becomes clear he intends serious harm. This advice is not only for the timid; it’s what many martial arts instructors and police officers advise. 

Intruders who attack you or break through your barricaded bedroom door probably intend bodily harm. Unfortunately, in these cases there are no general guidelines on what you should do and what’s likely to happen. Some victims manage to talk assailants out of doing them harm; others further antagonize assailants with the same approach. Some submit and avoid further harm; others are brutalized. Some fight off the assailants; others are killed while trying. 

Courts have generally held that, when confronted by an intruder, victims can use only as much force as a reasonable person would believe is necessary to protect themselves and their families. Rarely would the law excuse anyone for shooting a burglar in the back, but there is considerable ambiguity about many other situations, including: 

  • Can you attack potential intruders before they enter your home? 
  • Can you attack an intruder who has entered through an open door? What if they haven’t revealed intent to take anything or harm anyone? 
  • Do you have to warn intruders, or can you surprise them with a bullet or a baseball bat? (A warning might cause intruders to leave without injury, but also give them a better chance to hurt you.) 
  • How much force, if any, can you use to apprehend an intruder who is escaping? Does it matter whether he is taking anything? 
Extra Advice:
Recovering Your Losses

A home burglary is more than just upsetting; it leaves your family with a list of important things to do. 

First, call the police. Even though chances are only about one in 10 that you will ever recover any of your possessions, that is better than nothing, and a police report is usually necessary for filing an insurance claim (ask for the report number before the officer leaves your home). Notifying the police also provides crucial information about crime trends in your neighborhood. 

Next, re-secure your house. If you had been careless, this could be as easy as locking windows and doors. If you have been cautious, you will have to do more. Half-inch plywood attached on the inside of broken windows or doors with two-inch screws every foot act as strong temporary barriers. If you can’t do it yourself, some locksmiths do this type of work. 

Most burglarized families live in fear that the intruder will return. This seldom happens, but burglars often attack nearby houses within a few weeks. So if you’ve had a break-in, alert your neighbors, and if you learn of a break-in nearby, be extra vigilant. 

If your loss exceeds the deductible in your homeowners or renters insurance policy, report it to the company and gather information on the value of the possessions to file your claim. 

Extra Advice:
Dealing with Strangers at the Door
  • You don’t have to open your door to a stranger—don’t let anyone pressure you into doing it. Your first concern is safety, not making strangers feel welcome. If you decide to open your door, do so only after seeing adequate identification. If the person represents a company, he or she should have a company-issued photo ID. 
  • If an unknown “meter reader” shows up at an unusual time, or a “building inspector,” “fire inspector,” or cable TV repairperson makes an unscheduled visit, call the employer to verify the visitor’s status before you let him or her in. Look up the employer’s phone number; don’t rely on one provided by the person at your door. 
  • When a delivery person arrives, don’t open the door until he or she gives you the name of the addressee. If the delivery person doesn’t know the name, call his or her employer. 
  • If a stranger asks to make an emergency phone call, don’t let him or her in. Instead, make the call yourself and relay the requested information. 

Where to Complain

State and Local Government Consumer Agencies

District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
1100 4th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
http://dcra.dc.gov
202-442-4400

District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General
441 4th Street, NW, #11455
Washington, DC 20001
http://oag.dc.gov/
202-727-3400

Fairfax County Department of Consumer Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway
Fairfax, VA 22035
703-222-8435

Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs
6751 Columbia Gateway Drive
Columbia, MD 21046
410-313-6420

Maryland Consumer Protection Division, Office of the Attorney General
200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202
410-528-8662

Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection
100 Maryland Avenue, Suite 330
Rockville, MD 20850
240-777-3636

Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs
Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
102 Governor Street
Richmond, VA 23219
800-552-9963 or 804-786-2042

Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington
1411 K Street, NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
www.dc.bbb.org
202-393-8000



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