Residential Security Systems and Burglar Alarms

About Residential Security Systems

Burglar (or intrusion), fire, and safety alarms are all electronic today. Sensors are connected to a control unit via a low-voltage hardwire or narrowband RF signal which is used to interact with a response device. The most common security sensors indicate the opening of a door or window or detect motion via passive infrared (PIR). New construction systems are predominately hardwired for economy. Retrofit installations often use wireless systems for a more economical and quicker install.

Some systems serve a single purpose of burglary or fire protection. Combination systems provide both fire and intrusion protection. Sophistication ranges from small, self-contained noisemakers, to complicated, multi-zoned systems with color-coded computer monitor outputs. Many of these concepts also apply to portable alarms for protecting cars, trucks or other vehicles and their contents (i.e., "car alarms"). See also fire alarm control panel for specific fire system issues.


Depending upon the application, the alarm output may be local or remote or a combination. Local alarms do not include monitoring, though may include indoor and/or outdoor sounders (e.g. motorized bell or electronic siren) and lights (e.g. strobe light) which may be useful for signaling an evacuation notice for people during fire alarms, or where one hopes to scare off an amateur burglar quickly.

However, with the widespread use of alarm systems (especially in cars), false alarms are very frequent and many urbanites tend to ignore alarms rather than investigating, let alone contacting the necessary authorities. In short, there may be no response at all. In rural areas (e.g., where nobody will hear the fire bell or burglar siren) lights or sounds may not make much difference anyway, as the nearest responders could take so long to get there that nothing can be done to avoid losses.

Remote alarm systems are used to connect the control unit to a predetermined monitor of some sort, and they come in many different configurations. High-end systems connect to a central station or responder (eg. Police/ Fire/ Medical) via a direct phone wire (or tamper-resistant fiber optic cable), and the alarm monitoring includes not only the sensors, but also the communication wire itself.

While direct phone circuits are still available in some areas from phone companies, because of their high cost they are becoming uncommon. Direct connections are now most usually seen only in Federal, State, and Local Government buildings, or on a school campus that has a dedicated security, police, fire, or emergency medical department.

More typical systems incorporate a digital telephone dialer unit that will dial a central station (or some other location) via the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and raise the alarm, either with a synthesized voice or increasingly via an encoded message string that the central station decodes. These may connect to the regular phone system on the system side of the demarcation point, but typically connect on the customer side ahead of all phones within the monitored premises so that the alarm system can seize the line by cutting-off any active calls and call the monitoring company if needed.

Encoders can be programmed to indicate which specific sensor was triggered, and monitors can show the physical location (or "zone") of the sensor on a list or even a map of the protected premises, which can make the resulting response more effective. For example, a water-flow alarm, coupled with a flame detector in the same area is a more reliable indication of an actual fire than just one or the other sensor indication by itself.

Many alarm panels are equipped with a backup dialer capability for use when the primary PSTN circuit is not functioning. The redundant dialer may be connected to a second phone line, or a specialized encoded cellular phone, radio, or internet interface device to bypass the PSTN entirely, to thwart intentional tampering with the phone line(s). Just the fact that someone tampered with the line could trigger a supervisory alarm via the radio network, giving early warning of an imminent problem (e.g., arson). In some cases a remote building may not have PSTN phone service, and the cost of trenching and running a direct line may be prohibitive.

It is possible to use a wireless cellular or radio device as the primary communication method.

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