December 14th, 2004

Blurb: More Canadians than ever are installing pricey home alarm and security systems. But are they worth the money?

What to look for in a home security system

By Peter Diekmeyer o

Canadians' homes have traditionally been among their most valuable personal assets, and it's not surprising that they should want to protect their investment. Alarm companies have been among the biggest beneficiaries of that trend.

"It's an explosive industry right now," said Tracy Cannata, president of the Canadian Security Association (CANASA). "There's an increased awareness of security issues since September 11th."

Statistics are hard to come by, but during the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that less than 10 percent of Canadian homes had alarms. In comparison, by December of 2003, the Quebec Ministry of Public Security estimated that 18 percent of Quebec homes were equipped with such systems, including 13 percent that were connected to a central response station.

The advantages of a home security system

Experts say that alarm systems bring several advantages to their owners. According to CANASA, a home equipped with a security system is nine times less likely to be burglarized than one that is not.

What's more, when a protected premises is burglarized, the thieves tend to go about their business quickly and get out, rather than wait for the cops to come around. As a result, crooks steal less merchandize and keep vandalism to a minimum. Not surprisingly insurance companies have caught on to the advantages of protected premises.

"Most won't insure a business unless they have an alarm," Cannata said. "And they give discounts of between 5 and 15 percent to home insurance customers who have one."

Buying a security system

Buying an alarm system isn't easy. While the three main hardware manufacturers, --Tyco, Honeywell and GE,-- account for the vast majority of the equipment that is sold in Canada, there are about 5,000 companies that perform installations and/or offer monitoring services.

While many are reputable organizations that give professional service at reasonable prices, there are also a lot of fly-by-night operators out there. That means it pays to be informed before signing on the dotted line.

Basic requirements

Experts say that a basic home security system consists of perimeter protection devices at entry points such as doors and windows. These are generally grouped with motion detectors or other space protection devices inside the house.

An alarm system can either be designed to give off a loud noise such as an alarm or siren. These systems offer some basic protection, and can mostly (but not always) be relied upon to scare off nuisance criminals, especially rowdy teenagers.

Alarms systems that are connected up to a central monitoring station offer an additional level of protection, because when an alarm is sounded an operator will typically call the home. If the respondent cannot supply the authorized code, the police will be dispatched.

As for most purchases, if you are thinking about buying an alarm system, you should ask to see if any of your friends already own a system, and ask them whether they are well served.

Then talk to at least three alarm suppliers. Find out how long they have been in business, how many customers they have and get references. Make sure to ask the representative if the supplier owns their own monitoring station or whether they farm the work out to a sub-contractor. Before you sign, get firm quotations in writing from all the companies that you are considering, and take a day or two to look them over. Don't sign a contract while meeting a salesman for the first time.

Weaknesses in certain security systems

One of the biggest challenges facing alarm system owners is the number of false alarms that are triggered by new or careless users. Here again industry professionals could not provide statistics, but the number of false alarms is believed to be extremely high.

Turning on and off an alarm system may not seem to be a big deal, but the number of times the average family enters and leaves a home, particularly those with kids, --who often lose or forget their alarm codes --is fairly high. As a result there are many opportunities to trigger an alarm accidentally.

Over the years, police officers have learnt to give various levels of priority to alarm incidents. In many cases response times are slow or unreliable.

One company that seems to have solved the problem is TSE traded AlarmForce, which last year sold a record 11,500 of its two-way alarm technology, bringing its Canadian customer base to almost 50,000. According to AlarmForce president Joel Matlin, two-way alarms offer superior performance especially in terms of personal security.

When an alarm is triggered at an AlarmForce customer, an operator calls the customers on a speaker-phone and asks them to identify themselves. Operators can hear what is going one inside the home, so if there is any screaming or other suspicious noises, a much higher priority can be assigned to the call.

"Owning our technology is like having a remote security guard," said Matlin. "It's particularly useful for older people, many of whom are alone and vulnerable."

Cost and value

Conducting a cost-benefit assessment of owing a home alarm is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Many alarm companies charge little or nothing for the alarm system itself or its installation, preferring to make the money back on charges for basic monthly monitoring services.

But these costs can add up. For example one popular system sells for $25 a month. That may seem reasonable but it adds up to $1,500 over five years, not including taxes. That makes the system far from a minor household purchase. Even more important, crime rates have dropped significantly in most major urban centers during the last 20 years, which arguably makes alarm systems less useful.

On the other hand, despite the falling crime rate, people today feel less secure than they have in the recent past. And if owning an alarm system makes them feel better, who is to argue with them?


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