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Ademco 20P alarm systems for the do-it-yourself homeowner

In 2009, I bought an alarm system to connect the smoke alarms in my circa-1928 house. We had smoke alarms in nearly every room, but I could not hear the one in the basement from the second floor. Also, our town was having roughly one break-in per week, and while I don't have any valuable valuables, as such, it’s a pain to replace stuff.

I am not a professional installer. None of the advice or information in this page should be taken as being professional level advice. I might be wrong about particular things, or outdated; this is especially true regarding alert services and the dialers. You must proceed at your own risk from here.

Ademco Vista alarm systems as DIY projects

I quickly discovered that there are few good sources of information on alarms. There are forums, like diyalarmforum.com, which I recommend, but it’s nearly impossible to find a comparative review that fits your needs.

Eventually, I went with one of the industry-standard alarms — the Honeywell Ademco Vista 20P (the Vista 10P and 15P are similar, but I chose the 20P because it seemed more expandable and had lots and lots of zones — this was overkill but they’re all roughly similar in price). Ademco’s basic design is ancient, though updated somewhat over the years, with many (expensive) upgrades possible.

I would probably select a DSC system if I was doing it again, because they are “supposed” to be easier to work with, and the accessories are much cheaper. There are also some choices they provide which Ademco oddly does not.

There are few DIY oriented alarms; my father had, 20 years ago, purchased a cheap but comprehensive wired+wireless Sears system, with a separate siren (including a backup power supply), but there was nothing comparable on the market today. I got quotes from three installers and got prices of $2,200 (plus three years monitoring at $30/month), $3,000 (plus three years of monitoring at $30/month), and free (from ADT and Brinks, with three years of monitoring at over $30/month).

This was a lot for the system I was looking at — three smoke alarms, two doors, and one motion sensor. It might make sense to invite in someone like Brinks, have them do the hard work, use their service for the contractual three years (total: around $360), and then take over the system yourself. There are ways to get the installer code so you can control the hardware, then switch to a cheaper monitoring service. A professional installer may be a better option in areas with lower labor costs.

Major chains use modified versions of the Vista 20P I purchased, and there are numerous questions on the forums about converting old systems from Brinks or ADT or whomever. It is expensive (in accessories and sensors, not the basic unit) and hard to play with. You won't get support from Honeywell Ademco unless you are a professional and even they don't seem to get much help.

Lessons learned: Buying the Honeywell Ademco 20P system and parts

I got the basic kit from Vanguard Security, but today, I would go with another, cheaper vendor. You can buy stuff cheaply on eBay, but it's often just as cheap to go through an established store with strong customer support and fewer jerks who will leave out key parts, or sell obviously used-and-abused parts as “new” or “refurbished.”

The keypads

You need a 6160 keypad to program the system. My kit came with a 6150RF (that has its own transmitter); it can't really be used for programming, and it doesn't give full text readouts. Graphical keypads aren't good for programming the system either, according to forum chatter from the pros. The 6160 is considerably more expensive than the 6150, I would get this for a secondary keypad, too — it has a full text readout, and then you'll have a spare if the first one fails.

If you want to use wireless gizmos, get one 6160RF alongside or instead of the plain 6160. (I shut off the radio in the 6150RF.) The range is quite good.

I have a third keypad, wireless, for a room that's far from the other keypads. This turned out to be easy to install, but it's useless unless you also buy the power adapter at an absurd $25 — otherwise it will not report any problems (e.g. a fire) to you. It's expensive at $85 + $25 or so, but it has a good range and is easy to set up.

Programming and setup

  1. You will need four-conductor wire for the keypads and two-conductor wire for smoke alarms, sirens, and any hard-wired sensors. Ademco recommends 18 gauge, preferably single-stranded. Some wire (like the roll I got at Sears) breaks easily, which will cause problems in the future. Calculate your needs and order or buy early — and get a sample in your hand to make sure it's easy to work with and not easily breakable.
    • Speaker wire is almost certainly going to be too thick to use with the keypads but should be fine, if expensive, with the sensors.
    • Try to get wire in the right colors to make installation easy. All the strands should be marked somehow.
  2. Do all the wiring before hooking up the power and battery, if you can.
  3. Wire in the keypads. Remember, you can't use the system without at least one 6160 or equivalent keypad.
  4. Zones vs Loops: a zone is either two terminals on the alarm board, or a wireless memory spot. Each device may also come with “loops,” which are basically separate functions — e.g. a temperature sensor, battery monitor, and smoke detector, all kept within a single detector. Some devices have only a single loop (basic glassbreaks and window/door sensors); some have two, of which you will probably use one (e.g. door sensors which have internal switches but can also use external ones). Smoke alarms usually have one for smoke/fire, one for maintenance, one for freeze-detection. Most sensors have a tamper switch (Ademco seems to have these on loop 4 regardless) which you can program in if you want to know when someone takes the cover off a sensor.
  5. Wireless devices have different programming tricks. In essence, you figure out from the instructions which loop and zone to use; then you go into programming mode (4112800 if you have not yet changed the installer code, which I strongly suggest you do last, and write it down in at least two places), *56 to get into device addition mode, and follow the instructions exactly.
    • Some need to set up on two or three zones, e.g. smoke alarms usually get one zone for the smoke alarm and another for the built in temperature sensor, and sometimes a third for maintenance (dead battery). This is where “loops” come in — a loop is a subdivision within a zone. You need to go through the whole process for each loop you put in, again, each new loop programmed in goes into its own new zone.
    • If you want each window to be on its own zone and have a big house with lots of smoke alarms, you will need to worry about the number of zones up front!
    • You get to a point where you're supposed to get the device to enter its own serial number. I suggest you do not give in to temptation and do everything at the box, which is easier, because if you do this for each device at the place it will be installed, any devices that are too far away or blocked for whatever reason will not be registered, and you'll know there's a problem. Also, there are sometimes problems if you do this too close to the box. (Big thanks to Airdorn, mjohnson, Alarmtech, and DEL Installations of diyalarmforum.com!)
      • For smoke alarms, you open and close them, which sets off the tamper sensor; then you have to enter the loop from the box (it will show up as 4, the tamper sensor's address, but you will want to program in loop 1 at the least). For other alarms, install them, make sure the covers are fully closed (this one threw me for a "loop,") then set them off and restore them, e.g. by opening and closing a door. (Open it pretty wide, because the sensors can have a fairly wide range of allowed motion.) You do not press the tamper buttons on the burglar alarms to enter the code. Guess how I know that?
      • You only use one zone, zone 1, for two-wire smoke/fire detectors. You can use other zones if you get four-wire detectors, but then you need to get a relay as well.
  6. The Ademco Vista 20P can phone out, and you can buy a wireless adapter, both are only for monitoring services; it won’t notify your cellphone, for example. There is a $10/month monitoring service available from Safemart and a $9/month monitoring service from AlarmSystemStore. They are $20 per month less than the professional installers' services — to save you from the math, that’s $240/year, which adds up.
    • You might just want to get monitoring a few months after you get the alarm, when you know you won't be setting it off by accident very often.
    • If you don’t want monitoring but you do want a hardwired auto-dial to notify you and/or neighbors when something happens, buy an auto-dialer. I got a United Security AD-2000, but couldn't figure out the wiring or programming, and connected it to the alarm bell. When the “loudspeaker” alarm goes off, the AD-2000 will call a sequence of phone numbers until someone tells it to stop. Any alarm will start the calls, and it keeps going after the alarm is cancelled. If you do it that way, tell the system not to sound the sirens immediately if you’re at home to avoid accidental call-chains — and get a cheaper single-channel auto-dialer.
    • If you wire it the sophisticated way, using a relay, the AD-2000 can be set up to send specific outgoing messages to specific phone numbers depending on what's wrong. In many towns you need a permit to auto-dial the police, and a permit usually requires professional installation, but it’s still nice to know why your alarm is calling you!

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