by David Zatz
After many years, I finally got an alarm system, primarily to tie the smoke alarms in my 1928-construction house together. While we had smoke alarms in nearly every room, I could not hear the one in the basement from the second floor. Also, our town hosts roughly one break-in per week, usually through the back door, and while I don't have any valuable valuables, as such, it's an expensive pain to replace stuff. (The police caught both the burglars after I wrote this, and we're down to thefts from unlocked cars.)
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 I might be wrong about particular things, or outdated; this is especially true regarding alert services and the dialers.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.
I quickly discovered that there are few good sources of information on alarms. There are forums, like diyalarmforum.com, which I highly 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 — it turned out this was overkill). This is an ancient basic design, upgraded over the years, with many (expensive) upgrades possible.
Were I to start over again, I would probably select a DSC system, because they are supposed to be easier to work with, and the accessories are much cheaper — and there are some choices they provide which Ademco oddly does not. (I ended up buying GE two-wire smoke alarms and System Sensor wireless alarms, which work perfectly with the Ademco system; Ademco itself does not have one that works with the 20P. That said, GE warranties are worthless if your retailer does not support them — they will not take back a bad unit from a civilian.)
There are surprisingly few DIY oriented alarms; my father had, 20 years ago, purchased a cheap but comprehensive wired+wireless Sears system which worked well, 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).
I thought this was a lot for the unambitious system I was looking at — three smoke alarms, two doors, and one motion sensor. It still seems high to me. That said, it might make sense to invite in someone like Brinks, have them do the hard work, use their service for the contractual three years, 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 or even use a relay and dialer to self-monitor. This is a good option if you have neighbors who are always at home. (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.
Here are some of my lessons learned, from the point of view of an amateur who, nevertheless, used to pick up computer systems in minutes while working as a temp in the days before everyone standardized on Microsoft Whatever (and who did component level repairs on computers):
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. The graphical keypads aren't good for programming the system either, according to forum chatter from the pros. While the 6160 is considerably more expensive than the 6150, I would get this for a secondary keypad, too — again, 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 the 6160RF instead of the plain 6160. (Rather than trying to figure out how to make the system work with two transmitter/receivers, I shut off the radio in the 6150RF.) The range on these units is quite good and shouldn't be a problem for most people.
I purchased a third keypad, wireless, for a room that's far from the other keypads. This turned out to be very easy to install, but it's useless unless you also buy the power adapter at an absurd $25 — otherwise you can use it to arm and disarm but it will not report any problems (e.g. a fire) to you. It's a decent little gizmo, expensive at $85 + $25 or so, but it has a good range. It communicates with the 6160RF or 6150RF or a wireless module — most people will get the 6160RF instead of bothering with the separate wireless module, which gets confusing — so all you have to do is set it up with the house ID and it just works.
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