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

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 I might be wrong about particular things, or outdated; this is especially true regarding alert services and the dialers.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.

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 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.

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

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):

  1. I got the basic kit from Vanguard Security, but I would go with SafeMart instead.
    • 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.”
    • You don’t need to buy accessories from the same place.
    • Many vendors sell "Honeywell Ademco System Sensor" products. This means a product made by System Sensor which is compatible with your Ademco system (with smoke alarms, only if you buy an adapter which costs double what the sensor itself cost). System Sensor seems to be a good brand, but make sure it will work with your system if it's wired. The wireless ones seem to work fine.
      • I decided to go with the GE instead after getting a couple of System Sensor units; the GEs look better and the specs seem higher. However, they do not seem to be reliable, and they are now sold by United Technologies as Interlogix unit. UT does not support them unless you have an account with them. I would recommend spending more for the System Sensor or Ademco units, based on my experience and reading of the forums.
    • The cost of kits varies based on vendor and contents. For $340, you can get a nicely outfitted kit with a 20P control panel and box; 6160 and 6270 keypads (6270 is a touch screen, but you still need the 6160); motion detector and (indoor) siren; power adapter (you will need electrical wire); and small backup battery. This is a nice kit because all you need to get is wire and your sensors. Another kit, for $225, includes just the one 6160 keypad, transformer, cabinet, motion sensor, interior siren, and backup battery. You will need a 6160 or 6160RF keypad if you use the Ademco system.
  2. NuTech sells a USB adapter called the ADB2USB but it probably doesn't suit your needs unless you're a real technogeek who wants to spend more time using a computer to do stuff that can be done more quickly through the box, or you want to have a computer dedicated full time to watching the system. (If you have a server in your house anyway this isn't a problem.) I still haven't gotten the dang thing working, but I've figured out that it won't solve my programming problems anyway. It's for much nerdier stuff. Note: it’s also handy if you want to use the system for home automation.
  3. I suggest you get a waterproof strobe for outside, possibly a strobe/siren. These are inexpensive and tell people exactly which house is in trouble, versus sirens, where they have to guess. Generally these must be wired, with two wires.
  4. You will also need a teeny standard screwdriver and a larger one.
  5. If you’re like me, once you start doing this, you will buy a bunch of extra kit and add motion sensors, glass break sensors, and such. At some point you will overload your power supply and backup battery, so be prepared to add a bigger backup battery (be careful where you buy those, you don’t want a “cheap at all costs” one) and auxiliary power supply. The wireless stuff, of course, doesn’t add that kind of burden; but the wired stuff, including the oft-forgotten sirens and strobes, does!
  6. I really wish that I could call in an installer and pay an hourly rate to program some of the more complex aspects of the system, but they don’t do that — at least not the ones I’ve spoken with. That’s for good reason considering the markup and, especially, the sale of monitoring.

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. 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.

Programming and setup

  1. You will need lots of four-conductor (for the keypads) and two-conductor (for smoke alarms and sirens) wire, 18 gauge, preferably single-stranded. Phone wire might work but it’s better to get the right stuff; be careful because some wire (like the roll I got at Sears) breaks easily, which will cause problems in the future. It may take some work to get appropriate wire, so calculate your needs and order or buy earlier. 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 — security wire usually is — it’ll help you to avoid keeping records. (The speaker wire should be marked — one lead should be obviously different from the other. Radio Shack sells unmarked speaker wire, which should be avoided for speakers as well.)
  2. Do all the wiring before hooking up the power and battery, if you can. You don't want to be messing around with the wiring while the system is live.
  3. Wire in the keypads. The 6160 keypad must be wired. You can’t use the system without at least one 6160.
  4. Zones vs Loops: a “zone” is, in essence, either two terminals on the alarm board, or a memory location in the wireless system. Each device you install may come with one or more “loops.” Each loop needs to be set up in its own zone. 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 multiple loops, one for smoke/fire (presumably some use one loop each for smoke and fire), one for maintenance, one for freeze-detection. Most sensors also 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 smoke alarms and other 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), *56 to get into device addition mode, and follow the instructions.
    • Some of these you will 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. Every sensor has them, but normal burglary sensors just have one (or they have two but you only use one). 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. There are lots of zones, so don't worry too much about that, unless you have a lot of sensors, which you might.
    • Because of all this loop-zone stuff, make sure whatever system you get has plenty of zones (this is why I got the 20P instead of the 15P). 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 this.
    • 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, you 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... well, you can, but it's not recommended, because the wrong loop (4) will show up. Guess how I know that?
      • You can 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. While the Ademco Vista 20P has the ability to telephone out, and you can buy a wireless adapter, both are designed for use with a monitoring service; the paging feature only works with real pagers, not cell phones, and the cell radio works on AlarmNet and won't call your cell phone.
    1. There is a $10/month monitoring service available from Safemart and a $9/month monitoring service from Home Security Store. They are $20 per month less than the professional installers’ services.
  7. If you want a hardwired auto-dial to notify you and/or neighbors when something happens, you can buy an external auto-dialer. I got a United Security AD-2000 and a relay, but since the instructions on the Web ended there, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out the wiring, I ended up simply connecting it to the alarm bell; now, when the alarm goes off, the AD-2000 will call a sequence of phone numbers until someone tells it to stop (the relay is unnecessary). I set it up so any alarm will start the calls, whether or not the alarm is cancelled after a couple of seconds. If you do it that way, you need to tell the system not to sound the alarm sirens when you activate it in “away” mode.

    The AD-2000 can be set up to send specific outgoing messages to specific phone numbers depending on what’s wrong: the fire department if it’s a smoke alarm, the police department if it’s a burglar, etc. I believe it’s better to have it call you and your neighbors, if you know and trust them and they live close at hand, and have them notify the police or fire department or whomever if there’s a problem. It’ll take a little more time but it can slash false alarms. (Also, in many towns you need a permit to auto-dial the police, and a permit probably requires UL or professional installation.)
    1. If you decide to do it the easy way, as I did, get a cheaper auto-dialer — you won’t need all four channels. Or, get the actual Ademco 4204 relay module, wire that up to the keypad wires (like you don't already have enough wired to them), and figure out the programming, which involves both *79 and *80. I never did figure it out.
    2. 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.
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