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 I might be wrong about particular things, or outdated; this is especially true regarding alert services and the dialers.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