Alarm features, prices vary so do dealers' reliability AN ALARMING TREND

October 02, 1994|By Patricia Horn

Burglar alarms come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices. Before buying an alarm, you should understand how they work.

Systems can be monitored or unmonitored. If unmonitored, the alarm will sound but will not directly alert police or a security company.

When a monitored alarm goes off, the system sends a signal over a phone line to the security company; most systems will also send a signal even if your phone lines are cut. An attendant phones your home to check if the alarm was false -- meaning you or a pet or an open door set it off accidentally. If you do not answer the phone, or cannot recite your security code, the phone attendant calls the police.

Westinghouse offers to put a microphone and speaker system in your home that is connected to the monitoring station. When the alarm sounds, the speaker/microphone are activated, letting the attendant speak directly to you -- or the burglar or an empty house -- without needing to pick up the phone.

If cost is no object, most security experts recommend a system monitored by a central station. (In Maryland, virtually no alarm systems are directly connected to a police station, as they were 15 years ago.)

Burglar alarms generally combine detectors on the outside doors and windows and on the inside with sound and motion detectors. Most systems have a siren, magnetic contacts for doors and windows, motion detectors, glass-break detectors, and backup power supplies. They also will have keypads (for entering and turning the system on and off ) and offer a monitoring service.

You should take make sure the company is reputable and the system is right for you. It probably is best to talk to people with alarms -- neighbors, friends and family -- who can tell you which systems work, which set off frequent false alarms and which offer the best service.

The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (7101 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 901, Bethesda, Md. 20814 (301) 907-3202) offers a list of member companies by area.

The NBFAA recommends that buyers screen several companies before inviting two or three to visit their homes. Ask if Underwriters Laboratories has approved their products, what pre-employment screening they do, and if the company has the proper state and local licenses. Then ask for, and call, references.

Marc Sauer, owner of M. Sauer Co./Security Unlimited and president of the Maryland Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, said a good company will offer an inspection, recommendation and written price quote.

Questions to ask the security company:

* Are you licensed and by whom?

Every alarm contractor should either have a home improvement license from the state Home Improvement Commission or a low-voltage electrical license from the subdivision, Mr. Sauer said. Some jurisdictions require more than one type of license.

* What training have you had? Do you belong and participate in a professional organization?

Alarm installers should have continuing education, such as courses offered by NBFAA, other professional organizations, or area colleges.

* How is the monitoring provided?

The preference, said Mr. Sauer, is a central station dedicated to answering only burglar, medical or fire alarm signals.

* What are the pros and cons of a wired vs. wireless system?

Wired system use concealed or exposed wiring to connect sensors to the home's control panel, which sends signals to the central answering station. A wireless system uses motion and sound detectors. * What are all the costs and fees for the system?

You should be informed if you will own or lease the system. In general, you want to own the system, said Mr. Sauer, because you then can change companies if you are not satisfied with the service.

Most home security systems -- not including monitoring costs -- will range from $200 to $10,000, with the average price around $1,000. Around Baltimore, the average price per month for monitoring is $20.

In addition, when considering cost, consult your insurance company. According to the NBFAA, homeowners can expect a 2 percent to 30 percent insurance discount.

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