Home Safe Home

Alarm systems are a growth industry

January 05, 2003|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Baltimore County Police Detective Sgt. Darryl DeSousa has seen many types of burglars.

Some just grab and go - others case a home for days, calculate exactly when the owners are away, put on a disguise and make their move. During the past two years, however, DeSousa can't recall a single burglary when a home's alarm system went off and the burglar got away with something of value.

The primary reason alarms work: Crooks want to be in and out quickly, he said. Any inconvenience is a reason to go to the next house.

From 1991 to 2001, consumers spent more than $45.1 billion on home security installations and monitoring costs. The Bethesda-based National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, a major industry group, estimates that 18 percent of American households are protected by electronic burglar alarm systems, and the figures keep growing.

Some experts attribute the steady climb to a decreased sense of security, particularly after the economy's slowdown, last year's terrorist attacks and conflict in the Middle East.

"My husband travels a lot. I feel better having it," said Casey Reeve of Howard County, who recently installed motion sensors on her first-floor windows and doors. "If it goes off, you know. It gives you a little bit of time to prepare."

The Reeves, who have a long driveway that's secluded from the road, plan to install a driveway sensor, as well, to alert them of any visitors, invited or uninvited.

"[Burglars] generally take the most vulnerable homes first. [They want] concealment, easy access and something that looks deserted," said Jean O'Neil, director of research and evaluation at the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington.

The NBFAA estimates last year's total alarm industry revenue (residential and commercial) to be $20.3 billion, up from 2001's $18.7 billion. In 1998, revenue was at $14.9 billion.

Costs for such systems can reach $1,000 and carry monthly monitoring fees. And experts said that regardless of how good the system is, common sense and helpful neighbors help improve security.

What to consider

When shopping for a system, the first thing to consider is protecting access to one's home, experts said.

First-floor and basement-level doors and windows are where most break-ins occur.

Most systems work by sensing motion or glass breakage - or a combination of both.

Window and door sensors are small magnetic strips, about the size of a piece of gum. One strip is placed on the bottom of the window or door. Its mate is placed on the top of the sill, positioned so the two come together when closed. A wire on one end leads to the alarm. When that magnetic bond is broken, the alarm is activated. The resident usually has 30 seconds to deactivate the alarm before it automatically calls the alarm company and sets off a siren.

Interior motion detectors are about the size of computer mice and cost about $120 each. They need only be in rooms that allow entry from outside the home. Motion detectors pick up body heat and air movement inside a room, with most operating by microwave or infrared technology.

But motion sensors aren't perfect and can lead to false alarms when, for example, a pet or a child gets up in the middle of the night. And something as simple as a bird pecking a window can activate the glass alarm. Also, by the time the motion sensor detects the motion and goes off, an intruder could be five to seven steps inside the home, said Lou Goldberg, president of Digital Electronics Security Systems Inc. in Baltimore.

More elaborate systems are either on the market or about to make a splash.

Driveway sensors act like big magnets in the ground. They detect the metal of a car and activate a beeper inside the home while turning on outside lights.

Cameras can work with televisions and the Internet to offer security.

Residents can position a camera at a door, use an empty TV channel to receive the picture, and always see who is there. The National Association of Home Builders has introduced such a system at its LifeWise senior citizen prototype home in Bowie.

Homeowners also can use the Web to monitor their home's security while they're away. Many alarm companies will set up a program that allows clients to log in to the company's Web site and check the alarm status of their home at any time.

"I have one client who travels a lot. When he's away for four months a year, he logs onto his Web site ... and he can see his home," Goldberg said.

Florida-based ADT Security Services Inc. has introduced its "Safewatch iCenter," which blends Internet information, security and home control. Priced from $3,000, iCenter functions as a home's central communications center. It also enables owners to remotely control their systems using the Internet and ADT's Web site, or by dialing directly to the house. The system can control lights, garage doors and small appliances.

"It's great for kids and the elderly. And it will arm everything," said Ann Lindstrom, an ADT spokeswoman.

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