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Alarm Monitoring Solutions: DIY & Web-based vs. Central Stations

Industry Trends

It’s only been in recent years that consumers have had the option to monitor their own security systems, rather than paying a central station to do it for them.  “Hard-wired” electrical security systems that use a landline to transmit an alarm signal to a central station who then alerts the authorities are still used by the majority of homeowners, but “wireless” and web-based security systems are clearly the trend of the future.  In part, this is because hard-wired systems must be installed by a licensed security professional and, in most cases, require a substantive contract with a central station who provides the monitoring service, whereas wireless systems can be installed (and potentially monitored) by anyone.

Some security professionals say that wireless technology is not yet reliable enough, but others say that the reliability is dependent on the system itself, rather than the type of signal that is being transmitted.  Many companies are even offering hybrid devices that take both analog (wired) and digital (wireless) sensors and communicate to the central station using the traditional landline with a cellular back-up. 

Most central stations are accepting the industry trend to move towards digital technologies, while creating niches for themselves that will allow them to still be of service to a customer base.  Innovative devices have been created that can translate and convert signals without a significant loss of data, so that any security system can work with any central station (a wireless device can communicate to a central station who can only receive POTS).  Third-party security providers are also stepping up to fill this technology gap. For instance, if you have an ADT alarm monitoring service and want to give up your landline in favor of a VoIP or Broadband internet signal transmission while retaining your contract with ADT, then a company like IP Alarms offers to receive the IP signal and convert it to an acceptable form for ADT, for a small fee (usually about $5.00 per month).

IP Monitoring Solutions

VoIP applications, like Skype, which transmit audio signals via the internet, are becoming increasingly popular.  Their inexpensive (and sometimes non-existent) price-tag makes up for the somewhat inconsistent service:  The occasional dropped line, inability to be heard without rebooting or blaring echo might get your blood boiling but most people are placated enough by the efficiency of the service - when it does work - to keep returning for more.

The VoIP technology is not an “end-to-end” solution; the signal itself must be translated, from analog to digital back to analog again,  before arriving at its destination - the central station.  Because of the intrinsic vulnerabilities (susceptibility to “packet loss”) and dependencies (on the Internet service provider), many central stations don’t accept security systems that use VoIP signals.  On the other hand, some companies have devised solutions.

One solution is for companies to upgrade their networks to accept Broadband alarm signals. One computer talking to another would be an end-to-end solution.  There would still be some dependencies, e.g., reliability on the IP service provider, yet the chances of a valid alarm reaching its destination are far greater when translation of the signal is unnecessary. 

ABN, like IP Alarms, offers their customers a similar solution. They act as a third-party, adapting your system’s signal to one that is acceptable to the central station while supervising the connection to ensure that no calls are dropped and the service remains uninterrupted.  In addition to your regular monitoring fee, you would pay ABN about $5 to facilitate the signal transaction. Linksys cuts out the IP provider altogether and offers a “true end-to-end solution.”  They sell an adapter that communicates directly with a virtual receiver at the central station, so the signal doesn’t even use the customer’s existing IP service.  Consider, though, what would happen when one of these third party monitoring service providers does detect that “the house is offline.”  They notify you immediately, but they cannot tell you whether you had a break-in or whether there has been some kind of equipment failure (or both).

DIY & Web-based Monitoring

In addition to dispatched and non-dispatched monitoring, security companies are also offering “self-monitoring,” (aka Do-It-Yourself) which, in effect, is non-dispatched monitoring without the central station. The concept is similar to a smoke detector that signals the alarm directly to the home owner, except the siren is a good deal more subtle.  Alarm signals  (from moisture sensors and motion detectors to CCTV clips) are sent to a customer’s email address, or Smartphone.  Some systems, like the SecurityMan AirAlarm, a completely wireless DIY system, support up to five phone numbers, which are automatically dialed in the event of an alarm.  They  AirAlarm will leave a 9 second message detailing (as much as a 9 second message can) the source of the alarm. 

Customers can also log in using the company’s web-based application and view their “At-A-Glance” summaries of existing conditions at any given moment.   Companies usually charge a fee for customers to use their software.  Included in the fee will be technical assistance services for helping to set up the software and to discuss equipment compatibility and functionality issues. Some DIY home security systems include all necessary software, so customers aren’t dependent on a company to provide access to a web-based control panel.

While DIY might be cost-efficient, easy to install, empowering and fun (at least, initially) to monitor, reliability of signal transmission is debatable.  The bottom line is the technology and logistics of each system should be understood before purchasing.  The biggest question to have answered is “What happens when an alarm is triggered?” Most security professionals or equipment descriptions will give terse answers, like “Up to three contacts will be notified.”  Be sure you understand how the contacts will be made (what technology is used), what kind of automatic, pre-recorded message will be left if the primary method of contact is a telephone and how to access any applications that will provide you additional details (say you get a text saying your system is offline and may or may not have been tampered with, can you log in to a web-based system to view video surveillance or determine what sensors, if any, have been tripped?)

Environmental Monitoring Solutions

Many environmental monitoring solutions are also web-based.  They can be added as stand-alone devices to any security system, hard-wired or not.   Some systems come with one or more sensors, but more often then not, they are sold separately and monitor for power outages, extreme temperature changes, water leaks, and even smoke, carbon dioxide and radon.  It’s quite easy to not only sign in to supervise the levels, but in some automated systems, you can even activate your electrical equipment remotely.  For instance, you see that you have a water leak, so you turn off the alarm zone that protects access to your back door, allowing your neighbor to enter and fix the problem.

Central Stations

Alarm monitoring by central stations is still the industry standard and the most trusted method by consumers.  Central station monitoring takes all the responsibility away from you - the consumer.  Well, almost all - you'll still need to provide legitimate contact information so that, in the event of an alarm, someone from the central monitoring company can verify that the threat is real, or in other words, that the alarm was not an accident.

For people who have health concerns or want the safety of a panic button, supervised monitoring by a professional central station is often preferable.  Some central stations can even act as guardians and contact their customers up to 2x per day just to check in.  Central station monitoring can cost anywhere from $15 to $65 per month with an average of around $35, depending on the company and the package you choose.  At the low end you’ll usually finder companies that are either starting out or are not UL certified and at the high end, you’ll be paying for additional services like emergency medical monitoring or video surveillance.  ADT is a standard in home security monitoring.  They charge $1 per day for their basic package.

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