Building an Electronic Fortress

Going high-tech with your home security, and even adding automation, doesn't have to break the bank.

by Harry Campbell

Harry Campbell

Dept.: Geek Guide
Tech: Home security and automation
Cost: $80 to several thousand dollars
Time: One hour to several days

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Ah, for the days when a growling mutt was enough. Now, homes without security systems are two to three times as likely to be robbed as those without. Fortunately, there are dozens of options for creating that electronic security blanket: Spend $100 on sensors that turn on lights, or drop a few grand on a setup that's watchdog and personal assistant, providing a Web feed of your front-door cam or sending you a text message when the kids get home.

Many of these systems are DIY-friendly, so you can start with the basics and add components such as glass-break detectors or cameras later. If Radio Shack and Home Depot give you the willies, hire a pro; some will even do a basic installation free in exchange for a monitoring contract. Whichever system you go with, tell your insurance company--most offer discounts for electronic security. Below: three levels of the secure home.

1. Lighting Control
Even simple and inexpensive solutions such as motion detectors and light timers allow for creativity. For example, you can set the interior lights to go on in sequence (as though you were walking through the house) when the motion sensor detects someone in the yard. Use a simple piece of control software such as Home Control Assistant ($80 to $150; advancedquonsettech.com) or HomeSeer ($150; homeseer.com) to program schemes on a computer. Download the instructions to a macro module, and plug it into the wall.

2. Simple Sensors
A basic system typically includes a controller (the "brain"), a keypad, a siren, a motion detector and a
couple magnetic door and window contacts. If a bad guy tries to open a window, the magnetic sensor triggers an alarm or calls your monitoring service. (Tip: Thieves can disable open-circuit sensors by simply cutting the right wires, so always opt for the closed-circuit variety.)

Installing these systems isn't rocket science, but you should be familiar with your toolbox and know how to set up a home network. Smarthome Products (smarthome.com) makes a wireless DIY kit that includes two door contacts, a motion detector and a keychain remote for $250. Extra sensors range from $3 for a wired door or window contact to $21 for a wireless motion detector. Other DIY retailers worth checking out: alarmsystemstore.com and x10pro.com. To find a reputable professional installer, head to alarm.org.

3. Home Automation
Instead of just arming your security when you leave, imagine pressing an "away" button that also switches off all the lights, turns down the heat, and activates the front-door cameras. Most home automation systems can even be controlled online, making them a smart choice for summer homes or frequent travelers.

A popular option is Home Automation's Omni line (homeauto.com). Figure about $1 to $2 per square foot for labor and hardware to have it installed by a pro, or buy from Smarthome and put it in yourself. Starter kits range from $620 for the Omni LT to $1,700 for the Omni Pro II. Both include a controller and keypad, a thermostat and an outdoor temperature sensor, but the extra grand buys you a more powerful controller, capable of managing up to 176 zones within your home; the LT maxes out at 16. Note that all sensors and light modules are sold separately, as is the online control software, so total cost will vary by home size.

A Few Questions to Answer When Security Shopping
Wired or wireless? Hardwired security is less expensive and more secure, if you don't mind snaking wires through walls and ceilings. Wireless systems are easier to set up, but the sensors require an unsightly battery-powered transmitter and can
suffer from interference.

Monitored or not? Monitoring companies charge from $10 to $35 monthly (those with local offices tend to charge more) to verify that alarms are real, usually by calling the house and asking for a disarm code if an alert goes off. So what? False alarms are so common that many police departments won't even respond to an unverified alarm. A cost-effective alternative is to instruct the system to call your cellphone if something is awry. You can contact the police yourself or ask a neighbor if anything looks suspicious.

Which standard? X10 is the communication standard used by most of today's security systems--low-voltage signals travel over your home's power lines from the sensors to the controller. But its signals are prone to interference from major appliances unless you add a $25 filter to each plug. A promising alternative is Universal Powerline Bus (UPB), which uses pulsed digital control signals and doesn't need filters. And with UPB, a device can confirm that it is getting a signal. X10 lacks that feedback.