Smart Security

New technology ties security systems into whole-home automation, adding protection and peace of mind.

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Jeff Garceau was disappointed in his dumb alarm system. In part that’s because the system was, technically, just that. In the jargon of home security, it lacked “intelligence”—computer chips interwoven throughout the system, in every sensor, leading to a fairly high-powered control panel, along with a backup wireless unit that can leap cut cables in a single bound and let the police know something’s awry.

One night, while he was watching the clowns at the Big Apple Circus in Manhattan, Garceau’s home was robbed. The system remained passive. Definitely dumb.

“Those idiots cut everything,” Garceau says of the burglars, who turned out to be teens more interested in breaking and entering than walking off with the TV or jewels. “They cut the cable TV and the phone lines.” Without the hard-wired link and no backup, the system couldn’t reach out for help.

Garceau got smart. He installed a new state-of-the-art alarm system that, among other things, is designed with wire cutters in mind. “Now, if they cut anything outside, there’s a wireless transmitter that automatically calls the cops. They can get to the house in about two minutes.”

Adding the capabilities was important enough for Garceau to break off a decade-plus relationship with his former security company and sign up with Elmsford-based Stratagem Security. But for Garceau, the increased sense of safety he feels for his wife and two preteen children made the security swap the right choice.

The upgrade entailed trading a code-punch keypad for a digital display that informs Garceau in which rooms his kids are walking. Once upon a time, if the system wouldn’t arm, he had to walk from room to room to see if a door or window was ajar. With the new setup, sophisticated sensors give each window an identity and can monitor for an intrusion even if the window is wide open. “It has motion sensors that watch for glass breakage. There are contacts at different points. You can leave the house with windows open, and if a burglar touches the window, he’s screwed.” And, of course, there’s the wireless backup.

Garceau hadn’t really just changed service providers—he'd jumped generations of technology.

Not surprisingly, in 2009, it’s all about computers. Tiny computers. Though they’re cousins of the devices found on desktops and laptops, these computers, which lurk in almost every component of modern security systems, are far smaller and more focused. Today’s house is full of these diminutive machines—they’re in remote controls, DVD players, microwaves, scales, and even clocks.

What all these little devices do is give the items they inhabit an identity and the ability to process information. So, in a traditional system, the dumb sensor can give a warning that somewhere in the house, a window has been moved. A smart sensor, on the other hand, can tell the monitoring panel that the third window from the left in the family room has been opened a half inch. And, since the monitoring panel itself is now a fairly powerful computer, it can take this information, put it on a display, notify the homeowner, and, if the infrastructure is present, call the police.

Indeed, now that the local framework is present, the homeowner can step things up a bit, connecting the home-security system to a home-automation system. It also can support Local Area Networks, computer networks covering a small geographic area, such as a home or office.

One network in your house can include the sensors mounted to doors and windows and watching for motion in rooms. Another network can be sensors and controls attached to each light switch in a house. Because it's all connected to the Internet, you can log in, watch your home, change your security settings, turn lights on and off, and, in a really fancy system, switch on the home entertainment system—all while you’re on vacation in the Bahamas—or anywhere else you can hook into an Internet connection.

Plus, since the networks are interconnected, the sensor network can talk to the camera network—so if there’s a jiggle at the casements, you actually can see who’s shaking things up. Taking a similar approach, it’s possible to track every time a front door—or any door in a house, for that matter—opens and then flag that event in a recording to connect it with a video to keep for future reference.

Worried about your kid sneaking out at night? Now you’ll know for sure (whether you really want to or not). And, since computers have memories, all the video can be captured and stored on DVDs for permanent playback access. (You said you were where, Junior?) That memory can have other uses as well.

A well-designed high-tech home-automation system will be tied into every light switch and outlet in the house. And since there’s a computer at the heart of any home-automation system, it can record all the actions that are taken and then play them back if needed. Forget about timers on a lamp—an effective system can exactly replay every room light you’ve switched on and off for the last two weeks while you’re away. Then, when you actually do take a week-long jaunt to Europe, the system can replay that pattern, making it seem to outsiders that you’ve never left home—thus preventing them from trying to break in.