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Security Watch:
Out with the Old

May 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Steve Filippini

You can upgrade to a new security system without waiting for the current one to break.


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I recently bought a new laptop to replace the old one I've been lugging around for the last few years. After the purchase, my wife asked me why I found it necessary to buy a new one since the old one probably still met my computing needs. I responded with a series of well-thought-out technical arguments that made perfect sense to me but failed to impress my spouse. By the end of the conversation, I caved in and confessed my need to remain current with today's technology.

Later that night, my state-of-the-art security system informed me I was experiencing a transmitter failure that eventually would require its replacement. After making the corrections needed to bring my system up to working order, I was faced with an interesting question. Was it time for me to replace my current burglar alarm system with a new and improved panel that second-guessed my every need, or should I just patch it up and leave it alone?

Security customers are often faced with the same dilemma. The expensive system they purchased several years ago may still be doing the job, but maybe it's time to upgrade to a more sophisticated control panel with new and improved features. After all, alarm panels have progressed from simple local bell applications to home automation in just less than 30 years; maybe it is time to consider a change.

Back in the 1970s, Silent Knight came out with a system I learned to refer to as “Charlie.” The model number was 712, and it offered limited but necessary features for the security consumer. From the user keypad you could enable/disable interior protection devices and create an “on watch” chime whenever a door or window was opened. Nothing fancy by today's standards, but quite effective back in the day.

Charlie, like many electronic devices, started out with a good operating track record when it was first released, but it developed a few quirks as it got older. One of those fun, surprise features was its tendency to not wake up after experiencing a complete power cycle. The microprocessor that controlled the system would sometimes go to sleep, never to return. When that happened I was usually faced with the honor of informing the customer that their expensive alarm panel was dead and needed to be replaced or upgraded. Since replacement often meant several weeks of no protection while the circuit board was shipped back to the manufacturer for repairs, my customers would often choose to be upgraded.

Deciding to replace or upgrade a dead panel doesn't require a whole lot of convincing. The debate really heats up when you need to decide whether or not to replace/upgrade the existing security system while it is still in working order. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before making such a decision.

WIRING

If your system was designed or installed during the 1970s through to the early ‘80s, chances are you have eight to 18 wires snaking their way from the user keypad back to the main control panel. If this is the case, it is highly recommended that the existing wires be replaced. Why, you may ask? If today's keypads and arming stations only use four conductors, why not simply use four of the existing 18 to do the job? Because wire gets old and the splices that were meant for multi-cabled systems might not be in the best condition for newer equipment. Systems of yesteryear used slower microprocessors and were a bit more robust when it came to handling AC induction. Today's systems use twisted pairs of wires and ferrite rings to suppress noise signals for those microprocessors that scream past anything standing in their way. All of those extra, unused conductors in the old wiring schemes have the ability to induce signal-scrambling noise into the control panel, thus confusing the newer systems' brains.

Also, wire splices will oxidize over time. By a show of hands, how many technicians out there twisted their wires together really tight and taped them up without the use of solder or splice caps? My hand is up there too. Not only did I twist the ends together, I continued to roll the exposed leads into a tighter ball and wrapped the tips with gooey electrical tape that had sat in my truck for weeks at a time in a metal box under 90-degree, sunny days. I freely admit that I was a service call just waiting to happen.

CONTACTS

Let's take a look at those 1in.- to 2in.-long contacts mounted on the outside of every protected door and window in the home. Do you replace those too? My advice is to listen to the contacts. If you open a door or window and hear a fairly loud clunking sound as the spring-loaded connection falls away, replace it. Those type of contacts are not airtight, and the spring inside will weaken over time. The more modern glass-encased reed switches are much better anyway and won't oxidize. If you're still not convinced, pull out your handy dandy volt/ohm meter and check the resistance of the contacts. If you read more than an ohm or two, yank it out. I used to rap my screwdriver on the outside case of the contact and if the meter registered even a slight change, I replaced it. High or climbing resistance is one of the biggest reasons security systems experience false alarms.

TRANSMITTERS

If the wireless portion of your system uses 9V batteries (and the logo of a cat and lightning bolt are present on the face of the battery) replace it with something that uses a 3V barrel (or coin) lithium battery. Lithium batteries carry a life expectancy of three to five years compared to the six months to one year you usually get with the 9V variety. Also, the technology used in the design of the newer transmitters is better. The signal range is further, and the reduction of faulty transmissions is greater.

CONCLUSION

Does the proposed new system offer a feature you simply can't live without? Probably not. During the home-automation craze of the early nineties, we would program our super systems to turn on lights, coffee pots, and hot tubs at different hours of the day. We could pick up the telephone to retrieve the system's status instead of walking over to the user keypad and looking at the LCD (or LED) display. We would preset our thermostats to anticipate our heating and cooling needs throughout the week. We did all this and more, and you know what happened? After the first month of pampered applications and electronic handholding, most of our customers had forsaken the special features and reverted back to using the basic security needs: arming, disarming, and chime.

Replacing an old security system doesn't have to be a traumatic experience for your customer. Just keep in mind what their needs are and make sure they are aware of their options. And make sure their spouse is in on the decision. Trust me on this one.


Steve Filippini is a senior technician with more than 26 years of experience in the security and installation industry.



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