A while back, we did a post on how to install a hidden wall safe, to help keep at least some of your valuables safe from vermin scumbag thieves. While I still think that’s a great idea, most wall safes have pretty limited capacity; most of us would like to keep some of our BIGGER stuff, too, and would prefer not to have intruders skulking through our homes. After two recent burglaries in the family, I did a little research, and decided to install a wireless alarm system in both homes.
The first burglary was in late December, in my youngest daughter’s new apartment in Philadelphia. She wasn’t even fully moved in yet, but had started to transfer things from the old apartment to the new, so she could be out by the end of the month. She and her boyfriend came to Pittsburgh for Christmas, arriving Tuesday and returning home Thursday. While they were here, some sleazebags broke in and stole everything that was worth anything from her and her roommates, including a brand-new large screen TV, cash, jewelry, and electronics. Merry Christmas from the thieving pond scum!
The second incident was in a duplex we recently bought in Pittsburgh. The second floor is rented, but we’re updating the downstairs unit, and had bought materials to re-do the bathroom, including a new vanity and sink, tub and sink faucet sets, tile and thinset for the floor, lighting for the bathroom and bedrooms, new lock sets for the other unit, and some other odds and ends. My son had also left a jigsaw there, but luckily we hadn’t left any other power tools in the place. Anyway, someone broke in through a rear window and stole it all; they even took a new fire extinguisher. We called the police and filed a report, but nobody in the neighborhood heard nothin’, and there’s pretty much zero chance of getting any of it back. Bottom line: with about $700 worth of losses, and a $750 insurance deductible, we’ll end up paying for everything twice. Anyhow, in the time-honored tradition of locking the barn door after the horse is gone, we decided to install a wireless alarm system there, in hopes of scaring off the NEXT lowlife loser.
An Alarming Number Of Choices
When it comes to alarm systems, there are a lot of options available. Depending on where you live, there are likely to be several companies who would be happy to provide you with a system – ADT, Brinks, Guardian, Honeywell, and Vector are just a few of the many outfits operating in the Pittsburgh area. The commercial systems generally offer a wide variety of protection options, including sensors to detect glass breakage, smoke and fire, carbon monoxide, motion, and water or gas leaks.
There’s one feature they all have in common, though – the monthly monitoring fee. Most of the major players make their money by first selling you the system, then charging you a monthly fee to monitor the system for you. Many of the commercial providers offer a system at a very attractive price; some even offer a free system. However, these are usually very basic setups, covering only one or two doors, and maybe a couple of windows. They’ll also require you to sign a contract for their monitoring service, often for multiple years. To get adequate protection, the full initial cost of the system can be substantial, especially if you have a lot of openings (doors and windows) to protect, and the monitoring fee is usually hundreds of dollars a year.
I’m not knocking these systems; I understand that it costs money to have someone come out and install the system, and then monitor it for you. Our goal was to keep the price reasonable, while still having a system that would provide decent protection. An additional consideration was that we didn’t want to do a lot of alterations to her apartment. A hard-wired system would be expensive to install, and would have to remain when she moved. The choice to install a wireless alarm system would enable her to be protected now, and to take the system along next time she moves.
After checking out reviews on several systems, I decided on the SO2 alarm system from the Fortress Security store. I ordered one bundle for my daughter’s apartment, and a different bundle, with the same alarm system, only with more door and window contacts, for the duplex, as it has several more windows – and some of them aren’t even broken! Last weekend I fired up the truck, and we took a road trip to Philly, to enjoy the traditional Feeding of the Roommates and to install a wireless alarm system, and give our daughter, and us, a bit more peace of mind.
We Install A Wireless Alarm System In The City Of Brotherly Love
The Fortress systems have a lot of features for the price. They have almost 100 reviews on Amazon, and they are overwhelmingly positive. One criticism made by many reviewers was that the manual was incomplete and largely incomprehensible, and the first move should be to pitch it in the trash. After looking at it briefly, I did just that. Luckily, there is very comprehensive help available on the Fortress website, including a 74-page PDF installation manual and several videos (I counted 26), covering most aspects of setup and programming. The system comes pre-programmed, and assuming you don’t screw something up (more on that topic shortly), there isn’t much else you have to do to get it up and running.
Fortress SO2 Alarm Features
- System can hold up to 99 sensors
- Expandable with additional sensors, detectors, smoke alarms, etc.
- Tactile keypad with physical and audible feedback
- Four digit customize passcode locks keypad and is required to disarm alarm
- LCD display panel which shows zone number when alarm is triggered
- Remote arm, disarm, audio monitoring by phone
- System automatically calls up to six numbers sequentially when the alarm is triggered (using a land line or VoIP phone service, such as MagicJack, Oooma, Basictalk, etc.)
- Record your own 10 second message that plays when alarm is triggered and numbers are called
- Mic jack/speaker for remote monitoring (listening in to your main panel location)
- Telephone line cut warning
- Pass through telephone jack
- Fully programmable home (armed without delay, motion sensors disabled) and away armed modes (short delay before arming, motion sensors enabled)
- Each zone can be independently armed, disarmed, delayed, etc.
- Main Panel has 72 hour lithium backup battery
- Motion sensors cover 110 degrees and have a 20 foot range
- All sensor batteries last 1-2 years
- Sensor light illuminates to indicate low battery
- Sensor range from panel is up to 250 feet
- Wireless siren range from panel is up to 80 feet
- Configurable delays after arming alarm (provides time to exit building) and time to disarm (provides time to enter passcode before alarm sounds)
- Remote fobs enable arming and disarming without password, enabling home mode, and panic
- Chime can be enabled for sensors in disarm mode
- Optional emergency zones that instantly trigger the alarm even when disarmed—ideal for accessories such as smoke alarms
- Alarm siren duration configurable from 00 (silent) to 30 minutes
- Antennas on panel and sensors can be extended to enable extreme distances from main panel
The first thing you should do is reset the password. It comes set to 1234, and tempting though it may be to just leave it as is, figure out a four-digit code you’ll remember and CHANGE IT! It only takes a few seconds. While you’re in a programming mood, take a moment to program in some phone numbers. If the keypad is attached to a landline, it will call up to six pre-programmed phone numbers (landline or cell) when the alarm is tripped. Now you’re ready to start installing the peripherals. Don’t connect the siren yet, unless you have a craving for loud noise.
After changing the password and programming in some contact numbers, we started installing the contact sensors. The process is very simple; there is a transmitter and a magnet for each set of contacts. The unit comes with double-sided mounting tape for each unit; just peel it off, press it firmly onto the back of each piece, and mount them on each door or window and frame. Make sure the two pieces of each sensor are within ½” of each other, and that they won’t interfere with the door or window opening or closing. After mounting the sensors, open the door or window, and the red light on the transmitter should come on. Here’s a quick video overview of the sensors:
We mounted sensors on the front and rear doors, and on the rear windows. We skipped the front windows, as their apartment is on the second floor, and it’s not likely someone would put a ladder up to go in that way. Then again…I think I’ll put some on just in case. Each transmitter has a big number on the back of it, identifying it to the control panel. As you install them, you can test that they’re working by separating the contacts; when you do, the ALARM light will light up on the control panel, and the number corresponding to that sensor will appear in the display. To clear the alarm, punch in your password and hit the DISARM button.
The system also came with two motion detectors. These are great, in case someone does manage to get in past the sensors. We mounted them with screws high up on the wall, aimed at areas that anyone entering the apartment would have to go through. The alarm system can be set to three modes: Home, Away, or Disarmed. The motion detectors are only armed in Away mode; when the system is set to Home mode, you can walk through the house without setting off the alarm, but the doors and windows are still protected.
One of my favorite features in these systems is the remote fob. Using the fob, which is about the size of one used to unlock a car door, you can set the system to Home or Away mode, disarm it so you can enter without unnecessary loud siren noises, or hit the panic button, which immediately triggers the siren and starts calling your pre-programmed numbers. This eliminates having to come in and punch in your secret code within the preset time to disarm the system. The fob has a sliding cover to protect accidental key presses. The systems also come with a panic button, a fob with a big red button in the center. Pressing it sets off the siren, and the system starts calling the preprogrammed numbers.
This kit (the SO2-A) came with two fobs. Since there are three people living there, I ordered an extra fob – it set me back a whopping $15. I needed to “register” the fob with the control panel, so I followed the instructions to do so – well, MOST of the instructions, anyway. The instructions say to turn off the motion detectors, or at least avoid tripping them, when programming other devices. This ensures they don’t accidentally get confused and switch out of their pre-assigned zone. I neglected to follow these instructions, and after registering the fob and re-arming the system to Home mode, got the crap scared out of me as soon as I moved; the motion detectors had been accidentally reprogrammed to the “always active” zone. After changing my underwear, I dug through the instructions again (this time reading ALL the instructions), and eventually figured out how to get the motion detectors back in the proper zone. The motion detectors work great, by the way; they pick up movement when you’re about halfway up the stairs.
After installing all the sensors and motion detectors, it was time to choose a location for the main panel. If you want to use the “Call out” feature, which dials your preset numbers whenever an alarm is tripped, you’ll need to plug the system into a phone jack. It has a bypass in it, so you can still connect your phone, fax or answering machine. (Speaking of calling, when the system calls your preset numbers, you can actually listen in to hear what’s going on in your dwelling, via the built-in microphone in the main panel. You can also reverse the process – you can call the number the panel is hooked up to, and listen in to hear what’s going on at home, if you suspect someone may be in there.) The main unit also needs a power source; it comes with a lithium battery that will power it for 72 hours during an outage, but for normal use it has to be plugged in.
The main panel is the “brains” of the system; it’s also one of the weakest points. For some reason, the manufacturer includes an on/off switch on the panel. Want to disable the system without using a security code? Just flip the switch to “off.” That also stops the outgoing notification calls, and silences that annoying siren. Which is the other major flaw in this system: the primary siren included with the unit has to be plugged into it. To shut it up, just unplug it.
To get around these shortcomings, place the main panel somewhere it will be tough to spot; don’t mount it on the wall right inside the door. Stick it in a closet, in a locked room, in a cupboard, or behind a basement door. Just remember, there has to be a power source available; you might need to run an extension cord. And if you want to use the phone feature, you’ll have to either install a jack close by, or get a long cord for it; they’re pretty cheap.
To get around the issue of the attached siren, which would be a pretty good indicator of where the panel is, there are various remote sirens available (the system we bought for the duplex, the SO2-B, has one included). This enables you to put the panel wherever you want, and use the remote siren instead of the plugged-in one. (The remote siren requires a power source, but does not have to be connected to the panel). This setup makes it much tougher for an intruder to come in and quickly silence the alarm, and provides extra time for the system to make its calls.
That being said, if you intend to install a wireless alarm system, I think this is a great system for the price. It seems pretty well made, comes with all the batteries to get it powered up right away, and it’s pre-programmed and ready to go (assuming no self-induced stupidity, like I demonstrated). Using the fobs, it’s quick and easy to arm and disarm, making it more likely to be used. If some scumbag does break in, hopefully being greeted by a LOUD siren – and this siren is loud, as I and my underwear can attest – will convince the loser to turn around and run away, to rip off someone who isn’t a HomeFixated reader and DOESN’T have a loud siren.
If you want to beef it up, there are a lot of options available; you can add sensors to detect glass breakage, gas leaks, vibration, water leaks, and smoke and fire. There are various sirens available, for use both indoors and out, including one with a flashing red strobe, even one that’s solar powered. You can also add more motion detectors, either standard or pet-immune, so your Rottweilers don’t set them off, and extra door and window sensors, remotes, even an extra keypad. Most of the accessories are very reasonably priced, and the system can accommodate up to 99 sensors.
One thing all the reviewers agreed on was that the seller’s support is outstanding. I verified this myself, calling with a question about how to set up the system so a window could be open in summer while the system is set to Home mode (Answer: disarm the system, open the window, re-arm the system. Just don’t close and re-open the window while the alarm is armed). I called and left a message, and within 90 minutes got a callback from the company’s owner Michael, the guy in the videos above. Very friendly and patient, thanked me for being a customer, and said don’t hesitate to call back if there were any further questions.
Hopefully the alarm systems will never be put to the test by official lowlife loser scumsucking dirtbags. Meanwhile, I feel better knowing my daughter and her roommates are a little more secure, and soon our duplex will be as well. If you’re ready to install a wireless alarm system, the Fortress Security systems and accessories are available from Amazon, or directly from Fortress – they’re actually slightly cheaper there, and shipping is free.