Traditional Alarm Systems

So, let’s start with a quick review of the home security options currently available to UK consumers. First, we have the traditional alarm system that is installed by a professional security company with hard-wired door and window sensors, presence detectors (PIRs), keypads and alarm sounders. These are available from national firms like ADT and thousands of independents accredited by the likes of the National Security Inspectorate (NSI) or Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board (SSAIB).

Costs for an installation like this run from £800 including VAT and labour to £3,000+, depending on the size of the house. The alarm hardware is provided by well-known brands like Honeywell, Texecom and others.

Second, we have the same sort of equipment deployed using wireless sensors, as with Texecom’s Ricochet products. Although wired systems are usually preferable to wireless ones (for security and reliability), there are many retrofit circumstances where a wireless system is significantly more economical due to reduced labour costs. (It is also possible for your installer to design a hybrid system that uses a mixture of both.) Prices are similar to option one.

Together these first two approaches are the ‘classic’ choices. They operate to long-established national standards mentioned previously and can form the basis of a ‘graded’ alarm system. This means that they can be connected to an ARC (alarm receiving centre) that can call the police in the event of an emergency. Ungraded systems do not have this function.

However, it is important to note that the police are struggling to respond to a large number of domestic alarm call-outs as their resources are stretched. As such, there is a growing realisation that proactive self-monitoring might actually produce a more timely and effective response to alarm issues.

  • Traditional alarm systems operate to long-established national standards and are favoured by insurance companies
  • More modern ‘smart’ options offer a more integrated system that allows homeowners to manage their security alongside other systems such as lighting and heating
  • Another new option is the internal camera-based system that monitors activity in the property

Smart Home Systems

The third option comprises more intelligent components that form part of a wider smart home ‘eco system’. Perhaps the most well-known in the UK are Samsung’s SmartThings devices that have been on sale on the high street for the last year or so, but other platforms can be used (such as Loxone, Control4 and Crestron).

A highly capable home security system can be built up incorporating:

  • PIRs
  • door/window sensors
  • control of lights and heat
  • integration of camera imagery.

These systems can also play a direct role in promoting security by turning lights on and off to mimic occupancy. This sort of function is remotely controllable and can be automatically initiated when the alarm is fully set.

However, it is important to note that, unlike the first two options, these products are not currently regulated by a body like the NSI and the initial reaction from your insurer may be less favourable as a result. Even though these home automation products do a better job for most people of keeping tabs on the key causes of loss, the insurers are not conceding this and so it will not currently reduce the premium that households have to pay.

Indeed, the insurance industry is increasingly aware that a smart home security system like this, if properly monitored by the owners and other responders, can be preferable to an unmonitored bells-only system that might conform to NSI standards but never stop an intrusion or alert homeowners and their neighbours to a problem. So, if you can actually discuss the capabilities of this sort of system with your insurance underwriter they will often be very happy with the level of comprehensive coverage the products offer and will endorse them once satisfied.

Installation and Costs

These smart home systems can be installed by a committed and technical DIYer or you can seek help from a wide number of custom integration specialists (visit CEDIA for the latter). Because these systems cover much more than just burglar alarms, they can range from £150 including VAT to £5,000+ and can integrate TV, music, heating and other controls.

Internal CCTV Solutions

The final option is relatively new and comes from the growing number of standalone, often camera-based security products that are meant to help you literally ‘keep an eye’ on your house. Products like Canary, the Nest Cam, Piper and others offer an attractively packaged internal CCTV solution that make various claims to alert you if activity is detected when you are away (i.e. to act as an alarm that can be ‘set’) and you can view imagery, sound sirens and take your own actions.

In the main, these work for smaller homes, such as city apartments, where a judiciously placed camera is likely to capture intruders crossing a central part of the building. They are also readily movable to a new property and they can be used in properties where a wired infrastructure is not an option or too expensive to install. These systems are DIY and the units cost £100-£200 excluding VAT.

In deciding which of these routes to follow there are two key questions: do you feel it is vital for your insurance to have the possibility of police response? If so, choose a standards-compliant graded alarm system and a traditional security installer with accreditation to sign off on the whole system. If not, you have more choice and the opportunity to use a more comprehensive and modern solution.

Flood, Fire, Burglary? 

The second question is a little more radical but no less vital: how do you view the nature of ‘security’?

In the UK we have a highly developed model of intruder security using the alarm systems mentioned, but rates of domestic burglary have been falling since the 1980s. Losses from burglary are tiny compared to fire and water damage (particularly from internal water leaks).

Statistics clearly show that it is wiser to consider the security of your house in a broader context: you should consider deploying a system, or different sensors, that monitor for any of the big threats. These clearly include burglary but crucially they also monitor for:

  • fire
  • flood
  • mechanical failure of key items like boilers or freezers

If this sounds sensible, then a smart home package would be a better choice.

Intelligent and CCTV systems

Samsung-SmartThings-home-security-alarm-and-monitor

Samsung’s SmartThings allows homeowners to monitor, control and secure their home from anywhere

Control4 Lifestyle in wall touchscreen

Control4 provides a similar platform

Piper water sensor alarm

Piper internal CCTV system

Canary home security CCTV

Canary CCTV alerts homeowners to unexpected activity

ACT Excel wireless alarm control

ACT Excel products include wire-free alarms, CCTV alarm systems and door viewing

Security Monitoring

Which brings us to the question of monitoring: we live in a world of notifications, alarms and alerts. Whether it is the disembodied voice telling us we are coming to the end of the airport travellator or the honking of a car alarm, as a nation we have ‘alarm fatigue’: the old ‘bells-only’ approach to burglar alarms (in which it is hoped someone in the street will come looking when they hear the sounder go off) is somewhat ineffective.

It is prudent to have a monitoring solution that alerts specific people in the event of serious alarm. These people might be neighbours with whom you have a specific agreement or they might be a professional response service like the Keyholding Company.

Whatever happens, it is important that your solution reaches out to you and then to other responders if you are not in a position to assist. This can be achieved for burglar alarms via the traditional ARC, but is somewhat outdated as you are essentially asking a person in a call centre to make phone calls when an alarm comes in. Also, ARCs only traditionally monitor burglar and fire alarms; they don’t offer a multi-threat, information-rich alert system.

Soon to launch are 21st-century solutions that seek to automate this process more cheaply, simply and effectively. These will give a much more flexible and powerful self-monitoring solution with all the benefits of back-up from third party responders and day-to-day peace of mind.

Personally, I want a solution that tracks and logs the normal pattern of life and my home systems, and alerts me when things go wrong — allowing me to keep in touch with my home, even when I am miles away.

Useful Contacts


Will BrocklebankWill Brocklebank

The founder of building data company Shepherd, Will is also a former director of CEDIA, the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association

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