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November 16, 2016

Burglary Prevention Part IV — How Should You Wire Your Alarm System?

By John Bocker, NSSF Security Consultant Team Member

In Part III of my series on avoiding and preventing burglaries, I examined the essential components of a modern security system. There are three ways these components work together today: via hardwiring, through a wireless connection or by use of a hybrid system that utilizes both technologies.

Wired systems are convenient when sensors such as passive infrared devices (PIRs), vibration detectors and others require power to operate correctly, though they may be more costly to install. They are available in varying degrees of sophistication.

Entry-level wired systems utilize “star network” topology, wherein the alarm panel is at the center and all associated devices “home run” their wires back to that panel. More complex panels use a “bus network” topology, wherein the wiring is run in a data loop around the perimeter of the facility, with “drops” for the sensor devices. Sensor devices in a bus network must include an integrated unique device identifier, used to identify which alarm device is actually activated.

Wireless systems today tend to be less expensive to install than hardwired systems. They often use battery-powered transmitters, which are easier to install and have less expensive start-up costs. One of the biggest advantages of wireless monitoring alarm systems is that they are immune to a burglar cutting a cable or from connection and downtime failures of an Internet provider.

With wireless systems, the most important connection is the one between the on-site control panel and the alarm monitoring central station. These are primarily cellular connections (which is why they are immune to Internet connection failures). Depending on the distance between the wireless device and the control unit as well as the construction materials of your facility, one or more wireless repeaters may be required to reliably transmit the signal of a sensor fault to the alarm panel.

Hybrid systems use both wired and wireless sensors to realize the benefits of both while minimizing the cons. The wireless portion still alerts in the event the hard-wired portion fails and vice versa.

In a hybrid system, transmitters or sensors can be connected through the premises’ electrical circuits to transmit coded signals to the control unit panel. The control unit panel usually has a separate zone for every different sensor, as well as internal trouble indicators, such as would result from a main power loss, low battery, broken wires, etc. These systems may incur additional expense for labor installation of wiring and components but should not incur any additional monitoring expenses over other system types.

I’ve now covered the key components of a modern alarm facility, as well as the three ways in which they can be installed. There is one other thing to consider when designing your system, and that is to determine what your sensors should do when they are triggered. Sensors can be designed to do many jobs. They can alert your system to sound an alarm, activate a strobe, siren or fogging system, send a text or video message, initiate zone- or device-pacific video recording and, of course, notify the monitoring facility and local law enforcement. The most popular choices in sensor-activated actions tend to be:

  • Audible considerations — Internal and external sirens should emit high-decibel, ear-piercing auditory alarms intended to quickly deter burglars in the early act of vandalizing or breaching a facility.
  • Internal strobe lights — These serve to disorient and confuse burglars who have gained access to your facility’s interior.
  • Fogging systems — Though they tend to be more expensive than other deterrents, they can be wonderfully effective. When activated, these systems nearly instantaneously fill an interior area with a thick fog that, while safe to breathe, reduces visibility to just inches. This quickly disorients the intruders, both preventing them from finding the merchandise they were looking to steal and from quickly finding exit doors, which can aid arriving law enforcement in catching them, literally in the act. (Note: One of NSSF’s Affinity Member Benefits companies installs such a system and also pairs it with a strobe light component for added effectiveness.)

You now have the basic pieces of the hardware available that make up the core of an alarm installation (other than the specifics of the camera and video recording equipment, which is a subject in itself). Where you install the various pieces is your next consideration before making your investment.

It’s easy to think you’re covered when you’ve taken into account external doors and storefront glass. But roof access panels, HVAC systems, areas above and around gun storage vaults and facility service doors must all be protected with adequate sensor devices. This may include contact devices along with motion sensors.

Panic/hold-up devices should be included in your plan, in addition to those dedicated panic buttons that are standard on your alarm control panels. Such devices may be stand-alone buttons installed at strategic locations around the facility and in the main office, such as by cash registers or in inventory warehouse rooms or facilities, or as a pendant-type device carried by staff members. These devices are critical for summoning police in life-threatening situations.

Every burglar alarm system — whether hardwired, wireless or a hybrid — should include a dedicated backup power supply that should maintain the system’s integrity for eight or more hours. In tandem, your alarm monitoring should include reporting power failure, low battery and tampering alerts. Hard-wired alarm systems using traditional or IP network connections to the alarm monitoring service should further include a cellular backup service to sustain system integrity in the unlikely event that the primary communication channel is compromised.

By now, you should have a solid idea of the alarm system types available, their necessary components and a roster of installation tips that go a long way towards thwarting most physical break-in attempts. With all that said, and because of my background in retail security, I’d like to offer a couple caveats.

First I strongly recommend having a professional complete your installation. Seriously, skip the DIY route. You’re protecting firearms for goodness sake! Besides, your insurance carrier will most likely require a licensed professional complete the alarm system installation.

Second, I personally recommend hard-wired systems. They are much more reliable and you’ll never have the low battery issues or service interruptions associated with the wireless systems; you must maintain the batteries of such systems to ensure an acceptable level of reliability. Wired systems also have the advantage, if wired properly, of being tamper-evident.

Many installers are favoring wireless installations today, and some of these designs are very good indeed, but some installers are recommending them not because of their reliability but rather because they reduce the amount of required installation labor and drive higher profit. If you choose a wireless system or a hybrid system that includes a wireless component, do your homework carefully and balance their advantages against the expense of a fully hard-wired system.

This concludes Part IV of my series on burglary prevention. In the final installation, I’ll show you how to test your alarm system to ensure its integrity and reliability.

About the Author
John Bocker Headshot - NSSF Security Consultant Team MemberJohn Bocker is an NSSF Security Consultant Team Member and the Managing Director at JB Group, LLC, based in Denver, Colorado. JB Group is a business security and integrity strategy consultant organization specializing in maximizing profitability, risk management, employee integrity, operational controls and driving success! Visit or call (720) 514-0609 for more information.

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