Alarm Controls are the Brain of your Security System, Use Yours When Choosing One

The alarm control is the brain of your security system. It is typically placed in an area that is out of the way like a basement, attic, closet or office. The motherboard and additional components such as radio receivers, backup power supply and zone expanders are inside this metal box, which is often locked. You will have little or no interface with the alarm control. Your alarm technician will need to access this unit to program it and wire it to general standards, or your custom standards.

There are many manufacturers of alarm controls. Each manufacturer will also produce several models within a particular product line. Alarm companies purchase direct from the manufacturer or more often buy their products through one of a few available alarm distributors in their area. These distributors and manufacturers do not sell product to the non- professional consumer. You can buy this equipment on line if you have the ability to install it and service it yourself.

As a general rule the controls that are most dependable and have the most programming options are more costly. I will teach you how to get the best control you can find as this will greatly affect your ease of use and your ability to have your alarm adjusted to fit your lifestyle.

In the interest of keeping this device as understandable as possible for you, I will forgo the intense and hundreds of differences among these units and I will break them into a few categories that should make more sense to you.


There are many basic units available to the alarm dealer. They will often use these units knowing that the average consumer does not know the difference, and they will stock them at very little expense. A less qualified installer can also install these basic units, because there are few or no programming and wiring options.


What you should be most concerned about when it comes to these basic units is that we professionals refer to many of them as ” CROWBAR SYSTEMS.” These systems come as a control, keypad, siren, communicator and backup power supply all built into one unit. If a burglar breaks into your place and hears a siren coming from this unit, they are going to take the proverbial crowbar and smash it off the wall. At this time you would no longer have a control, keypad, siren, backup power supply or communicator to call for help. A lot of good that would do for you!

Now that you are educated in the pitfalls of a self contained unit I doubt that anyone will be able to sell you one, or even give you one for that matter.


The majority of systems that professional alarm companies install fall into this category. They are dependable for the most part based on how long the model has been on the market. Some of these manufacturers have stuck with their dependable product lines for well over 20 years. Some of the newer models have nice new features but when it comes to mid-range units I have always avoided turning my clients into product testers. These units are comprised of any number of separate components that are wired together to make your complete system. This way if someone knocks a siren or keypad or any other component off the wall the alarm still does what it needs to do. The control panel in this range typically comes with at least eight zones. Zones give you the ability to use all or part of your system; you will also be able to pinpoint with some accuracy where a violation has taken place. An example of using part of your system would be as follows:

*You are staying home and want only your perimeter devices on and your interior devices off.

* You are lounging in the back yard and want to go in and out of the back door so you bypass that door and motion detector while protecting the remainder of the house.

* You are leaving work for the evening and your employees are staying late so you bypass the work area and arm the office so no one can enter that area.

When choosing your alarm company avoid the dealer that has many brands and models available to you in this range. That could mean that they are buying whatever is on sale that week from the distributor. The dealer that has used the same model for many years is more proficient when it comes to installing, programming options and servicing of that model.


If you know what you want in an alarm system and realize that these high-end systems can be programmed to do exactly what you want them to do for many different scenarios, you would settle for nothing less. All of your presets can be activated usually with the touch of one button. It is my experience that all of the many different features of these type of controls are designed for ease of use by the end user (That’s You!) and not the alarm dealer. They come with many zones so you have complete control over every aspect of your protection. These units can even be serviced remotely when changes are requested saving everyone time and money.

It takes a more qualified professional to properly install, find out what your requirements are, program the alarm to fit your lifestyle, and then teach you how simple it is to operate. I would assume you are like me and want the best-qualified installer you can find to work inside your home.


Find the dealer that places the highest number of installs in your area. Because of the volume they buy in, they will get the high-end equipment for the same price the rest of the dealers pay for the average equipment. They should always be willing to use the high-end equipment without extra cost to you, because it sets them apart from the others and due to the quality of equipment, they don’t carry the expenses of maintaining a large service team.


BBB, Burglar Alarm Associations (both local and national), State licensing authority or my favorite the promotions or sales manager of your potential alarm dealer, and let them know you know the difference!

Lets look at a typical zone layout for a control panel so that you can understand the way it is wired and programmed works.

ZONE 1- (DELAY) This zone is where the doors from which you most often enter and exit are. When you turn your alarm on, the exit delay will start a timer (programmed to your specifications, if requested) allowing you time to get out. Once the exit time has expired, (usually about 30-60 seconds.) the alarm will be in the on or “armed” condition.

When you return to your home or business and enter through the delay doors an entry timer begins. This timer is usually set at about 15-30 seconds. You do not want to have a long entry time as a burglar entering through a delay zone has the same amount of time in your protected area before the alarm goes off. During this time you would go to the nearest keypad and enter your code to turn your alarm off.


The delay doors have a chime feature that can easily be turned on or off. Most people elect to leave this feature on all the time, so that they can hear a tone when the alarm is off and someone enters. The high-end systems can be programmed to have a different tone for each door. If you can spare a zone have your delay doors put on separate zones as opposed to having them share one, and request that your control be programmed for different tones.

ZONE 2- (INSTANT PERIMETER) This zone would be for other than delay doors.

The back yard door and the master bedroom to deck doors are good examples of these types of doors. There is no delay timer on these doors and when the alarm is on and entry is made the alarm will go off instantly.

ZONE 3- (INTERIOR) This zone is for your motion detector on the main floor. When you enter through a delay door the motion will delay also, giving you the ability to get to the keypad to turn off or “disarm” your system. If you do not enter through a delay door first and the motion sees you it will go into an alarm condition instantly. When you are staying home or arming your business system without leaving, you can arm your system in the stay mode. This will bypass your interior zone or zones allowing you to move around without restrictions while still having your perimeter secured.

ZONE 4-(INTERIOR) This zone is for your basement motion detector. It will function the same as your main floor motion detector.


Most alarm technicians will put multiple motion detectors on a single interior zone. I like to be sure these are separated, so that you have the flexibility of deciding which stays on and which are bypassed, when armed in the stay mode. This would be handy if you have an unfinished basement with windows, and you have no need to access that area while armed in the stay mode. This also gives you pinpoint indications of which area has been or is being violated when the alarm sounds.

ZONE 5- (INSTANT) This zone is for basement or lower level door or window contacts.

ZONE 6- (INSTANT) This zone is for main or upper level window contacts.

ZONE 7- (INSTANT) This zone is for main floor glass break detectors.

ZONE 8- (FIRE) This zone is for smoke and heat detectors. Any zone that is designated as a fire zone is on 24 hours a day even if the alarm is not armed.

As you can see there is great flexibility in the way your alarm control gets set up for you. In all my years in the business I have rarely seen an alarm company discuss this with the customer. Typically they will create a general setup standard and tell the client this is how this works. Understanding that you should be involved in this process helps you design a system that fits into your lifestyle instead of having to adjust your lifestyle to your new alarm system.

This is yet another reason to be sure you are getting the most bang for your buck when selecting an alarm control.


The alarm installer most likely has the ability to program a lockout code into your alarm control. This code prevents a different monitoring or service company in the future from re-programming your system, rendering it useless unless you do business with the installing dealer. Insist on “NO LOCKOUT CODE” in writing from your installing dealer. This way they have to earn your future business, leaving your freedom of choice intact.

Hardwired Systems vs. Wireless- Hardwired systems are those that have the devices wired directly to the control. Wireless systems send radio signals to a receiver in the control, which processes the signals. There is nothing more dependable than a pair of copper wires to send a signal from point A to point B. I would recommend a hardwired system over a wireless system in all instances where one can be installed. However there are times when the only thing that can be installed in your place is a wireless or “radio frequency” system.

If there is no basement or a finished one, and there is no accessible attic to run wire through, you would have to go wireless to have your system installed. In the wireless world there is a great range of quality available. Wireless equipment is more costly than hardwired equipment in general because each device has a radio transmitter built into it or attached to it. If you need to go wireless make sure you are getting the highest quality radios available. Some use common frequencies like 900 megahertz and others use licensed frequencies to transmit signals. The latter is the better one because there is little that will interfere with the signal. Some of the things that could interfere with the common frequencies are airplanes, CB radios, cell towers etc.

A good way to look at the differences in the quality of wireless equipment is to think of a wireless home telephone. The cheap $20.00 unit uses common frequencies. It works, but often has static and drops out. Sometimes you hear a neighbor with the same phone frequency talking. The range you can wander from the base is often less than desirable.

The $100.00 unit makes all the difference in the world and, although you hated spending the extra money on the replacement, you appreciate the quality gained.

I would rather not have an alarm system at all, before I would have one that I don’t use because it is always going off for no apparent reason. The high- end wireless equipment is extremely dependable and you must be prepared to spend a little extra to assure you are at this end of the quality spectrum.


If you have an area such as a basement or accessible attic to run wires in, and your alarm company wants to sell to you or give you a wireless system, consider not doing business with them. They are most likely going to use low quality, inexpensive wireless equipment and also save on the cost of installation. A wireless system takes less time for workers to install because they don’t need to take the time or to have the skill to hide the wires.

Wireless equipment has several other shortcomings that are unavoidable no matter what the quality of equipment you get:

* The transmitters are large and having one on each of your doors is not as aesthetically pleasing as the small hardwired devices.

* The transmitters have batteries in them that have to be changed periodically.

* Many wireless systems will not tell you if a transmitter is not working, so you have a false sense of security.

* Wireless devices are frequency and brand specific so they must match the manufacturer of the control. Updating your control in the future could thus render all your devices useless or restrict your choices in control features.

Hardwired devices of any brand with a few exceptions can be wired directly to any brand control. So if you are upgrading an existing hardwired system you will most likely be able to use the old contacts, motion detectors, smoke detectors, glass break detectors, etc.

One advantage of wireless equipment is that you can place devices exactly where you want them in what would be a complicated hardwire situation. There are great high quality systems at your disposal if a wireless system is a necessity for your installation.

You can also add a wireless receiver to any hardwired control at any time, so that you can transmit one or several devices to it. We call this a hybrid system, since it is now both hardwired and wireless. Reducing the amount of wireless devices on your system will reduce your cost and increase your dependability. The same rule applies to a wireless system since you can hardwire in any device that you can get a wire to.

Be advised that even if you have a wireless system, there are still a few things that must be hardwired to it, such as the keypad, power transformer, sirens and phone line. This may restrict placement of the control panel to an area that is wire accessible to all of these devices. It is worth repeating. There is nothing more dependable than a pair of copper wires to send a signal from point A to point B. If any wire would happen to get cut, it would open the circuit causing an alarm if the system is on.

Compare Apples to Apples- As you can see there is, as with most things in life a great range of quality available to you when choosing an alarm system and its components. Taking the time needed to compare all features of each component of your proposed alarm system will always be to your advantage. Most any alarm consultant will jump to the high end of available equipment, if their potential customer is asking for the differences to be explained.

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