An installed security system is like an oil painting hanging in a well-lit hallway. The home that the system protects is much like a blank canvas waiting for some color. If the security installer does the job correctly, you have a work of art. If you throw the job together with little or no regard for craftsmanship, you have a velvet Elvis.
The depth of planning for the job will make the difference between a good installation and a poor one. If you identify the pieces of the system up front, there are no surprises down the road. If you plow through the site, winging it as you go, you will backtrack several times before it is completed. So where do you begin? As you will see, you begin at the front door. However, even before we get to the front door, there are some basic concepts to consider.
There are generally two types of residential installations. The first type is new construction where you have the opportunity to pre-wire the home before adding the insulation and before nailing down the drywall. The second type is in existing homes where the walls are up and the home is already decorated and furnished. When I conduct training sessions, I like to start with new construction and work my way up. It is important to understand the internal construction of a home and how it is held together. New construction can provide a basic understanding of a dwelling, referred to later in existing home installations.
When you are on a job site during the framing phase of a home, take the time to walk around and study the layout. Notice how much room the builder provides between the wall studs and ceiling joists. For example, the beam above a door frame is usually 4x10 inches. There may even be an inch or two between the door frame and the beam. This serves as a perfect location to splice the wire from the main control panel and the alarm contact. There are usually 6 to 8 inches between the beam and the ceiling framing. This is good to know when you are drilling from the door frame to the attic to pick up a circuit wire.
Understanding how the attic beams run and where the fire blocks are located makes wire runs easier to accomplish. If the home has already been pre-wired and trimmed, you may be wondering why you need to know this. The answer is simple: Wires are exposed to many dangers during the building of a home. It only takes one ill-placed nail to ruin your day. Another benefit to viewing the internal structure of a home is the ability to see hidden spaces and channels for wire runs. Air ducts and plumbing equipment often yield extra room for multiple cable bundles. As long as the ducts and pipes are left alone and not compromised, they can share the same space as your security wires. Of course, you should always follow building codes and regulations.
New construction installations are heaven to those who hate crawling through tight attic spaces with freshly blown insulation. (The rolled up type is not very pleasant either.) The trick is to write up a complete wiring requirement sheet with each system device identified and accounted for. All too often, the bell/horn cable or telephone line is overlooked until after the walls have been closed. Now you are required to drill into areas where you know there are pre-existing system wires and pray you do not encounter any along the way.
Depending on the reporting structure of your company, your customer may have already met with a sales representative to determine the level of protection needed. As long as the field technician has the final say on equipment requirements and placement, the installation should have few problems. This may cause some sales reps to cringe, but I have always been a firm believer that the field technician should be given the power to modify a sales person¡¯s decision. A sales person can only see the exterior makeup of a wall and can only assume the attic or crawl space is large enough for the field technician to scurry around in. Sales people have the talent to describe how an infrared detector will look on a freshly wallpapered surface. They do not know how the customer will react when the device is actually attached to the wall and operational. This is why a good working relationship between the sales person and installer is important. Teamwork will prevail, pride will fail.
For example, if the installer is uncomfortable quoting 15 minutes per protected opening, pad the time expectation with options to correct when the job is completed. Each window, although built the same, will not always cooperate when drilled. The insulation inside the wall may bunch up around the drill bit and prevent a wire from getting to the opening. The window trim may have that one extra nail that keeps the alarm contact from recessing properly. I have spent minutes fishing the circuit wire through one frame and almost an hour on the one next to it.
Start at the Front Door
If you need to quote a job or verify the level of protection offered to the customer, begin with the front door, but do it from the outside. As you walk around the perimeter, identify the different points of entry into the home. Protect all easily accessible windows. This is especially true for points of entry that are covered by shrubbery and fences. Anything that can hide an illegal entry should be a top priority. Remember to include any basement doors or windows that may be vulnerable to intrusion. Once you have noted all ground-level points of entry, focus on the windows that have a roof slant under them. People tend to forget these windows are as much a target as ground floor windows. Any access into the home grants the intruder free reign to choose the easiest point of exit. If a ladder on the back side of the home gets me in, I can carry the stereo out the front door and into my car. Would someone be bold enough to park in the victim¡¯s driveway? Absolutely. If an intruder is bold enough to break into a home, he is capable of anything. While you are outside touring the perimeter of the home, take a minute to determine the best location for the external bell or siren. Position the device to alert any neighbors in earshot. The customer may already have someone in mind for this purpose.
One other item to look for while walking the perimeter of the building is the telephone service box. In order to provide line-seizure for the security system, you will need to run a 4-conductor cable from the main control panel to the telephone box. Line-seizure (in case the term is unfamiliar to you) is a security system¡¯s ability to take control of the telephone line and dial out digital messages without interruption. It is worth the extra effort to run this cable as described above. If you do not, you might end up spending hours rewiring the home¡¯s internal telephone lines to achieve line-seizure. If the customer is not going to be monitored by a 24-hour central monitoring center, run the cable anyway. Wire is cheap, labor is expensive, and they may change their mind at later date.
Inside the Home
Interior protection is just as important as the perimeter line of defense. Interior detection devices are there to back up the perimeter protection devices if someone gets through. Choosing the proper location for these devices can be a challenge if you are not sure of the customer¡¯s protection concerns. If you are offering infrared motion detectors, you may want to cover open areas that connect one main room to another. Consider stairwells and high-traffic areas. Infrared devices are located on the wall and typically end up in the corner of a room. Depending on the detection lens used, you can select a barrier type of detection or a broad-beam style of coverage. It all depends on what you are trying to protect. The customer may have several thousand dollars tied up in a surround-sound audio/video system. An infrared covering the gear may be required. Expensive works of art, entrances to studies and offices are also targets for interior protection. Protect and cover whatever is important to the customer.
The placement of system-user keypads is also very important. The user keypad is the primary interface a customer has with a security system. A system-user keypad is where the customers arms and disarms the system. It can alert them to intrusion, fires and medical emergencies. It can also provide system status messages to act on if necessary. These status messages may include AC power conditions and back-up battery integrity. System-user keypads need to be located near commonly used access doors into the home. The user keypad is the last thing accessed when they leave and the first thing addressed when they return home. Installing a user keypad in the master bedroom is also very popular. However, no one wants to walk through a dark home just to get to a user keypad to see if maybe someone has entered the home illegally. It would be better to have it in the same room the customer feels the most comfortable and safe. User keypads should be mounted eye-level and at least 12 inches away from light switches and electrical devices. Route the wiring for the user keypad as far away from AC wiring as possible to reduce damage to the user keypad and the main control panel from electrical storms or current surges.
Smoke detectors and heat sensors are next on the list of importance. There are many rules and regulations governing the placement of fire detection and internal sounding devices. First, do not replace existing hardwired smoke detectors that came with the home with your security-system fire detectors. It is illegal and not a smart move. Instead, locate the fire detection devices nearby. It does not hurt to have both fire sensing devices protecting the family. If one fails, the other may succeed. Built-in smoke detectors are powered off the home¡¯s AC power, whereas the security system¡¯s detectors are typically 12VDC hardwired or 6-9VDC battery-operated. How many fire cables should be routed from the main control panel to the fire devices? For most systems on the market, there should only be one. One cable leaves the main control panel and loops in and out each fire device along the way. The last device will carry an end-of-line-resistor/module to ensure line-sensing integrity. Larger, more sophisticated security systems may have the ability to handle multiple fire loops, but the basic concept is the same. Line supervision for fire detection should never be compromised or taken lightly.
Smoke detectors should not be located in kitchens. Burn the toast once, and you will understand the consequences. Heat detectors are designed to sense flash fires at thresholds of either 135¢ª or 199¢ª, depending on the environment they are covering. These sensors are great for attic protection and areas where smoke may not reach right away. These days, smoke detectors need to be located in every bedroom and near common gathering areas. They¡¯re well worth the investment and effort.
So how do you ensure your system is pre-wired with all the necessary cables? You start at the front door. Stand in the center of the home on the ground floor, facing the main entrance. This is your point of reference. The front door is now protection point number one. Turn in a clockwise manner and incrementally number each perimeter point of protection. Repeat the exercise on the next floor using all new numbers. Once you have completed this step on the top floor, address the basement (if there is one) in the same manner. Return to the main floor and again use your front door as a reference as you continue numbering any interior points of protection along the way. Repeat for the remaining levels of the home. Next, identify any system-user keypads, internal and external sounding devices, fire protection devices, telephone lines and power runs. This exercise will also determine how many wires you should have at your main control panel when the wiring is completed.
Choosing a location for the main control panel is the next decision you need to make. Locate the control panel centrally to reduce the length of each cable you need to run; utility rooms and unfinished walls or closets are typically chosen. The latter can sometimes provide open spaces for cable routing and peripheral hardware mounting. Locating the main control panel in the garage is not a good idea, as it leaves the security system vulnerable to outside tampering. Some installers will argue that the control panel¡¯s metal enclosure has a lock and therefore is efficiently protected. But a cordless drill can defeat the lock in seconds, leaving the circuit board and system wiring exposed. The main control panel should be inside the perimeter protection and out of sight. Master bedroom closets seem to be among the favorite locations to choose. There is usually an attic hatch nearby for easy access to the system wires, and customers tend to feel more secure with it in the same area where they sleep.
Document where you terminate or hide every wire in the system. Drywallers have a way of magically altering the look of a wall and burying your cable for life. If you are lucky enough to find it, thoroughly test the integrity of each conductor as you uncover it. Drywallers use nail guns as divining rods for security system cables. It is not intentional, but it is reality. Documentation is often rushed and incomplete. Take the time to do it right, and keep it in a safe place near the job site. It does not make sense to number all of the system¡¯s cables if you cannot find the list that identifies them during the trimming phase.
Once you have completed the preliminary work, it is time to pull out the power tools. There are some rules regarding drilling etiquette to consider when boring through the beam or header. Every couple of inches, pull the extended drill bit clear of the hole and allow the packed sawdust to fall out, taking extra care to notice when the drill bit hits an open space between studs. This empty space will act as a guide to tell you where your bit is located inside the wall. If you are like me, your drilling has taken you right up through the center of a 2x4 stud. This stud is also known as a cripple. This results in no empty space for the bit to enter. Without this guide, you might continue drilling through the roof and into a whole lot of empty space. This is where an emergency tube of white silicone comes into play.
Most homes need the same consideration when designing a security system to protect it. The pre-wire approach is easier to accomplish and looks much cleaner when completed. The existing home installation requires some talent and ingenuity to achieve the same clean look as the pre-wired job. In either case, leave the job site with a masterpiece hanging in the hallway. It is something to be proud of.
Steve Filippini is a senior security technician with 20 years of experience in the security installation industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.