Wireless Home Security Lets You Check In From Afar


So after retiring and moving to Cookeville, Tenn., Mr. Varley three months ago looked for a home-security system that would give him more control over arming the sensors, helping him avert false alarms. He soon came across a company called InGrid Inc., a security system that he could install himself and control using the Internet.

Mr. Varley now arms and disarms his security system by logging onto a personalized Web site. And in addition to knowing when something goes wrong at home, he also can monitor when things are going right. “It’s easy to go online and check the status of your sensors,” he says. “We have a cleaning lady who comes, and I can tell when she comes and when she leaves.”

InGrid is just one of a wave of Internet- or cellular-based home security and monitoring products on the market now, joining iControl Networks Inc., NextAlarm.com, Broadband Alarm Co. and Alarm.com Inc. in offering homeowners a do-it-yourself approach. Larger companies, such as AT&T Inc., are also moving into the wireless home-security market.

Just 1.5% of homes in the U.S. now use wireless monitoring systems, but that percentage is expected to reach 5% to 6% by 2012, according to market researcher Parks Associates.

That’s far below the estimated 25% of U.S. households today that use traditional security systems, such as ADT Security Services Inc. and Brink’s Co. Those systems are linked via the homeowners’ phone lines and mainly use wired sensors that are placed on window and doors. Traditional systems also use a central-monitoring center that alerts police or fire departments when alarms are triggered.

Internet-based security, however, allows homeowners to place wireless sensors throughout the home — beyond just entryways. Many of these systems have central monitoring provided by a third party. AT&T doesn’t offer central monitoring at all.

Using a password-protected Web page, homeowners can use their computers to view the status of each sensor, see a history of dates and times sensors were triggered, and tailor settings to send email, text-message updates and alerts to smart phones or other hand-held devices.

Alarm on the Gun Rack

These features have given rise to a new type of monitoring: Homeowners are now able to spy on activities going on in their homes. Sensors can be installed on everything from liquor chests to medicine cabinets; gun racks to garage doors. Some of the systems also come with stand-alone Web cams that can be monitored through the Web site while users are at work or out of town.

Boston resident Martin Cowley recently put a wireless sensor from Alarm.com on his home liquor cabinet because he hires a teenage babysitter to watch his small children when he’s away. The 39-year-old says he’s already experienced some instances when he’s been out to dinner and gotten an email from his system saying the liquor cabinet had been opened for a short time. (After later inspection, he found no liquor was taken.)

Makers of the new wireless alarm systems say their customers don’t see the monitoring as intrusive. InGrid Chief Executive Louis Stilp says that people mainly want to know if their children are doing something they aren’t supposed to. “The benefits that come from that far outweigh any potential privacy issues,” he says.

Mary Knebel, a vice president at Alarm.com, says all of her company’s features are “opt in,” meaning users can choose what services to implement and who has permission to view the reports.

Installation Savings

Installation Savings

Since the wireless systems can be set up by homeowners, there may be savings on installation. For example, InGrid’s kit for single-family homes, which includes eight wireless sensors and other hardware, costs $299 with a one-year monitoring commitment. Customers who use traditional security systems typically pay $300 to $1,000 for equipment and professional installation. Prices will vary based on the number or type of sensors used, add-on features and the length of the contract. Central monitoring costs are roughly the same — about $30 a month — for both traditional and wireless customers.

To get a larger piece of the $8.8 billion home-security market, some big companies are also entering the wireless monitoring business. In late 2006, AT&T launched a home-monitoring service that includes cameras and wireless door and window sensors. This system, which can be self-installed, costs $10 a month and a one-time $200 equipment fee, with a one-year commitment.

ADT says it’s planning to add Web and mobile interactive features to its traditional security offering in the coming months, but company officials declined to give specifics. Brink’s plans to add complementary Internet-based option to its primary service by the end of the year.

Setting up wireless systems yourself can prove challenging. Homeowners must first add the security system’s hardware to their wireless router, which is then connected to a broadband modem. Sensors are then individually placed and programmed to trigger an alert when breached. Finally, a Web site interface is personalized to let homeowners determine who gets notified and how. An opened liquor cabinet could send an email alert to the homeowner, for example, but a backdoor entry may be set to trigger an alert to the monitoring center as well.

Getting Signals Straight

In some cases, the signal may not stretch to all the corners of the home, making it necessary to use “extenders,” wireless devices that get all the sensors to communicate with the base unit. Most services offer help over the phone, and InGrid plans to launch a partnership with a professional installation company for those who don’t want to install their own systems.

Lee Hutchinson, a 29-year-old computer systems administrator in Houston, recently had trouble figuring out where to put the extender device for his InGrid system so that all the sensors would connect without interference and work properly. He eventually had to draw out a map of his home and email it to InGrid’s customer-service department. They sent him two free extra extenders and instructed him on where best to put the devices.

Still, customers of the wireless alarm systems say the products have made them feel safe. Marvin Hayes, a 75-year-old retired International Business Machines Corp. employee, found that his home in Tucson, Ariz., was broken into in 2003 when he was traveling. Thieves broke down the door, ransacked his bedroom and stuffed valuables into a pillowcase. The criminals haven’t been caught.

In 2006, Mr. Hayes got a home-monitoring system from iControl, and then installed door sensors, as well as motion-activated cameras on the front door and in the living area. The system sends text messages to his cellphone whenever a sensor is triggered.

“It makes me feel very good that I have some control over my house,” he says.

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