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Home & Garden

Safe at home

| Saturday, July 22, 2006

Cameras scan the entrances, recording anyone coming close. Windows and doors bear sensors to detect any opening. Motion detectors record movement inside.

It's all part of another day at home.

In 2005, home security generated $6.7 billion in sales by the top 100 firms in the field. It also has filled home supply stores with alarms, floodlights and timers.

Alarm systems were in only 7 percent of homes in 1988, but now are in 20.9 percent, according to surveys done by an Illinois-based industry firm, Security Distributing & Marketing.

But making a home safe is not as easy as finding "a solution in a box," says Dale Eller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Burglar & Fire Alarm Association headquartered in Erie.

"You can have good alarms and good lights," he adds. "But you need diligence, too."

Alarm systems come in a great variety. It is possible to spend "tens of thousands of dollars" on a camera-centered system in a big house, says Paul Gates from Vector Security in Marshall.

Eller says alarm systems commonly cost between $1,200 and $2,000.

At the same time, it is possible to get a system that is practically free to install, but is paid for by high monthly monitoring fees, says Emil Hanulak, president of SignalGraph Security Inc. of New Kensington.

Other systems have no monitor and simply sound a loud alarm when a home is violated.

"Sometimes you have to hope that your neighbor called the police," says Rose Roman of Atlantic Home Systems in Ross.

The variety of systems seems to be spurring a wide range of investment. Security Distributing & Marketing points out a 9 percent growth in gross revenue by the top 100 home security companies in 2005 as opposed to 2 percent in 2004.

Yet, Stephen Melman, the director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C., says there's plenty of room for growth in the home alarm industry.

"If I were in that business, I'd be happy to see a big market out there," he says.

Hanulak says since the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, "everyone wants to feel safer."

"We've been in business since '77, and every year it goes up," he says.

Every castle has to be safe

George Voloch is not surprised at the increased use of security systems.

"When you have a $200,000 or $300,000 house, naturally you want to keep it safe," says the owner of Rampart Security in Greensburg.

After having one installed, many clients say they wouldn't live in a home without on, he says.

Rose Roman from Atlantic Home Systems says desire for safety is the same whether the homeowner is in a gated community or in the "little, two-story that just seems ripe for robbery."

The simple approach, she says, is the installation of a system that has sensors at windows and doors. The sensors are monitored by a security firm that notifies police if entry is detected.

Depending on the number of entry points, a homeowner can get a system for as little as $70, and monthly monitoring fees can be only $35, she says.

But it's easy to spend much more. Voloch says a system that uses four cameras to cover vulnerable entries could cost as much as $3,000. And that doesn't include any monthly fees.

Emil Hanulak, from the New Kensington firm, says inexpensive systems are awfully tempting, but usually become costly because of higher monitoring fees. As a result, he adds, most of his clients install a system that costs between $495 and $895, which includes the door and window sensors and lower monitoring fees.

He does little business with camera-equipped systems.

"This area is a little behind the rest of the country," he says with a chuckle.

Roman rarely uses surveillance equipment, but sometimes does make use of motion detectors inside.

Gates from Vector Security says camera systems are part of an ever-expanding industry.

"Some people come in and have no idea what is possible," he says.

He and Voloch say camera systems can be tied in through computers to unused channels on any television, allowing a homeowner to check viewing points at any time.

Gates also points out other types of security systems, such as one youngsters can activate when they come home that sends an automatic signal to a parent's cell phone or pager.

Some systems even can be shut down by phone if a homeowner finds a need to do that,

He says the most important aspect of an installation project is "sitting down and analyzing" what the homeowners' needs are.

As is always the case in real estate, three major points are location, location, location. A system that sounds an alarm is useless if a home is secluded, Gates says.

Protecting all the toys

Eller, from the state alarm association, says one reason for the increasing interest in alarm systems is the amount of attractive items inside the house.

"Our toy list is going up, isn't it," he says about items from flat-screen TVs to iPods.

He says burglars are likely to check every bedroom in a home these days because each often contains a computer, cell phone, DVD player and other equipment.

The Security Distributing & Marketing group reports 1.2 million more alarm system customers were added in 2005, jumping the number to 10.9 million.

Laura Stepanek, editor and associate publisher of SDM, the industry group's magazine, says she believes better marketing and more affordable prices are the reason for the growth.

Eller warns against "looking for an easy solution" when searching for a guard system. He advises a strong analysis of the home and suggests getting three quotes so all the "pieces of the puzzle" emerge.

Often, he says, the biggest decision is whether to look for "perimeter" of "interior" detection. Each has its weaknesses, he says. Perimeter units require a home to be closed up. Interior units, on the other hand, can set off an alarm with innocent movement if they are left on at safe times.

"It's not just a solution in a box," he adds.

Would-be solutions come in many boxes. Eller points out home-supply store items such as motion-detector lights can help, but are not the keys to home safety.

For instance, he adds, some stores sell "Protected by electronic security" stickers to make a house appear to be wired.

"It's like bluffing in poker," he says. "If no knows you don't have a Royal Flush, you've won."

Simpler solutions

State police Trooper Robin Mungo believes common sense provides the most effective protection for a home.

"Home security systems are good supplements," she says, "but you can't rely only on using one of them."

Mungo is the community service/public information officer at the Pittsburgh barracks in Moon. She and Trooper Jeanne Martin in the Greensburg barracks present programs on home safety to civic groups and organizations.

While they see some advantages to electronic security systems, both recommend simple styles of safety.

  • Make sure there is lighting outside to illuminate would-be intruders and inside to create the appearance of activity. Use timers, set at different hours, in various rooms.

  • Trim back bushes or hedges that might give an intruder a way to work on windows or doors without being seen.

  • Make sure windows and doors are secure.

  • Be aware of open doors or windows on one side of the home when you are outside on the other. Many intruders enter homes through unguarded entrances when homeowners are not paying attention, she says.

  • Know your neighbors and keep an eye on each others' homes.

  • Make sure you have good, sturdy locks.

How about a dog?

Canine protection can put teeth in home security.

But Gretchen Cieser, director of public relations for the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, says staffers there also want to see concern for the dog.

"It doesn't happen every day, but I'd say once a week someone comes in looking for a guard dog," she says.

The staff at the North Side facility recognizes the desire for a guard dog is a legitimate one.

"If a person is interested in the dog, if he wants to spend time with the dog, to interact with the dog, then we are apt to talk with him," she says.

But Humane Society workers don't want to deal with a person who wants a dog only for guard duty.

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