The Home Alarm Post: FrontPoint Security

Following our burglary, we had an alarm system installed.  After way, way too long, I’ve finally written about the alarm system we went with.  Looking at the different options, we went with FrontPoint Security.

I went with FrontPoint for four reasons:

  1. Excellent customer support.
  2. Self install.
  3. Transparent pricing.
  4. I liked the technology.

1. Customer Service

The customer service is indeed awesome, setting up an alarm system is a high touch activity and it required many calls with them to get my questions answered and to setup the sensors.  They are super friendly and super knowledgeable on the phone.  The tech support are not a bunch of wankers reading off of a script, they really do know how the systems work, and when they don’t, they know how to get help.
I wanted a glass break sensor in my kitchen, they recommend you don’t do that because if you drop a plate or glass and it breaks, you can trigger the alarm.  I called them and asked them to move the glass break sensor into the “away” sensor group, this isn’t a common request and they were able to handle it easily.
My biggest complaint about customer service is the hours:
5:00 AM – 8:00 PM PST M-F
7:00 AM – 3:00 PM Sat-Sun
Naturally, I’d rather have them be 24/7.  The service hours are definitely east coast biased.

2.  Self Install

My wife wasn’t in a good place, and I didn’t want to deal with an installer after the break in. I wanted the system in fast and FrontPoint next day aired me everything (for free).  The self install can’t be any simpler, with the exception of the (optional) recessed door sensors, everything is tool-less and only requires you to use the sticker adhesive the units come with to install things to the walls or doors/windows.  I was leery that an installer would just cost more money and I didn’t want them in my house.  

3. Transparent Pricing

The pricing is *mostly* transparent.  You’ll know right away what you’ll spend on equipment and you’ll know what the monthly fee is.  What they don’t tell you until after you’ve signed up (but within the 30-day no questions asked period) is that you pay a $10 fee to the city (divided into four $2.50 payments, one per quarter).  This is required and it was the only surprise fee.

4. The Technology

I like the technology, it’s all based on z-wave, cellular,  and GE Security (which isn’t part of GE) has a strong position in the market, you can also buy sensors from other companies if you want and more importantly, you can buy sensors elsewhere.  I purchased  many sensors off of e-bay and the Frontpoint techs had no problem installing them.  Now that I have the system, I’m going to start adding environmental sensors.  I like

Notes from my installation:

Sensor Placement:

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of documentation on how to do this right, here’s what I did:
My theory was that every egress point should have two different monitors on it.  Every door and window that is accessible without a large ladder has a sensor on it.  These trigger when the window or door is opened (the sensor is a magnet and a steel rod, when the magnet doesn’t sense the rod, the alarm goes off).
In addition, each window/door is covered by either a glass break sensor or is very close to a motion sensor.  I have mixed feelings on the glass break sensors.  There isn’t an easy way to test them, so I don’t actually know if they work.  It’s more faith than I’d like to have in an alarm system, but, they’re secondary to other sensors.
My thinking is, that if someone breaks the glass and doesn’t open the window, I’ll still catch them within my house.
I have no motion sensors in dog areas, the basement is protected by a glass break sensor and the openable windows and door have sensors.
If you are going to mount a motion sensor, the trick is to mount them higher to compensate for your dog, the motion sensors have a 90 degree frame of view on the horizontal but a very small field of view on the vertical, mounting them higher should prevent a dog from triggering them but you’ll want to test it.

Control Panel

I mounted the control panel in an easily accessible place, it’s powered off of a large power brick which I installed inside a closet, drilled a whole through the wall and wall mounted my panel.  You can actually mount the panel anywhere as you almost never use it (we use our phones to arm/disarm), it is good to have near your main point of egress (as opposed to the main door on the house if you don’t use that), because it’s likely you’ll inadvertently trigger the alarm and you’ll want to shut it off quickly.  The main concern with placing your panel is that it isn’t visible from the street, you don’t want bad guys to see if it’s disarmed or not.
FrontPoint is very proud of the “Crash and Smash” protection.  Once a sensor is triggered, there is a time delay before the system goes into alarm.  This time delay is there so that the homeowner can get to the panel and disarm the alarm.  A bad guy can use this delay to their advantage by destroying the control panel before it sends the “alarm” signal to the monitoring center.  Crash and Smash protection means that the alarm sends an “alarm pending” message to the control center immediately*, if the control panel is disarmed before the timeout, the panel sends an “alarm cancel” message.  If the panel is destroyed, the alarm goes into effect.
*Immediately is very subjective and I couldn’t get a real answer from FrontPoint on what the latency is from sensor triggered to “alarm pending” message received by the monitoring center.  I’d love to know, what it is, but I can’t find any info online.

Things I wish FrontPoint did better:

  • 24/7 customer service (or at least more West Coast friendly).
  • Better guidance on sensor placement, particularly glass break sensors.
  • Publish panel latency and incident response time.
  • Online account management, want to update your credit card?  You need to call them.
  • Not really FrontPoint, but I would love an outdoor rated door sensor, something I can put on my gates.
  • I’d also like a hard wired smoke alarm option.  All of my other smoke alarms are hard wired, so in theory, it’d be easy to hard wire a compatible alarm in that notifies the control center when any of my alarms go off.

Fire Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Alarms

Let’s talk smoke alarms.  Smoke alarms are missing in 30% of home fires.  About two-thirds of the deaths in home fires are in homes that either didn’t have a smoke detector (40%) or didn’t have a working smoke detector (23%) (source).

Things everyone should know about smoke alarms:

There are two types of detectors

There are two types of smoke detectors, ionization detectors and photoelectric.  Both types are effective and need to pass the same standards to be UL listed.  Ionization detectors react faster to quick burning, small particle fires while photoelectric respond faster to smoldering fires.  In general, I think it’s a good idea to have a mix of types, new alarms even come with both detector technologies integrated in one unit (example).

Ionization Alarms

The ionization alarms work by using a small amount of radioactive material to ionize the air between a pair of plates.  The ionized particles migrate to the two plates creating a small electrical current.  When smoke enters the ionization chamber, it reduces the amount of ionized particles that can reach the two plates.  This creates a current drop which sets off the alarm.

Photoelectric Alarms

Photoelectric alarms work by shining a light through a tube that looks like a “T”.  The light goes through the “top” of the “T”, when smoke enters the chamber, it causes some of the light to reflect down towards the “base” of the “T”.  A light sensitive sensor on the base of the “T” is triggered when enough light bounces down.

Smoke alarms expire

That’s right, smoke alarms have an expected life of 10 years.  If you pop  the alarm off of the wall it should have a manufacture date.  Smoke alarms are cheap, if you’re past the 10 year date, it’s time to buy new ones.

Where should I put them?

FEMA, and the Washington State Fire Marshall recommend placing smoke alarms “near each sleeping area and on each level of your home.”  In my home, I have one in each bedroom and in every hallway.  The bedroom units are ionizing, the hallway units are dual sensor.

Hard wired or battery operated?

In general, if you have the option for hard wired alarms, that’s a better choice.  Hard wired alarms receive line power as well as have the battery backup.  They also have the advantage of being linked together which means if one goes off, they’ll all go off.  This enhances the odds of safely getting out of the house.  For hard wired alarms, I recommend this one: Kiddie dual sensor wired alarm,  I like it because it’s inexpensive and has both types of detectors.
If, like me, you don’t have the option of wired alarms, there are plenty of sound battery operated ones.  I recommend this one: Kiddie dual sensor battery alarm.  This is the model I have in my hallways, it’s inexpensive and has both types of detectors.

Lithium-Ion batteries

A neat trick you can do is to use a lithium-ion 9-volt battery instead of a normal one in your smoke alarm.  These have a 10 year lifetime.  This doesn’t get you out of regularly testing your battery but it does mean you won’t be woken up in the middle of the night because the battery is dying.  They’re more expensive than the alkaline, but cheaper in the long run.

The test button doesn’t actually test the detector

The test button on the alarm doesn’t actually test the detector, it only tests that the battery is good.  In order to test the actual functionality of the alarm safely, you need a product like “Smoke Test“.  DO NOT USE A FIRE TO TEST YOUR ALARM.  Don’t be an idiot, think of how stupid you’ll feel if you burn your house down trying to test your alarm.

What if I can’t afford a

 smoke alarm?

In the city of Seattle and many other cities, the Fire Department will provide you with a smoke detector if you are unable to afford one.  Please contact your local fire department for more information.

What about Carbon Monoxide (CO)?

Carbon Monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that is toxic.  Because it’s impossible to detect by us mortals, it’s often called the “silent killer”.  According to the CDC, “For the period 1999–2004, an average of 439 persons died annually from unintentional, non–fire-related CO poisoning (range: 400 in 1999 to 473 in 2003)”.  
Carbon monoxide is a by product of combustion and CO poisoning is often a result of a poorly running or poorly ventilated furnace or other fire inside the house.  Because we can’t detect it naturally, a CO alarm is a must for any home that has gas or oil powered appliances.  I think every home should have one on each floor, regardless of heat source.
CO alarms are also relatively inexpensive, in the $20 range.