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.

We had a break-in

Sadly, we suffered a break-in earlier in December.  It was an interesting experience that I learned a lot from.  Most surprisingly is that I wasn’t angry that we had a break-in, more disappointed.  Some of the things I did to prevent or minimize the damage of a break-in worked, and other things didn’t.  From my perspective, it was only a matter of time before we were targeted.  The city of Seattle has a real problem with burglary, from January-August of 2013, burglary rates are up 23% already.  Bring up the subject at a party and everyone there will either have been a victim or will know multiple victims.  It’s a fact of life if you live in the city.

Do you know this woman?   

If you think you know who she is, send me an e-mail at koz <at>

The Story

I came home around 7:00 PM.  As soon as I got home, I knew something was wrong because of the noises coming from the house.  Ransacking is a very distinct sound!  Instead of doing the obvious thing and calling the police immediately, I opened the front door.  Once I opened the door, I was sure there were  people in the house and I called the police.  To their credit, Seattle PD arrived within 5 minutes, but the burglars heard me place the call and ran out of the house before the police got to the house.  Thankfully, they took off without actually taking anything.
After looking at the camera footage, it was clear that the burglars were in the house for maybe 5-6 minutes (certainly less than 10).  The burglars got in via the door in the basement and went straight to our bedroom, in the few minutes they were in the house, they caused about $1,000 in damage.  They damaged my gate, broke the window in the back door, toppled a dresser and broke a shelf in my closet.  They had filled a laundry basket with “loot”, where “loot” is a euphemism for costume jewelry and an old xbox.  My guess is the items in the basket would pawn for less than $300.
For the curious, here are the videos of Bonnie and Clyde scoping my house:
Entryway camera, you can see my car pull into the driveway at the very end:
Here’s the carport camera:

I’d taken some steps to make my house a less attractive target, I covered some of these actions in a previous blog posts.  Some of these worked, others didn’t.

Things that worked:

  • Safe Deposit Box
  • Cameras
Things that didn’t work:
  • Gate locks
  • Alarm System Sign
  • Lighting
  • Back Door
  • Me

Things that worked:

Safe Deposit Box:

This is a no brainer, we don’t keep anything of “real” value in our house, the important documents and what little extra-fancy jewelry we have, we keep in a safe deposit box.  If you want to keep these things at home, then get a safe.  If you get a safe, MAKE SURE YOU BOLT IT TO THE WALL OR FLOOR.  A safe doesn’t do you any good if the bad guy can walk off with it.


Keep in mind, cameras are not prevention.  Let’s repeat that just to be clear: cameras are not prevention.  What the cameras did do for me was create evidence that I then gave to the police.  They were very interested in the footage.  The cameras also did a great job in letting my wife and I see exactly what kind of criminal was targeting us.  It’s clear from the video that these aren’t exactly high end cat burglars but instead people who randomly picked our house.  If you look at the first few seconds of the video, you realize that the woman scoped a neighbors house while the man scoped ours.  If  she had been a little bit faster with screening my neighbors, we may not have been hit at all.  Being able to see this was really good, particularly for the Mrs., she was MUCH calmer about the incident after seeing the video.

Things that didn’t work:

Gate Locks

I had installed keyed gate locks to my gates thinking that this would deter theft as the bad guy wouldn’t be able to get into the back yard.  This was naive on my part, instead of deterring the thieves, they broke through my gate.  If I’m going to keep my gates locked going forward, I’ll have to reinforce the gates so that they can’t be broken so easily.  Repairing the gate was a few hundred dollars.

Alarm System Sign

I don’t believe in the effectiveness of alarm systems for deterring  theft, I figured anyone who would be deterred by the alarm system would be deterred by the sign too.  I purchased a genuine alarm system sign off of eBay.  It didn’t matter.


You can tell from the video that the front of my house is very well lit, my backyard is also well lit by a high intensity LED flood light.  None of the lighting deterred the thieves, they ripped the light off the wall in the backyard, which was another few hundred to fix.  Oddly enough, my neighbor’s house is completely black and they skipped right past it, go figure.

Back Door

I had put in a new back door, with an elevated dead bolt so that you couldn’t reach it through the dog door.  I also mounted the door so that it opened outwards to prevent people from being able to kick it in.  What I hadn’t done (yet) was reinforce the window in the door, Bonnie and Clyde threw a paver through the window.  This cost me $350 and a full day of vacuuming, we’re still finding bits of tempered glass in the house.


I heard the sounds as soon as I opened the door to my car.  I *should* have called the police at that moment and put distance between me and them.  Instead, like an idiot, I opened the front door and peaked in.  Thankfully I didn’t get hurt and they took off when they heard my voice, but I had no idea if they were dangerous or not.

Changes I’ve made

There are two main changes I’ve made since the break-in.  I replaced the glass in the back door with double pane, double laminate glass.  This is similar to the glass in a car windshield, instead of shattering into a million pieces (like tempered glass), it’ll “spider” because the layer of plastic between the glass will keep the glass together.  Throwing a brick at this will break the glass but not allow entry to the home.  Even if the bad guy gets through the first pane, they will have to get through a second pane.
Here’s a random video from the internet comparing the two types of glass:
I’ve also installed an alarm system.  To be clear, I don’t think an alarm system will stop a break in.  What an alarm will do, is prevent my wife or I from walking in on a crime in progress.  I also think the alarm will limit the amount of time the burglars can spend in the house and protect us while we’re not in town.  There are some other advantages that aren’t security related that I’ll talk about in a future blog post about the alarm system I chose.  

Security Cameras

While remodeling the house I decided to add security cameras to the front.  There are two reasons I wanted to add them.

  1. I wanted the security deterrence.
  2. It’s really entertaining to see all of the activity at my door.
This cat visits my house fairly regularly.

The Cameras

Security cameras come in two flavors, analog cameras and network cameras.  I went with network cameras because I knew I wanted to monitor them digitally.  Analog cameras are cheaper but you need something to convert the image to a digital stream if you want to use software to muck with it.  Figuring that out wasn’t something I wanted to do so I stuck with the network cameras.
In my case, I wanted full coverage of my front entry way and my car port and I only wanted to use two cameras to do it.  As a result, I needed to go with cameras that had a wide angle of view.  In digital cameras you have two options for adjusting your angle of view, picking a wide angle lens and picking a higher resolution camera.  In my case I went with cameras that have 1920×1080 resolution as opposed to the standard 640×480 resolution.  
HD Image – Click for Full Screen
This picture demonstrates how much less you see with a low end IP camera:
640×480 is really small eh?
I tried out two different cameras when selecting, the Y-Cam Bullet HD 1080 and the Vivotek FD8362. The Y-Cam has terrible reviews on Amazon and it was clear to me that they were earned.  I found the camera to be pretty flaky, it wouldn’t keep a steady image stream and didn’t do as well in low light as the Vivotek does (the cat picture at the top is a night shot).  The Vivotek camera is great, it’s a lot more than the Y-Cam but it’s also a commercial grade camera, designed for this use case.  The dome style also meant that I could mount it less obtrusively.  The Vivotek was more money but it was well worth it.
The cameras are hard wired to my network and powered over ethernet.

The Software

I tried two different systems, ZoneMinder on Linux and Blue Iris on Windows.  ZoneMinder is free and seemed more configurable but I couldn’t get it to play as nicely with the cameras and configuring it was more painful and took longer while being less reliable.  For $50, Blue Iris is a steal.  

How well does it work?

Here’s a video of some solicitors coming to my house.  Make sure you set the video quality to 1080 to see the full quality.  The footage was shot in debug mode, so Blue Iris adds the red box where it sees movement.  

The quality of the video was good enough that I was able to play CSI:Seattle.  I zoomed in on the handout in the video:

I enlarged the handout in a photo editor
And I was able to match it to a handout from the Jehova’s Witnesses Website.  The coloring looks right and it’s pretty clear that there is a guy’s head on the left edge of the photo.

A JW flyer, I guess I should put up a “No Solicitors” sign 
The downside is the number of false alarms I get.  I’ve been playing with the settings on Blue Iris, but I still get the occasional false alarm when a cloud passes overhead or when a car drives by at night and the headlights reflect off of one of our cars.

Is this legal?

Funny you should ask, the answer is, it depends…  Also, I’m not a lawyer so this isn’t legal advice.  From what I understand, in Washington state, you are allowed to record public spaces when there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.  This means that the front of your property is ok, and it’s how Google Maps gets away with the street view images.
Google Street View of a random house
What probably wouldn’t be ok is putting a camera on your second floor and pointing it into the second floor of a neighbor’s house.  In my case, I have the cameras setup to capture the front of my house and only trigger when there is movement on my property.

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.

Key Pad Locks

Three years ago when I bought my house I replaced the deadbolt we use every day with a key pad deadbolt.  Why these aren’t standard on homes I don’t understand, they’re better to keys in every way.  Way more convenient than having to have a key on you, my wife appreciates not having to fish the key out of her purse.  It’s much more secure, instead of giving my house cleaner or contractors a key to the house that they can copy, I give them each an individual code that I can change easily.  I’ve also given distinct codes to trusted friends, so that they can get in if we need them to (like when I forgot I had a package coming when I was going on vacation, my friend picked it up and left it in the house).

There are two main competitors in this space: Schlage and Kwikset.

I went with the Schlage lock because I prefer the feature set: It’s a manual turn lock and has a larger key space.  The Kwikset lock has a motorized dead bolt which wouldn’t work with my house as my front door is just a hair off from the frame which means I have to hold the door closed when turning the deadbolt.

Kwikset Lock

The Schlage lock

Because I’m sort of  a paranoid person, I’m a little worried that I’ll miss the “low battery” warning and actually lock us out of the house.  I’ve mitigated this concern by putting an old fashioned key inside a combination locked key safe on the outside of the house.  I use the Masterlock key safe that I installed in a way to make sure it isn’t visible from the street.

Total cost for this upgrade: $120.00.  Well worth the convenience and security.

My home is my castle

A few years ago my house was broken into, thankfully nothing was taken but the would be thieves left the door open.  We’re sure we didn’t leave it open as it’s a door we never used and our neighbors noticed an unfamiliar car in our driveway.

We think Harley, our, thirty-five pound labradoodle scared them off.  He’s normally locked in the basement, and if you can’t see him, his bark can be ferocious.


My wife got home before me and called the police.  They came quickly (under 5 minutes) and swept the house to make sure there wasn’t anyone inside.  When they opened the door to the basement, our ferociously barking guard dog ran the other way, deeper into the basement.  I rescued him from the backyard after he escaped through the dog door.

Make the home harder than the one next to it.

As you can imagine this really upset us and so we looked into what we can do to secure our home.  There’s an old joke: “How do you out run a bear?” A: You don’t, you just have to outrun the guy next to you.  This was our strategy to home safety, we decided to make our house harder to get into than the ones next to us.

 The first thing I did was replace the rear door and the side door (the one that was used to break in) with modern doors that opened outward.

The reason to make the door open outward is because it’s almost impossible to kick a door in if it opens out.  If you are going to make a door open out make sure you use armored pins in the hinges.  With the door opening out, the hinges are now on the outside of the house.  A traditional pin can be pulled out of the door without opening the door.  An armored pin is protected from removal when the door is closed.

We also replaced all of the screws connecting the door frame to the house with 3″ (or longer) screws that connected the door frame to the studs in the walls next to the door.  In standard construction, the door is connected to the door frame, and the door frame is attached to the house.  If you’re not careful, the door frame won’t be tightly connected to the studs, if that’s the case then a bad guy with a crowbar can pry the door frame away from the house.

This cost us about $2,500.  Two custom wooden doors plus labor to install them.

Second thing I did was put the front porch light on an astronomical timer.  These are marevelous devices that take your latitude and longitude into account and calculate sundown and sunrise every day.  I programmed mine to turn on 20 minutes before sunset and turn off 20 minutes after sunrise.  This switch combined with an energy efficient bulb means my front and side door are well illuminated at night.

Here’s the switch I have: Honeywell Econoswitch.  Under $40, easy to justify.

Third thing I did was make sure all street visible windows are covered with blinds.  Price here varies, but a temporary shade is as little as $10.00.

Fourthly, we put some lights on timers so that the house looks occupied.  I like this one because it allows you to set a random jitter.  This will prevent the light from turning on and turning off at the exact same time every night.

Fifthly, I added a motion sensing light to the back yard, it’s a three bulb 300 watt beast that makes the entire back yard glow if the motion sensor is triggered.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the dogs.  Our dogs may be small and adorable, but if you can’t see them, they sound fierce.  I don’t know that security is the best reason to get a dog, but it is a nice benefit to having one (or two).

What else are we thinking about doing?
We’re looking at doing two more things, I want to add two more motion sensor lights, one to each side of the house as the sides are a little darker than I’d like.

We’re also going to investigate adding security film to our windows, the film is amazing in video, and should keep a bad guy from breaking a window to get in.

The video is really amazing and speaks for itself:

A burglar won’t want to do that for very long, it’s a very loud and very distinctive sound.

What about an alarm?
We briefly thought about an alarm but decided against it for a few reasons:

  1. The police officer who responded said that the average burglar is in a home for about 8 minutes.  I doubt the response time from alarm going off to police on site will be under 8 minutes.
  2. There isn’t a good solution for false alarms, and with two dogs, false alarms could be a real problem.  In Seattle, you pay $115 per false alarm.
  3. They’re expensive, and reactionary.  If the alarm has gone off, the bad guy is already inside.  
  4. I don’t actually believe they prevent burglaries, no data on this, I just don’t buy it.