Home Security


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Securing the Home

(December 2004/February 2005)

Part I

In the past, I've written about what a home security system can and can't do for you. In this article I'll describe some important security measures you should take that are inexpensive and relatively easy to do that don't involve installing an alarm.

Because most burglaries are of the "smash and grab" type (where the thief breaks a window or kicks in the door, then grabs whatever he can in three to five minutes), even when the police are alerted by an alarm company that an alarm has gone off, they won't get there in time to prevent the burglary. What the alarm does is reduce the amount of time the thief can spend in the house looking for valuables. It also makes the thief more conspicuous when he leaves the house carrying a pillowcase full of valuables with the alarm blaring.

While an alarm system can serve as a deterrent, physical measures also deter a thief, making entry into the house far more difficult.

Sheds

Since we've been talking about sheds in previous articles, they're a good place to start. With just a lawn mower, snow blower, and some good tools, the contents of a shed can be easily worth $1500 or more. Yet almost no sheds are connected to alarm systems, and thieves know that.

First, you want to be sure that the contents of the shed can't be seen from the outside. No thief will go to the effort of breaking into a shed that may only contain a rusted wheelbarrow, some broken rakes, and old car tires. If you have a window or windows in the shed, put blinds, curtains, or any opaque covering on them to prevent a thief peering in and seeing that brand new Honda lawn mower. And keep the vegetation around the shed trimmed so that your neighbors can see anyone attempting to break in.

Second, have a good locking system on the shed. Shed doors are often flimsy and secured by an inexpensive lock that is vulnerable to a bolt cutter or a blow from a hammer. If you must use a lock and hasp, use a heavy duty hasp and a high security lock with a heavy shackle. The best locks sink the shackle into the armored body of the lock, making it invulnerable to cutting.

Finally, if you have a wood shed, consider installing a metal exterior door with a separate dead bolt lock, just as you would for your house (see below).

Doors

Most Virginia Hills houses came with back doors that had a large window area above the door knob. Breaking one pane of glass allows the burglar access to the locking system. If the dead bolt opens with a knob, the burglar is in like a flash.

Unfortunately, fire code requires that knob because residents of the house must be able to get out in case of fire. You can meet that requirement, however, by using a dead bolt that requires a key on both sides if you leave the key in the lock when someone is home. Other people obey the spirit of the law, but not its letter, by hanging the key to the dead bolt somewhere out of reach of the door where it can be easily accessed by anyone needing to exit.

A better solution is to replace the door with one whose windows are high enough to prevent reaching the knob and which has no glass sidelights to break. Alternatively, you could replace the glass with hurricane glass that is very difficult to break or with heavy plexiglass. Either way, you've prevented a burglar from gaining access by breaking the glass.

All doors should have a dead bolt. Door handles that lock with a button on the inside are almost no protection at all. They can be defeated by a simple brute force attack. You need a lock with a long bolt and a good strike plate. A good locksmith can assist you in getting the best door security.

Doors are also subject to being kicked in. If the door itself doesn't break, it can break away from the wall studs to which it is attached. The way to fix this is to use one or more long screws (heavy metal screws, not drywall screws) through each hinge so they go into the wall studs. On the latch side of the door, the strike plate should be similarly secured by long screws. Of course, a good quality door, either metal or heavy wood, is required to keep the door itself from breaking.

Part II

Windows

Modern windows are much more secure than their predecessors for several reasons. First is the number of panes. A double paned window is more difficult for a thief to break. Breaking two panes causes more noise and will usually require several swings of whatever the thief is using to break the glass.

The goal of breaking the glass is to get to the locking mechanism to open the window. The thief really doesn't want to climb in through broken shards of glass. For a casement window, that means getting to the latch. However, once you've opened the latch, you then need access to the handle to crank open the casement. That means that the thief will have to break more glass to get to the crank, essentially having to break out both panes completely. If the homeowner has removed the crank handle and set it out of arms reach, the thief will have no choice but to break out enough glass to crawl through without getting cut. Most thieves will avoid such windows entirely and look for an easier way in.

It's worth noting that on cheap casement windows the latch controls only one locking arm instead of two. Sometimes such windows can be popped with a heavy blow from a hammer. Spend the extra money for a casement with two locking arms. The window will also be less prone to air leaks.

Double hung windows are less secure than casements because they can simply be lifted up once the latch is opened. However, you can purchase either a latch with a lock or a set of screws that use a special key/wrench and go through the upper and lower sashes, holding them motionless. Remember that if you install such locks, the key must be kept close at hand (out of arms reach from the outside, of course) so you can get out in an emergency.

If you've left the window open in the summer, you'll have no security. Modern screens can be easily cut with a not-very-sharp knife. Again, you can purchase special locks. For casements, there is a device like the security chain for a door that you can use. For double hung windows, you can drill through the sides and install large nails so that the window can be cracked a few inches, but won't go up or down.

Sliding windows and patio doors are the most insecure because they can be lifted out of their tracks and simply removed. Various manufacturers make patio door security bars and locks, and these will greatly increase security, especially if used in combination.

If you're concerned about a thief breaking the glass in a door or window, you can order special types of glass that resist breaking. Many of these are hurricane rated, meaning that they won't break when hit by a 2x4 flying at hurricane speed. Some of these are laminated glass, others are polycarbonate plastic, and some are a combination.

Safes

If a thief should get inside your house, time is of the essence to him. He has to grab what he can as fast as he can. If you have something of high value, particularly guns or jewelry, putting them in a safe will keep them from being grabbed — unless of course the thief can take the whole safe.

Large safes, either gun safes or the standard type, are so heavy that a thief can't remove them without moving equipment. Small safes can be secured to the floor with bolts from the inside of the safe. If you bolt the safe to a concrete basement floor, it will take a pro to remove.

A wall safe with a number keypad is a good way to secure jewelry in a bedroom. A wall safe is installed by cutting away the drywall between two wall studs and bolting the safe to the two studs. If you hang a picture over the safe so it's not immediately noticeable, it will give you very good security. A keypad is better than a combination lock because it opens much faster. You want the safe to be used rather than setting jewelry on a dresser because opening the safe is too much bother.

Wall safes aren't particularly expensive. I've seen them advertised on the internet as inexpensively as $125.

Remember not to put a wall safe on a ground level exterior wall with vinyl, aluminum, or wood siding. You don't want someone getting to it from the outside.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2005



Security Systems

(November 1996/February 1997)

Part I

This month we'll talk about home security systems and what they can do for you. If you're thinking about having a system installed, this article should give you a good starting point for your decision.

Most insurance companies will give you a discount on your homeowners insurance if you have a centrally-monitored alarm system, that is, one monitored by an alarm company.  There are two other types of alarm system.  In the most simple, if the alarm is activated, an external horn sounds.  In the other type, an automatic dialer calls police and plays a recording.  Most insurance companies will not give reductions for either of these two types of system, nor can I recommend them.

If you have been following the news in recent years,  you'll have heard of alarms going off while owners are on vacation, and the horn driving neighbors crazy for days.  You'll also have heard that police are swamped with false alarm calls.  The former situation has given rise to lawsuits, and the latter has caused authorities to institute heavy fines for repeated false alarms.  Sadly, most of these problems are due to cheap and poorly installed do-it-yourself systems.

First, we should make clear what an alarm system can and can't do. If you are home, it can provide you warning of unauthorized entry, fire, or smoke.  It can provide you with a "panic button" to summon help in a medical emergency.  If you are away, it can notify the monitoring company of fire or unauthorized entry as well as other conditions.  It may act as a deterrent to would-be thieves who will pass your house by for easier pickings.

However, an alarm system is by no means foolproof.  A practiced burglar can break into your home, hear the alarm go off, go directly to the bedroom, snatch and grab your valuables, and be out of your house in three to four minutes, well before the police will arrive.  Police are usually slow to respond to alarms because of the frequent false alarm problem.  Further, alarm companies will disclaim any responsibility for consequences of events that their systems are designed to prevent.  The disclaimer on one such monitoring agreement reads:  "Seller Makes No Guarantee Or Warranty, Including Any Implied Warranty Of Merchantability Or Fitness, That The Equipment Or Services Supplied Will Prevent Occurrences or Consequences Therefrom Which The System or Service Is Designed To Detect, And That Seller Shall Not Be Held Liable For Any Such Loss."  In other words, if something happens that you bought your alarm system to prevent or deter, you have agreed not to hold the alarm company liable, even if the failure of their system or monitoring contributed to the situation.

In general, Virginia Hills is a safe area.  Whether you want a system or not will depend on how you weigh the costs ($1,500 and up for the system, $20 and up a month for monitoring) against your own peace of mind.

If you do decide to get a centrally monitored system, your first decision will be whether to get a wired or a wireless system.  A wired system sends messages from sensors to a central control panel in your home via telephone wire in your walls.  A wireless system sends radio messages to the central panel.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Wireless systems used to be much more unreliable than wired systems, but modern technology has closed the gap.  A wireless system is much easier to install in a finished home since no wires need be run.  On the other hand, wireless system sensors cost much more than those for wired systems, and they contain batteries which must be replaced every few years.

Wired systems are slightly more reliable and have no batteries to change.  Good installers can run phone wire through walls and hide it behind baseboards and door trim.  Installation costs usually make up a very small percentage of the total costs of the system, so you are often better off with a wired system even if the house is finished.  Also many central control panels today can accommodate both wired and wireless sensors, so you can mix and match.

Next time we'll talk about what kind of sensors you should have in your system and where they should go.  We'll also talk about a few other things you can do to protect your home.

Part II

In the last column, we discussed home security systems and what they could do for you; we also discussed the difference between wired and wireless systems.  This time, we'll talk about the kinds of sensors that are available and where you might put them.  We'll briefly discuss some additional bells and whistles you might install on a security system.  Next time,  we'll talk about some other common sense things you can do to protect your home.

One component of a good security system is protection against fire.  There are two kinds of sensors available.  You are probably already familiar with smoke detectors, and even if you don't have a security system, you should have the battery-powered kind in your house.  Smoke detectors should be placed outside the bedrooms of the home, and one should be placed on the lower level.  In a security system, you might also want a heat detector, a device that senses rapid increases in heat.  These should be used instead of smoke detectors in laundry rooms and workshops, where a smoke detector might not be reliable because of dust.

In the bells and whistles category, you can also equip your security system to detect natural gas leaks, carbon monoxide presence, and flowing water.  As you can imagine, such sensors would be placed in your furnace room and/or laundry room.  Carbon monoxide poisoning has received a good deal of media coverage lately, and I would recommend that you purchase a quality carbon monoxide detector whether you have a security system or not.

To protect against break-in, there are various sensors that offer different kinds of protection.  There are contact sensors that detect the opening of a door or a double-hung window.  For several reasons, however, these sensors aren't particularly useful on casement windows.  If you, like most Virginia Hills homeowners, have casement windows, you probably can't use them.  You should place contact sensors on the front, rear, and kitchen doors.

Protecting casement windows is best done with glass-break sensors which detect the sound and pressure change of breaking glass.  One in each room on the ground level should give you a high degree of protection against entry through your windows.

A final means of defense is a motion sensor.  These can be pressure sensors which are placed under rugs, but the more common type today is an infrared motion detector that senses movement when someone walks into one of the beams that it sends out.  In the past, these have been the source of false alarms when pets would get into a protected area and set off the sensor, but alarm companies have developed (expensive) sensors which will ignore small pets, at least ones that stay close to the floor.  If you have pets, this is a topic you should discuss in detail with your installer before you commit to a motion sensor.  At most, you would probably want two motion sensors, one downstairs and one upstairs.

It is wise to have your installer organize the sensors in two zones, an interior zone and a perimeter zone.  You would arm both zones while you are out of the house, and arm only the perimeter zone while you are home, allowing you to move around without setting off the alarm.  In general, the sensors on the doors and windows, as well as the glass break sensors, should make up the perimeter zone, and the motion detectors would be part of the interior zone.  Your fire and heat sensors would always be active, regardless of whether the alarm system was armed or not.

You should probably have a touch pad at each of the entry doors.  The touch pad is used for arming and disarming the system.  Some people also prefer to have a touch pad by the bed so that they can arm the system at night and call for help from the bedroom.  People with special needs can also purchase a medallion that they wear around their necks which can be used to summon help in an emergency.

Another useful part of the security system would be an external siren.  This device sounds if the telephone line to the alarm monitoring station is not functioning, though by law it may not sound for more than 15 minutes.

Other options available if your budget permits are a telephone-control feature which allows you to call your system and set it from a distant location and features allowing you to integrate with system with home automation devices.

Copyright Doug Boulter 1997



Leaving Your Home Unoccupied

(February 2012)

Most of us take vacations for a week or two, and sometimes longer. While in theory you could just pack your bags and go, in practice you should give some thought to your home. How can you help it take care of itself while you're gone? And what if you'll be gone for months at a time? Or have moved, but haven't sold the house and it's sitting empty? Or is this your vacation house that's waiting for you to return?

Any answer will be dependent on several factors. When will you be away? What seasons? In the late fall, winter, and early spring you'll be worried about the house being too cold and pipes freezing. In the summer, you might be worried about high humidity and high temperatures. How long will you be away? If only a short period of time, you might want to maintain the house as if it were being lived in, but taking some measures to reduce energy. If you'll be gone a long time you may want to shut things down almost completely. If the house is empty, but a real estate agent will be showing it, you'll have to keep the house as close to normal as possible.

Security

One of the things that people do think about is the security of their homes while they're away. The obvious things that come to mind are making sure doors and windows are locked, newspapers and mail are stopped so they won't be a sign that no one is home, and perhaps a neighbor is alerted to watch the house. Those are all important things to do.

A usual recommendation is to have some lights on at night. If you haven't purchased a timer for lights lately, you'll be surprised what they can now do. Once you input the date and your location, timers can determine when the sun rises and sets. You can program lights to go on at sunset or some interval thereafter, and go off at some time after that, or at sunrise. You can set a different on-off program for weekdays and weekends, or for each day of the week. Or you can click the vacation mode and the timer will turn the light on and off at a random time ahead or after your preset times until you turn the vacation mode off. With two or more timers, you can create random patterns that would convince any observer that your home is occupied. And if the power goes off, the timer's internal battery will keep accurate time for several days at least.

Anything of value that's outside the house should be brought inside or locked down. Do not leave ladders or step ladders where a thief could use them to get to windows above the ground.

If you have a security system, you'll want to notify the alarm company that you'll be away and whether anyone will be checking your house while you're gone. Knowing that the house should be empty will allow the alarm company to dispatch the police sooner without having to make multiple calls to attempt to reach you.

If you will be away for a season or several months, it will be less easy to convince thieves that you're really home. No car will be there, or if one is, it won't move. Blinds and drapes will remain closed. All you can do in this case is have someone watch the home and have the maintenance (grass cutting, shoveling snow off the sidewalks) done. Notifying the police may be useful, and you should ask them if they want the notification. If this is a vacation rental property, you may be able to get help from your rental company.

The House Itself

Water

The biggest concern that most people have is that a pipe will burst while they're away and do serious damage before anyone notices. Shutting off the water will allow at most only the water in the pipes to leak out, and is always a good idea. However, if you do shut the water off, turn off the breaker for an electric water heater or switch to "pilot only" for a gas water heater. If the thermostat on the water heater should go bad while you're away and not stop heating the water, bad things could happen ranging from super-heated water being released through the temperature and pressure relief valve to the water heater exploding. And while leaving the water heater off might mean you wouldn't have hot water immediately when you return, you will save on your energy bills with it off.

The weakest links in your water supply system are the lines attached to your washer. If you have a shutoff for those lines, it's best to leave them off when you aren't washing clothes, but absolutely shut them off when you go on vacation. If you can, shut off the water supply to the icemaker in your refrigerator if it has one.

If you're away in the winter, you don't want any water still left in the pipes to freeze. If you won't be gone for more than a few weeks, it's a good idea to leave the heat on but turn it down to 55-60 degrees. At that temperature pipes shouldn't freeze. However, it is also a good idea to open the doors to your cabinets under sinks in the bathrooms and kitchen. Those spaces can get substantially colder than the rest of the house if the heat is set to 55 and the warmer air can't circulate around the pipes when the outside temperature is below freezing.

If you will be away for a long period of time during the winter months, you'll want to winterize your home. This involves two separate processes. First, all the traps in your drain-waste-vent lines should be filled with RV (recreational vehicle) antifreeze. It prevents water in the traps from freezing and isn't toxic. You can buy it at hardware stores, camping stores, RV dealers, WalMart.com, and Amazon.com.

Second, you'll want to get all the water out of the supply lines. The way this is normally done is that a plumber will blow out the water with compressed air so the lines will be completely empty. When you return, the plumber will re-pressurize the lines with compressed air and listen for the tell-tale hissing of a leak. Once leaks are fixed or none are found, only then can you turn the water back on.

For people who will be gone long-term, there will be some argument over whether to shut the water off at the homeowner's shutoff valve at the house or whether to shut it off at the street. The homeowner's valve is easiest to shut off, and that will protect your pipes. However, shutting the water off at the street will ensure that if there's an underground leak in the supply line between the meter and the house (which is also your responsibility), it won't keep leaking while you're gone. Check with your local water company to see what the rules are for shutting off the water at the meter at the street and whether they'll do it for you — it may take a special tool.

Air Conditioning in the Summer

There are two approaches to controlling heat and humidity in the summer. You can leave your air conditioning on and your windows closed and raise the temperature so the A/C won't kick in until it's about 85 degrees or so. If your climate is very humid, you may have to set the temperature below that so that the A/C will run often enough to remove the moisture from the air.

A second choice is leaving some windows open if doing so won't let in rain during a heavy storm and you have windows on the upper floor that are not accessible to thieves. The problem with this solution is that in humid climates the outside air may be more humid than the inside air, at least at first. Unfortunately you'll just have to experiment with each of these solutions to see which works best for you.

Animals and Pests

If there are openings into your house (either pet doors or accidental openings), make sure you've closed them off before you leave. Animals and birds inside your house can do a lot of damage in a short time if they can get in. Don't leave anything edible where it would attract rats, mice, or other animals and insects.

Electronics

Unplug any electronics not attached to a surge strip. And even then, you might want to unplug the surge strip to keep standby systems from using power needlessly while you're gone. There are lots of ghost power users. Think about your modem/router, chargers, clocks, computers, TVs and DVD players, etc. Go through your house twice looking for anything that draws current and think if you really need it on while you're gone.

The Refrigerator

Throw out things that will spoil during your absence. If you'll be gone for a long period of time, you should unplug the refrigerator, clean it out, and leave the door open to prevent mildew from forming inside.

Trees and Gutters

Try to leave your gutters as clean as possible to prevent them from backing up and overflowing. Have any large dead tree limbs removed if they might fall on the house.

Make a Checklist

One of the best things you can do is make and keep a checklist of what to do before you leave. When you're in a hurry to catch that plane or get on the road, it's very easy to forget key things. There's a reason that pilots always work off checklists. Use the checklist a few times and make changes as necessary. You'll think of more things as you get more experienced leaving your house on its own.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2012

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