Alarm and access control panel.

Q: Just starting out in alarm installations after TAFE, where do you think I should focus my energies? What’s the most difficult thing about alarm (and home automation) installations for a beginner do you think? I’m looking to do domestic and commercial jobs moving forward, as well as expanding into video surveillance and access control as I gain more experience, so I plan to make a lot of my systems hardwired.

A: THE most difficult thing starting out is going to be making sure you don’t spend more than you earn. If you can get that part of your new business right, the most challenging aspects of alarm installation are system planning, cabling and programming. The hardware elements are not particularly complicated – though you’ll need to have a clear idea of what sort of solution your business is going to provide before you go to suppliers and try to meet that requirement. You don’t want to learn a system you later find doesn’t give all the functionalities you need.

Buy good tools and buy them once. Put some thought into this and make a list, so you don’t get into a flap when faced with racks of gear at wildly different price points. A tool box is a work in progress – you needn’t fill it all at once. You’ll probably end up with more than 1 tool box – the smaller one for electrical. Look after your tools. Get into the habit of giving them a clean after a job. You don’t need some gloop from Bunnings. A rub with a cotton cloth impregnated with olive oil from the kitchen will prevent oxidation just as well without generating landfill or emptying your wallet.

Capability with cabling of installations is all about practise – if you’re not familiar with it then just start mucking around stripping cables, do some soldering, work on your technique. Build some circuits. Not everyone can take cabling to the level of craft but with care anyone can do a competent job. Install a system in your place or at mum and dad’s place. Don’t just install PIRs but try putting in some other sensors. Reeds are a pain, especially if hardwired – put some of those in. Flood sensors are annoying, too. Try one of those. Install a smoke sensor and a panic button on 24-hour loops. Make all your zones supervised – it might be overkill in domestic installations but it’s best practise. It’s easier to build your first system on the work bench than in a building so it might be worth pre-commissioning.

Once you’re across the technical aspects of terminations and polarity, etc, the real challenges start – pulling cables, installing conduit, and handling cable drops down internal walls with fish tape and all the rest. Cutting clean holes in plasterboard is harder than it looks. Practise on some sheets of board at home before you get stuck into someone’s sparkling new Masterton. There’s physical handiwork to electronic installations – clean edges, bundled and tied cables that have drip loops where needed – and a big part of this comes down to system planning.

When planning, consider the location of comms and power, the user’s favoured controller location (which you might disagree with), as well as the best location for the devices that will offer the site the highest level of protection. Part of that will include making sure the system detects intrusion early. Intruders won’t necessarily be knocking on the front door, so approach the site with an open mind. Walk past the site at night to see which section of fence offers the darkest and most isolated approach, and consider what access points that approach will expose.

There will be applications that may have zones that are going to be horrible, even impossible, to cable. Try to find a work-around rather than leaving a hole in the defenses. Surface-mount conduit or share a low-voltage cable tray, leverage wireless and be prepared to think laterally. If an entry point is going to be hard to reach with cabling, consider installing an elevated curtain sensor and aim it at the door. PIRs are better at sensing movement at right angles, so consider microwave, or position the sensor to put the PIR zones at a slight angle.

Programming is a big thing and it will be a fiddle early on. Later, when it becomes second nature, you’ll rip through system config but you’ll need to go carefully at the start so that what becomes intuitive is not the fastest way to complete a job but flexible best practice. Talk to suppliers and other techs, deploy every possible option on the bench and see how it works and whether it’s worth the client having. Smart programming can sell a system and there are many systems that have a lot of features most installers never fully unlock. Don’t be one of those installers. Experiment. Ask yourself what you want as a user, what a customer might be delighted and hooked by.

Choose a system with remote programming, good build quality, a classic streamlined design that won’t date, with quality devices and clever options to give you plenty of sales hooks. When someone presses you on price because another installer offered them a cheap wireless solution bought online, you want to be able to unveil your offering’s hidden value, return on investment, healthy warranty and superior protection performance.

As well as a cool app, clever device options and layers of serious monitoring, that hidden value should include your iron-clad support for the life of the system, and behind you a quality distributor, as well as a forward-thinking manufacturer which doesn’t cut too many corners, especially when it comes to training. Finally, listen to the customer, and design the system to work for them. Don’t do as so many do and design what you think they need without understanding how they intend to use the system and what they want from it.*

* Thanks to Chris Davies from DLP Electronics for that final point…