Wireless Alarm Systems Part 2
Intrusion detection systems with an automation component are almost exclusively wireless when it comes to intra-system communications. Wireless has great strengths, including flexibility and ease of installation, but there are challenges, too.
ACCORDING to Dave Lorimer product manager for AMC at LSC, the best wireless alarm systems must exhibit a range of qualities.
“Today’s modern wireless alarm systems should be extremely easy of use, have excellent wireless range for all devices, provide long battery life and be user friendly with intuitive management apps,” Lorimer said. “Multiple communication options such as TCP/IP and 3G on-board will also ensure system can get its important communications out to the people who need it without the need for a wired phone line. Being flexible and scalable to meet the needs of the users and installers is also a must.
“To ensure the highest levels of security the communication between the control panel and the wireless devices should always be bi-directional. An added benefit to bi-directional comms is the devices can utilise hibernation mode rather than the more conventional sleep mode thus doubling their battery life.”
According to Lorimer, there are intrinsic advantages of wireless alarm systems – particularly when it comes to faster installation due to reduced cabling requirements. Their ability to have detectors and other devices easily positioned in optimal locations can also give them the edge is some of the more difficult installs.
“In order to ensure best performance, installers must always be mindful of the sites layout and construction when considering a wireless alarm system,” Lorimer said. “Certain materials like brick, concrete, metal and even décor and pot plants can significantly reduce the wireless range of some devices. For best performance it is strongly recommend that you test the wireless signals with the device temporarily installed in the desired locations and then using the panels RSSI to ensure best performance before permeant installation.
“Another consideration is the type of communication your alarm system will be using, whether it be through the internet, mobile networks or both. Having some type of redundancy measure in place if your primary communication path goes down is always recommended.”
When it comes to battery life, Lorimer says there will be ongoing improvements in what is already much enhanced battery life.
“Battery performance in wireless devices has always been at front of mind for installers and the end user,” he explains. “An assurance that system battery performance is at an optimal level that will not compromise the security of the system is key. Manufacturers of wireless devices are always looking at new and improved ways to get the edge when it comes to battery performance, so we will constantly see overall improvements.
“In our current range of wireless alarm products, we are already seeing battery life measured in several years due to the way the devices are managed according to the operating state of the alarm system. While the market is now far more receptive and willing to use wireless devices because of the ease of installation, there are still contributing factors like wireless signal range that will not allow for a complete wireless system solution.”
When it comes to current trends in wireless alarm systems – things like Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, video, cloud services, remote management and automation options – Lorimer argues user experience is the one to focus on.
“The ability for the end user to have control over their system in the palm of their hand is a must for today’s wireless alarm systems,” he says. “Smart devices like phones and tablets have become an important part of our everyday life and as such we expect more and more out of them. Both end users and installers are expecting manufacturers to provide a user friendly, intuitive, and simple management App that allows them to interact with their system. They also expect the system to be flexible in providing additional functionality for now and into the future.”
Does Lorimer think traditional hardwired alarm panels managed on site and reporting only to a monitoring station have a future or must they evolve to meet new demands? The answer is yes and no.
“Evolving to meet consumer and the ever-increasing technology demands will always challenge our traditional way of thinking when it comes to security,” he explains. “It’s how we meet these challenges and stay relevant that is important. While many consumers are opting for self-monitored alarm systems they still require traditional monitoring to complete the link between the activation and response to any incident by patrols and emergency services.”
Over at alarm manufacturer, Ness Corp, Peter Mohan says the team has learned from many years’ experience in designing and manufacturing wireless security products that customers want a level of security comparable to wired systems and very importantly – long battery life.
“Wireless systems have the obvious advantage of faster installation which translates directly into dollars saved,” Mohan says. “The second crucial advantage, and one that Ness Securityguard fully exploits, is portability without reliance on mains power. We often discuss wireless systems forgetting that most ‘wireless’ control panels require mains power to run.
“Securityguard cuts the power cord by using advanced power saving technologies to provide up to 3 months operation without recharge. This advantage of full portability sees Securityguard in use in sensitive and remote industrial installations from shipping containers to building sites and mining operations providing wireless security with 3G monitoring as well as SMS operation and programming.”
Mohan says the key things installers should take into consideration during installation to ensure best performance can be summed up in 3 words.
“Test, test, test,” Mohan says. “Wireless detection devices are easy enough to test so before it goes on the wall, do a transmit test and use the onboard signal strength indicator to identify rogue devices which may interfere with signals. It’s worth pointing out some systems are smarter than others. For instance, Ness M1 2-way radio takes another approach to ensuring that signals get through. Every M1 TWR transmitter is also a receiver providing real time feedback from the controller with a digital call-and-response. The built-in smarts include frequency-hopping spread spectrum with true two-way signal acknowledgement and algorithms to defend against interference, hacking, and jamming.”
For Mohan, battery life must be faced head-on and he says Ness aggressively pursues long life in its battery-powered devices.
“Ness wireless devices are supplied with lithium batteries and typically measure battery life in years,” he says. “We typically get 6 years and up to 8-year life from a Ness Lux radio PIR, and up to ten years for our sealed radio keys,” he explains. “With clever power-saving electronics, battery life is not an issue.”
When it comes to trends that are shaking the industry, Mohan says the biggest trend is not so much a single technology, but the way users want to interact with their systems using an app.
“Using Z-Wave or Zigbee devices to retrofit a controller means it’s not just a security system but a smart panel,” Mohan explains. “As a result, cloud connectivity has almost become the most important aspect of your communications. With the growing importance of cloud and IP we believe that 3G/4G celluar services will eventually become a backup service to your IP enabled system.”
Any security system that is Internet-facing needs to be protected and Ness has made cyber security of its solutions a priority.
“Recent experience in developing its own cloud service and apps means the Ness team is placing great emphasis on cyber security by engineering encrypted security intrinsically built into the system rather than added on – we thought long and hard about how we designed and configured our cloud service,” says Elian Circosta, director of innovation at Ness Corp.
Bosch’s James Layton argues an excellent wireless alarm system is framed by many characteristics.
“Like any alarm system, there will always be the question of capacity – how many users, how many zones,” Layton explains. “But 3 other major questions need to be asked when it comes to wireless systems – range, battery life, and peripherals. Range has always been a limiting factor for wireless systems, especially once structural factors such as metal frames or tiled areas start to decrease signal penetration.
“Plenty of wireless systems advertise ranges of 100+ metres outdoors, line-of-sight, in the desert; but then they struggle to work in an average home with straight-line distances less than 30 metres. Battery life is important as it really helps to determine how much has been saved on the system over its full lifespan. Saving $200 on cabling might be great unless you are putting $80 of batteries in to the devices every year.
“Finally, most wireless systems up until today have actually been hybrid systems – they take wireless sensors just fine, but they rely on cabling to devices that require consistent 2-way communication such as keypads, sirens, and strobes,” he says. “An excellent wireless alarm system should be able to incorporate all of the features and possibilities of a wired alarm system, with using any wires whatsoever.”
According to Layton, there are 2 core advantages to wireless alarm systems.
“First, they allow installation into traditionally difficult structures,” he argues. “Australia has a proliferation of double-storey brick homes compared to other countries and these building types can be prohibitive when it comes to running in cabling after construction. Wireless systems greatly reduce the time and complexity of installing systems in to these types of structure and that has the flow-on effect of reducing the cost for the installer, and presumably the end user. There are even some installers today providing installation quotes over the phone without even seeing the house, on the basis that they plan to use wireless.
“The second core benefit is that the system itself becomes more portable. Bereft of wires, every device can be removed and remounted, or even taken to a different location entirely. Renters now have a solution that can move with them when they leave a property, existing systems can be easily redeployed as room layouts change or renovations are done.”
Things for installers to take into account during installation to ensure best performance are varied.
“Placement of devices is even more important in wireless systems than it is in wired ones as every device will need to be accessed multiple times in the future for battery replacement (either by the installer or the end user),” Layton says. Another key consideration is the range of the devices and the potential for environmental interference, which may change over time after the panel and its peripherals are installed.
“It may be tempting for an installer to commission a device right at the limit of its functional range, only for the device to then begin failing to connect overtime as its radio hardware begins to wear out, or new environmental factors begin to interfere. Most wireless systems have the ability to measure and report on the quality of wireless signal to each device and this should always be checked and considered by the installer to make sure that devices aren’t pushed to their limits.
“One factor making this sort of thing easier is the fact that more and more connected peripherals (especially those using technologies like Z-Wave or Zigbee) use meshing technology to allow devices to report through other devices in order to ensure continuity of communication even when a device is unable to report to the headend directly.”
For Layton, battery life has improved but this is an area that needs to be well managed by installers.
“Most good wireless products these days will give battery lives of 5 years or more,” he says. “In many chases there are products that set their advertised lifespan not on expectation of when the battery will go flat, but when its shelf-life will expire. This has traditionally made battery life a non-issue for sensor products, but the matter is more complicated for some of the newer wireless peripherals entering the market.
“Under standards in Australia, keypads are required to display certain data such as whether a system is armed or disarmed, the presence or absence of faults, and what zones are currently in an abnormal state. Any sort of notification device will use a mechanism such as LEDs which will draw power consistently, which is a substantial drain on battery life. This is why manufacturers are now turning to technologies like E-Ink displays to produce the required notification without consuming constant power.”
Consumer hunger for technology plays a part in the challenges.
“Plenty of consumers these days want attractive touchscreen interfaces,” Layton explains. “Most touchscreen devices (tablets, phones, etc) struggle to remain without external power for more than a day, let alone for years. Using these sorts of devices on wireless systems will normally require them being connected to local power, which starts to erode the portability value of the system. We also need to consider devices with a high peak voltage such as sirens, strobes and screamers. These will happily last years if the system is not being triggered, but it won’t take to many false (or real) alarms to drain the battery power.
“The final thing to consider is that most consumers expect to be able to change batteries themselves. The type of battery used in a device will heavily impact how easy this is. Most home owners (especially if they have kids) will have a stash of AA batteries, but they’d be hard pressed to pull out a CR123 when required.”
When it comes to the current technological trends in wireless alarm systems, Layton says there’s plenty going on.
“Wireless, wired and hybrid alarm systems are all seeing a push towards technologies like Zigbee, Z-Wave, WiFi solutions are all available,” he says. “When it comes to wireless systems specifically, the trend is even greater as the consumer sees any wired device as more of a ‘connected’ device in the same way they would view an internet TV or Android tablet.
“Faster installation is one of the first goals of these types of systems and having to plug in a blue cable and mess around with IP addresses and port forwarding is quickly going to counteract the other benefits. For this reason, these types of products really need to have cloud connectivity and either WiFi or built-in cellular services. Z-Wave seems to have risen to the top of the home automation pile in Australia for the moment, but Zigbee is also now catching on and end users are also looking for integration with new consumer products like Google Home, and eventually, Amazon Echo.”
Layton thinks traditional hardwired alarm panels managed on site and reporting only to a monitoring station still have a future.
“There is still a lot of bottom-dollar business in the alarm marketplace where only the cheapest product can succeed,” he explains. “A prime example is project home builders who put alarm panels in as they build. At the end of the day, they are only looking to tick the box that says; “Has an alarm panel” on their completion sheet as cheaply as possible. Wireless systems still cost more than wired or hybrid solutions.
“When it comes to monitoring, that’s a more interesting question – plenty of alarm buyers these days want some form of self-monitoring, and in many cases, it’s the only form of monitoring they want. The millennial age category is one of self-service and this is seeing a trend away from traditional professional monitoring centres.
“Likely, however, this is a part of a cyclical change. In some cases, a self-monitored system may end up in a situation where the owner received a notification of an actual situation taking place, but due to their location, connectivity, or time of seeing the message, they are powerless to stop the event from occurring. After these sorts of incidents get shared, they may be a renewed interest in the benefits of professional monitoring.”