Wireless Alarms and Automation: Advantages & Disadvantages
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Most modern alarm and automation solutions seem to be wireless by default, leveraging Z-wave, Zig-Bee or proprietary comms, as well as offering Wi-Fi and cabled network connections. For installers and end users choosing the best solutions is never going to be easy, given the balancing act between performance and price.
WHICH alarm and automation comms technology offers the best performance, wired or wireless? In some ways you’d argue wired. There are no batteries to fail and with designers not needing to scrimp on current draw, you’re likely to get the best possible sensing technology. Not needing to include a radio inside the sensor housing feeds into this – wireless sensors are usually more expensive to buy, even though they generally have less capable sensing systems. But there’s plenty more to consider here.
According to James Layton of Bosch Security, establishing whether wireless or hardwired sensors are superior is not easy.
“In order to answer this, we need to consider the difference between capability and operation,” Layton explains. “For example, when considering a hard-wired versus a wireless motion sensor, most devices will use a near identical optics and sensor package, meaning that the wireless device is just as capable technically of delivering the same outcomes as the wired device. In many cases, however, there are operational differences.
“The big limitation when it comes to building a wireless device is considerations around battery life. Neither the installer nor user wants to be swapping batteries every few months, so the manufacturer is often required to sacrifice operation to extend longevity. Using the above example of a motion sensor, most devices will go into sleep mode for a period of minutes after sending an alarm activation, in order to save power. In a real-world environment, this is going to have little to no impact, as the alarm itself has already been sent, but on closer examination, the device is reporting less activations than its wired equivalent.”
Layton says there are advantages and disadvantages to wireless technology.
“The obvious advantage to wireless is flexibility,” he says. “In many installations the requirement to run a cable may add significant time and cost, or be impossible. Australia is one of the biggest users of wireless sensors as a percentage of all sensors sold because we have a proliferation of multi-storey brick buildings, and our properties rarely include such features as basements or full-sized attics.
“Using wireless devices creates a couple of logistical concerns. First, the devices themselves will often have batteries that need to be regularly changed. Some devices on the market include non-removable batteries with lifespans of years, but in this case, the whole device needs to be replaced once it dies.”
Wireless automation has considerations of its own.
“Looking at automation there are a number of products that are wireless back to their receiver, but wire to local power to eliminate the need for a battery and to allow the device to act as a meshing transceiver,” Layton says. “There is the need to consider that running an external power supply may be an aesthetic issue, and cabling to an in-wall power source may be out of scope for the installer.
“We also need to look at the limitations of range and signal strength. Many devices will have an advertised transmission distance; which is often fine if you are outdoors with line-of-sight, or in the middle of a desert; but these rarely hold up in typical urban or commercial environments. There, you have to factor in metal pipes, tiled areas, and even ambient transmissions from other systems or devices.
“When planning an installation for wired devices, the installer has a good degree of confidence that provided a cable could be run to a location, a device placed there would operate in a predetermined way. When planning for a wireless installation, the installer either needs to make assumptions about what the signal strength should be like, or else they need to attend the site first with specialised equipment to find out.
“Additionally, having a strong signal and good connection at the time of installation is no guarantee that transmission problems will not occur in the future. First, there is the risk that the radios will drift over time, and second, it is likely that other wireless devices will be installed in the future in the proximity to the devices and could cause signal issues.”
Do new generations of wireless technology offering very low current draw for longer battery life make wireless a more attractive solution for installers? Layton thinks so but says there’s a caveat.
“It’s certainly true to say that, over time, radio devices have increased in signal output, while decreasing in power consumption,” he explains. “This affords manufacturers the ability either increase the expected battery life of a product, or alternatively miniaturise the product itself, as smaller batteries can provide the same overall life.
“While this makes wireless more attractive for an installer, it’s important to remember that installing wireless is about accepting a compromise in order to gain flexibility or convenience. There is no reason to believe that a wireless device would outperform its hard-wired equivalent. A wireless device is also going to cost more than a wired device, so the question hinges on the point a wireless device becomes akin to a wired device in cost and functionality, from which the installer uses wireless for everything.”
Layton argues the alarms industry is not ready to go full wireless.
“We simply are not at that point yet,” he explains. “While there are some installers that do look at using wireless first, the vast majority stick with cheaper, wired devices and only use wireless where the site demands it.”
Another selection challenge for installers hinges on proprietary or non-proprietary wireless and in this case, Layton argues for the middle road.
“The easiest way to balance this is to support both,” Layton says. “There are plenty of systems on the market that include proprietary wireless technology, but also support more open standards such as Zigbee, Z-Wave or Bluetooth. There are clear advantages to both technologies. Most proprietary systems are produced by companies that excel in developing wireless technology and this means you will get the best detection and the smoothest user interface, etc.
“Meanwhile, non-proprietary systems have the advantage of sharing a lot of metadata with the head end, so a Zigbee motion sensor may send temperature data, along with motion detection. One consideration when it comes to mixing technologies is that the end user will not likely know or care which device is wired or wireless, and which device is proprietary or open source. What they will want, however, is a consistent aesthetic – which may become difficult in technology mixes.”
When it comes to key features the best wireless alarm and automation systems have, Layton says performance and price are the big sellers.
“Whether your sensor or controller is wired or wireless, you’re going to want it to do what it is supposed to effectively, and things like a long battery life, good range and penetration, and low initial cost are going to further support this,” he says.
“Wireless mesh technology is becoming more and more prevalent – individual wireless devices also function as de-facto repeaters, relaying signals received from other field devices and extending the overall range of the wireless system. This does tend to require some form of fixed power local to the device, however.
“Finally, the end user experience is a key component of how successful any technology platform is going to be. Users may want to add automation devices down the line, or potentially swap over older sensors where the internal battery has expired – the ability for them to quickly and easily enrol new devices without having to call out a technician is becoming a major consideration for what system to purchase.”
Given the huge number of sensor types now available, selecting the automation functions that offer most operational value in a typical security and automation solution is a challenge for installers.
“Most standard security sensors work on a basic binary state – either there is motion or there isn’t; the door is open or its closed; etc,” Layton says. “Binary information is very easily incorporated in to the sort of Boolean logic that automation systems use. For instance, IF there is motion in the room, THEN turn the lights on. Additional sensor devices allow you to add layers of logic, incorporating functions such as AND, OR, NAND, and NOR.
“Applications for this sort of integration can include cost saving (turning off lights or background audio in unoccupied rooms), comfort (turning on air conditioning at a certain temperature but only when all windows and doors are closed), or even enhanced security (turning on exterior flood lights in response to motion).”
Something that is vitally important with the latest alarm and automation systems is the interface and the app, according to Layton.
“To the user, the interface is the most important thing – it’s their connection to the system, and will colour their every interaction with products that they have purchased,” he says. “Traditionally, security systems were something that you installed in the hope that you would never have to use them but in today’s connected world, a system that people choose to interact with as regularly as possible becomes an incredible value proposition for the installer.
“The most successful apps and interfaces seem to be the ones that give the user access to a lot of information, without bombarding them with useless data that means nothing to them. An alarm keypad that shows the weather outside before you leave the house would be a good example of a way in which external information can add a delighter to a security product. Users also want a feeling of control from their app or interface. Tech savvy users enjoy showing off their latest toys to friends and family, and this is most easily done with a system that responds obviously to user commands and operations.”
When it comes to how many wireless systems include video and video verification Layton argues things are not simple.
“While a lot certainly do, a better question would be how many do it well?” he says. “For years it has been possible to connect an alarm panel to a security camera by way of a contact and a cable. Newer systems allow this all to happen over the IP network, but for the most part, the benefit here is only really perceived by the installer, not the end-user, who doesn’t really care how many cables are used to achieve goals.
“There are really 2 things that set good video integration aside from average video integration. First, it’s important that the user interacts with everything via a single operation point – a single device, or a single app. The whole concept of integration looks shaky once you tell someone to close one app and open another in order to see all relevant data from their system.
“And despite what I said before about security data being mostly binary, modern devices can capture information that is a lot more elaborate – object classification, temperature information, distance, speed, etc. The more metadata that can come from either side, the more interesting the actions you can create when it comes to how each device should interoperate.”
David Lorimer, product manager at LSC Security Supplies, believes wireless alarm and automation solutions are as capable as hard-wired solutions.
“In today’s market, yes, I think they are,” he says. “Wireless solutions can offer flexibility to gain a complete control solution. We are seeing connectivity options expanding in many systems resulting in minimal cabling but providing more features and more responsive solutions. Whether its meshed connectivity like Z-Wave or Zigbee or proprietary solutions from brands like AMC Alarms, the options available to installers and end users in the wireless space is always increasing.”
For Lorimer, the biggest advantage with wireless is that you don’t need to run cables.
“Our customers report the quicker installation time is a key draw card of wireless,” he explains. “Also appealing is the ability to easily locate devices in a position that optimises their operation and range. This offers greater scope for tricky installations where cabling is not possible, such as heritage listed buildings.
“The key disadvantage of wireless systems is the limited range of devices. While repeaters can be used to enhance this range, environmental factors and building materials can play a big part in the stability and range of the wireless signal. Performance varies between brands, but wire gives better range. For instance, an AMC solution allows devices and peripherals to be connected via RS485 up to 1km away.
“At the same time, wireless options are becoming more widely accepted by installers as the technology improves and pricing becomes more attractive,” he says. “We have seen a significant leap in demand for our AMC wireless solution here at LSC over the last 12-18 months. Although all existing AMC panels (K and X series) have the ability to accept wireless devices with the use of a wireless expander, the beginning of the year saw the launch of the XR900 – AMC’s designated wireless panel. This has been a welcome addition to the AMC suite for installers looking to go wireless.
“Battery life has long been a bugbear of installers and consumers alike when it comes to wireless systems. Thankfully, devices that were once lucky to get a few months out of the batteries can now last for several years. AMC wireless devices, for example, maximise battery life by hibernating when the system is deactivated. When the system is active the devices operate like a conventional wired device, so they are always alert. This means there’s no down-time when detection or activations are critical.”
When it comes to the automation functions that offer most operational value in a typical security and automation solution, Lorimer says the main value for LSC’s installer customers is triggering of outputs in AMC alarm solutions. This is because each output can be programmed for different functions and linked to the AMC Manager app to provide a complete operational solution.
“Obviously, the interface and app are extremely important in today’s market,” he says. “Graphical layout and functionality of the system app rate highly on the list of must haves for the end user and they expect a seamless and responsive communication between their smart devices and the system. Meanwhile, the installer will be looking for a combination of the graphical layout and functionality aspects of an app as well as a system interface that will make setup and configuration simple and methodical.
“Getting this combination right is a challenge for manufacturers. The AMC Manager app (Android and iOS) has been designed with the user in mind. The app allows the user to control all aspects of their alarm system from their smart phone and can be loaded with maps of where the building is installed. It also supports both portrait and landscape orientation – it’s those little things that count.
“For instance, if we look at alarms, there are only a handful so far that have successfully introduced video to their platform. The biggest hurdle with the video is being able to offer quality footage with reliable upload speeds. This is all dependant of the system itself and the way it is managing these functions.”
Meanwhile, Risco’s Peter O’Callaghan says that in many cases wireless technology gives the installer a suitable means to install a solution that is reliable and secure, that will not suffer from the normal risk of damage from vermin. O’Callaghan argues there are advantages with wireless including:
1. Ease of installation with installation time reduced from a typical 4-hour hardwire install down to 1 hour
2. Device settings are programmed via the keypad and/or remotely via configuration software.
O’Callaghan says the disadvantages of wireless are:
1. The reduction of signal quality caused by metal objects, concrete walls, which means some considerations must be taken to insure a trouble-free installation
2. Wireless products do require servicing to replace low batteries, however, with most wireless products, under normal operation, battery life you can expect to be around 3 years
3. Interference can be an issue, however, a smart installer will test for this. RISCO 2-way wireless panels can measure background noise and be calibrated and programmed to detect levels of RF jamming, generating an alarm when this condition is detected by the system. If the level of site interference measured is too high, an alternate solution can be recommended.
When it comes to proprietary vs non-proprietary wireless, O’Callaghan believes the main question will be under what scenario will each be used.
“If deploying wireless for a security application, then a proprietary system, such as RISCO 2-way wireless technology, will be able to deliver a secure solution that have the mechanisms built in to protect that communication, however, in the case of home automation, the use of non-proprietary is certainly the choice, given the openness to allow customers choice to use whatever brand device they want to add to their system,” he explains. “This will certainly be another option available when RISCO releases its new cloud-based Home Automation Gateway in 2019.”
According to O’Callaghan, the best wireless alarm and automation systems must include cloud-based operation.
“This gives ease of installation and reliable secure operation for the customer via a unified app to any smartphone,” he explains. “When it comes to automation, basic functionality to control lighting and the ability to set schedules, can be utilised to complement a security solution, and that allows alarm events to link to that control. Arming and disarming events from the system can also be used to turn lighting/or any other powered device on/off, which can be useful, especially given today’s push for more energy efficient households/businesses.
“Many customers are demanding more and more capabilities that allow them to log in remotely, control the system with an easy to use application, either via web or smartphone app, and that also can provide functionality over home automated products that can link in with the same platform – such a solution needs to be secure and must conform to the latest privacy laws and standards.
“Video verification is an important aspect of an overall alarm and automation system. I think RISCO is leading this space with the latest VU-Point P2P IP camera range that’s easy to install with no router or camera configuration required. This solution, when used in conjunction with RISCO intrusion panels which are 2-way wireless ready, offers the end user instantaneous video verification, which allows the customer to respond to incidents more efficiently and with confidence. In the event of a burglary, for example, time is of the essence, it is important to be able to quickly verify an alarm, so appropriate response can be issued without delay. The RISCO iRISCO smartphone app is the critical application that brings all this together to provide this.”
Anthony Loh of EDS says wireless and hard-wired solutions both have their pros and cons and even though one solution may be better suited for a particular use case (like DIY renters), with wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) is now getting close to the performance and reliability of wired solutions.
“Some advantages of a wireless solution are that there’s no wiring or cabling required between sensors/peripherals, reduced installation costs, in some cases the solution may be a DIY installation, while solutions with a 3G data backup are not interrupted by hard-wired line outages,” he says. “Disadvantages of wireless solutions include that they can be limited by wireless signal range and interference, require battery maintenance for sensors/peripherals and that most solutions are limited to medium size installations, not enterprise level.
“Proprietary and open standard wireless technologies also have pros and cons. If you have an alarm system that only allows you to add in sensors/peripherals from that brand alone, you will end up being locked into a brand and will be limited in cost and performance. Meanwhile, if you have a completely open standard platform, the end user will have more device choices but will have issues with compatibility or reliability with different 3rd party devices. A good balance would be a propriety alarm system that can integrate easily with 3rd party cameras, access control or Z-Wave devices.”
For Loh, there are a number of key features that typify the best wireless alarm and automation systems.
“Having a good, easy to use mobile app is a must these days and definitely the system must be Z-Wave device capable for smart home automation,” he says. “Having the ability to set up back to base monitoring and a 3G/4G data SIM backup makes a wireless solution even more robust.
“On the automation side, good functions include lighting control – being able to set light sequences during an alarm activation or set up away/holiday light scenes is great, as is lock control – being able schedule locks so that during a certain time of day, doors are automatically locked. Being able to access your camera stream from a mobile app is good and a few systems can connect to a voice assistant like Alexa or Google Home, which is a nice feature for some users to have.”
“In my opinion, the interface and app can make or break a good alarm solution. It must be intuitive and quick for installers to add in sensors and peripherals like through QR code and for end users be compatible with most common phone platforms Apple iPhone and Samsung Android.”
Ness Corp’s Peter Mohan says wireless solutions are certainly capable, but he argues the when it comes to convenience wireless is the only solution.
“It’s possible but just not practical to build a hardwired smart home, and wireless also gives your devices the obvious advantage of portability,” he says. “Faster installation equals less dollars spent, simple as that. Changing batteries once every few years is not a serious disadvantage. Our wireless devices are supplied with lithium batteries and typically measure battery life in years. We typically get up to 8 years from a Ness Lux radio PIR and up to 10 years from our sealed radio keys. With clever power-saving electronics battery life is not an issue.”
Mohan argues proprietary and non-proprietary wireless is a balancing act.
“At Ness we stand in both camps as we prefer our own encrypted 2-way radio security devices that giving us full control over device security and product development,” he explains. “For automation, we integrate Z-Wave into M1 and Mezzo automation products because Z-Wave plays well with others.”
Mohan says that when think about valuable automation functionality, he tend to ask what people are asking for.
“That falls into 2 broad categories, either devices of convenience which are want-to-haves and then the devices with inbuilt power monitoring (mostly Z-Wave) which, considering the cost of electricity, are becoming must-haves,” he explains.
Phil Kennedy, wireless product manager at CSM, argues that wireless alarm and automation solutions are just as capable as hardwired solutions, with some wireless alarm/automation systems exceeding the capabilities and ease of use seen with traditional wired systems.
“A key advantage is cost and time effective installation – wired alarms can be cheaper in price, but wireless alarms are faster to install,” Kennedy says. “They can also be easily expanded and modified after installation – adding extra devices is much simpler than it might be with a wired system, especially when installs have limited cabling requirements.
“A disadvantage of wireless is radio interference from other devices, including baby monitors, remote controls, power lines, microwave ovens, fluorescent lighting. Structural interference can come from walls, floors, ceilings, and metallic objects like filing cabinets, shelving. Although, these types of interference a very minor and can differ from site to site.
“With CSM’s Vesta product line, all radio frequency devices (PIR’s, doors reeds, keypads, sirens) run on Vesta’s patented 433MhZ F1 transmission, securing the product from hacking and radio jamming making this product very reliable.”
Steadily increasing battery life is a making wireless more and more attractive to installers, Kennedy says.
“With the advancement of technology, low current draw devices make wireless products more efficient than they have been in the past, depending on the functionality of the device,” Kennedy says. “With CSM’s Vesta product, a snapshot camera/PIR can have a battery life of 2-3 years, while standard motion detectors and door contacts might last up to 5 years.
“In my opinion the key features you’d be looking for as an installer would include ease of use, app integration of wireless alarms and automation, and the ability to see live audit trails via push notifications to smart devices. In addition, the ability to reconfigure automation settings and instant manual control of devices makes these systems more attractive and cost effective. I’d add proprietary wireless as a preference, too. Third party products can be ineffective and are unlikely to be supported by a third party/OEM supplier and/or the proprietary supplier.”
Given the huge number of sensor types now available, which automation functions offer most operational value in a typical security and automation solution, in Kennedy’s opinion?
“Light control is the main player,” he says. “Having the ability to have lighting circuits controlled for energy efficiency and alarm events is highly valuable. The market has been waiting a long time for lighting control/automation to become easier and more cost effective – and this is possible with CSM’s Vesta product range.
“App functionality and the device interface is also very important for the user and the installer, in terms of operability and installation and future adjustments. A portal to allow installers to manage and modify all customer sites is another big advantage. Visual verification is also useful – in our case Vesta sends 3 snapshots to the user when an alarm event is triggered, with live video streaming soon to be released.”