Saturday, February 19, 2011

Beefing Up my Home Security

Over the last year or so my normally quiet suburban neighborhood has experienced several burglaries, some of which have occurred while the homes were occupied.  This has had me thinking about ways to improve my home security.  One of these is by installing a home security system.  I am well aware that such systems do not have the magical effect on prowlers depicted in TV commercials.  However, it does add another layer of warning if it's set off while we're home, and by sending us alerts could keep us from walking into a bad situation if we come home and the house has been broken into.  Home security systems aren't panaceas but they are another tool in the box.

Last weekend I installed a Visonic PowerMax Pro with a built-in PowerLink broadband + GSM module home security system from I chose this particular unit because I wanted a system that is capable of being accessed, controlled and monitored by me over an Internet connection. I also wanted something with GSM backup in case the line to my home gets cut. The PowerLink module also enables you to connect and control X10-compatible devices like lamp controllers and thermostats. I don't currently have any X10 gear but might add a thermostat at some point.

Along with the PowerMax Pro panel I have 3 door/window sensors, 3 motion detectors, and a smoke detector. All sensors are wireless and powered by long-life lithium cells. (I'm capable of running wire but I really don't like doing it.)

I also have two Visonic CAM3100 IP cameras tied into the system. One of them is connected to my home network switch via Ethernet while the other is over WiFi. The cameras have built-in IR illuminators which improve picture quality in marginal light. I don't think they'll work that well in complete darkness, however.

Installation was pretty straightforward after I read through the directions. The installer's guide is pretty good. I did most of the configuration, i.e., enrolling keyfobs and sensors, on my dining room table before mounting the panel on the wall. One thing I made sure to do before connecting the unit to my home LAN was to statically set the IP address of the PowerLink GSM/broadband module to an unused IP on my subnet.

One nice feature of the PowerLink module is that once it's connected to the Internet, it will go out to Visonic's dynamic DNS server and enroll itself, so that in the future to access it remotely in a browser you just open and you'll be redirected to your panel.  The default system nickname is its serial number.  If you know your IP address you can access it directly. (I have a static IP on my home cable modem so I don't need the dynamic DNS service, but most people would.)

The PowerLink web page that is served off the box can be viewed on a Mac or PC, or on a mobile device. There's a mobile-optimized version which you can use and which works OK using my Droid's browser. The web page can be viewed over HTTP or HTTPS.

The PowerLink module automatically takes video clips with the cameras when an alarm is triggered, and will email the videos as .avi file attachments to an address you specify. I have it setup to send me email messages for general alerts (e.g., arming and disarming) and alarms. My cell phone is a Motorola Droid which is setup to access my Gmail account, so I don't need a computer to receive them.

One thing did annoy me about setup: While the installer's and user's guides for the PowerMax Pro are provided in hard copy and pretty good, the manual for the PowerLink module is provided as a web page on a mini-CD. It's pretty minimal and not really all that helpful, IMO. I work in IT so figuring out the networking stuff was pretty easy for me. The mini-CD is useless for people with access only to a slot-load optical drive, e.g., most Mac users. If you're in that boat you'll need to borrow a friend's PC and copy the contents of the mini-CD to either a full size CD or a USB stick.

I got the GSM module working today. This morning I went to WalMart and bought the cheapest prepaid T-Mobile cell phone they had for $14.95, a Nokia 1661. I also bought a T-Mobile prepaid SIM $100 refill card, which is good for a year. WM discounts the refill card a couple of bucks so you save a little compared with getting it directly from T-Mobile.

After getting the phone home and activating it on a pay-as-you go account for $0.10/minute, I installed it on the Visonic panel. To do so you must first disconnect both AC power and the battery backup. All my settings were retained but I did have to reset the system time and date.

I was pleased to see that as soon as I started unscrewing the panel's cover it started complaining about being tampereding. It also called my cell phone with a voice message alerting me that someone was tampering with the panel.

Along with the security system I ordered a yard sign, a solar powered rechargeable light for the sign, and a half dozen window stickers.  Hopefully, anyone casing my house would see them and decide to go after lower hanging fruit.

Once the weather warms up I want to add some defensive shrubbery under the ground floor windows.  When we moved in there was a pyracantha bush outside our dining room window.  Unfortunately it was so overgrown I had to remove it.  That was not fun. Pyracantha thorns go right through leather work gloves, and they hurt.  You'd have to be stoned out of your mind to try to wade through pyracantha.  I'm considering a new pyracantha bush or two out back, and maybe roses or holly out front.

The GSM module is working fine. I'm able to arm and disarm via SMS text message, as well as get a system status report. SMS text messaging to/from my Google Voice number works as well.

This is the first time I've bought a cell phone with a SIM card. I've been a Verizon Wireless customer for my cell phone for going on 10 years and they don't use SIMs on their CDMA network. By moving the activated SIM card to the security panel, you're moving the phone number to the panel. So, text messages from the panel come from the phone number you get when you activate the phone.

Note that before installing the SIM card you should  ensure that the PIN number assigned to it during activation is not enabled (you'd have to enable it on the phone). After installing it into the panel you can enter the PIN code in case the panel needs it for some reason.

The only major glitch I ran into today was that when I wanted to add the prepaid refill card to the SIM, T-Mobile's web site did not recognize the refill card's PIN as being valid. However, when I called T-Mobile's prepaid refill 800-number from the cell, and entered the refill card's PIN, it worked.

The final step will be to arrange central station monitoring. My first plan was to use but it turns out I have an uncle in the business who should be able to get me monitoring at his cost, with no contract.