It’s Saturday morning, and you’ve just woken up. You think to yourself “I could really go for some coffee right now”, but the kitchen seems so far away…fortunately, you have a WiFi connected coffee maker, and can start the process from the warmth and comfort of your bed, simply by opening an app on your phone. Life surely couldn’t get any more convenient.
It’s not surprising that when it comes to alarm systems, residential or commercial, many clients are looking for integrated solutions; something they can access any time, anywhere, at the click of a button. However, the stakes are a little higher when it comes to security then they are with your morning coffee. Is it safe? Will it work every time? What if I have a power outage? We have to ask the question: are wireless security systems better than wired ones?
This is a great question, but one that doesn’t lend itself to a “yes or no” answer. Saying a system is “wireless” can mean a number of different things. A “wired” system may still have wireless components, and vice versa. In fact, there are three distinct aspects to an alarm system, any of which can be wired or wireless, in almost any combination. These three components are:
- CPU – the main brain of the system, where all the processing of signals happens
- Communicator – the part that sends the signals from the CPU to the monitoring station
- Devices – the individual zones in the system; doors, motion detectors, etc
To understand the benefits and drawbacks of using wireless in an alarm system, we’re going to break down each of these three components individually and examine them closely.
Today we will look at the CPU.
What does the CPU do?
The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, is the real hard worker in the system. It receives signals from every other device in the system, including keypads, door sensors, smoke detectors, keyfobs, etc, and decides what to do with them. Without this part functioning properly, every other part of the system is effectively useless.
What’s the difference between a wired one and a wireless one?
Traditionally, the CPU (or “panel”, as it’s often referred to in the alarm industry) was housed in a secure metal box in a room that is hard to reach, such as a utility room or a locked server room. It is usually part-and-parcel with, or closely housed to, the Communicator; this means that when the CPU decides that someone needs to be notified of something, communication can happen instantly. The siren is also wired into this box.
With the advent of wireless alarm systems, someone somewhere said “hey, we could save money by putting the CPU, the communicator, the siren AND the keypad all in one box”. This seems like a great idea! A technician only has to install one piece of equipment, and run one set of wires to it. Almost every alarm company offers these types of system, and it is single-handedly responsible for the “Zero down” deals we hear about on the radio every day. They can now install three or four systems in a day instead of one or two, and they’re not paying for multiple pieces of equipment.
How does the CPU perform in an alarm situation?
The “fully wireless” CPU has a distinct disadvantage: the CPU and communicator are sitting right inside your keypad – probably right next to the front door of your house or business. Not only that, but the sturdy metal enclosure has been replaced with a piece of plastic. More than once I have seen a criminal enter a premise and then simply take a hammer to the keypad. After one or two swings, your keypad is destroyed, your siren is disabled, and your system is dead and has no way to communicate with the outside world. The burglar can take their time in checking out your property and possessions.
If you had a hard-wired system, the keypad would certainly be destroyed; but the CPU and Communicator are still downstairs doing their job. They’ve detected someone walking in front of the motion detector and have seen that the keypad is no longer responsive, and the Police are on their way. Not to mention that the siren is still blaring, making the burglar think twice about sticking around.
When it comes to communication, the alarm industry has put some safeguards in place to make these kind of break-ins harder to pull off, specifically a technology called “Crash and Smash”, which means a quick distress signal is sent in most of these cases before the keypad is irreparably damaged. This is a great idea, though not without it’s own flaws. I will explore this in my next blog.
The bottom line is that the CPU in a “fully wireless” system is cost-effective and convenient to install, and some even come with built-in touchscreens and extra features which aren’t available in hardwired systems; however, they come at the cost of being incredibly vulnerable to attack. When you’re paying a monthly fee for your alarm system, and often an up-front cost as well, do you really want your alarm system to be only as secure as a $10 hammer?
My recommendation: better safe than sorry. A hardwired CPU may cost you more to have installed, but if your security system isn’t secure, it’s missing the point!
Oxford Security Systems
Reed Security Authorized Dealer