Controlling your home's alarm with connected automation Alexa, etc.

In this episode I demonstrate the inner struggle between the Luddite in me and the gadget lover (also in me).

Are you sure you want to have a microphone listening all of the time? Maybe I have trust issues. There have been so many hacking cases.

Didn’t we all dream about living in the Jetson’s house? We’re getting closer and closer.

I see the utility in these advances for those with mobility issues. I think it is wonderful. For the rest of us, though, I worry about how lazy we will become.  Is it really too much to flip the light switch manually? Is it a good use of our resources to make it so that we don;t have to get up?

Our Honeywell Systems with Total Connect are compatible with Alexa, so if you have one— you can give it a go. If you have a Honeywell system but not Total Connect, give us a call and we’ll help you get that set up.

Total connect and alexa.jpg

There are a lot of ways you can use gadgets like Alexa— I think the setting of scenes would be the most useful. Try making a “go to sleep” scene or set of commands to make sure your house is locked and the system is armed, and turn off the lights without getting up, if you want.

honeywell commands for alexa.jpg

That said, we are not tech support for Alexa or any of the home speakers. We’ll focus on security and fire systems, thank you.

Security cameras or security alarm?

Are cameras better than an alarm?

A great supplement to your security system!

A great supplement to your security system!

Security cameras let you SEE what’s going on at your home or business. That’s great! I think that the more information you can get- the better! Lots of companies are marketing cameras as a substitute for an alarm system. Are they really a good substitute?

Let’s consider what they do and don’t do.

Cameras let you see what happened or is happening. I’m a big fan. I love my doorbell cameras and home security cameras. Really, I do. I use them daily.

Cameras can alert you to motion or the presence of people in the view of the camera.

Cameras can record evidence needed for prosecution. Huge plus! But— they can be foiled by masks or sabotage— spray paint or destruction.

Cameras cannot reliably tell if you need the police. The presence of a person at the site does not mean police are needed. You have to look at the video to make a decision, then call the police.

Cameras cannot (and should not without human review) summon police or fire departments. Even with built-in face recognition, which is another issue entirely, a human should look at the video to see what is actually happening before a call is made.

Alarms detect entry. Cameras don’t show you anything until a person is in the frame. If you have entrances not “covered” by cameras, a person could get past and you wouldn’t know it. An alarm can alert you to a door or window opening or interior motion (without being intrusive or sacrificing your privacy).

Alarms can get a response without you and your cell phone being in an area where you can view video. How many times have you had slow WiFi or a slow video playback on your cell phone? An alarm system can get the response you need more quickly than cameras. You aren’t always “on call” having to view videos and make decisions if you have an alarm. You can count on a response and on the off chance that it was an accidental trip, you can cancel the police or fire response.

Bottom line:

I do not think cameras substitute well for an alarm system. They are a great addition to an alarm system and can complement their function. It’s handy to have a video clip to review if you are away and your alarm is tripped— but knowing that if I can’t get the video to load there will still be help on the way is valuable peace of mind.

Who are we gonna call?

Just a reminder— If you haven’t updated your call list numbers lately, you should take the time to review them. Have any of the people on your list gotten rid of their landline phones? Changed cell phone numbers? Gotten a new job with a new work number?


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Pros and Cons of Do-it-yourself security alarm systems

Our choice for DIY alarms

Our choice for DIY alarms

Pros and Cons of Do-it-yourself security alarm systems

You can’t escape the ads. You can’t go into many stores without seeing one. Do-it-yourself alarm systems are trending. They are not a new invention— ever hear of Radio Shack? You used to be able to buy kits there. Our local Radio Shacks closed, and I don’t know if there are any left anywhere at this point.* The basics of the systems are the same— door switches, motion detectors, sirens/sounders. The new twists are how you control them, the way they look, and how you get a police response from them.

Full disclosure: We just started offering a DIY system, too. So you shouldn’t assume I fall on one side or the other. I see their utility and I see some issues too.

The following is an off the top of my head list of pros and cons. I may elaborate on them in future posts, or on request if you contact me.

Pros of DIY alarms:

relatively inexpensive

easier to follow installation instructions than professional models

cheaper monitoring

modern-looking designs

auto-arm feature (see below for auto-disarm) is convenient (just make sure it is working how you think it is)

no contract required monitoring (Some DO have contracts. But- we don’t require a contract on our DIY or professionally installed alarms)

easy integration with some desirable features (for some) like thermostats and lights

Cons of DIY alarms:

less adjustable to needs— can’t adjust delay times for instance

may work only with one company or central station

may require sharing more personal data than traditional alarm (trade-off for automatic features)

no local on-site assistance for troubleshooting (exception- we sell DIYs, and we can help on site)

easy to disturb system by moving parts out of range

easy to disrupt video by moving camera/ covering (cameras are not equal to security alarms)

self monitoring means YOU are always on call (some systems allow self monitoring, some don’t)

expected lifespan may be less— professional systems can last for decades

auto arm feature is convenient, but it’s easier to forget the code you will only occasionally need— this can cause false alarms

* Radio Shack was in bankruptcy, but is now out of it and still has an online presence and some plans to re-brand as Radio Shack Express. Which brings the question- what happens to your security system if the company who sold it to you goes out of business? I’ll do another post on this in the future, because it’s complicated.


There is no way I can say DIY is for everyone. If anything, I can just say proceed with caution, read the manuals, and test the system. Test it regularly. Do not assume the system is ok without inspecting it periodically.

Whatever you see advertised that a DIY system can do, a professionally installed system can do as well. So don’t think that you have to sign up for the ones you hear advertised just to get a new function or gadget. Call your current security provider— or call us!

Privacy and security

Does your alarm watch you or listen to you?

Most do not-- but there are now some that do. I can see the utility for people with mobility, dexterity, or vision issues, but I don't think it is a worthwhile feature for most people. 20 years go I would go out on sales calls and design systems for homes and businesses and the occasional client would stop me when I said that a glass break sensor was "listening" for the sound of breaking glass or a motion sensor was "looking" for movement in the room. Listening and looking in a person's home were considered intrusive, and some people would not have it. We had to be really precise in describing how these sensors worked, so that people didn't think they were compromising their privacy. Fast forward to 2018-- people are paying for devices to listen to them and watch them and they are putting all of that data onto the internet willingly. 

Everyone has to draw the line where they are personally comfortable with surveillance. Are cameras in your home too much? Are "always on" listening devices too much? Smart phones and speakers are becoming very common, and you can no longer assume that your conversations are private in other peoples' homes, near other peoples' phones, or anywhere in public, but you CAN decide for your own home. Here are some things to consider:

Motion sensor/ camera combos

Alarm motion sensors used to always be  looking for changes in the heat signatures around the room or a combination of indicators of mass and temperature. Not transmitting video for people or computers to review. Now motion sensors with built in video are available. Personally, I don't want that. No way. But, to be open about it, I don't even like it when a bra strap shows-- and I grew up during the height of Madonna's popularity. If I have to sprint through the house in a towel I do not want a camera catching that action.

Glassbreak Sensors

Glassbreak sensors match the ambient sounds to internal records of breaking glass patterns. When the match is close enough, the alarm trips. So they do listen, but they aren't recording and transmitting or using your vocal audio to sell you things, like an app might. 

Alarm panels or keypads

Newer alarm panels like Honeywell's Lyric have voice activated arming-- so they listen for the trigger phrase. I have a demo that gets confused and prompts me to repeat my command-- but I haven't spoken to it at all. So, it can make mistakes, it has its flaws. It has some nice points too. It looks sleek. It is easy to use. It is all wireless, with an easy to upgrade cellular communicator.

Many older and current panels have two-way voice activated for monitoring. This enables central station operators to speak through the keypad speaker and listen as well. While this may be really convenient and help prevent false alarms caused by missing the phone call from the monitoring station when you accidentally trip your alarm, it may be over the line for some homeowners' comfort. We don't use it, but many alarm companies do. I think all I want to say about this is that you should be aware this feature and weigh its benefits and costs.

The Honeywell Lyric has a built in camera

The Honeywell Lyric has a built in camera

The Lyric also has a built-in camera, and can snap a picture when you arm or disarm. I can see some utility in that, but the photos of me are far from acceptable. The angle is horrid and I would rather never lay eyes on them. That said-- my point here is know what your alarm does if you value your privacy.

Check the settings on your computers.

Windows 10 (and other OS) have built in listening "helpers". You can turn that off, but the system will still offer it every chance it gets.

Check the settings on your smart phone.

This is tricky-- I have set mine to NOT listen, yet tapping on the microphone symbol (located near the search bars) can activate the device to listen anyway. When I first got it, I loved the convenience of telling my phone to navigate to XXX place, and have it accurately do so-- but it rarely did it without me having to tap or look at it, so I'd have to pull over anyway. Once I deactivated it, my expectations were lower and I knew I had to manually enter the address each time. It took a few seconds prior to embarking on my journey, but it worked way better. I occasionally wish I could say "ok Google now" and start a search or settle a dispute instantly, but I think  I am better off for having it deactivated. 

There are apps that ask for microphone permissions. (and camera permissions)

You may have chosen to install them, and they may be listening, even when you deactivate the voice activated search feature. I have no solution for this other than to uninstall the apps. If they are useful enough, you might decide it is worth it to have the possible intrusion (and remember- it isn't illegal because we agree to it in the installation process). Ever notice ads popping up as you browse that seem especially relevant to recent conversations you have had? You're not paranoid. There is a reason for that. Consider what you say near your phone-- all sorts of private things-- credit card numbers, your hopes and it ok for the apps to have that info? I know people who have gone back to flip phones-- they don't have those worries. (See:

Home automation speakers/microphones/cameras

(Alexa Cortana Siri Echo and more)

They are listening and watching. Can they substitute for a traditional security system without being intrusive? For my home-- I don't want to leave it up to facial recognition or voice matching or loud noises tripping analysis by an internet company to decide if police need to come. It is outside of my comfort range. I would rather get up and tap a button on the keypad to arm the system or punch my code to disarm it than vocalize my commands. I would rather not have video analyzed to determine if there is a visitor in my home.

Having that kind of information-- our conversations, our associates, our schedules-- allows one to make all sorts of assumptions-- and cause all sorts of actions or responses. I read "1984" and I don't want to live in that world.

Many innovations sound kind of slick, but I think it is still true that security is best when you actually do have to think about it. Having your system disarm when you arrive at the door without doing anything because your phone is in your pocket on the doorstep? What if it isn't in YOUR pocket? I could go on with the hypothetical situations, but I'll stop here. I love technology and I am cautious about it. You should be cautious too.