Easy on the eyes: Wireless in the house gets simpler, more flexible and better looking

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Much of the talk nowadays about "wireless" in residential applications centers around how to get the signal from the house to the monitoring station, and for good reason. With the AMPS sunset less than a year away, major manufacturers are busy introducing GSM solutions and helping dealers plan for the replacement of the estimated one million AMPS radios.
But what about wireless applications as part of the home security system itself? Wireless has been around for years, but as wireless and hybrid systems have improved in functionality over the years, it's become even more popular.
Manufacturers say wireless technology has gotten to the point that there's very little that it can't do. Current wireless trends include equipment that's easier to install and less obtrusive, and they say this is one area of security where design is nearly as important as functionality.
"As we develop our new line in 2007, all are aesthetically pleasing," said Kirk MacDowell, residential marketing leader for GE Security. "We go out and show potential customers and consumers what the products are going to look like and get feedback before we even go to manufacturing."
At DSC, the new line of designer key fobs includes "hot pink, silver, gold, wood grain" and more, said Quinto Petrucci, senior product manager for DSC.
Manufacturers can emphasize looks now because functionality is no longer a big issue.
Andy Cicero, vice president and general manager for the West Alabama operations for ADS and a Honeywell First Alert Professional's dealer, gave a well-attended educational session to a group of his peers about the benefits of using wireless at the most recent First Alert conference in October.
He said there could be problems with supervision back in 1994 when he started installing wireless. That's not a problem any more, though. The only constraint today is in large commercial applications, "especially fire, the horn, strobe and signaling devices can't be wireless. You're going to be pulling wires for those."
The need for batteries is sometimes viewed as a downside to using wireless. However, manufacturers point out that longer-lasting, more robust batteries are being developed all the time. Honeywell, for example, recently introduced a number of 10-year battery products.
One objection to wireless among residential dealers can be the higher cost of components. Cicero countered that wireless systems are much quicker to install than hardwired, installers do not need as much training to install wireless systems, and estimating is easier. "You don't have to worry about climbing into the attic and knowing how the roof joists join," he said.
Since the sensors are wireless, installers don't have to worry about damaging someone's cathedral ceiling, for example, during the installation.
"It's a profit issue," he said. And when there is a backlog in jobs, wireless installations can reduce that backlog.
DSC's Petrucci noted that there is a direct correlation between the cost of labor and the amount of wireless that's used. "On a global scale, in places where the labor rate isn't increasing as quickly, the demand for wireless isn't increasing as quickly either."
Cicero said he hasn't gone completely wireless. His company specializes in higher end custom design systems, so he will use wired or wireless depending on the customer. He also does a lot of new construction, where he can easily put in a wired system.
"Where I see the impact of wireless is when the sheetrock is already up," Cicero said.
That's why the hybrid panels, manufacturers seem to agree, are best. The system can be wired and wireless components can be added on at any time. Several manufacturers make double-digit-zone hybrid panels. DSC's Petrucci said, "it's typically for larger homes, but with 64 zones you can pinpoint the exact window and door, or if you want to protect a freezer door, gun cabinet or safe."
The need for super high-end residential wireless systems is limited, but increasing, says Ray Shilling of AvaLAN Wireless. AvaLAN produces a wireless broadband backhaul product used in commercial and industrial applications, and that is beginning to make inroads in very high-end residential applications, said Shilling, AvaLAN's vice president of sales and marketing. The product is useful when components of the security system are beyond the wired LAN and where the cost of installing new Ethernet cable would be prohibitive. In a nutshell, "it's used to solve challenging range problems such as transmitting through walls and trees," Shilling said.
One application may be a larger homesite with a "gate access and a long tree-lined driveway. On the gate, the integrator will install an access control device, a speaker, a touch panel and a network camera so the homeowner can visually verify who's at the gate."
The radio is used to connect the integrated system at the gate with the system in the house. The product is all Ethernet and IP-based and works on a proprietary closed-loop system. High end residential is a growing niche for AvaLAN, "In fact, AvaLAN has signed up ADT as a direct account, so we look forward to considerable growth in this area."
Key fobs are also becoming more and more popular. As consumers become accustomed to key fobs with cars and garage doors, they want them for their security systems.
In addition to the products' good looks these days, manufacturers such as Honeywell make fobs (and panels) that talk. "This not only [reduces] false alarms, it increases security and peace of mind for consumers," said Al Lizza, Honeywell's director of marketing for residential products. "These devices will tell you, 'I'm armed/disarmed/there's been a fire.' It tells the status of the security system and also what's happened in alarm history," he said. And, "it tells by zone descriptor where [the alarm] is."
The newer sensors are less obtrusive: "As people replace windows and doors to be more complementary or for energy management, the colors change," said Kirk MacDowell of GE. "As the colors change we have to make sure that the sensors we're offering are either recessed or not able to be seen by the customer ... so we offer them in different color palettes."
Manufacturers were reluctant to talk specifics about what's coming in terms of new wireless products. Speaking in general terms, manufacturers agreed that there will be more sensor applications.
Lizza, from Honeywell, said, "You'll see, over time, more sensors that are being installed wirelessly to keep it simple." He also said that more data will be moved around the house wirelessly. "Right now the data being moved around is typical keypad or sensor data, but as the sensors get smarter and can sense more things and be more intelligent, the need to move that intelligence around wirelessly will increase. So I think you'll see over the year the trend of smarter sensors and wireless that is robust enough and advanced enough to move more data reliably around the house."