On the afternoon of May 22nd, 2011, Edith Lawellin was startled by an alarm from her hall: “Tornado warning. Evacuate immediately.” Like many residents of Joplin, Missouri, she had a storm closet (a reinforced room under the stairs). She ran for the closet, locked the door, and only minutes later, an airborne car tore through her house. Finally, only the closet was left standing. If not for her security system’s just-in-time warning, Edith is convinced she would have died that night.
Next-Gen Home Security
Many Tom’s Hardware readers are rightfully concerned about securing their homes, staying safe, and dabbing in home automation. Some of you have already set up IP cameras for remote surveillance and alerting, but such installations miss a lot of functionality and convenience. If you’re curious about how the pros do IP security and automation, check out this step-by-step walk-through with Vivint. You might learn a few things or, like Edith Lawellin, it could save your life.
What We Installed
Add one pan/tilt IP camera and swap the light/appliance switch shown here (top-right) with two newer model switches, and this is what Vivint installed in my home. The heart of the system is Vivint’s Go!Control panel (top-left), which retails for $700 bucks. From left to right and top-down, we have an HVAC control panel, motion detector for the home office, Z-Wave light switch, IP camera, key fobs, door and window sensors, Kwikset Z-Wave door lock, glass breaks, and smoke detectors.
On the right, you can see the home’s preinstalled heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) controller. Like a VCR, this device was so poorly designed that we never once (in six years) had it fully programmed. It would have been nice if Vivint had a two-in-one security panel/HVAC controller, but this isn’t in the product line-up yet. Only three screws are needed to mount the new control panel. Note the hole drilled through the sheet rock behind the panel’s mounting plate.
The Hardest Part
Strangely, the most difficult part of this process was getting power to the control panel. The installers used a device called a glow stick, which actually does glow a bit, and jammed it through the panel hole, down through the wall’s insulation, and to the power outlet located roughly four feet below it.
Pull My Chain
With a string from the panel snagged down at the outlet, installers tied a power wire to the end of it and pulled the wire back up through the wall and out to the panel plate. In this way, using a sort of strapped-down wall wart, power was drawn up through the wall to the panel. During a power outage, the panel fails over to six AA batteries. Interestingly, the 18 V Makita drill you see here died during installation. Kudos to Vivint for carrying spares of everything.
The black wire coming off the circuit board is an external antenna for the panel’s GSM cellular radio. Installers coordinate with a local GSM provider, eliminating the risk of being cut off from authorities by a snipped phone line. Vivint can hook into a land line, but it prefers wireless. The panel consumes roughly 12 W when it's active and almost nothing in standby. It takes about an hour to fully program a panel, and the speaker outputs 85 dB at 10 feet on an alarm.
Ring The Alarm
Much like Bluetooth, Vivint’s panel wirelessly pairs with various compatible devices, including sensors and a couple of remote control key fobs. Holding down the top two fob buttons sends a panic signal. This skips the 30-second delay triggered by a normal alarm and immediately connects you with an operator able to call for emergency services. You communicate through the panel and are prompted for your password. One panel code disarms the system, but also sends a silent alarm to the police in case it's coerced.
The Programming Process
Programming is fairly straightforward. You select the desired device type and indicate its device number. For example, we have two fobs, so we’d select either 0 or 1. After entering the a serial number, the panel waits to “hear” the device and learn its sensor ID. Our fob paired and registered a 345 MHz wireless connection. We then assigned the button that'd trigger an emergency, and reviewed the finally configuration summary.
As you might expect, different sensors attach in different ways, and there can be multiple sensor types for a given task. For example, here, the installer is applying adhesive to the main sensor/transmitter unit in a sliding glass door sensor. The smaller piece of the sensor, which is just a magnet, uses a peel-back adhesive strip. When the two pieces become separated, the transmitter sends a signal to the panel which, in our case, reports a bell tone followed by a loud “Back door.”
In homes with little kids (or in cases where people may not be able to move around well), the audio cues are quite helpful. The panel can be programmed to emit different alert responses or none at all. If the panel is armed, an opened door generates a 30-second alarm (windows trigger instantly). As with most alarms, there are two arming modes. “Away” triggers based on an alert from any sensor. “Stay” onlys trigger from an external sensor, like a door or window.