Home security is going high-tech to counter housing bust

Oct 28, 2010 By Victor Godinez

While almost every other piece of the consumer electronics business has gotten wired and then wireless over the last 10 years, home security systems have remained stubbornly low-tech.

Burglar breaks glass, cops get pinged, end of story.

When you get home, all you can do is hope your house is still in one piece.

That's about to change, and home security systems are becoming as high-tech as the smartphone in your pocket.

While the natural progression of technology is partly driving that trend, it's also getting a boost from the housing bust.

Home security purchases have historically been driven by new home construction or buyers of used homes buying security systems when they move in.

With those traditional catalysts fizzling, home security companies are innovating with all sorts of new features to entice existing homeowners.

"The is looking toward high-tech," said Tricia Parks, chief executive of Dallas-based research firm Parks Associates.

And it's not just about security.

The companies behind this technology are developing systems that essentially connect your entire house to the Internet.

Companies such as Alarm.com and Honeywell International Inc., sell systems that don't just let you arm or disarm your security system from a website or iPhone app but also let you adjust your thermostat, close your garage door, turn your lights on and off, monitor your and even watch live video from webcams scattered around your home.

Eventually, almost every appliance in your house could be wired into these networks.

And you'll be able to monitor it all through your phone, or laptop.

"If we cast our minds back to the traditional security industry, essentially the focus was very much on life safety, almost an extension of the 911 infrastructure," said Jonathan Klinger, vice president of marketing for Honeywell.

"If something happens in my home, I want a bell to go off somewhere. If you were to take a snapshot of the industry maybe five years ago or so, that's pretty much what you would see."

TOTALLY CONNECTED

But that market is pretty much tapped out.

Parks Associates found in a report earlier this year that the percentage of U.S. households with security monitoring has declined from nearly 19 percent in 2007 to 17.5 percent now.

So security companies are expanding into new areas to appeal to customers who might not be as concerned about burglars and fires but who do want tools to monitor their homes.

"Security is transitioning from being a stand-alone product and service, if you will, to being part of a much broader universe of offerings -- offerings which have become as much lifestyle as life safety," Klinger said.

For example, Honeywell offers a service through local installers called Total Connect that lets users monitor temperature changes in their houses, adjust lighting, close garage doors and remotely unlock front doors to let plumbers and other service workers in.

The service can also include live video, if you want to remotely follow the plumber as he works.

Or you can give the plumber a one-time entry code for your keypad-equipped door and get an e-mail alert when the code is used Â- and also get alerts if your medicine or liquor cabinets are opened.

Honeywell already has Total Connect apps for iPhone and BlackBerry, and also recently launched its Android phone app.

Alarm.com offers similar technology through its network of affiliated dealers and installers.

"You can basically put a camera looking out on your driveway, and you can draw a window and if there's any activity in this little window, the camera will automatically record the video," said Alison Slavin, vice president of product management at Alarm.com. "We can even e-mail you a clip."

CUTTING THE CORD

A major hurdle for many security companies has been the declining number of homes with land-line phones, Slavin said.

Until recently, security companies monitored alarm systems by connecting those systems to copper wire phone lines.

But a growing number of households are dumping their land-line phones -- 24.5 percent of U.S. households were wireless only in June, up from 7.7 percent five years ago, according to trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association. That makes those systems useless.

So security systems have gone wireless, too.

Many now have built-in antennas to connect to 2G cellular networks.

That has the added benefit of giving security companies much more bandwidth over which to send data, allowing features such as energy management.

Eventually, as 3G and then 4G networks proliferate, those high-bandwidth services will be able to handle video streaming, too.

For now, though, if you want to watch live or recorded video from your home, you have to wire your cameras into a home broadband Internet connection. Some people have been doing that on their own for years.

HOMEMADE SAFETY

Dallas resident Vincent Hunter made headlines in August when webcams in his home and the app iCam alerted him to two burglars breaking into his house while he was traveling with his wife in Connecticut.

Corinth resident Bear Cahill rolled his own high-tech security system by wirelessly connecting a night-vision security camera to his PC.

He sets the computer to capture pictures from the camera at regular intervals and upload them to a server that he can access remotely from anywhere in the world.

"Usually when we're in town, I use it as a baby monitor (I have a second receiver on the TV)," Cahill said in an e-mail.

"But when we go out of town, I can put the camera overlooking the living room and see if anything's going on: burglary, flooding, etc."

Cahill is a full-time programmer, though, and security companies know that a home-brew setup can be daunting to non-techie users.

"One of the things that slows down a retail purchase is a sense of incompetence on the part of the retail consumer, saying 'Oh my gosh, can I put this in myself?'" Parks said.

For years, Irving resident Eric Flores had an older security system from ADT Security Services Inc. When his battery recently died, he decided to upgrade to a new system from an Alarm.com-affiliated dealer.

He now has his security system and thermostat wired into his account, along with the ability to monitor the video feed from a Wi-Fi webcam in his house. He controls it through his BlackBerry.

"I have a teenager, so I know the time he walks in every day from school," Flores said.

Flores also long ago cut his landline phone so he needed a system that relied on the cellular network.

He paid $100 for the equipment, along with a $55 monthly fee. That's comparable to the high-tech systems offered by other companies, although prices vary depending on which equipment and services are selected.

"It is real convenient," Flores said. "I log in two, three, four times a day through my phone just to make sure everything is OK. It's great."

ENTER THE COMPETITION

But as the technology gets more user-friendly and grows from merely security to full-fledged home networking, more companies are getting interested in the space.

Cable and telecom companies are angling for a piece of the action, for example.

Cable television and broadband provider Comcast Corp. offers its Xfinity home security service that also bundles lighting and energy management and video monitoring.

Verizon Communications Inc., is working on home security, heating and air conditioning controls as part of its FiOS fiber-optic Internet service.

For now, cutting-edge security and monitoring technologies are still a small percentage of the installations in homes.

But they're coming on fast.

In the Parks report, 21 percent of security dealers said they "certainly will" start offering Internet-connected home security products this year.

"We're not even yet at the early mass market, in terms of that comprehensive home networking," said Klinger at Honeywell. "But we're not far from it."

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