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How do I avoid home security false alarms?

Florin Onofrei

Florin Onofrei

Home Security Systems Expert

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Updated: January 25, 2014

Researchers Estimate 94-99% of Home Security Alarms Are False

In the early 2000s, police officers in Seattle were responding to 25,000 alarm calls per year, with an astounding 97% false alarm rate. Similarly, in Oakland, California, the police department responds to more than 20,000 false alarms each year. Researchers from Temple University estimate that between 94-99% of all burglar alarm activations end up being false. The resources required to respond to these false alarms cost municipalities millions of dollars per year.

The added protection afforded by security systems give you a lot of peace of mind and, over the past two decades, home security systems have become an increasingly common feature in U.S. homes. Responding to home security alarm activations is something that most city governments take very seriously, but due to the sheer volume of alarm calls, effectively responding to all of them has been difficult. This is particularly troubling because so many of these activations end up being false alarms.

In response to the challenge of false alarms, municipalities throughout the country have passed ordinances with the goal of ensuring police officers and other resources are appropriately utilized. These ordinances have resulted in significantly fewer false alarms, which gives police officers more time to focus on urgent matters. In 2004, Seattle introduced the False Alarm Program, an ordinance that required home and business owners to register security systems, and began billing companies directly for use of police services. Since the passing of the ordinance, false alarms have dropped from 25,000 to fewer than 11,000 each year. Many municipalities across the nation have passed similar ordinances and experienced comparable results.

The Problem With False Alarms

If you own a home or business with a security system, ordinances typically require you to register and/or obtain an alarm permit. Registration fees and/or permits typically cost between $10 and $40 and, in most cases, must be renewed on an annual basis. If your security system does happen to trigger a false alarm, the charges levied by municipalities to security system companies are often passed on to you. Many municipalities will not charge a fee for the first false alarm, but repeat false alarm offenders can expect fees anywhere from $70 to $500 (check local programs for exact fee schedules).

In addition to the fiduciary obligations, reducing false alarms result in better service and increased protection for you and your family. Since false alarms are so prevalent, and the resources necessary to respond are so expensive, the response time from police officers is not always ideal. If the number of false alarms are minimized, police officers are able to respond more quickly in the event of an actual break-in. The goal of all security system owners should be to minimize false alarms.

The 6 Most Common Causes of False Alarms

Faulty equipment: Despite the fact that most of the top home security companies utilize high-quality equipment from leading manufacturers, there is always the possibility of a faulty piece of equipment causing a false alarm.

Human error: Most home security systems are fairly easy to use and don't require significant training. However, following a new installation, some homeowners don't take the necessary time to familiarize themselves with the system. It's important that any person with permission to enter your home understands how to operate the system, starting with yourself.

Low batteries or inconsistent power source: Most wireless home security systems contain batteries that occasionally need to be replaced. These system components typically give audible warnings when the battery levels are low, but in some cases a low battery can trigger a false alarm. An inconsistent and unreliable power source can also be the cause of false alarms.

Unlocked or loose doors and windows: Door and window sensors are activated when the connection between the two sensors is disrupted. If a door or window is loose, it can easily be rattled by the wind and trigger an alarm. Doors that are locked with a deadbolt are typically more sturdy and can minimize unintentional sensor disturbances.

Incorrect installation: When a home security system is installed, it is critical that all sensors and detectors are appropriately aligned, and that all other equipment is installed according to the manufacturer's recommendations. If you're installing a do-it-yourself home security system, you may be particularly susceptible to incorrectly installing your new equipment.

Pets, rodents, and insects: Some motion detectors are triggered by pets, rodents, or insects. If you own a pet, be certain your home security system has "pet-friendly" sensors; otherwise, pets roaming around the house will trigger motion detectors and activate a false alarm. Rodents and insects can also trigger alarms, so it's in your best interest to clear your home of them as much as possible.

The 7 Best Ways to Reduce False Alarms

Choose the right home security system: Your individual circumstances determine what type of system is appropriate. For example, some home security systems are installed by licensed professionals, while others you can install on your own. If you have limited mobility, installing a do-it-yourself home security system may be rather difficult. If you own a pet, make sure the sensors and detectors are pet friendly. If you're not confident about installing equipment yourself successfully, get a professional's help to reduce the risk of a false alarm. Take the time to learn about the features of the best home security systems before making a selection.

Take advantage of a brief familiarization period: Following the installation of a new home security system, many home security companies allow a brief familiarization period. During this time, signals received at the monitoring center are not dispatched to the police department or other authorities. False alarms that occur during this period do not result in any repercussions, giving you a great opportunity to ensure everything is in good order. If a newly installed system is repeatedly broadcasting false alarms, reach out to the home security company for guidance and assistance.

Appropriately train those with access to the home security system: All family members, babysitters, relatives, neighbors, cleaning crews, repairmen, and just about anybody who has permission to be in your home should be appropriately trained on how to use the system. This includes understanding how to arm and disarm the system, knowledge of alarm codes and passwords, and the process for cancelling an inadvertent alarm activation.

Install a home security system with two-way communication capabilities: Some home security keypads utilize two-way voice technology that enables the dispatcher to hear what is happening in your home. This enables you to communicate directly to the monitoring center whether a police dispatch is necessary.

Require dual verification: Many home security monitoring companies have access to audio or video resources. Following an alarm activation, requiring the monitoring center to obtain an audio or visual confirmation before dispatching authorities helps reduce false alarms.

Conduct a short debriefing after a false alarm occurs: After a false alarm occurs, it's important to take the time to determine the trigger and to implement measures to ensure it doesn't happen again. If the cause of the false alarm cannot be determined, you should be particularly cautious and contact your home security system providers.

Perform occasional maintenance: You should perform occasional maintenance to ensure that all sensors, detectors, cameras, and any other home security components are secured, clean, and working as designed. Excessive dust, spider webs, and loose sensors and detectors can all be sources of false alarms.

Other ways to reduce false alarms:

  • Ensure all windows and doors are secure before setting the alarm
  • Ensure the home security company is licensed and reputable
  • Spray insect repellent around sensors and detectors twice a year
  • Periodically test the home security system to ensure equipment is working appropriately
  • Ensure that panic buttons or other emergency activation features are out of the reach of children
  • Make certain that the monitoring center has current contact information and that call lists and emergency contacts are accurate
  • Check the batteries of any wireless devices and the backup power to the primary keypad
  • Designate an area in the home for the home security user manual and ensure contact information for the home monitoring system is accessible
  • Be mindful of environmental changes (new pet, plants, HVAC systems, new home decorations, etc.) that may impact the home security system
  • Use deadbolt locks
  • Contact a professional exterminator if rodents, insects, or other pests are a repeated problem
  • Inform the alarm company or monitoring center if you expect to be away from the home for an extended period of time

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