One thing you have probably come across when looking at home security systems is talk about alarm zones and how many each system has. Understanding how these zones work can help in comparing products and how to plan your system if you are looking at getting a DIY system or it can help you when speaking to a professional installer.

Basically alarm zones are how a security system manages and controls sensors. The sensors are assigned to zones and when a sensor is trigger the system informs you which zone a sensor has been triggered. Sensors are the devices that detect unauthorized entry or movement in an area or in the case of environmental sensors when there has been a change in an environmental factor – e.g, a smoke detector. A zone normally corresponds to a sensor or sensors in a particular area of your house – e.g. living room or front door etc.

Most traditional systems have a control panel that has a keypad and a display and they could only control up to 8 zones without buying extra functionality to expand it to 16 or 32 zones (and cope with only one sensor per zone). However, with advances in technology this limitation is now becoming less common in wireless security systems.

The control panel is the “brains” of the system.  When a sensor has been triggered the zone number will be displayed on the control panel. They mostly do only use numbers for zones so you will need to have a list (or remember) to let you know what was assigned to the zone. The control panel may also “speak” to you to let you know the zone where the security event took place.

To overcome the limitation on the number of zones some systems allow you to have multiple sensors per zone. This gives you more flexibility but it means you do need to put more effort in planning where to install the sensors although most DIY systems have assigned the sensors to the zones so you don’t’ have to do this. It is only when you want to make changes that this can be difficult.

Zones And Planning Your Installation

Understanding how your system uses zones is important to help you plan the installation of the sensors. This is particularly so when you are using a system that allows more than one sensor per zone.

If the system has one sensor for one zone then you are limited by the number of zones you have. However, some modern systems like the iSmartAlarm allow you unlimited zones/sensors so this is not a problem – and you can also give them meaningful names. You have one sensor per zone and you can properly describe them. With some systems like the Simplisafe you have to pay a monthly fee to unlock this capability but they include professional monitoring for this too.

Some wireless home security systems allow you to have more sensors than there are zones – like the Fortress GSM-B Wireless Cellular System which allows up to 99 sensors which are managed with 10 zones. This does give you the opportunity to cover many eventualities, entry points and areas but it can get confusing if not planned out properly. This system uses a control panel that tells you the zone number and a generic description (you have a choice of 8).

As you set up your system or want to change the settings that the system has come pre-programmed it is important to decide which sensors you want to group together in each of the zones (and make a note of the ones you’ve grouped together).  You can group the sensors by location or by type depending on how you want to manage them and how they respond to the alarm system being armed in home or away mode or disarmed. (See programming zones below.)

False alarms can be difficult to track down when you have more than one sensor to an alarm so this makes it more important to know which sensors are included in the zone. The systems that operate this way will only let you know the zone where the sensor was triggered not the specific sensor that was tripped. A paper chart or spread sheet is handy for keeping control of sensors when you have more than a few installed.

Programming Zones

Home security system give you the option to program zones so that sensors assigned to them cause the system to respond differently when they are triggered.  One of the most common set ups is to have it so the motion sensors are not armed when you are at home but the window/door contacts are, so you can walk around your home without triggering an alarm.

To achieve this, the motion sensors are assigned to a zone that is deactivated when you want the alarm system to be armed but you are staying at home (home mode).  The zone with the motion sensors is programmed using the control panel to not to be activated when armed in home mode. Most wireless systems will be programmed to work this way when you receive them so you don’t have to do this to start using the system.  If you don’t want to change the setting all you need to do is just note where you put the sensors and the zone number.

The other common way systems are set up is for environmental sensors to be assigned to a zone that is always active even when the system is disarmed. As environmental sensors are for detecting smoke and carbon monoxide it is important they are on at all times.

When you buy a DIY wireless security system they usually come pre-programmed to work without having to change the zones characteristics and the sensors assigned to each zone. You can just follow the instructions and note down where the sensors have been installed so you can manage the system when there is an incident. It’s also important when trying to determine which sensor that is causing the false alarms to know the where the zone is located and the sensors assigned to it.

The systems that give you the opportunity to have a proper description for each sensor so you know the location and report back to you using this are easier to manage than those systems where you have a zone number and multiple sensors per zone but they do cost more.

When you buy additional sensors at a later date or want to change how the sensors respond to a security incident, it then becomes important to know how the alarm zones work for your system. This is when you will be planning the system out and it helps you keep track of where the sensors in each zone are.

Filed under: Buying Advice

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