Controlling False Alarms

We've all heard them - the alarms going off for no apparent reason, cycling back and forth through the same pattern of beeps and shrieks and siren wails, seemingly all day and night, in mall parking lots, side streets, and driveways. They disrupt the peace and cry wolf to the point that most of us are conditioned to not even glance at a car with an alarm going off - and if we do it's probably in annoyance, not concern. Why do so many vehicle alarms basically just end up being a hassle to the owner?

If you keep an informal tally of the vehicles involved in these 'false alarms' like I do, much more often than not, you'll find that these unattended false alarms are from cars with aftermarket "add-on" alarms, not from vehicles that came with a factory-installed security system. So is it possible to add a reliable security and alarm system to a vehicle that didn't originally have it - without all the false alarms and angry neighbors?

The answer to that question is yes. Although aftermarket security systems aren't catered to the specific vehicle the way that original-equipment systems are, if you choose the right model for your vehicle and use an expert installer, an aftermarket system can be quite effective.

To understand how important these choices are, it first helps to have a basic understanding of how today's alarm systems work. Virtually all use a main control unit, with an assortment of sensors and switches each connected to that main unit. Depending on its level of sophistication, the control unit can smartly cater its response to an attempted break-in by activating the best combination of the lights, horn, or alarm.

At the very least, alarm systems include door and/or window switches, also installed on the trunk and hood latches. Most alarms have sensors that monitor the continuity of the car's electrical system, too, on alert for any changes that might be due to tampering. Most of the security systems available now include some type of shock sensor as well. These basically detect sudden movement in or directly around the vehicle that may be indicative of an attempted break-in. Basic alarms might have simple shock sensors that trigger the alarm with any shock of a specific intensity, while more advanced systems will be able to discern the threat level based on the duration and intensity, to help avoid false alarms or give a warning first.

Other types of sensors in newer alarm systems - shared with some factory-installed systems - include glass-breakage sensors (which adds a microphone so the control unit can listen for the signature wave pattern of glass breaking), pressure sensors, and motion/perimeter detectors. Since thieves might try to turn off the alarm by cutting the battery terminals, the better systems now have a backup battery, concealed in an unlikely place, which cuts in to continue the alarm operation.

For the installation of a full-featured aftermarket security system, the vehicle should already be equipped with central locking, else installing a locking system will cost several hundred dollars extra. Aftermarket security systems include a simple lock/unlock/panic key fob similar to what you would get with an original-equipment (OEM) central locking or alarm/security system. The coded remote sends a signal directly to the security system's processor to actuate the locking and alarm functions.

Due to the complicated nature of installing an aftermarket alarm that meets all the needs of a vehicle, it's best to opt for the new-car, factory-installed security system, if it's available as an option. Although aftermarket alarm manufacturers will boast about the level of protection, OEM alarms and security systems almost always include more sophisticated and effective immobilizer interfaces than aftermarket systems.

But if you're looking to add an aftermarket security system for your vehicle, here are some important considerations:

Choosing an experienced installer is the most important part! "For the most part, those alarms you hear going off everywhere are improperly installed," said Tony Low, a Car Toys store manager and certified installer. Installation might look relatively simple, but an expert installation -necessary for the system to be reliable and false-alarm free - requires a knowledge of the tricks and nuances of each type of security system and vehicle. Opt for a shop that keeps the number of security system models they install down to one or two brands and only a few top-end models. After the installation, ask to see the wiring that was added for the security system. Make sure it looks like 'stock' wiring, with the same colors and connectors used elsewhere in the vehicle; if it doesn't, have them redo it. If it looks like it added on, the thief will single out those wires and parts quickly to disable the system.

Buy an alarm suited to your vehicle. Make sure you get one that is for the size and type of vehicle you have. Each aftermarket maker offers several different models, with different vehicle-dependent installation options. For instance, a large, softly sprung luxury car will require very different shock-sensor characteristics than a small roadster.

Have the proper adjustments performed. Both during and after installation, adjustments will need to be made to the sensitivity of your system. Make sure these are performed, and be leery of places that say you won't need any. Also make sure that these adjustments are covered free of charge for the life of the vehicle/system.

Go for the highest quality. General rule: better quality alarms have fewer false alarms, but they cost more. "Although there are exceptions, with car alarms and security systems, usually the more you are willing to pay on the system, the better the quality of both the system and the installation," advised Low. If you skimp, you might pay later on with false alarm annoyances and break-ins.

What to look for: Shock sensors are the most critical component of a security system, and pertaining to the shock sensors there are several important things to consider. Look for digital - rather than analog - shock sensors, as they give the control unit the capacity to 'filter out' the signature wave patterns for typical false alarms - for example, from loud motorcycles or garbage trucks. Also, choose a design that has the shock sensor as a separate unit rather than as an integrated part of the main control unit. These two features will allow better, "smarter" sensitivity without false alarms.

With vehicle thefts slightly on the rise the past few years, after nearly a decade of declines, thieves are becoming more sly and inventive when it comes to breaking into vehicles and stealing them. Although an alarm - and even an immobilizer - may scare away amateur thieves, it alone won't stop an experienced car thief from taking off with your vehicle. Other more effective means can be used to prevent theft before it happens and to prevent the thief from getting too far away if he/she does manage to steal your car. LoJack, a system that combines conventional security-system features with a GPS tracking system, allows law enforcement to track down thieves and recover your car. Even if you do get a good aftermarket security system installed, combining it with other measures like passive, physical devices such as steering-wheel locks might just be enough to send thieves looking for an easier target.

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