Boston — High technology is promising homeowners a cheaper, more reliable security system.
With burglary a serious problem in many residential areas, more Americans are buying house alarm systems. But, from the standpoint of manufacturers, sales in the residential market have been unsatisfactory.
Home security systems ''are like life insurance,'' says Norman Eisenstat. ''People won't buy what they know they should buy. Instead they turn around and buy a Betamax (a video recorder).''
Mr. Eisenstat is marketing manager of residential security systems at the Alarm Device Manufacturing Company (Ademco) -- the US manufacturing giant in burglar alarms. He puts the burglar alarm industry's dent in the residential market at a puny 2 to 3 percent.
The old consumer routine of ''putting it off until later'' is one reason behind the industry's dismal performance in the home market. But other reasons are given: inconvenience, unreliability, and the high cost of home alarm systems.
Fortunately, some ''high tech'' solutions are popping up and taking a stab at all three of these problem areas. Wireless security systems, the debut of the microprocessor in alarm controls, computer-controlled monitoring stations, and even cable TV are chipping away at these constraints.
The bulk of the industry still manufactures traditional hard-wire systems -- systems that link your windows and doors with wires hooked up to a central control unit. When this closed circuit is broken by the lifting of a window or forcing of a door, the control unit triggers an alarm. If you are leasing the services of an outside monitoring station (which can run anywhere from $10 to $ 25 a month), the control unit will send a message to the station. The station is supposed to check back with the home and then call the police.
''Hard-wire still accounts for about 90 percent of the home market,'' says Ademco's Eisenstat. If the system is put in by an installation company, it will cost you from $1,000 to $2,500 and take two to four days to complete.
''The cost of these systems is 80 percent in the installation labor,'' says Andrew Clapp, co-author of an alarm industry study by Arthur D. Little Inc., a consulting firm. But about 10 years ago the industry took a small step up the high-tech ladder: It began marketing wireless systems. ''These turned the cost rates around,'' Mr. Clapp says. ''Now labor is only 20 percent, but material costs come to about 80 percent.''
It is only in the past year and a half that wireless systems have become more reliable and more acceptable on the market, Clapp says. Instead of communicating to the control unit by wire, transmitters - which are wired to nearby magnetic window and door switches - relay information to the control unit through radio or sound waves. At the start, these systems were beset by false alarms caused by outside radio wave interference. This problem has largely been solved, says Eisenstat. He prices the systems from $700 to $1,250.
A number of sophisticated sensors complete the ranks of wireless detectors. These systems are bought mostly for ''zone'' protection and as a backup to home perimeter systems. A 1980 Frost & Sullivan industry study describes them this way:
* Audio discriminator: This detects sounds made by a break-in. It discriminates between normal life sounds and sounds generated by force, i.e., breaking glass, cutting, ramming, etc. Loudness alone will not trigger it. Audio discriminators cover the largest amount of square footage of any of the zone systems.
* Ultrasonic: Often called a motion detector, this system sends out and receives back high-frequency sound waves. If a moving object disturbs the pattern of these waves, the alarm is triggered.
These systems are prone to false alarms because of drafts, pets, etc. Also, the waves do not penetrate solid objects.
* Microwave: Instead of sending out high-frequency sound waves, this sensor sends out radio waves. Microwaves will penetrate hard surfaces such as walls and glass.
* Photoelectric: This device sends a narrow beam of light from a transmitter to a receiver. Anybody crossing this beam and interrupting the light flow will trigger an alarm.
* Infrared: This type of system reacts to heat radiating from the body. It can thus detect a person in a room whether or not he is moving.
One problem with security systems in general is that they are ''inconvenient'' to use, says Charles Badavas, also of Arthur D. Little. You need keys to turn many systems on and off, and in some wireless systems batteries run dead without the owner's realizing it. Most false alarms are caused by the user's somehow messing up the sequence of operation, rather than equipment failure.
But the microprocessor has brought convenience.
One new alarm manufacturing company, Ultrak Inc., has a control panel with a separate touch key pad for programming the system. Because of the microprocessor, you can program in a password -- allowing yourself or others to ''arm'' (activate) the system. You can cancel and change the password anytime. The control panel also accommodates smoke detectors.
Ultrak's microprocessor tells you (on the the control panel's digital display or with a chime) whether a door or window is open, and exactly which one. The memory helps determine the cause of alarms. It has a time delay feature, allowing the user to leave or enter the house freely. It checks over its entire system every 90 seconds, looking for defects. And when the transmitters need new batteries, the panel can alert you four weeks in advance.
John Nyberg, national sales coordinator for Ultrak, says the systems cost around $1,500. You can get minimum protection of five locations for $700. The company's founder left a major alarm manufacturing company to start Ultrak only a year and a half ago. A publicly owned firm, it expects to pull itself into the black in the next six months.
Of course, the larger manufacturers like Ademco and ADT Security Systems also offer central control units featuring the microprocessor. ''But it's the smaller , younger companies that are driving the industry technologically,'' Mr. Clapp holds. The established companies can't ''afford to fool around with high-tech, untested products,'' he adds.
When an alarm system includes an outside monitoring station, the system contacts the station through telephone lines when a break-in occurs. The stations notify the police or fire department. Many monitor stations keep computer files on their clients -- files that would tell the fire department which rooms have children sleeping in them, or whether the client is elderly and may need extra assistance.
But Carl Wideman, marketing manager for Tocom Inc., thinks sending messages to monitor stations through telephone lines isn't enough. ''The problem with digital (telephone) communications is that the monitoring station has no way of knowing if something is wrong with the line,'' he says.
That's why Tocom has gotten into two-way communication with monitor stations through cable TV. With Tocom's equipment, a station can receive and sendm messages to a home alarm system. About 25,000 homes are now monitored by cable security.
It works this way: A cable TV company has just moved into an area. In its central station sits one of Tocom's computers. The computer sends out radio signals through the TV cable, questioning a small Tocom terminal on the other end. If there were a break-in, the central control unit would relay a message to the terminal, which would in turn relay the message via cable.
In six seconds, the Tocom computer can electronically question a million terminals, asking, ''Are you there, are you working, do you have any alarms to report?''
''If a terminal is queried and a computer didn't get a response, it will go back and verify it,'' Mr. Wideman says. ''If there's still no response, the person operating the computer will act as if an emergency is in progress.'' The operator will call the home; if there is no answer or if the person answering can't identify the password, the police will be immediatly notified.
The technology probably isn't what will interest consumers most -- it's the price. Because the cable TV industry is pushing full steam ahead with marketing its services, it will do all it can to make itself more attractive to a community. This includes having lower-cost security systems to offer, Wideman says.
''Cable can offer complete security systems at $500 to $900,'' he says. ''Higher penetration of the market accounts for the lower price.'' And the customer can get the security without subscribing to the TV programs.
Tocom has experienced ''a slow growth curve,'' Wideman admits, but it's one he expects will snap upward fast. The future for cable security is so ''bright'' that the company is ''in the process of producing a total security unit which will act as a combination fire and burglar alarm,'' he says. Even so, Tocom says its systems are used in 70 of the 75 communities in the United States and Canada that have cable security.
Mr. Clapp from Arthur D. Little agrees that cable security has a promising future. He figures there will be ''more joint ventures between alarm companies and cable TV.''
Though cable TV can bring the cost to the consumer down substantially, there are other ways to reduce cost -- if you're willing to work for it.
Last August, Consumer Reports magazine published an article on do-it-yourself burglar alarms. William Feingold, author of the article and a senior engineer at Consumers Union, suggests staying away from ''zone'' systems, because they're too easy to set off by accident. Stick to the perimeter systems that are wireless and relatively simple to install. Most do-it-yourself kits can be bought for less than $500, he says.
In the mid-'70s an attempt was made by most of the fire alarm manufacturers to mass-market these lower-costing, wireless burglar alarms. ''This attempt (at mass marketing) has utterly bombed,'' remarks Norman Eisenstat, the researcher behind the Frost & Sullivan report. ''Apparently security systems just won't make it over the counter.''
Next week: Personal computers