Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Primer on Home Security

This week  I showed you some simple things you can do to increase the security of a house, especially an older house.  When thinking about your security situation, you might want to remember two guiding principles.  You could think of them as Handyman Kevin's two laws of security:

  1. Security is relative.  If you're house is more secure than the neighbors, then the bad guys will rob the neighbors.  
  2. You will never be able to keep someone out who really wants in, but you can slow him down and force him to make a lot of noise doing it.
The first law reminds me of a saying we had when I was growing up in Montana: "You don't need to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun your buddy." Criminals are lazy by nature. That's why they make a living from crime instead of having a real job. Contrary to what you may have seen on daytime TV, they almost never bother picking locks, defusing alarm systems, or anything else that is complicated or time consuming. Given a block of houses, they almost always choose the one with the unlocked window. If all the windows are locked, they chose the one where all they have to do is break a back window or pry off a doorjamb. Given two houses, they choose the one that is less likely to have an alarm. This means that if you do a few simple upgrades, and the neighbors don't, then they will hit the neighbors instead of you.

The second law is closely related to the first.  If you make it hard on criminals, then they will move on.  Anyone who is willing to employee serious tools and make some noise is going to get in if they really want.  Trust me, I've made openings in a lot of walls in my time.  But if you create a situation where they need to use big tools or power tools, then the neighbors (or cops, if you are in a good neighborhood) are much more likely to notice that something is up.   Likewise, if you make it so they need to break glass or kick in doors instead of just jimmying them open, then that is also more likely to attract attention.

So that covers the philosophical portion of the lesson.  Let's look at some specific areas and what you can do.

Entry Doors

Re-key your doors  when you move in, and any time you think your keys could be in the wrong hands.  The "wrong hands" includes your sketchy ex-boyfriend, the cleaning lady you fired, the teenage stepson you threw out for smoking crack, that former roommate who still owes you money... you get the idea.  A locksmith can change the keying on the existing locks, but will charge you at least $100 to do it.  It is often cheaper to just pick up a package of lock sets and just change them out.  Generally, the only tool you need is a screwdriver. 

Always Change the Locks When You Move In

All doors to the outside of the house should be made of either solid wood or welded steel.  You would be surprised at how many interior doors I have seen installed on the outside, especially by miserly landlords who don't want to pay triple digits for a door that's just going to get kicked in next time a tenant gets arrested.  These interior doors are thinner than entry doors, hollow, and basically useless for security or insulation.  If your doors are not exterior grade, then replacing them should be an early priority.  We will talk about hanging doors in a couple weeks. 

You might think about putting security screen-doors over your entry doors.  These force an invader to deal with twice as many locks on their way in.  Make sure that the frame holding the screen door is held in with lag bolts, not screws, and that they are long enough to go all the way through the siding into the wall studs. 

A Security Screen Door

The normal way that burglars break into an entry door is to use a flat bar to break the door jam away from the house frame.  This works because the door latch hardware is usually held on with dinky little brass screws that only go into the jamb.  You can make it much harder on them by replacing the screws with sturdy 3" steel deck screws that go all the way into the studs.

Another possible failure point is the wood around the doorknob, which may break if they pry hard enough on the door.  I didn't show it in the video, but you can buy metal security plates to reinforce this area. 

The last thing that I want to mention about entry doors, is to remind you that you are only as secure as your weakest door.  In most houses I go into, the front door is the sturdiest and has the best locks.  This is backwards.  Thieves nearly always prefer a side or back door, and they will circle your house until they find the easiest one to get through.  Spend your upgrade money equally. 

Sliding Doors

Sliding doors tend to be much more of a security risk than entry doors.  The older ones, in particular, are very easy to knock off of their tracks.  The aluminum frames are relatively soft and can sometimes be pried apart with a screwdriver to expose the latch.  Unfortunately, other than covering the whole door with a security screen (which can get expensive) you can't do much with the basic door structure.

You can, however, give attackers less to work with by driving anti-jacking screws into the door frame.  Leave enough clearance for the door to slide, but not enough for it to be lifted off its track.  It's also a good idea to jam a broomstick or piece of 1/2" conduit into the track when the door is closed.  That way, even if they defeat the latch, it will still be hard to open the door.

Anti-Jacking Screw

Supplemental locks are available which clamp onto the frames of aluminum doors and windows.  I'm not sure they work any better than a broomstick, but they don't cost much and they probably help. 

Several Types of Sliding Window Locks


Windows seem to be a more popular access point for burglars than doors, if only because people tend to leave them open in the summer. The nuclear option would be to cover them with steel security bars.  However, this is expensive, and way beyond the abilities of a handyman or DIYer.  It can also cause evacuation problems in a fire, and it will enrage your neighbors because of the impact on their resale value.  The exception would be if all the neighbors already have bars, in which case you should stop reading this and go buy some (see the first law, above).  There are some less drastic things that you can do to harden your windows, though.

Sliding windows are a lot like sliding doors, and the same advice applies.

Jalousie windows, the ones with the individual louvers that open with a crank, are just hopeless from a security point of view.  Anyone with a flat blade screwdriver can pry the panes out in under 5 minutes (I know, because that's the first step I follow when I replace them).  They are also ugly and not weather tight.  Replace them immediately with a proper sash window.  It's pretty easy, just remove the louvers and the mechanism, then screw the new window directly into the old window frame.  Trim it out and caulk carefully, and you're done. 

Sash windows are my personal favorite.  All you need to do is drill a small hole in the frame to accept a pin, and you can restrict them so they only open a few inches.

For windows that will be left open most of the time (e.g. in a bathroom with no fan), think about making a wood or metal screen that you can install in the window.  Size it so the security pin jambs the sash against the screen, for extra security.   

Sash Window


From a security point of view, you just can't have too much lighting.  Install motion sensor flood lights on the outside of the house.  You don't want to leave any routes for people to approch the house in shadow, or any places for them to hide and ambush you when you come home.  A basic incandescent motion-sensor fixture costs under $20.   You can get an LED fixture for about three times that, but you may make the extra cost back over the years in decreased power bills.  If you are lucky, you will be able to replace an existing fixture, in which case the new fixture will bolt to the same box in the wall.

Motion Sensor Flood Light

It isn't that hard to wire new fixtures, but it does go a little beyond the scope of this article.  Just be sure to follow the NEC which requires, among other things, that all wiring connections occur inside a box, and that any cable that runs on the outside of the house be enclosed in a conduit. 

In recent years, solar powered lights have become a viable option.  Since they charge with their own solar panels, you don't need to pull any cables.  I haven't used them myself yet, but installation seems to be a simple matter of screwing them to the wall. 

Alarms and Surveillance

I need to make an admission here:  I really don't work much with alarms or surveillance systems.  Low voltage wiring just isn't my thing.  One of my best handyman buddies is a wiz at it, but doesn't enjoy finish carpentry.  I turf most of my low voltage wiring work to him, he sends me his woodworking, and everyone is happy.  

From what I've seen, though, the current generation of alarm or surveillance camera kits are relatively affordable and meant to be installed by the average weekend handyman.  Look at online reviews to find a package that has worked well for other people at your skill level and price point.

I did install a two camera surveillance system to cover the entrances of the commercial loft where my handyman service used to be based.  I bought it from Harbor Freight for about $70.  It came with two cameras and a little black and white TV, and was useful for making sure no one was waiting to jump me as I left the building, since my windows didn't look down on the entrances.  Installation was a matter of drilling two holes in the wall, screwing the cameras to the eaves, and zip-tying the cables down.  It wouldn't have been that useful to foil burglars, though, because I never got around to putting a VCR on it to record and, once a bugler got in, their first priority would probably have been to wreck the VCR.  Nowadays, no one has a VCR anymore and most systems record to your computer with some sort of USB interface.  That works fine, unless the burglar steals the computer.

Of course the most effective electronic security systems have a live person on the other end monitoring them.  If you hire such a service, they will probably also install and maintain the equipment.  That sort of thing is a little beyond the financial means of a simple handyman, however.

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