Alarm Installation Stories from Back in the Day

If you are an alarm installation technician, you’ve probably been schooled in proper techniques for field installations. In this article, we will explore conventional and not so conventional methods for getting the job done. A lot has changed over time, but the old saying “necessity is the mother of invention” still holds true.
I began my career in security as an alarm tech about 40 years ago. The kind of sensors we used, like lead foil on windows and pull traps, have been largely replaced by low-cost motion detectors and glass break sensors. However, there are still circumstances where these older detection methods are still used.


Lead Foil

One benefit of window foil is that it provides a visual deterrent to potential thieves, making them think twice before breaking a protected window. Despite this, there are issues with the foil. It takes weeks to master the technique to apply it, and changing temperatures occasionally loosen it from the window or foil blocks that connected it to the alarm circuit. Depending on how the system is zoned, it might take hours to track down a “swinger” which was our name for an intermittent fault that caused the system to go into alarm in the middle of the night.
One old- timer taught me a method for repairing “swingers” without spending hours tracking them down with a volt-ohm meter. All you had to do is disconnect wires at either end of the fault, connect them to a power cord, and plug them into a 110 VAC outlet! The theory was that the 110-volt current would “weld” the swinger, fusing the loose ends together. Before you consider this method, consider the caveats: this technique is illegal and dangerous as all get-out!

The same old-timer went on to tell me that one time they were called on a late night service call to fix an intermittent problem. It was a particularly cold night, and the windows were covered in frost. Not wanting to spend too much time tracking down the problem, he connected the wires to the power outlet and let it rip. Unfortunately, this time things did not go exactly as planned, and the windows exploded into the street due to the abrupt change in temperature! Oops! I decided to pass on this one.


Snaking Wires

Another continuous issue was snaking wires through difficult terrain and above dropped ceilings. During this time, it was open season for ideas on how to best accomplish the task. A common method was to attach a string to a small weight and hurl it across the ceiling – which worked pretty well as long as there weren’t too many obstructions. Of course, you could use a snake, but sometimes it would encounter a small obstacle and curl around on itself. So we came up with more innovative methods, like using a bow and arrow or even a spear gun (the kind you use to stab fish) to carry the string across the ceiling. Of course, there were occasional pierced wires and pipes to contend with. We often mused that a trained animal, perhaps a monkey, with a harness that we could attach the wire to would have worked… but we never got that far.

Some of the worst situations occurred when you were working in a home environment routing wires in walls, between floors, and above plaster ceilings. We had all kinds of special tools like sixty-inch flexible drill bits, but these too had their limitations. Often the drill would exit in the middle of an adjoining room in a less than ideal location, requiring ninja-like actions to repair a hole before it was noticed. We became experts in whipping out the patching plaster and repairing the offending hole before anyone noticed – especially challenging when the owners were sitting in the room with the hole.



But there were times when no amount of speed or technique would save the day. I remember one such occasion when I was working in a well-appointed law office. I was drilling a small hole in the wall to connect with an outside siren. Easy-peasy. As I was drilling through the hollow wall, I noticed that my electric drill seemed labored, but I kept drilling. Finally, it got stuck and wouldn’t move any further. So I tried to pull the bit out of the wall. It wouldn’t budge. So I braced myself and pulled with all my strength. Out it came – wrapped with about six inches of fiberglass insulation – creating a foot wide hole in the wall. The lawyer, who was sitting nearby gasped and looked at me speechless. It seems that the fiberglass had wound itself around the bit taking a major chunk of wall with it. I won’t tell you what he said when he got his speech back!

After my years spent coming up with creative solutions to obstacles, here are some takeaways:

  1. Consider yourself fortunate that you live in a world where many systems are now wireless, eliminating the need to route wires through difficult terrain.
  2. Don’t do stupid things to save time, even if advised to do so by an “old-timer”.
  3. Show more respect for your customer’s home or business than we did back in the day.
  4. Be willing to think out-of-the-box, but be careful to consider possible consequences.