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Security System Upgrade - ELK/VISTA/DSC

cueball

New Member
I'm sure this is not a new topic for the forum, but maybe someone can add additional relevant information.  I'm looking to upgrade my existing NAPCO alarm system to a more feature rich, interconnected, and reliable system. I think I have some unique requirements for my system.
 
I'm not a licensed Alarm system installer by day, but I'm very familiar with electronics as an embedded hardware/software engineer. I'm not afraid to hook up and program the system or add my own custom hardware. I say this because although I understand the technology, I'm unaware of the aspects, features, products, and options available in this industry.
 
I love the idea of a "smart house", but I don't like the idea of the proprietary and gimmicky nature of most vendors’ products. Not to mention how over-priced they are. A triac, opto isolator, microcontroller with integrated Zigbee, and PCB cost < $5 at low quantities, let alone economy of scale, and yet Insteon sells their dimmers starting at $50. In addition, I prefer not to be connected to the "cloud", which my generation is so willingly accepting and inviting of, especially for security and automation related features.
 
Keeping this all in mind, I'm looking for suggestions on a security system with limited automation, but with the possibility of feature automation expansion. I would like network connectivity with well-known and documented interfaces and protocols that don’t require me to be stuck with a vendor or service provider. As much as the home automation is going to be a hobby, I want to be a hobby at my convenience and not of inconvenience.
 
My current facility is wired with sensors in every window and door, as well as multiple PIR motion sensors, glass break sensors, 2-wire smoke detectors (need replacing), and multiple keypads.  Currently most of the sensors are wired together to fit in a 6 zones.  I would like to rewire some of these sensors to improve granularity, for room and object type status. For example, I’d like to identify Bedroom 1 windows or Bedroom 1 smoke detector, not just 1st floor windows or backdoors. With fingers crossed, I believe I have access to the junctions that these sensors are tied together. They currently don't all return to the central controller.  There are a total of more than 40 wired sensors.
 
I have also installed automatic lighting in a few pantry/closets that is controlled by 110V door jamb switches. I’m not a fan of this approach, because the door jamb switches are cumbersome to install and limited in features (i.e. no automatic timeout for doors left open). I’d like to use simple magnetic switches and relays to control the lights in the remaining closets.
To me an alarm system needs to provide this service and provide it well and reliably. This is why I like the idea of using a UL Listed NFPA approved alarm system, such as DSC PC18XX, VISTA 20P, or ELK M1 Gold.  The alarm system can provide other features such as automation, specifically rule based automation, as long as it doesn’t impact the performance or reliability of the security alarm features.  With that being said, I’d like to use the security sensors to provide automation capability without having to have duplicate sensors. For example; I’d like to have the entry light come on for 10 mins, if it is between dusk and dawn and the front door sensor is violated.
 
Here’s a summary of my thoughts regarding the units. Please let me know if I’m off base or there are additional items I should add. If there is another system (such as OmniPro) I should investigate, please chime in.
 
ELK M1 Gold:
This unit has a significant DIY market with a fair amount of forum community. It is very expandable and would provide more than enough zones for my setup.  I can write rules for home automation, although the rules appear to be a little limited.  I can locate expansion modules to remote locations, such as shed/workshop, to reduce home run cabling.  I like the idea of being able to control lights, doors, latches, with relays/SSRs over needing special Insteon/X10 controllers.  The ISY UD can be connected to allow for bridging of other automation protocols in the future.
 
My concerns and questions with this unit are: the unit seems dated (10+years old) and although the firmware is upgradable, it has limited memory and processing power and therefore limited rules and performance.  I like the modularity of the units, but who uses RS-485 and RS-232 anymore? Why not have built in Ethernet and CAN bus.  I have to believe ELK is working on a new controller with improved capability, security, and performance. I’ve held out buying this unit because I’m investing $1000+. I would like the unit to last me at least 10-20 years and not install it at its End-of-life.  Is anyone aware of a new version in the works?
 
This unit doesn’t appear to be widely used in industry. Although I can buy it from the local distributor they hardly sell any in comparison to the other Honeywell and DSC “commercial” units. I’m concern that it is not as well vetted or tested as those units. It sounds like ELK releases firmware updates often, which is a double edge sword.  This means they can add features and bugs continuously.  I want to make sure that my alarm system works as such at all times.
 
My wife and I both dislike there keypad selection. Although, they have many to choose from they are ugly in comparison to other vendors.  You have a choice of the kidney shaped keypad (M1KP) with 80’s style shiny cordless phone button membranes or an obnoxiously bright blue (soon to be burnt in) (MKP2/3) LCD keypad with limited function keys. I was thinking about getting the MKP2 and replace the display. It looks like the standard Hitachi HD44780 display. In addition, I have android tablets setup for my security camera system that I will probably add android keypad apps using the M1XEP. The app selection does seem limited though and start with a sticker price > $40.
 
VISTA 20P/DSC PC18XX units:
I group these together because most of the information I know applies to both units. These units are very common in my area for commercial and residential use. Most of the installers are familiar with them, but I’ve found limited documentation and online community.  With the number of sensors I have now, I wouldn’t have much room to grow with the DSC series.  I can’t find reference for any capability of rule based programming or automation.  There seems to be a fair number of 3rd party add-on networking interfaces to allow for remote controlling and expansion to automation systems. These adapters also come with free Android Keypad Apps.  However, I cannot find UD ISY like device to  bridge into the automation realm. To some extent I like that this system is strictly an alarm controller and separates the automation. The keypads are more aesthetically pleasing then the ELK ones and the price seems to be about 30-40% less.
 
Any suggestions, opinions, or corrections are welcomed. I’d really like to hear more about these systems and what might be a good choice for my usage. Thank you for your help and sorry for the lengthy post.
 

RAL

Senior Member
If you want good automation capabilities, I'd go with the Elk.  Or perhaps the HAI Omni Pro 2.  The DSC and Vista are rather limited in their automation capabilities.

Elk is a UL Listed alarm panel.  Although not as popular as Honeywell, you will find it in some commercial installations.  It is more than a DIY/residential panel.
 
You didn't say what NAPCO panel you have, but one thing to check is whether the zones are wired with EOL resistors. I believe NAPCO uses 2.2K, as does the Elk.  DSC uses 5.6K and the Vista uses 2.0K.   If you have EOL resistors, it would make for more work to change over to the DSC or Vista.
 
There have been occasional rumors for years that Elk is planning a replacement for the M1. But nothing I would view as reliable info.   The security industry evolves slowly and doesn't change just for the sake of having the latest and greatest technology.   That makes for stable designs that work reliably.
 
Many folks wish the M1 had more memory, a faster processor, integrated ethernet, etc.  Folks who use the HAI Omni Pro 2 have similar wishes for a new design.
 
RS485 has the advantage that it works over longer cable lengths than ethernet, which is limited to 100 meters.  And the protocol stack is nowhere near as complex. That's important when the processor has limited memory.   In some houses, 100m isn't a problem, but in commercial environments and some larger homes, it is. CAN Bus might be an alternative someday, as it can handle the longer distances.  But it too has more complex protocol. 
 
The keypads aren't the sexiest designs, but that was a low priority for me.  As you mentioned, some folks use Android tablets as an alternative.
 
Elk does come out with new firmware from time to time.  Recently, that has been to provide support for new capabilities, like their wireless devices.  For the most part, Elk recommends upgrading only if you need the function or bug fix that the new release provides.
 

cueball

New Member
RAL - Thanks for your feedback. This is what I was looking for. I am leaning towards the ELK right now.
 
It sounds like this is the system you have.  If you have the M1XEP, do you know how many simultaneous secure & non-secure connections it can support? Sepcifically, I'm wondering how many virtual keypads I can have running at once.
 
RAL said:
You didn't say what NAPCO panel you have, but one thing to check is whether the zones are wired with EOL resistors. I believe NAPCO uses 2.2K, as does the Elk.  DSC uses 5.6K and the Vista uses 2.0K.   If you have EOL resistors, it would make for more work to change over to the DSC or Vista.
This is a good point. I don't recall the unit, but I know it uses EOLRs. It's actually the 2nd installation in a 30 year home. Most of the door and window sensors are plunger style so I should be able to replace the EOLRs if I need to.
 
RAL said:
RS485 has the advantage that it works over longer cable lengths than ethernet, which is limited to 100 meters.  And the protocol stack is nowhere near as complex. That's important when the processor has limited memory.   In some houses, 100m isn't a problem, but in commercial environments and some larger homes, it is. CAN Bus might be an alternative someday, as it can handle the longer distances.  But it too has more complex protocol.
Fair enough, the transmission length and protocol stack complexity is a good reason to stay with 485. The 485 bus topology makes it vulnerable to intentional and unintentional DoS. With the daisy chained RS-485, it is possible to pull a keypad off the wall and sever the 485 line and effectively taking out anything downstream or possibly upstream of the device.  Worse yet, interference on the line can affect all keypads and IO expanders on that bus.  With the star topology and switching capabilities of Ethernet this should isolate the problem to a single device or leg.  I thought about using the M1DBHR to give me a star topology, but for some reason ELK seems to shy away from this.  I understand KISS - “Keep it simple, stupid”.
 

ano

Senior Member
I've had a VISTA, and while good for basic security, its very limited in home automation.  Its for the 95% of people whose home automation involves turning on a light when they enter. That's about it. 
 
The M1 Gold and Omni can do much more. You might want to look at maybe the Omni LTe for less capability that you may not need.  Its hard to say which is more DIY friendly. I think with the people on this board you shouldn't need to contact ELK or Leviton for much help.  You can buy all you need for both from Amazon or Smarthome, etc. Neither of these systems are installer only like Control4, for example.
 
I use an Omni, and it is best the more things you want to do. The ELK really has limits as it doesn't give you the wide capabilities. Having said that, for a smaller simple install, the M1 might be cheaper.  I use my Omni Pro II for upb lighting, and Leviton's HLC is really nice if you go that route.  It controls my blinds, i have Zigbee door locks, and even a Betabrite LED sign its running.  So i think is unlimited expand-ability important to you, I would recommend Omni, but if your goals are a bit more modest, ELK might be best and cheaper.
 
Elk has a policy regarding support. See here http://www.elkproducts.com/retail_distributors.html.
 
If you choose to install the system yourself, you must purchase from an Authorized ELK Retail Distributor. Any sale of products by an unauthorized source, or other manner not authorized by Elk Products, Inc., will void the warranty on the applicable product. ELK does not technically support consumers, but our Authorized Retail Distributors will support ELK products purchased from them. See the list of Authorized Retail Distributors below.
 
(Emphasis in the original. I just cut and pasted.)
 
I don't know how ignoring this policy plays out in practice because I've not had to use my warranty, and I bought from an authorized distributor.
 
I would qualify the relationship between Elk and buyers of their product who are not professional installers as "awkward". In the blurb above they direct customers to the dealers where they bought the hardware but then we've got forum members who are not installers who still got help from Elk directly. (Sometimes it came with an early declaration from the Elk employee "I'm not supposed to help you, but...") It is unclear what rationales they use to decide to help or not help. 
 
Note that I have no complaints and bought my M1 knowing all this. And I'm not comparing them to other outfits. It is just something a potential customer should know ahead of time.
 

RAL

Senior Member
I don't know of anyone here who has been denied support from Elk because of where they purchased their equipment.  They do try and push you back to the dealer for technical questions. 
 

cueball

New Member
ano said:
use an Omni, and it is best the more things you want to do. The ELK really has limits as it doesn't give you the wide capabilities. Having said that, for a smaller simple install, the M1 might be cheaper.  I use my Omni Pro II for upb lighting, and Leviton's HLC is really nice if you go that route.  It controls my blinds, i have Zigbee door locks, and even a Betabrite LED sign its running.  So i think is unlimited expand-ability important to you, I would recommend Omni, but if your goals are a bit more modest, ELK might be best and cheaper.
Thanks Ano.  I never heard of the Omni LTe, but I will check it out.  I don't need the M1 to do everything, and actually I'd prefer it not to. I do want to capability to utilize its inputs/outputs and logic to integrate with other control systems. Honestly I like the idea of some separation between automation and security.  Is there anything in particular the Omni supports that M1 does not?
 
 
zenoparadox said:
I don't know how ignoring this policy plays out in practice because I've not had to use my warranty, and I bought from an authorized distributor.
 
I would qualify the relationship between Elk and buyers of their product who are not professional installers as "awkward". In the blurb above they direct customers to the dealers where they bought the hardware but then we've got forum members who are not installers who still got help from Elk directly.
Elk is not the only manufacturer with this policy. I had a similar problem with my water softener, but I found a local authorized dealer that I could buy direct from. I assume they don't want the cost of technical support and risk of inexperienced end-users damaging the equipment. I have found with most manufactures if you can talk the lingo with them, they will support your questions.  I already called Elks technical support prior to purchasing the equipment because I had a few questions regarding the setup and they gave me support with no hesitation.
 
I have found most of the authorized distributors, such as Smarthome, mark up the price about 40-50% more. Maybe this is to account for the cost of technical support. I actually called Elk directly because smarthome couldn’t answer my questions.
 
For Elk, I'm more concerned about warranty then technical support. There seems to be a fair amount of knowledge on the web. In addition Elk has some wonderful webinars available that cover a broad range of topics.
 

AutomatedOutlet

Senior Member
If you buy the Elk from us, we will provide you full technical support. We have a trainer on staff that teaches Elk certification classes.
 

cobra

Active Member
Don't know if you've made your decision, but I went through a similar search last year.  I like the DSC when coupled with one of the HAI/Leviton Lumina/Omni systems.  The DSC is registered for fire/alarm control, and it can bridge all it's sensors in to the automation system of a Lumina (or Omni, but since you have security in the DSC you can go with a lower priced Lumina/Lumina Pro if you want.)
 
On the down side, the DSC and Lumina's are a little older systems.  On the plus side, the Lumina's have some of the largest connectivity options I could find.  UPB, ZWave, Zigbee, X10... (and some of the more expensive stuff like RadioRA2.)
 

pete_c

Guru
Today here utilize an OmniPro 2 and Homeseer.
 
I like to tinker with automation trying this or that such that Home seer does that for me and its been doing that now since around 1998.  
 
IE: Homeseer software lets me integrate IFTTT, Amazon Echo, Kinect, et al type of stuff. 
 
I am though not automation dependant on it and do utilize it as an option to my automation.
 
I can shut off Homeseer here and my OmniPro 2 panel will continue to manage the security, lighting and HVAC (well and audio).
 
While using old technologies the OmniPro 2 combination panel works just fine.
 
Today the HVAC, Lighting basics are considered the heartbeat of the home.  I do need to watch over it or remote control it as it functions fine. 
 
Homeseer here is connected to 20 plus pieces of hardware controllers that do this or that.   There is no single automation controller dependency using it.  There never has been.
 
I do also tinker with newer in firmware stuff that mostly provides nice eye candy to my smart phones and I do consider these devices as low cost automation toys to play with today (no dependencies on automation right now for the new toys).
 
The OPII panel is using X10, Z-Wave and UPB here.  My primary lighting is controlled via UPB today.  Works fine for me.
 
Homeseer compliments what I have installed on the OmniPro 2. 
 
I mostly though use Homeseer to learn about new automation stuff as it will connect to anything these days. 
 
These days you can experiment the most with software automation.   IE: I can and do upgrade the firmware on my newest Z-Wave plus controllers (all 4 these days) and leave the Leviton Z-Wave controller connected to the OPII panel alone as it works just fine for me.
 
Relating to the OP and having a smart house.  It's really up to you and how much you want to tinker.  It is difficult today still to integrate security and automation. 
 
That said the Elk and Leviton HAI panels were the first to do this many years ago. 
 
If you want to tinker or experiment baby steps wise with the smart house / automation go with software. 
 
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