Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Subscription services: Look for dialtone

A few weeks ago, the whole family went to a wedding in Boston. (Though I really, really want to, I’m going to refrain from telling that story.) We walked in the house, and I noticed the panel on the ADT alarm system was not on. Now, you’d think that if there were a problem with the alarm, they would have called us: after all, they have my cell phone number, and I’d consider “not working” qualifying as an alarm situation that might have them, oh, call me.

But I didn’t get a call. Being a charitable sort, I decided to call them. They determined that the alarm was not powered up – odd, since it has a battery backup. Except that it turns out that the battery worked – until it ran out of power. We figured out that the alarm had been plugged into the same outlet as the sump pump, which has a GFCI surge protector built in, and evidently the heavy rain had the sump pump working overtime – and at some point the outlet tripped.

Now – there are a bunch of fair questions at this point: two good ones would be why would two mission-critical systems be plugged into an outlet with a hair trigger, or why does a battery backup for an alarm system last less than two days. But my favorite is: when the alarm died, why didn’t I get a phone call?

Now ADT talks about its 24 hour monitoring system. And the customer service rep told me that that really means that they’ll respond to alarm incidents. Except that a dead alarm tells no tales, makes no calls!

I asked why they weren’t “pinging” my alarm regularly to make sure it was responding. They said they weren’t sure it was part of my package. Why wouldn’t it be? I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in expecting this to be a default setting – and they should call us if there’s a problem. You know, like the alarm being dead.

Ultimately, they resolved the issue by crediting me for a month’s service. And it turns out the monitoring I described is entirely doable – and they won’t charge me extra for it.

And here’s a contrast – TiVo. Several weeks ago we disconnected the phone line in our family room to hook it up to a speakerphone. In unplugging the phone, we forgot to plug the line back into the TiVo box.

Ten days later, I had a message from TiVo (a letter icon shows up in the TiVo menu when there’s “e-mail”). The message said: “It’s been more than 7 days since TiVo last updated your program guide. Please check the phone line to ensure that it’s connected, or contact customer service for help.”

Well how about that? I plugged the phone line back in, and TiVo went back to being the spectacular never crash Linux appliance it’s always been.

What TiVo’s figured out, and ADT needed to learn, is that monitoring doesn’t mean answering the phone. It means checking for dialtone and making a call. It’s a big difference.


  1. Well Rick,
    First the GCFI outlet logic, assuming the outlet the alarm was plugged into was on an outside wall in the basement (most logical location) most local codes require that outlet to be GCFI because basements tend to get wet.

    As for the alarm ping logistically that would be an interesting idea. So as the battery starts running out of juce it calls ADT. Then ADT starts trying to call you and your backups.

    Think of the possible liability of the following situation.

    - ADT trys calling your cell and can't get you
    - ADT then calls your backup person and leaves a message with the person at your backups house. 'This is ADT the Alarm at the Klau house is about to fail'
    -- The babysitter who answered that call thinks 'Wow, we can party at the Klau house'
    -- Fill it in from there.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. Good points. Of course, the backup call is to my parents (who live in another state). If they want to party in my house, I suppose it might be revenge for some of my high school days, but I doubt it...

    In any event, the way we've got it set with ADT is now this: once a night, they "call" our alarm to make sure it's working. If they don't get a reply from the alarm panel, it means one of a few things:

    * the alarm panel is dead, which might be a problem.
    * the phone line is dead, which might be a problem.
    * there's just a malfunction in the ping, which isn't a serious problem but should be remedied.

    In other words, I want to know if my alarm is out of touch with the ADT system. And now I will know. Which seems like how it should be all the time, but maybe that's just me.