Combination Alarm Panels - Pros and Cons

By: Brian Rhodes, Published on Nov 27, 2012

Combination alarm panels sell the promise of doing more with less. Instead of multiple systems, a combo panel does everything in one box - intrusion, fire, access, video, etc. In this note, we review 'combo' systems, examine the pros and cons of an 'all-in-one' design, and recommend most suitable applications.

Combo Panels Defined

True to their name, these units combine several systems in an enclosure, sharing common PCB boards and a single controlling firmware. Combo panelstypically combine two or more of the following:

  • Intrusion (burglar) Alarms
  • Fire Detection (smoke/waterflow/heat) Alarms
  • Access Control
  • Video Surveillance: Some panels integrate cameras into the panel for small-scale monitoring and recording
  • Building Management: Thermostats, lighting controls, and water leak detection are becoming common additions to multifunction systems.

These systems are typically for smaller deployments. With everything combined into one box, the total number of sensors is often capped and the management capabilities are limited to simple commands. The video clip below is a manufacturer's promotional video for a combo system, where all system devices (including fire/burglar/and access control) are run to a main control panel:

Centrally Monitored

Unlike enterprise and large scale alarm systems that are designed to be monitored on site by security staff or building management personnel, combo panels are primarily designed to be monitored offsite by a central monitoring station.

Because the monitoring is designed to be done off-site, administration and configuration of the system is done via keypad, control software run on a serially connected computer, or by remote web browser. The restrictions against on site management of the alarms further contributes against deployment in large scale applications.

Combo Panel System Examples

Most large alarm system manufacturers offer some type of combined system in a single enclosure. The most frequent pairings offered are Fire/Burglar Alarm panels, with a smaller subset offering Access Control integration. The newest functions, like video and building management features typically are partially hosted for storage and remote access.

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Popular Systems include the following -

  • Ademco: Vista-128FBP Fire/Burg System: Up to 128 points of control, and up to 8 doors of access control with VISTAKEY module. Distribution Price: ~$500 USD
  • Napco: GEMC-Combo255KT: Up to 255 points of control, and up to 8 doors or access control with Gemini Access. Distribution Price: ~$700 USD
  • UTC/GE: Concord Express: Up to 22 points of control (16 wireless), with no access control. Distribution Price: ~$180 USD
  • Bosch: D9412GV4-B Kit: Up to 246 points of control, and up to 8 doors of access control integration. Dealer Pricing varies, but is in the sub $600 range.

Combo Advantages

Regardless of specific manufacturer, some general benefits of 'all-in-one' panels frequently cited are:

  • Cheaper: Combo systems are often less expensive to purchase and install than stand-alone systems. The cost of system hardware is lower due to shared processing, and the cost to install systems are lower with only one enclosure (or 'can') to hang.
  • Quicker: Because combo systems are oriented towards the small/medium market, they often can be 'pre-programmed' before install with a template program rather than 'scratch programmed' on site. Because the total population of devices and/or alarm zones is lower, installation takes less time and effort.
  • Reduced Cabling: Some combo systems can be wired using a 'common bus'; or a single wiring pathway from a group of sensors back to the main panel.

Combo Disadvantages

Until the 2007 update to NFPA 72, combo panel-based systems were subject to local approval by AHJ. Even now, while the code supports installation of multi-purpose systems, bias remains against their use. Use of Combo Panels in some municipalities may be a point of contention. While this can be easily addressed by sharing the revised code, some of the marked disadvantages of combo panels continue to be:

  • Less Reliable: The biggest knock on combo systems are the reduced reliability of the individual systems. When components in the panel fail, multiple systems are affected. Also, with the focus on low price, less robust electronic design and components are often used in a combo panels. Overall, the overall reliability of combo systems is less than commercial enterprise grade alarm systems.
  • Less Expandable: The total capacity of combo systems are often capped to a finite number of devices, and the ability to connect panels together is rudimentary or not possible. Exceeding the device limit means installing another (independent) alarm system - a step that may not be permissible by code or approved by the AHJ.
  • 'Universal' Installers Uncommon: Field technicians and installers that are skilled in the particularities of Intrusion, Fire, Access Control, and other combined systems is uncommon. Each type of system requires it's own body of knowledge on sensor placement, installation technique, and configuration. While a combo product may be easily purchased, obtaining competent installation may not be so easy to come by; especially not in the low-margin SMB market dominated by 'trunkslammer' alarm companies.

Recommendations

Based on our experience, small and simple systems will benefit from the cheaper cost of a combo system. For end users that do not need a high degree of situational awareness or manageability, a combo alarm system permits an economic consolidation of systems to one box. However, larger enterprise and self-monitoring users will need the scalability and management features of discrete systems.

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