Like many in the GeekDad community, I have an interest in home automation. Not only is the technology cool, but the potential to increase my home’s energy efficiency and safety has always been a top priority. That’s not just the peace of mind of knowing our home is secure when we’re away, but also knowing that critical safety systems — like smoke detectors and CO detectors — are not just installed, but monitored. I started dabbling with home automation and remote access in a real way with a Philips Hue installation last year and ramped it up to an entirely new level with ADT’s Pulse system. Now we have automation for key systems, remote access for the door lock, interior lighting and thermostat, notifications for key events and access to live video feeds. And I have to say, it’s pretty sweet.
Some people opt to undertake home automation and security on their own. Tony recently wrote about his experiences with a DIY system, and, while I appreciate the appeal in being able to build a completely customized system yourself, the key element missing from these solutions is monitoring. That’s why we’ve paid for a home security system for years instead of going the DIY route. It’s not just about security (we live in a pretty low risk neighborhood — we’re surrounded by retired and alert neighbors, I work from home, we have two large dogs and we’ve always used a house-sitter when away), but also safety. Yes, it’s more expensive (especially when you add in monthly monitoring fees), but we do receive a discount on our homeowners’ insurance and my wife and I simply feel more comfortable about leaving the house knowing the alarm is on. By having critical safety equipment like monitored CO and smoke detectors complementing our standard versions, there’s another level of protection we highly value — not just when we’re home and asleep, but also when we’re out and the pets are in the house with no human to respond to an alarm.
Anyway, enough about why I chose monitored. Here’re the rundown on ADT Pulse.
There are several competing standards for wireless automation. ADT’s Pulse supports the Z-Wave protocol which operates in the 900 MHz frequency. This can result in some interference issues with older cordless phones, but avoids issues with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 2.4 GHz telephones more commonly found in today’s homes. This Z-Wave support means there is a list of compatible modules you can buy and integrate into your ADT network yourself. For example, you an pick up a Z-Wave enabled light switch from Amazon for under 43 bucks. In effect, you can add a significant DIY element to a Pulse installation, but the core system is a commercial package.
As part of our install, our existing network of sensors were complemented by the new Z-Wave components, a router and a controller. The front door panel was replaced with a newer and more compact version, a wireless deadbolt door lock was installed, one of our wired overhead light outlets was replaced with a dimmable wireless version, additional smoke and CO detector units were added, two wireless cameras were included and we were provided with several plug-in modules (one of which supports dimmable devices).
Installation was a bit more involved than with our initial security system. Because we replaced a hard-wired light switch, ADT sent an electrician along with their own installer. There was also the router and the controller panel for the system, both of which were tucked away discreetly in a utility room.
In terms of how the whole ADT Pulse system works, I’m breaking it down into three parts: security, automation and remote access.
The Pulse system is like a standard monitored home security system, but better. You get the standard security features so that if someone tries to break into the house, ADT is notified and ensures there’s a response. Same thing if the CO detector or fire alarm is triggered. But the likelihood of your home being broken into is reduced through the ability to make it seem occupied by programming lights to come off and on.
And if something’s amiss — or you simply want notification of key events — Pulse offers a wide range of automated alerts. It’s easy to program these through the Pulse Portal. My favorite was setting up an alert so that any time the front door was unlocked, the front hallway lights turned on, a camera covering the inside doorway waited a few seconds then snapped a picture and a text notification was immediately sent to me with that information and the photo.
The Pulse system offers plenty of automation options. Devices and systems that can be controlled through automation include light switches, heating and cooling system, cameras and anything that can be plugged into a plug-in module.
ADT’s Pulse offers multiple levels of automation. There’s “Automations,” which are events that are triggered somehow — by a device or time of day for example. The programming (via the Pulse web portal) is easy, using drop down selections, yet powerful enough to offer multiple actions and options like delays. One of the most useful ones that I have set is to automatically lock the door one minute after the alarm is set, eliminating that “did we lock it?” uncertainty two hours from home. Then there are “Schedules” where specific tasks are programmed to occur in a particular time frame, perfect for energy conservation. Schedules can also be used to make your home welcoming after work (setting the temperature to a comfortable level and turning on lights for example), and also offer the flexibility to add randomized activity for enhanced security.
Finally, there are “Modes” that are a sort of umbrella program for specific states. For example, you might have a vacation mode that randomizes lights during your absence, runs the furnace or A/C in a lower cost mode and sends an alert whenever the system is disarmed.
One of the best parts of the ADT Pulse is the mobile app, available for iOS and Android. Using the app, you can arm and disarm the system (unique user codes means you can monitor who has this ability on their device and lock them out if you want to rescind that ability), check the status of devices, view a secure live feed from a camera, turn lights on or off or adjust the thermostat.
We used this feature a lot during our last vacation. This time, rather than a house-sitter we had someone pop by the house each day to feed the cats, bring in mail and water plants. By quickly logging in remotely, I was able to confirm that everything was locked and secure, have a quick look around and manually change the lights to really randomize things. It was also cool to be able to see hour-by-hour when the air conditioning had been kicking in and how long it ran for. When we were an hour from home I logged in, set the thermostat to the perfect temperature and adjusted the lights so we wouldn’t be walking into a hot, dark house.
The only issue I ran into with the app was occasional hiccups trying to log in. We were camping in a fairly remote area with spotty cellular coverage, so I suspect that had something to do with it, however once connected, everything went smoothly.
- The Kwikset automated deadbolt lock has proven to be a very useful upgrade. It can be opened with a PIN using the keypad, it’s a Smartkey device (I was able to re-key it to use our existing key within seconds) and it was offered in various finishes to match our exiting door hardware.
- The cameras — although they don’t offer advanced features like tilt and pan or low-light capability — are plug and play with extended length power cords. This makes it easy to move them around to wherever you want.
- The Pulse software (the mobile app and especially the web portal) offer a surprisingly sophisticated degree of functionality. You can use the basic stuff, but you can also deep dive, taking more control, tracking periods where the heat and cooling system is in use to maximize efficiency, create an interactive map of your home showing sensor locations and status, review the history of every action recorded by the system, etc…
- Living in Canada, a very useful option included in our install was a sensor (independent of the thermostat) that sends an alert if the house gets too cold — helping to prevent the costly scenario of pipes freezing when away.
In general, as someone who’s already invested in the concept of a monitored home security system the ADT Pulse represents a compelling upgrade. Security features are greatly enhanced, remote access and automatic alerts add a whole new element of relief from worry while on vacation and the system’s Z-Wave support represents a quick, no-fuss way to join the home automation movement.
Pros: Combined security/safety/automation in a single package, monitored system, user expandable using approved Z-Wave devices, high degree of automation and flexibility, remote access, can use smartphone as a “key” to disarm system, customer support.
Cons: Monitored system is more costly than DIY (prices will vary by options and offers), not all Z-Wave devices are ADT approved.
Disclosure: We were already long-term (10+ years) ADT Home Security customers, but ADT upgraded our existing system to a Pulse version at no additional cost for the purposes of this review.