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Why Multi-Tenant Structures Are Gold Mines for Integrators

Multidwelling unit residences like apartments, dormitories and condominiums offer systems integrators opportunities to upsell into complementary technology areas such as access, A/V intercom, cameras, alarm panels and more.

The need for protection in multiple-tenant structures, such as apartments, condominiums and dormitories, typically entails the use of an assortment of protective measures that include foyer-to-suite communication, common-area burglar alarm, access control, video surveillance monitoring, virtual guard tours, and fire alarm protection.

Not only does each of these subsystems represent security, but they also spell “safety” for tenants and visitors of these multidwelling units, or MDUs.

Protection customarily begins with the design and installation of an intercom system that extends two-way communication from a directory mounted outside the entrance door(s).

In some systems this directory panel has one call button (like a doorbell) for each tenant suite station while in others there’s a list of tenants and a telephone-style keypad.

These intercom systems allow tenants to converse with their visitors before they “buzz” them in. To help security pros get a foot in the door of MDU clients, let’s take a closer look at protection in common areas of such buildings, how that protection can be integrated with the aforementioned two-way communication/access systems, and how and to whom alarm dealers can best sell these systems.

Door-to-Suite Audio/Video Integration

The Science of Door Strikes and Security

Knowing who’s at the door before allowing them to enter the facility is extremely important from a crime prevention perspective. Even though the contacted tenant’s inner apartment door is locked, to allow a stranger to enter puts everyone at risk.

By conversing with the caller, this should give the tenant a pretty good idea if he/she has any business there. Adding video to the equation also helps assure the safety of all concerned.

“We define intercom for residential and multitenant commercial use as critical communications. When you consider intercom use it is typically in conjunction with maintaining a secure portal [door]. It is critical that users be able to hear, be heard, and most importantly, understood,” says Jim Hoffpauir, president of Zenitel USA. “By adding video to the intercom station you add an additional level of verification before making the decision to release a door lock, but it is critical that intelligible audio be available.”

Historically, unwanted visitors are often able to fool one or two tenants in an apartment building to let them in by pressing every call button on an intercom directory.

Security professionals can add a video component to the interactive, two-way intercom so tenants can actually see who’s there before they press the “open” button.

Intercoms with video can help to screen callers. And in some cases, like solutions from Aiphone, for example, tenants are permitted to see a second camera. One possible use for a second camera is the provision of a wide-angle view from another spot at the foyer level.

This allows the tenant to see a larger area in the vicinity of the entrance, in case people might be out of view of the primary camera. This second camera is also handy when there are multiple foyers or where there may be a need for a camera inside the facility.

Adjustment from one camera to another is most often performed by the tenant through a special switching arrangement at one of the suite stations. Parking gates are also a great place to utilize a second camera.

“We also see more and more multibuilding complexes that have gated entries,” says Bruce Czerwinski, general manager with Aiphone. “We’re about to come out with a multibuilding adapter that will connect a camera at a gate to all the buildings that use the network.”

It’s advisable when possible to record the video feed from foyer and gate cameras as well as others that may be installed inside the building. Having a recording of what goes on will assure that if something does occur, the authorities know where to begin.

“We recommend recorded video for a number of reasons,” says Richard Cantor, CEO with Amerigard Alarm &  Security Corp., New York, N.Y.  “Security is paramount but other important considerations include insurance and liability issues. The recording can be done onsite or via the Cloud, that does not matter. We also try to get board approval of who has access to the live and the stored video, which varies according to the building in question.”

Camera selection in an MDU is important. Outdoor cameras as well as those that overlook exterior doorways must be equipped with an auto-iris lens or the appropriate light sensitivity and data analysis.

Integrating Alarms & Accoutrements

Unauthorized entries into MDUs are far more common than most of us realize. Bellamay Grand Apartment Homes in Gainesville, Fla., is one MDU that goes so far as to post statistics educating prospective and current occupants: “Based on FBI research, 34% of residential break-ins occur through the front door, while 23% occur through a first-floor window. These two openings account for a total of 57% of break-ins.”

Obviously, first-floor common doors as well as tenant windows are most at risk. Alarm companies can prescribe a general perimeter alarm installed in all common areas. This can include the main foyer door(s) and any windows in common areas below and above ground.

First-floor tenant windows and sliding glass doors should be included in the over-all planning stage with the idea of offering security to all first-floor tenants for an affordable monthly fee.

In this case, it’s wise to prewire for two keypads in each suite – one at the hallway door and the other in the master bedroom, one or two motion detectors, and a noise maker for notification, such as a small piezoelectric siren.


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Blank plates can be placed over the new work boxes in the walls and ceilings for those tenants who do not wish to lease security. Using a common burglar alarm system – either wired or wireless – the status of all perimeter doors and windows can be monitored both locally onsite as well as at a central monitoring station (CMS).

The same basic thing can be done using a door-tracking feature built into a conventional access control system in tandem with a regular burglar alarm panel equipped with a suitable number of partitions (also called areas by some manufacturers and dealers).

“There are multiple panels that allow account reporting by partition. This allows the installer to have great flexibility in programming. There can also be a ‘Lobby’ partition, which allows a common area to be programmed as a last one out, first one in to be armed and disarmed,” says Kenneth Oberst, southern regional support representative for fire detection manufacturer Hochiki.

Suites on the second level do not necessarily have to have security, but the owner or management firm should consider offering wireless security as a matter of course.

Tenant systems could be offered as a package that includes the external sliding glass door (often present when there’s a veranda), motion detector, sounder and single keypad with an option for a second.

Depending on volume, the alarm company may offer a discount on the regular monthly monitoring fee while offering the owner/ management firm a small finder’s fee for each account that they sell. In larger facilities a wireless repeater or two may be necessary along with battery back-up.

It may be wise to rough in the appropriate cables. The owner/management firm should be asked to include a receptacle for primary power.

Adding to Access Control

In the past, and often still the case
, it was not uncommon for tenants to use an ordinary key to enter through the main foyer door as well as the suite. Some apartment intercoms also contain provisions for a keypad or card reader.

The electronics necessary for this usually comes from a separate access control system. In some cases access control for the main entry door(s) is built into the intercom system itself, but this appears to be the exception and not the rule.

“That would be something that we could offer from the DoorKing line, which incidentally has access control built into the intercom system. Our own Lee Dan brand of intercom is hardwired to each suite. As an OEM, however, we have a special relationship with DoorKing and have been selling their telephone entry products to our Lee Dan customers for over 20 years,” says David Goldberg, vice president with Lee Dan Communications of Hauppauge, N.Y.

Security Solutions

Multiple-tenant residence security can involve integrating several subsystems that address exterior areas like parking gates, common areas like lobby entryways and individual living units. A combination of products including audio and/or video intercoms, surveillance cameras and alarm keypads may be incorporated to boost life safety and security.

Lee Dan also offers oversized patch plates in stainless steel that the DoorKing and other telecom or intercom panels can drop into. This is an ideal add-on to an upgrade as many of the older apartment intercom systems on the market are larger than those made in recent years.

“We can even engrave the building address across the top of the patch plate to make the installation look great,” says Goldberg.

Hardwired intercoms and wireless systems are similar in that they each have the ability to call specific tenant suites, but it’s how they do it that is different. Wireless systems, like DoorKing’s, use the conventional phone lines or a cellular connection to connect with either the tenant’s regular suite telephone or a cellphone.

And when it comes to allowing entry, hardwired systems provide a “Door” button whereas the wireless version sends audio tones over the phone line connection, which the intercom master control unit interprets and acts on.

Fire Protection for All Tenants

Fire protection in MDUs – whether apartments, condos or dorms – offers an additional upsell opportunity. Including fire alarm systems is almost a given because of national, state and local fire codes.

This usually entails smoke detectors in common corridors, manual fire pulls at exit doors, and common audio/visual notification appliances throughout as required by a variety of fire codes.

When it comes to building codes that attempt to force contractors to use single-station tandem-line smoke alarms, Amerigard’s Cantor says that this is not the best way to deal with fire protection, especially where it comes to early warning.

“The most important thing is to install a sufficient number of photoelectric detectors in all the necessary locations to provide early detection, especially when people are sleeping at night and to provide a safe escape route,” says Cantor. “In general, I do not like 120V detectors for many reasons. They are unsupervised; they have no means of resetting in case of false alarms; they do not indicate the location of a fire; when their internal batteries run low and start to beep, many people simply disable them; and they are generally not calibrated, cleaned or tested on an annual basis per NFPA 72, etc.”

Oberst agrees, noting, “I believe a fire alarm system with monitoring is always a better choice for life-safety protection.”

Multitenant apartments, condominiums and student dorms are three healthy areas in which security must play a significant role. Security companies and alarm dealers in general are in a good position to realize the brunt of this work; perhaps it’s time to take that next step and wow MDU owners with full systems integration.

About the Author

Contact:

Al Colombo is a longtime trade journalist and copywriter in the electronic security market. His experience includes 15 years as a field technician and 28 years in technical writing.

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