Resolving the Hidden Vulnerability in Security Systems

The security industry is being told that uninterruptible power supply battery back-up provides 100% coverage against power issues. Not so fast.

David Rizzo

A serious threat is putting many surveillance and access control systems at risk.

This threat doesn’t come from viruses, cyber criminals or stealth intruders. Instead, it comes from the wall socket where small power fluctuations can take high definition cameras, surveillance equipment, access controls systems and other security equipment temporarily offline and even create gaps in digital recordings.

Making matter worse, the security industry is being sold on the idea that UPS (uninterruptible power supply) battery back-up provides 100% coverage against power issues.

Not so fast. Many, in fact, leave gaping holes in power protection that can take security systems down for minutes, or even longer, creating a security risk for the customer and tarnishing the reputation of the reseller.

Sensitive HD and IP-based Technology

With today’s reliance on technology for surveillance and access control, any hiccup in the security chain can jeopardize a business or homeowner’s assets. This is particularly the case with today’s integrated and high quality digital systems that are more sensitive to the effects of power fluctuations both large and small.

“Everything today is data driven and networked,” says Erron Spalsbury, inside sales manager for 3xLOGIC in Westminster, Colo., a leader in the security industry for more than 25 years integrating audio, video, access control and OCR. “So if the power drops out it takes a moment to bring the system back up. Cameras have to reconnect, network switches have to turn back on, and in the 20-30 seconds it takes to bring everything back on line you could miss something.”

Solving the Problem

When security devices repeatedly go down for no identifiable or reproducible reason, known as “ghosts” in the industry, an most of the resellers often throw new hardware at the problem, replacing card readers, IP cameras, DVRs and even PIR and other intrusion sensors in an effort to stop the problem. Or they blame the software as “glitchy.”  Yet, the problems persist.

“There have been vain attempts where people swap out equipment thinking it’s the electronics rather than the power supplied,” says Spalsbury. “For example, digital video recorders can be bothered by blips in the power, causing the unit to reboot.  But replacing it won’t fix the power issues.”

To protect these systems, resellers often install an uninterruptible power supply.

By definition, these units kick in automatically to provide battery back-up for a certain period of time in the event of power outages and/or significant voltage drops. Since most of today’s systems are IP-based, if the central computer goes down or reboots, then the entire system is down. Such black-outs account for an estimated 30% of security system failures.

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In addition, many of today’s UPS are marketed as providing “power conditioning” or “power filtration.” The majority, though, are simply offering surge suppression that addresses only the largest power fluctuations, such as those caused by lightning strikes, that account for 2% of failures.

Do the math, a UPS with surge suppression covers only 36% of power-related problems. This claim, then, can be downright misleading.

The bulk of false alarm reboots, black-field cameras, unlocked doors and software malfunctions are caused by low-voltage drops and surges, according to studies by well-know manufacturers, like Bell Labs and IBM and independent labs. These cause “logic confusion” in sensitive electronic systems which create many different types of errors.

The only solution for this type of power fluctuation comes in the form of true power conditioning by traditional isolation transformers or newer, more sophisticated electronic power conditioners.

If you have ever seen a large, bulky UPS with a built in isolation transformer, the reason is that it incorporates more traditional technology. So-called “isolation transformers” are capable of suppressing smaller voltage spikes, but by design are prohibitively expensive, large, and heavy.