27 Sep 2014
When it comes to military bases, nuclear power plants and other high-value targets, good security is tedious, expensive, intrusive, and requires constant vigilance. You have to be right all the time; terrorists have to be right only once.
Effective home security operates on the same principal. You have to safeguard your home 24/7 against that one time the drug abuser needing money for his next hit walks down the street, testing the doors.
Fortunately, there are a lot of simple things you can do, both active and passive, that will improve the security of yourself and your household. These suggestions are the easy ones to implement; other security measures are harder, take more time, and more money. I will discuss those in future posts. Which is to say, you can start keeping your doors locked right now but 6-foot-high thorn hedges take a long time to grow.
Before we begin, understand that if someone really, really wants into your house, they can do it. A sledgehammer will take out your picture window in a second. A fire axe to a door. Driving a car into the side of your house. A concrete block tossed through a patio slider. But for most of us, most of the time, that isn’t the concern. The concern is the casual burglar or home invader.
Burglars, like everyone else, prefer easier jobs to harder jobs. So, the first line of defense is to keep your doors locked! Even when you are at home during the day! Why do this? Because burglars have been known to go down the street, checking each door. A locked door means move along. An unlocked door says come on in. The same principal applies to cars parked in the street. Police routinely check out reports of someone walking down the street, testing the handles on car doors.At Fortress Peschel, we never unlock the front door unless it is actually in use and then it gets relocked at once. We compromise on the back door for a few reasons. I have multiple family members coming and going at odd hours. I have a fenced-in backyard with a free-roaming dog. I live in a safe, low-crime area. I know my neighbors. My back door is not easily accessible from the street nor is it visible. I don’t advertise my possessions and I don’t try to look rich (easy to do: we aren’t). I don’t have a 60-inch flat-screen TV proudly displayed so it can be seen from the street through the front window. But when everyone is in for the night, the back door gets locked top to bottom as well.
In fact, you don’t see into my windows at all. During the day, it is much brighter outside than it is inside. That, combined with semi-sheer lace panels at all my windows, makes it pretty hard to see into my house. We do the window dance so window shades may be drawn to block out summer sun and heat. As soon as it gets dark, shades get pulled, quilts put up, and drapes are drawn. If I am cooling the house in the evening, then only the screens are exposed; all other glass is covered.
When I walk Muffy in the evening, I notice all the houses around me with their lights on and a clear view into their rooms where I can see the glow of giant TVs and computer monitors. Don’t do this for two reasons. First is security, of course. It isn’t that easy to see into someone’s windows during the day because of the light imbalance from bright sunlight to dim interiors. But at night, the opposite is true. It is really easy to see into a room; in fact, the light catches your eye! Secondly, if light is escaping, then so is heat. In warmer months, if you want to let out heat and let in coolness, keep the screens uncovered for free air passage. Block the rest of the glass and block the sun. In the winter, as soon as the sun goes down, put up and close all the layers of window treatments. Trap your heat, and keep out potential prying eyes.
All your doors should have working locks. Your door knob (get exterior ones for heaven’s sake) has a lock in the knob, but that isn’t enough. You also need a separate deadbolt. If you are reasonably handy, this is a do-it-yourself job or have the locksmith do it. Have all your locks rekeyed, especially if you are not the first owner. You have no way of knowing how many keys to your house are floating around, distributed over the years, to previous owners or tenants, relatives, friends, helpful neighbors, cleaning services, etc. If you are renting, save up the hundred dollars this might cost and have it done yourself. You may have to supply a key to your landlord but again, you’ll have more control over how many keys there are; i.e., one or two versus dozens.
We keyed our front and back doorknobs (exterior ones!) to match and our front and back deadbolts match. This was a compromise between convenience and security. This way, you need two keys to get through either door. Four separate keys might have been more secure, but that would also be a pain in the tucus to remember which key went where.
You may want to upgrade your door knobs. There are lots of styles, some made of heavier metal than others. Get exterior ones! They are different from interior knobs! We use the lever style as it is far easier to work when you are tired, carrying bags, or you are in a hurry to get inside. There are better quality knobs and poorer ones. Do a little research and get the best ones you can afford; this is your first line of defense.
Get deadbolt locks. These come in two styles: single key and double key. What that means is, do you have to use the key to operate the lock on both sides or just the exterior? A single-key deadbolt has a knob to open the lock on the inside of the door. A double has to have the key.
The double-key deadbolt is supposed to make the door more secure. Maybe. What I do know is that if your house is on fire and you have to get out in a hurry and you are dazed with shock and fatigue at being awakened at 4 a.m. by the alarm, you aren’t going to be handling keys very well. If you can find them. Some people keep the key on a hook by the door so they can unlock the double deadbolt. If you are going to do that, you might as well get the knob-opening single-key style.
The idea behind the double deadbolt is that the burglar will punch through the glass sidelight by the door (or the window in the door), reach in, and unlock the door from the inside. The way to forestall this is to install a chain bolt. Get the heaviest one. Do not put the chain bolt by the door knobs! Instead, install it at the top of the door or at the bottom of the door so it is as far away from the windows as you can get. It is unexpected and will slow down an intruder; maybe enough to alert your dog while you phone for the police. The intruder might even abandon the attempt rather than make more noise kicking the door down.
When you install the locks and strike plates, use better screws than what came with the lockset. Get the longest ones that will fit for the strike plate in particular: these screws are going into the door frame and then the house itself so you can go pretty long, three or four inches sometimes. You will need a power drill or power screwdriver for this (dabbing the screw with a bit of oil will help it into the wood). Even if you could manage a screw driver for the amount of time doing this would take manually, you will strip the head of the screw long before you finished the job.
When you are upgrading the screws on the strike plate, upgrade your hinges as well. Get the heaviest hinges and use screws three inches long or more. This will support the door better and make it harder for someone to kick it off the hinges and out of the door frame.
Look at your front door. Is it solid, heavy oak? All steel? Is there a peephole or a small, high window so you can see who is outside? If the answer is no, you need a better door. Glass front doors look lovely and let in tons of natural light. Anyone can get through one in seconds with a brick. Get the solid door and the beautiful, all-glass storm door (with it’s own lock of course). That way, you can still let in light during the day and have multiple layers of locked doors at night. A storm door will also help cut down air infiltration and protect your solid-oak door from the rain.
While you are upgrading your doors, weather-strip them too. Install a really loud door knocker so you can hear it anywhere in the house. Door knockers don’t require electricity to work. If you don’t have a peephole, install one. As a final touch, install shopkeeper’s bells on the inside surface. When the door is opened, they make noise, potentially alerting you and your dog to someone coming in. If you want a DIY substitute for the shopkeepers bell, arrange a lot of large jingle bells on a hoop and hang that up. Put the bells on every exterior door, including back doors and French doors leading to your patio. Use stick on hooks to mount them to patio sliders.
Fortifying Windows (not your software)
Next up is windows. A window is, essentially, a hole in the wall of your house. Because they are glass, they are quite vulnerable to a rock being thrown through them. A burglar is unlikely to throw a brick through a window as it makes noise and might alert you or the neighbors. If, on the other hand, you proudly display your collection of hunting rifles, your big-screen TV with its game consoles, and your framed rare coins on the wall and this is easily visible at night from the street for everyone to see; well! You might as well invite burglars inside.
Walk around your house during the day. What can be seen when looking in from the street? Then do it at night when the lights are on inside and your purely ornamental window treatments don’t conceal your house contents. What do you see? This is what a burglar sees. The window dance tells you ( **** refer back to this one *** ) how to dress your windows for heating and cooling; it also works for security. If there is nothing to see, there is less reason to break in.
I highly recommend a layer of lacey, semi-sheer panels at each window. Use whatever pattern you like as they all work the same. They make it a little harder to see into the house during the day without blocking all the free sunshine and they add another layer of insulation at night. The thicker or heavier the pattern, the more light they block and the more they conceal. Choose what works best for your situation; more lightweight panels on a rod will equal out to fewer heavy panels as the added bulk of another panel compensates for the thinner fabric. Layers and layers of window treatments are also a little harder to struggle through than just a single set of vertical blinds.
Do your windows lock? I am most familiar with double hung windows but every style of window should have some kind of locking mechanism when it is closed. The lock serves two functions: making it harder to open from the outside when the window is closed and making sure the window is tightly closed against the elements. If your windows don’t have any kind of lock, you will have to research what you can do to fix this. Just like your doors, if your windows are not in use to air out the house, they should be kept locked. Make sure all family members know this and know how to operate the window lock in case of fire.
If you have old-fashioned wooden double hung windows, most hardware stores will carry replacement locks. Most hardware stores will also carry the special lock for a wooden double hung window that lets you open them at night to a few inches and no more. Get the heaviest brass ones you can afford. Mount these air venting locks so the window goes up about two or three inches from the sill. More than that is a judgment call as you get more cooling air but it is also easier to pry the window up from outside.
If you have new fangled double hung windows of vinyl or aluminum and the cheapie, fragile built-in air venting locks don’t work, got broken, don’t exist, or you don’t trust that flimsy tab of plastic, you will have to use 1/- inch oak dowels as a substitute. It isn’t elegant but it does work. Cut dowels to about three inches, one per window. Open the window, insert the dowel, then close the window onto the dowel. Next, measure the space between the top of the lower window and the top of the window opening. Cut the second dowel to just fit into this space. Working together, both dowels will keep the window from being opened from the outside with anything other than a brick. If your windows are quite large, you may want to use two sets per window, placed at each side. When you place the dowels, tuck them into the sides of the frame where the molding will conceal them and they can’t be seen from the street.
You should have screens on all your windows for airing out your house and you may have storm windows as well. If you have a choice, get screens that cover the entire window. Those screens that cover only half the window are easier to slide aside. A full screen is just a tiny bit harder because of its larger size. It also lets you vent the room better and screens out bugs a little better.
Storm windows get opened and closed with the rain and the seasons; fully closed against the winter night they do offer another layer to get through. They don’t do much for security on a summer night when the screens are open. If however, you are running an air-conditioner, make sure your storm windows are tightly closed. It is a bit more security AND you make a tighter seal to trap that expensively cooled air. When you close your storm windows do it right. The outer most pane of glass is at the top and over the lower, inner pane so the window sheds rainwater. If you reverse this, you chance rainwater leaking inside. This seems a minor point, but I routinely see incorrectly closed windows when I walk Muffy. Muffy and I also observe open storm windows in the dead of winter. They aren’t keeping in the heat and they aren’t giving another layer of security.
If you have to replace windows, ask about any security features and make sure your new ones come with locks and full size screens. Why have a hole in your wall if you can’t get the benefits of light and air and safety? I understand that there are films that you can adhere to the inside of the glass that will make your windows less breakable. They will probably let in a little less free sunlight, but then, so do sheers. If you live in a hurricane area, then storm shutters would be invaluable; their cost is sure to be less than that of rebuilding your house after the storm and they would be easier to use than storing, installing, and removing sheets of plywood. Their presence may also give you a discount on your home-owners insurance.
Next Week: Hardening Your Home’s Defenses