Planning a Major Security Systems Retrofit

There is always great excitement when a security manager finally receives approval for a long-awaited project. Years may have been spent trying to obtain approval and many long hours discussing the plan with upper management before the project is funded. There are always needs within the Security department that must be addressed, and the funding for an additional project often suffers the needed financial support. When funding is finally approved, it becomes the fruition of a long, painful process.


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For the security manager, when funding is first announced, it is as if the project funding approval by itself makes the project a reality. After receiving approval, the project takes on a life of its own and becomes part of the Security department — even though it has not been installed. At this point, it is time for the dreaming to stop and a well-executed project to begin. The security manager can idealize the project at the funding stage and into the perfect project/installation stage. The project does not become “real” until it is complete and the reality of any shortcomings are apparent.

A new installation project has many potential pitfalls, but a retrofit project is even more challenging. The reason for the added challenge of a retrofit project is that something already exists — and what exists must be part of the retrofit plan. Sometimes the existing equipment or systems must continue to work while the retrofit project is being installed, and sometimes the retrofit project must interconnect to the existing system's hardware and/or software.

A retrofit project requires very careful planning before funding is requested to properly scope the project, to ensure electronic security system performance during construction and to finish with a complete, well-functioning system. The goal is to make the retrofit project transparent to the general public or employees, while ensuring a final product that enhances the old existing system.

Why a Retrofit?

A retrofit project can be at almost any level of the security system, any functional security area (CCTV, alarms, access control, etc.) or the Security Control Center (SCC). For example, the security alarm system might be expanded or the existing alarm system replaced by a different alarm system manufacturer. The same could be true for the access control system, etc. You might want to expand the existing system or you might want to change the access control system manufacturer or the card technology. For example, many companies might replace their old magnetic stripe system with a proximity or smart card system.

With all the possible retrofit projects that could be undertaken, there is no way to address each of these areas in a single article, therefore I will use actual examples to show some of the pitfalls that have occurred in retrofit projects. These real examples should provide an overview of the types of issues to consider before requesting funding, during the installation phase and to ensure that the retrofit project makes the security system better when you are finished.

The Early Stages

In the planning stages, it is important to have a knowledgeable technical person involved to provide a comprehensive scope for the retrofit project. This person could be part of the company (often within Facilities, Security or the Information Systems group), an outside contractor or a technical team, depending on the size and complexity of the retrofit project.

Picking a qualified technical contractor is an important issue unto itself, which will not be addressed in this article. We will assume that a competent technical person is found and is involved from the early planning stages of the project.

A knowledgeable person can mitigate the typical mistakes that are often made at the early stages of putting together a retrofit project. When a project is scoped, the nuances may not be fully understood without a qualified technical person involved. If the nuances are missed, there will be a level of negative impact on the retrofit project. The degree of negative impact will be driven by the lack of technical understanding by those managing the project.

Just like unintentional consequences can occur from any decision, poorly thought-out retrofit projects that seem like a wonderful plan until it is installed can have unintentional results. The forgotten or overlooked aspects of the project can come back to haunt you.

An example of missing details in the early stages of a retrofit project can be explained with a CCTV retrofit that recently happened at a large defense contracting company. The scope of the retrofit project was to change the existing CCTV system over to a network/LAN system. The goal was to have the capability to view cameras from many different locations via the company LAN. The security manager, director, security control center, investigator and other approved individuals could then view all or part of the cameras depending on their requirements and job function.

The concept and plan were advantageous; the retrofit project was funded and installed. When complete, it became obvious that several major mistakes had been made: The old camera system interfaced with the security system, as well as an audio and video matrix. This allowed SCC assistance to be available for entry into the building. A pushbutton sensor, adjacent to an entry point, initiates an alarm in the SCC and automatically called up an intercom and camera to enable SCC personnel to view the person requesting assistance. The SCC could assist the person, and, to some level, verify whom they were talking to via video/audio link.

The people in charge of the security retrofit project did not know about the interfaces between the CCTV and other systems. They had assumed the CCTV system was a function unto itself and could be easily changed over to the latest technology. (Most of the CCTV system was not associated with the entry points and was not a problem.) The majority of the design effort had been associated with understanding the company LAN and providing security for the LAN drops to prevent compromise.

The new IP cameras were not linked in any way to the alarm system or audio matrix; resulting in no capability for the SCC to talk with the person needing assistance at the entry locations. In addition, the impact of the IP cameras constantly streaming video caused smaller sites to suffer bandwidth problems. Some of the smaller site locations wanted the IP camera system turned off, because the network was suffering and impacting business functions that were on the same LAN. Other areas that were missed during the original project scope include:

• The cost for each IP drop was not considered;

• The ongoing network maintenance cost was not considered; and

• The cost of removing all the existing coax that connected the old camera system cameras was not considered.

The retrofit project cost ended up being extremely high, based on the poorly thought-through design. The design did work, but there were several other ways of doing the project that would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and kept the original video entry system functionality.

Another example where a knowledgeable person can provide assistance and insight during the planning of a retrofit project installation is when a conversion from one alarm system to a new alarm system is planned. In this case, the existing alarm system must remain operational through the retrofit effort. Continuous operation can become a major challenge — particularly in facilities that have very limited space for the security system field equipment to reside, which is usually the norm.

When a new alarm field panel must be installed and there is no wall space, careful thought must be part of the retrofit project to cover the cost of dual monitoring and ensure that no sensor alarm is missed. One way to address this specific problem is to leave the old system running while the new system is being installed. In small areas, where the alarm inputs cannot be changed from one panel to another within an acceptable timeframe, both old and new panels must be operational. The old panel can be carefully removed from the wall and left hanging by support cables from the ceiling so that active alarm cables and other data/power cables remain operational. The new field panel can then be installed on the wall in the place previously occupied by the old panel. Then, alarm inputs are moved from the old panel to the new panel one at a time. Both systems are monitoring for alarms and no sensor is left offline.

Special consideration needs to be made in the SCC to enable the operators to provide as proficient a job as possible with both manufacturers’ alarm servers sitting side-by-side. The more alarm panels that are in a tight space, the more likely it is that there will need to be some alarm field panels suspended from the ceiling or from cable tray.

Plan for Surprises

Surprises are often part of any retrofit project that replaces an old electronic security function with a new system. If we consider the alarm field panels retrofit project discussed above, there may be sensors that have stopped working (failed) and must be repaired. An example of a sensor that could fail and not be obvious is a defective emergency door alarm sensor. This can happen when a door has not been opened or tested for an extended period of time and the door sensor is stuck in the secure position.

The SCC does not know there is a problem, because the door appears to be secure, but when it is tested after moving it to the new security field panel, the sensor is found to be defective. Some number of these types of problems will occur in an alarm system retrofit project and should be anticipated in the scope of the project.

Surprises that can occur during an access control system retrofit project are many times associated with electrical wiring. Maybe a cable was not grounded, which is a common problem — and it can be difficult to recognize that the lack of a ground or incorrect grounding is causing the problems observed. Other wiring issues from the card reader to the field panel include poor conductivity or high-resistance connections. The problem can be poor connections at the reader, field panel or junctions in between.

The confusion often happens because the old system appeared to be functioning properly — i.e. the old card reader was processing cards and badges. This type of problem can show up when changing card reader technology, because some technologies are more sensitive to wiring issues than others, even through they both might use a standard field panel/reader protocol, such as Weigand. This problem actually occurred at a large company when they changed from Weigand cards to proximity cards.

The problems and surprises that occur due to poor planning start showing up during the installation phase of a retrofit project and continue through completion. Each missed issue and some surprises will degrade the operation of the retrofit project and/or result in the need for additional funds.

The impact on the total project can be devastating as efforts are made to adjust and correct oversights. This includes any technical corrections and additional funding to complete the project. If the additional funding is not available, sometimes the problems can be glossed over, and the Security department will suffer as it uses a cumbersome, poorly designed, inhibited system. If the retrofit project funding is impacted in a major way early in the project, the project may be cancelled.

The added cost of poor planning and design must be addressed at some point and it can have a negative affect on future projects and possibly the planner’s career. A competent technical person or team can mitigate many of these unexpected consequences.


View the the exclusive online STE/SIW retrofit roundtable.


Robert Pearson holds a BSEE and is a Registered Professional Engineer. He has been an instructor at George Washington University teaching “Integrated Security Systems” and “Corporate Security Management,” has written numerous articles for various technical magazines and has recently published a book, “Electronic Security Systems.” On a day-to-day basis he oversees design, project management, and maintenance of security systems for multiple sites. Mr. Pearson is a member of the A/E National Standing Council for ASIS International.