Can we 'green' the security industry?

We're moving into an era where all businesses have to consider how to be green, and I think the security industry is coming along this path, albeit slowly. I've certainly heard stories of how newer technology draws less power than the same equipment that was used for the same purpose 10 years ago. But at the same time, we're adding more and more electronic security technology, and that means more power draw. So, even with we're using less power per device compared to a decade ago, we also are using more devices. A business that 10 years ago had a burglar/intrusion alarm system today might also have an electronic door card access system and a video surveillance system. So, the net effect is that while we're probably using less power per device, we're using more power because we've installed many more devices.

One of the things we've learned in our environmental education is that those power transformers like the ones that you use to charge your cell phone are still drawing power if they're plugged and not charging. (In fact, that reminds me to pause writing this blog post, run upstairs and disconnect my cell phone charger since it should be right back!) Now there's a movement afoot from both the United States and Canada to specify load, no-load and standby power needs for electronic power transformers and electronic devices. The security industry is arguing against the need to classify electronic security devices as such, because as SIA's Richard Chace and CANASA's J.F. Champagne argued in this letter (PDF download), there is never a time when security systems are turned off.

They make a good point. Alarm systems are designed such that they're on even when they are disarmed such that they can be pinged by the monitoring provider and so that they can check connectivity to all of their subservient sensors. They have to do this even while disarmed so that they can be ready immediately when a homeowner or business owner hits “Arm”. Electronic door access control is also a 24/7 application, as is video surveillance.

The industry fought this in the U.S. (see previous story about SIA's work to revise the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007) and seems to have received some understanding of this from the U.S. Department of Energy, and with that letter to Natural Resources Canada, I think they're likely to gain some accommodation from our northern neighbors as well.

But if creating standby-level power usage won't work for our security systems, what can we do to further "green" our industry? Here are my five suggestions:

  1. Challenge vendor CTOs and product designers to be even more creative with their circuitry design such that these systems use even less power. The upshot of this is that over-user of power equals extra heat, and lower use of power means less heat. Heat is often the killer of electronic devices (stay cool or die!), so it stands to reason that more efficient circuit design also means more dependable and maintenance-free systems. And that's something that customers will like!
  2. Develop a recycling system. The quick summary is that electronic components have lots of nasty metals and chemicals, and just chucking these things into a landfill isn't appropriate. What we need to do is to have all vendors and installers/integrators be part of electronics recycling programs so that out-of-date security equipment goes to a recycling center, not the landfills. You've probably already heard the tales of the nasty “e-cycling” centers where electronic components go to be recycled, and these recycling facilities are certainly no park of roses. On that note, the electronics manufacturing industry should be collaborating with the recycling industry to eliminate unnecessary heavy metals and to design components in such a way that recycling is facilitated.
  3. Measure power loads when new systems are installed and/or designed. I talked to an end-user who did this and found that by switching out the storage units for his video surveillance system, he would pay off a massive video surveillance upgrade simply in power savings costs. But how many people really do this? Most companies simply aren't as tech and energy savvy as that end-user's firm. It should become standard practice to estimate power draw.
  4. Link security with building automation. One of things that I know can be done, based on conversations I've had with companies like Schneider and Siemens, is that buildings and security systems can be automated to decrease the facility's overall power load. Some ideas: Access system talks to building lighting system to only power up the required areas when a worker is in after hours. Put lights on timers and even tie them into motion sensors to control where light is needed. Link security and HVAC systems to cool/heat the appropriate parts of facilities where people are working.
  5. Do balancing efforts. No matter how we look at it, the security industry probably will be somewhat negative in its environmental impacts. We're just a power-hungry industry by our very nature. But if our industry makes initiatives to counteract our environmental impact (plant trees, restore streams, usage green energy sources like wind and solar), we at least change our mindset and put in process an overall industry movement that will pay our world dividends for years to come.

I'd love to hear other ideas. Or if you're making equipment or installing systems that are more green than before, post a note in the comments. I'm interested and we all should be interested in this issue.

- Geoff Kohl, editor-in-chief,