Motorcycle alarms: More hassle than they’re worth?

John Milbank, BikeSocial Consumer Editor
By John Milbank
BikingMilbank BikeSocial Consumer Editor, John owns a KTM 1050 Adventure. He's as happy tinkering in the workshop as he is on twisty, bumpy backroads, and loves every bike ever built (except one). He's bought three CBR600s, two Ducati Monsters, several winter hacks, three off-roaders, a supermoto pit bike, a Honda Vision 50 and built his own custom XSR700. 

 

Pete Mouncer is RAF trained – he spent eight years as a ground electrician, which means he worked on every electrical item except the aeroplanes. While he was there he also took an ONC and HNC in electronic and electrical engineering.

After that, he started installing alarms part time, before working at GT Auto Alarm, where the company supplied the likes of Suzuki, Aprilia, Ford and others with security kit, as well as Oxford Products, where he later became technical boss. From there he co-formed Target Technology, working with insurers, M&P and Hein Gericke to fit alarms and immobilisers.

Now, Pete is The Bike Alarm Man, where he’s been fitting the leading brands of alarms, immobilisers and trackers to bikes in his own workshop in Warwickshire, or at his customers’ home/work for the past eleven years. He knows about security electronics…

 

What’s the most popular brand you’re fitting?

Of the alarms I fit, Meta and Datatool are the most popular... it’s usually Datatool. I’m effectively the customer, and they look after me – if I have a problem they sort it, and never quibble on the warranty [Pete buys the kit in, then supplies it to his clients]. If I need to sort something, I don’t want to mess around as I might have a 70 or 80 mile round trip – I just fit a new unit.

You have to use a professional fitter for any Thatcham-approved alarm, but whatever I install, I support the customer and give a three-year warranty, regardless of what the manufacturer offers.

 

Bad motorcycle connectors Motorcycle alarm.JPG	97 KB	 Motorcycle alarm Motorcycle wiring

Would you know what each of these wires are for?

 

What are the common mistakes made by people fitting alarms and other security tech?

Half the installs I see aren’t electrically sound, but there are loads of bike brand-specific issues to watch out for, like the fact that the negative on many motorcycles is black, but on Honda it’s green. On a Suzuki, there are lots of blacks that go to a security plug that’s used to programme in extra keys etc, but only one is an earth – people often pick up from the wrong one. And there’s a black wire going to one of the indicators, but that’s not an earth, as the general earths are actually black and white. People are forever connecting to the wrong things and blowing the alarm’s fuse.

People might fit aftermarket indicators but not connect them correctly. They’ll flash, but they could short the alarm that’s also picking up from the cable to them. When they arm the alarm it goes to flash the indicators and ends up shorting the system’s own fuse. Again, on many systems this will mean the siren’s screaming away, so people think it’s a fault with the alarm.

Some installers are lazy and don’t fit a fuse at all for the alarm, instead just piggy-backing off the bike’s fuses.

 

Bad motorcycle connectors

Crimps and screw connection blocks shouldn’t be anywhere near the vibrating, wet environment of a motorcycle

 

Dry joints are a real problem – poor soldering will cause all kinds of issues. Or even people might use crimps or worse still, screw-block connectors with screws – all of these will corrode or vibrate loose over time. Everything must be soldered, but you must do it correctly; people often don’t have a powerful enough soldering iron, so the joint looks okay on the day, but a few months or years down the line it fails.

A bad joint creates heat and resistance, and a thinner cable like those used on bikes will get hot more easily because it’s thin, then it’ll create more resistance, which will cause it to get hotter, and hence create more resistance… it’s a vicious circle.

 

A good joint matters

A decent solder joint will look wet and flow around the wires. Always heat it from the bottom to ensure you don’t get a dry joint – here we’ve put a little on the top to see when the heat is through the wire.

 

Another common problem is that people put a ring terminal onto the frame for the earth, even though the frame’s painted. Fair enough, the bottom of the bolt might connect okay, but vibration will often cause that to degrade. You should always solder onto an earth wire in the loom, as that’ll never go rusty, it’ll never get shaken off, and it’ll never get removed or left off when someone’s working on the bike.

Of the Meta alarms I go out to that are faulty, they’ve often been installed under the tank – especially on the old GSX-Rs. They might be five or ten years old, and clearly they’re designed to withstand the heat that gets trapped there from the engine, but I wouldn’t fit one there; I think it’s just too much over a long period of time.

There are all sorts of things that catch people out...

 

What’s the typical current draw of the systems you install?

I think about 5mA is the maximum, but it does vary. Some of them reduce their current draw over time, and others – like the Datatool – shut down some functions if the bike battery starts going flat. Some of those can turn off the ability to receive a signal from the fob if necessary [it’ll reset when the key’s turned], as that’ll be the biggest draw from the circuit.

 

People still complain that alarms are rubbish – is that historic now, or down to poor installations?

I think there have been some terrible alarms in the past. Some were overly complicated, for instance one brand that had a large remote control and big chunky boxes with separate movement sensors. That was a nightmare to install and massively complicated with loads of programmable functions – there was just too much to go wrong, and it was too heavy, so could even shake off.

Some were shocking – like one that was just a car alarm that was being sold for bikes. It was the size of a monkey’s skull; where were you meant to put that?! And it wasn’t even sealed properly – if you lifted the rubber boot where the loom plugged in, you could see the circuit board.

Thatcham approved alarms these days go through extremely rigorous testing – you wonder how they get through at all. To test one, the manufacturer is given the spec of an aluminium board about 50cm x 30cm that you put your alarm and all the connectors on. You have to supply a whole load of them for each system, then one goes off for water ingress testing, one for salt spray corrosion, one for vibration, one for thermal shock by being heated and frozen… And while all that’s happening there’s a plunger coming down to turn it on and off in its highest current draw state.

 

So why do they fail now?

Of course there can be the odd rogue one, but generally I’d ask how it was installed. For instance, of the hundreds and hundreds of Meta Thatcham Category One systems I’ve installed, I’ve probably only replaced a handful under warranty (they give one year as standard, but again, I offer three).

Datatool has an excellent warranty – three years as standard, but they’ve also taken that further with their recall of products from 2013-2016. All credit to them for making that recall – I think it was an issue with a component from a supplier that’s let them down, but they’re sorting them out despite the age. So many other systems were far worse, but those companies never bothered with a recall – they’d rather deny there was a problem at all.

One thing that’s worth noting is that the Datatool alarms you buy now are not the same as those of several years back – they used to be made overseas, but now the brand is owned by Scorpion Automotive, which makes the systems itself in the UK.

Recalls aside, of the replacements I’ve had to do they’ve been very, very few and far between. What I would say is that Datatool alarms have quite a lot of functions – sometimes there can be issues with people adjusting the sensitivity of their alarm for instance, but not setting it correctly. People like to have a play, but if things go wrong they don’t always go back and think about what they’ve changed – set a Datatool too sensitively for instance and it can go off just sat in the garage. It’s not a fault, but people might have found information online about how to fiddle with something that was set by the installer, then get in a muddle.

 

Is it fair to say then that many people’s tainted opinion of alarms is misplaced these days?

Yes, and often they’ll be buying a second-hand bike with one fitted that they don’t know how to work correctly, or it’s had a poor installation that’s seeing connections break down. A bike might have changed hands many times, and after the alarm was fitted it could have had new indicators or some other modifications to the electrics.   Also, people commonly don’t know how to do things like put their alarm into service mode, but I have all the user guides as PDFs for people to download on my website.

 

A properly fitted alarm can act as a real deterrent to thieves, but it’s absolutely true that a determined crook might take a bike then rip the panels off to get at the blaring siren. Those are the videos we see on social media, but what nobody ever shares is footage of the motorcycles that didn’t get touched because the thief saw the warning light, or was scared off by the noise.

There are several options, from basic alarms that a competent home mechanic can fit themselves, to full immobiliser systems. Some insurance policies might demand a Thatcham-approved immobiliser – depending on your bike and where you live – and while your machine may well have its own immobiliser from the factory, some manufacturers don’t have Thatcham-approved systems (KTM for instance).

Choose a system based on what level of protection you need… just make sure it’s properly installed and it should give you many years of trouble-free service.

You can find Pete at https://bikealarmman.com

 

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