Do you ever wish you could talk to someone at the front door while you’re upstairs or monitor the sounds from the baby’s room while you’re in the kitchen? A central intercom system will allow you to do just that, and more. You can pipe music through the house, call everyone for dinner, even remotely scan a security camera at the front or back door–all from a central location.

Intercom systems are nothing new, but, like many things electronic, they have evolved over the years. New technology has led to improved performance and often to lower prices, and many systems are very simple for the do-it-yourselfer to install, even in an existing home.

As is typically the case with a home improvement project, your first step is to decide what type of system you wish to install. An intercom system is simply a two-way transmit/receive unit that allows one person to talk in one location and another to listen at a different location. From there, you can increase to multi-room capabilities; radio, cassette, or CD music systems; speaker upgrades; and the addition of fixed or movable video cameras with one or more black and white or color monitors.

Perhaps the simplest intercom system is one that utilizes your existing doorbell wiring, and replaces the doorbell button and chime units. With this type of system – priced at around $100 – the door unit acts as both a doorbell button and a talk/listen station, and the indoor unit will chime when the doorbell button is pressed, and then allow you to talk to the person at the door. This is a great do-it-yourself project, and also typically affords you the ability to add at least one additional inside station in another room.

Next comes the central intercom system, which is the most common type and the area where you will find the greatest number of system types and options – what you choose is primarily a matter of your needs, the size of your home and your budget. Central intercom systems range in price from around $400 to well over $1,000, depending on its features and the number of remote room units involved.

Every central intercom system starts with basics – a multi-room intercom. With this type of system, there is a master unit that is located in one convenient spot – typically the kitchen or living room – and that acts as the central control for the entire system. There are also individual remote room units located inside the house, and two or more door units located outside.

With most systems, you can answer the door from any of the remote units – you don’t need to go back to the master unit – and the person at the door can speak to you hands-free. Most systems also include a “listen-in” feature, which lets you monitor the sounds in a baby’s room or keep an ear on someone who is confined to bed. For privacy, the listen-in feature can be shut off by someone in the room if desired.

Another feature common to most types of central intercom systems is music. The most common variation contains an AM/FM radio, but units are also available for use with cassette tapes or even CDs. With the music system, you typically get a number of presets for radio stations, a “wake-to-music” feature that lets the intercom function as an alarm system in as many rooms as desired, and a timer system that shuts the music off after a preset amount of time. Most systems also allow the volume of the music to be controlled from each individual room, again eliminating the need to go back to the master control station.

For added convenience and security, some systems offer the capability of remote door unlock. Similar to the systems found in some apartments and commercial businesses, the system alerts you via a tone when someone rings the doorbell, allows you to speak to the person from anywhere inside the house, and then to release the door lock from any of the remote interior station locations.

For the ultimate system, you can install an exterior camera mounted above the door. Depending on the system, the camera may be fixed in one location with a wide-angle lens, or it may have the ability to scan up and down, pan from side to side, or even zoom in and out. The picture is received on one or more interior stations, in either color or black and white. Video monitor systems also feature all of the standard intercom features, including a remote door unlock. These systems are typically in the range of $1,500 and up.

Intercom systems can be found at some larger home centers, as well as electronic stores and through specialty contractors.

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