Our Philippine House – Security and Crime Prevention

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Discussions about crime and safety for expats living in the Philippines seem to generate big, passionate differences of opinion. Some feel that foreigners are prime crime targets. This view is supported by many news reports of foreigners being killed, mostly in home intrusions. Others have never experienced crime during their stay in the Philippines, feel very safe, that the dangers are overblown and that it’s safer in the Philippines than their home country.

One of the things that amazed me when I first came to the Philippines is that houses, even in very peaceful small places, had steel bars on their windows. Where we lived in Upstate New York, such a thing was inconceivable. Most people there did not lock their houses and left their keys in the ignition of their cars. Surely, something is different. See our discussion on crime and security at /crime-against-foreigners-philippines/

My experiences in the Philippines have been exceptionally positive. However, we’ve built our house in a quite isolated location with no near neighbors. We see that Filipinos with nice houses take security precautions, so we think it’s prudent to assume they know what’s needed.

Building windows - security bars

Building windows – security bars

How the windows look

How the windows look

We built security bars into our window design. The openings are small enough so that even a child could not get through. We worked to make the bars a positive part of the sash design, so that the bars would give the appearance of window panes. We are happy with the result. The window security bars are 14mm square steel. Each room, as required by our building permit, has a hinged window panel which serves as a fire escape. For more on how we built or windows see /our-philippine-house-project-windows/

Window fire escape.

We also constructed security screen doors. These are modelled on designs used in some higher crime areas in the U.S. See http://www.torreswelding.com/security_screen_doors.htm and   http://www.titansecurity.com/traddoors.html

Constructing security screen door

Constructing security screen door

We welded these doors up of 1 1/2 x 1 1/2″ angle bar. We incorporated curly decorative panels so the doors would seem a bit less jail like.  The hinges are heavy duty stainless steel. The doors have both deadbolts and padlocks. The deadbolts are keyed on both sides so that one won’t be able to reach through the grilles to unlock the door. They will also be effective against a common Philippine burglary scenario in which a small child is squeezed into the house, perhaps between bars, perhaps with a bar sawn with a hacksaw.  The child then opens the exterior doors to let in his adult accomplices.

Portrait of a break-in

Portrait of a break-in

Above is a photo sent in by a reader whose house was broken into by squeezing in a child who unlocked the door. Fortunately the owners slept through the robbery and were not harmed, however quite a bit was stolen.

Another break-in, weak security grille

Another break-in, weak security grille

A break-in at a combination store/Internet cafe.  The installation of this grille was very weak, depending on plastic expansion anchors, called tox in the Philippines.

Our windows are welded to structural reinforcing bar

Our windows are welded to structural reinforcing bar

Are our security measures overkill? There’s no way to really tell. We just feel we’ll sleep a bit better at night with these doors locked.

Security screen door complete except for insect screening

Security screen door complete except for insect screening

Security door locks from outside

Security door locks from outside

Security door locks inside

Security door locks inside

We also have pretty standard security lights; a lamp in each corner of the soffit and lights on our front fence and both front and rear gates. Our plans called for 500 watt halogen lights in the center of the soffits. We decided to use a pole mounted yard light instead.  We bought a Firefly brand 250 watt sodium vapor street light and installed it on a pole in our yard. We decided on this type of light because it gives lots of light per watt and because it can illuminate our entire yard.  Our lot is 1,500 square meters and except for the lighting we provide, totally dark.  As we live in our house, we’ll decide how much lighting to use.  We’d like to minimize lighting at night so we (and others) can enjoy the starry nights.

After living in the house for three years, we only turn on the big sodium vapor lights when there is some cause for alarm.  Otherwise we use four 25 watt compact fluorescents at each corner of the house, two 15 watt compact fluorescents on the bahay kubo to light the back of the lot, two 15 watt compact fluorescents at each side of gate for a total of 160 watts.  At twelve hours per night, this totals 57.6 kWh per month or at P12 per kWh about 700 pesos per month ($16US).  This is more security lighting than most people will need.  Our security lighting expenses are high because we have a fairly large lot in a fairly remote location.  Our neighbors use much less lighting but we feel that ample lighting is a deterrent to crime.  Criminals do not want to be identified.  That is particularly true where we live, as opposed to a more urban location because any intruder will likely come on foot and be known if seen.

Installing security light (250W HID Sodium vapor)

Installing security light (250W HID Sodium vapor)

250 watt security light lights our backyard

250 watt security light lights our backyard

Firefly 150 watt sodium vapor fixture in garage

Firefly 150 watt sodium vapor fixture in garage

It lights our garage and backyard

It lights our garage and backyard

Many homeowners install halogen lamps for security lights.  They are cheap and put out a lot of light, but they are a false economy unless they are used only occasionally. They use a lot of power per light produced.  The better options are florescent lights, metal halide lights and sodium vapor light.  All three of these are about equally efficient in terms of candlepower per watt.  All three are much more efficient than incandescent or halogen lights.  Florescent lamps are cheap and efficient, but are mostly available in smaller wattage units. Metal halide lights produce very natural white light efficiently.   Sodium vapor lights produce the yellowish light we are used to in street lights.  The big plus for sodium vapor is that the bulbs last about 10,000 hours as opposed to 5,000 for metal halide and florescent lamps.  Both the metal halide and sodium vapor fixtures are expensive, but they are industrial duty, made for years of use.  Metal halide and sodium vapor lights are available in very high wattage units, 500 and 600watts or more.  Ours are made by Firefly and should be available from commercial electrical supply houses in the Philippines.  The 150 watt “wall/tunnel” light fixturewe’re using in the garage is especially impressive with a cast aluminum case, glass lens and silicone rubber seals.  We bought ours from Western Lamp in Iloilo.  Citi Hardware sells metal halide fixtures.  More information on Firefly security lights here.

Finally, we  have a panic button in our bedroom which is connected to a loud outside alarm.  This is not so much to summon help but to scare off prowlers.  Of course we’ll keep a cell phone in our bedroom so we could call the police if we have a concern.  Did I motion a dog — perhaps the best security device there is!  We have four.

Are all of these security measures necessary?  We don’t know.  Foreigners tend to think they are overkill, Filipinos less so.  We’ve lived in the Philippines for four years but always in situations where our landlords provide excellent security.  The compound in which our apartment was located was protected by roving, armed security guards, German Shepherds and video surveillance. In our new home we’ll be on our own and responsible for our own safety.   So far (13 months) we have had no problems at all.   A recent New York Times article describes the same differing opinions about the need for security among New York City residents.

Updated August 25, 2013

Comments (17) Write a comment

  1. Very nice article. I’ve always wondered what security measures people….especially foreigners…considered when building a home there. I’ve seen a number of new…seemingly fancy (considering the neighbors in the province) homes being built. My in-laws in Jaro have the high walls with steel gates on the windows and all that. I don’t think it’s out of the question though considering there is no real middle class there and the well-to-do and those living in abject poverty are side by side. A good dog goes a long way, I’m sure. My in laws have a penchant for Rottweilers. Makes me edgy as hell in their yard lol.

    Reply

  2. Hello, Bob! Ever considered solar lighting? New Jersey has a lot of these now. Power poles have small panels under the large light bulbs. A few miles away from me, there is this vacant lot which now has several huge solar panels all lined up..It is adjacent to the County Jail and a government building. Half a mile away is the County courthouse and a multi story parking lot for these different facilities. It seems they will be converting to solar..Funny because PSE&G is very close by..

    Reply

  3. Pingback: Crime against foreigners in the Philippines | My Philippine Life

  4. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Degsy, a 41 year old British man. My wife is from the Philippines. We are currently based in UK but we will be moving back to the Philippines in about 3 years.

    Well done you lads. I have enjoyed reading your invaluable comments and detailed, blow-by-blow account of building a house in the Philippines. It is interesting to to read. All of it is highly informative and reassuring.

    I plan on building a house in the north east of Luzon (Tuguegarao City) and a million things pass through my mind on a daily basis on this topic. So many things to consider. Anyway, just one question i would like to submit for consideration: –

    1) Did you lads use blocks or concrete ‘formwork/shuttering (erect panels and pour in the concrete)?

    2) What ever your answer was to question number 1, could you please tell me why you chose that particular method?

    3) Does anyone know anyone in Tuguegarao who’s built a house?

    Thanks men.

    Cheers

    Degsy

    Reply

    • Thanks for you kind comments. We used quite conventional construction; reinforced concrete columns and beams infilled with hollow block. Why? I have to say that we just went with the flow. That’s the type of construction our engineer and workers knew. Just building a house here was a challenge for us without veering from the conventional. Subsequent research suggests to me that this type of construction can be strong, but often is not properly done. There are a hundred things we’d do differently if we knew then what we know now. That said, we love our house. Can’t help with Tuguegarao. Good luck!

      Reply

  5. You should be aware that security designed to keep people out can also stop you leaving in a hurry. This is particularly important in the case of fire. An early warning system such as smoke alarms are both cheap and effective. We have smoke alarms on both floors which are mains wired with battery backup. They are also connected to they will all sound at the same time. This can give you vital time to escape especially if the windows are barred. The last thing you want to be doing is looking for keys or the lock in a smoke filled room.

    You should also be aware if anyone is watching your property as they may be reconnoitring it. Security should not stop at your gate and it important to be on good terms with your neighbours and community.

    Reply

    • We installed Alcamesh rather than steel bars for our windows, our house is in a similar setting to Bob’s, in that its isolated and rural, Alcamesh is an aluminium 5mm expanded mesh which we had built into an alloy frame that can be opened from the inside (basically a casement inward opening widow with mesh instead of glass), most of the older relatives think it’s poor security as it would be easier to cut than steel, the younger nephews etc think its much better/modern than steel bars.
      Of course when it comes to thieves you basically have two types, the opportunist and the planned theft, you can’t stop a planned crime, you might make it more difficult but no matter what you spend it can always be overcome by a determined thief, the best bet is to deter the opportunist, don’t leave door or windows open a night etc (common sense stuff) also all you need to do is make your house slightly better in security terms than the surrounding houses, (i.e. rob them not me) i.e. you deter not stop crime.
      of course as with everywhere in the Philippines, get dogs.

      Reply

  6. Pingback: Building our Philippine House – Index | My Philippine Life

  7. More security suggestions:

    Robert

    You probably heard of the terminology and usage of “Setting your security layers” During my tour in Iraq, tha is what exactly we did, layers, upon layers of security. I know that will take lots of money to do and too install, but the most traditional protective layers are always on hand. Example: Reinforcing the top of your fire wall with barbwire or better yet, a low voltage 24vdc electric fence, you could build your own with solar panels. Where I live is a gated community, with guards, the perimeter fence of the property of the villa is protected with a electric fence in top of the 8 foot cement wall.. Gated front doors.

    Your weakest point of your compound, it is your entry point, and your last line of defence is the main door of your house, always think like a burglar only when it comes to analysing in how to enter your premises. You will see how vulnerable you are and will push you to establish a better defensive layer. Gated front doors.are your second layer.

    Never trust anyone, don’t be naive or extremly humble, most of the jobs are inside jobs. Unfortunatly starts with the human interaction of our adopted families, respect them, but don’t give up your security points.or anything of value to the simple eye. Greed and jeolousy are always mind buggling.

    My property has 5, 9w flood lights with sensor movement, I got them spread out strategically covering all blind spots and corners of my house. I did purchased at wilcom center in alabang I did modified them wth the 9w flouressant lights, I did removed the 150w lamp. The Yale brand Infrared. sensor movement alarms are disguised and shaped like a smoke detector with audible high pitch alarms,

    I got them installed at the car port, One over head to my car. I got three wireless infrared alarms covering the back door and front door, all devises have a high pitch, they will wake you, One stray cat got in trouble with me for setting off my audible alarms. He did end up running for dear life with a barrage of rocks at 3 am.. I got some solid magnetic strips on some of my windows, the rest of the house is covered with Infra red motion detector. and audible alarms. Total cost about 6000 pesos. I do have my own mini wireless cameras, 5 of them. Of course , I’m not in Iraq anymore, still my last weapon of defense is my aluminun bat. Personnaly I like guns, but I do choose noise and light before owning a gun. It is real hard to remove from your mind seen someone killed for his stupidity all in the name of self defense. I would not hesitate in taking someone lifes, when it comes to the preotection my wife and kids, I will not make it easier on the bad guys inside my property, they are going to earn every drop of sweat.

    Unfortunatly,we have to learn to trust someone in our lifes, Dogs are great guardians, If you train them well. , Enjoy your castle.

    Reply

  8. Selecting plants and planning the garden layout can also be an intruder deterrent or at least make the job more difficult for them.
    Bougainvillea is the obvious candidate and a wall of purple or purple/red looks spectacular. Of course the pruning will need doing but the spikes on long shoot cuttings when dried out will piece rubber shoes…Leave some under window ledges.
    Another smaller deterrent plant is a Japanese Rice palm. These throw out a long spiky tendril and the palm leaves have a spiky underneath. They grow to about 1.5 meters and are an impossible barrier if planted together. We have some near our windows and I’ve ripped my arms on occasions.
    Another plant is the Agave, some beauties in the Philippines from greys thru stripped. NOBODY tangles with these. …create a sea shore/pebble/desert area ??
    Landscaping……gravel round the walls will sound very loud in the quiet of the night, the old English manor houses employed this.
    An easy pathway to access the house in day time will also be good for the intruder. Design the access to be trickier, some twists and turns, …but no need for moat and drawbridge. haha!

    Reply

    • Peter,

      Thanks for excellent suggestions. Yes, those bougainvillea thorns are really wicked. Our nastiest is the Kafir Lime. Ever seen those? It is really growing quickly too.

      Bob

      Reply

  9. Bob thanks, this is a very informative blog.

    Why do you use so much welded ironware e.g. in your roof trusses, window frames and screen doors ?

    I am about to build much the same as you but smaller and within 1 Km from the sea in typhoon likely west Leyte. Salt erosion and rusting of all the iron in roofing and windows nearby are considerable with an expensive half life of 7 years and therefore constant painting. I suggest use wood in surrounds and doors, i.e. gmelina, if mahogany or molave are not available.

    For windows I suggest too late, aluminium controlled 100mm or 200mm glass (or painted thin wood) jalouses with fixed Aluminium black-colored (so you can easily see thru) mosquito sreening outside (Dengue is endemic there) Then the total window area can be used for guided air cooling.

    Perhaps the Heritage Pinoy 19th Cent. heavy wood jalousies are best but they reduce the light and view and use excessive scarce lumber. Security bars are needed too but that won’t deter a determined invader with a carjack??

    What are you views?

    Reply

    • Fabian,

      Yes, we did use a great deal of steel, particularly in our roof and ceiling structure. Maybe we were over concerned with termites and rot. Steel is cheaper than decent wood and we had good welders on our crew. We did use epoxy primer on all steel, but I don’t know how it will hold up. I guess we’ll find out!

      Now we live in a rented apartment very near the shore, near enough so we get salt spray during storms. We bought some pretty steel porch furniture. It starts rusting just about as soon as you’re done painting it! Our new house is also about one km from the ocean as the crow flies. I don’t know how much salt spray we’ll get there. It should not be much.

      We used local mahogany (Swetinia) for our door casings. The doors are mahogany except for the 1M front door which is Lauaan. Our crown moldings are plain cheap wood. Our baseboards are Matwood treated. That’s the only wood in the house — except for furniture.

      Just as it is elsewhere in the world, decent wood is hard to find and very expensive. Salvage from old houses is popular everywhere. The durability of the lousy wood available now is a big question. We had doors and windows made in NY at great expense for a restoration project. They were rotten within ten years. I’d love a traditional Philippine house made of the fabulous old Philippine hardwoods, but I’m born too late and too poor for that!

      I like jalousie windows — the way they open fully and are adjustable, but we liked the traditional (to us) look of multi-light sash, so we used casement windows with the security bars acting as muntins. Casement windows open 100%, just like jalousie windows and the sash can be adjusted to catch the breeze and direct it into the room. They are working very well. We used extra heavy 15mm security bar. It’s all welded together so a car jack would have a hard time, but of course if a intruder wants to use a 4″ angle grinder or other tools, he can easily get in — but not without some noise. Most of the thieves here are not well equipped with jacks and angle grinders!

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Bob
      Tigbauan, Iloilo
      Philippines
      http://

      Reply

  10. You have and all your building crews have done a good job! It’s a pleasure to follow up on your postings. The security measures are not overkill, it’s for your personal safety. It’s good to have it, based on my relatives experience living there. Good luck, Bob and Carol.

    Reply

  11. Hi Bob,
    Being secluded gives an intruder the advantage that noise is not an issue and he can use force if needed without interruption. Brightly lit areas won’t be an issue either. Good grills, bear in mind that the intruder can use a car jack to open the bars wider. I’m thinking of putting a live wire to the grill for when we are away and if an intruder attempts to saw through the bars he will get a surprise!!
    Personal safety is of course the main issue and a PA button by the bedside is good. A small dog although no worry to intruders spoils the element of surprise and gives you time to take action……even some geese are great alarmists!
    I would suggest a caretaker maybe a family member as an occupant when you go away.

    Reply

  12. Bob, nice job! We’ll start building our place next year and I was wondering what to do with the windows. Like you, I was also thinking to use casement type windows, with integrated security grills.

    What I was wondering is how you’ll place the fly screen? If you put it on the inside, how will you open the window? Maybe a hinge on the fly screen so you can access the window handles?

    Reply

    • Hi Andrew,

      Yes, screens are an issue with casement windows. The basic, cheapest solution is a fixed screen (screwed to wall) in which there are little doors to allow you to reach the casement window handles to open and close the windows.

      Another is to hinge the screen panels. In our case there would be a frame, and two vertical dividers to which three screen panels would be hinged. Catches would be magnetic.

      The other possibility is sliding screens. That’s what you see on many sliding windows. The sliding screens at our rental apartment are so horrible.

      I’m thinking of install one of each and seeing which works the best for us.

      Be careful of the quality of the aluminum screen fabric. The screens in our apartment have been in place for a year and already are corroding away. I’m told to ask for Opal brand aluminum screening fabric. Or, we might use a plastic screen because I don’t like the looks of the aluminum. In NY we were able to buy a roll of bronze screening at a good price. That made great window screens, but I’m sure it would be VERY expensive today.

      If I come up with a good solution, I’ll post it on .

      Regards,

      Bob

      Reply

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