How to fix the buzzer situation in Canada

Your home’s buzzer has to be linked to a phone number but you live with multiple people and can’t decide on which number to use? Or you would like to use your landline but don’t actually have one? Just do it like this.

I’m living in a high-rise in the Vancouver area and I’m still not over the door buzzer situation here. What I mean by that? Well, let’s rewind a bit so that you’ll understand why I do not understand. ;)

I’m from Germany and when there multiple parties live in one house, multi-family homes, low-rises or high-rises, then there will simply be as many buzzers (or doorbells) at the front door as there are parties living in the building. And yes, that could potentially mean lots of doorbells. Check out the picture below — it shows the doorbells of our place in Berlin:

Buzzers at the front door of our place in Berlin, Germany (picture taken before the building was completed, hence no names yet).

You see, (at least to me) this seems quite straight forward: you see the name, you press the button, the respective party can see you via the integrated camera (in color!) & speak with you and you’re admitted (or not).

Now fast forward to Canada. Here in British Columbia it seems to work differently. The front door shows this device:

The buzzer at our place in the Vancouver, BC area.

So, there are no separate buzzers. There’s a list a visitor can scroll through and select where to buzz or — if the visitor knows the assigned buzzer number (which is never the same as the apartment number, how fun!) — he could also directly punch this number in to ‘call’ the respective apartment. And yes, by call I literally do mean call because that whole system works by dialling a phone number per apartment. Whoever receives this call can then let the person into the building by pressing a number on the phone’s keypad.

When I first heard (parts) about this, I thought that this is actually somewhat smart. It reminded me a bit of a smart home, thinking of my smartphone and a respective app, etc. Unfortunately it has way too many drawbacks to be smart:

  • The buzzer number has to become part of your address, even when ordering something. Otherwise many delivery guys simply will not spend (or waste?) the time going through the system looking for your name. Hence no visitors or packages for you, my friend.
  • All parties living in the building can decide for themselves under what name they want to be listed in the system (you’re advised against using your apartment number). Last name, first name, both, something else, … Remember that delivery guy I mentioned earlier? Yeah, he will not go through the list looking for something resembling your name…
  • Only the building manager can change the phone number, which the buzzer is calling. When he’s on vacation for two weeks and somebody’s phone number changes… well, tough luck, you’re going to have two very quite weeks.

Now to what I initially thought would make this system really cool — the integration with your phone.

So, the buzzer system will call your phone, right? Well, yes but that’s it and precisely that’s the problem, too. I mean, if you live alone and have either a mobile phone or a landline, then this is great. But what about the rest of us?

Let’s take our situation as an example: we’re two adults and we do not have a landline (we’re proud cord-cutters). Should the buzzer system now call my cell or the one of my wife? Uh… Who’s home more often? Ehm… Who can open the door more frequently? …

Remember, when the buzzer system calls your phone — even when you’re out and about — you need to pick up the phone and press a number on the dial-pad to open the front door. The other person at home doesn’t even know yet that somebody actually did ring the doorbell. Can you imagine my confusion now? I was stunned.


The landline solution

Well, it might be the easiest to simply get a landline. You most likely will need to upgrade your internet/phone provider package and pay a higher monthly fee to receive a phone number and an according phone line. You also need to buy a phone and plug it in, so that it can ring, announcing visitors. For us that would mean paying an additional $15 per month (at Shaw) plus the phone, which most likely will be clocking in somewhere around $20 for a corded device.

The service solution

There are services, which integrate with your buzzer system. One is for example Ringo. They give a phone number and an app and from there you can manage who gets into your building. This comes at a price though — at least $3.99 per month.

Our solution

Here’s what we did: we headed over to Fongo and got a free Canadian phone number through them (yep, it’s really free). Then we went to buy a cheap Android phone from Amazon — we opted for the BLU Advance 5.0 for only USD $59 (or here on for CAD $79) — and then we simply setup Fongo on that phone and set the buzzer to call that number. Done.

Now we’re keeping this phone at home constantly to mainly answer the buzzer. But that’s not all. We also installed Spotify on it, so that we can listen to music through a bluetooth speaker, we installed Google Maps, so that we’re able to quickly look places and opening hours up from the sofa, etc. It is all very convenient that the phone has two SIM card slots — just in case. So in the end this phone became actually much more our ‘home couch device’ than just the buzzer.

And if you’re more of a tablet user, you could also get one like this to achieve the same — just with a bigger screen.

Our ‘home couch device’ doubling as the buzzer for the front door.

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