Home Video Surveillance – Why and How?

Alarm sign image from AlarmCCTV.Com

Alarm sign image from AlarmCCTV.Com

Did you know that you can have a video surveillance system protecting your home just like the one at your office, at the mall or at your local retail store?  Home video surveillance systems have been around for quite a while,  but in the past few years have reached a price-point that makes them accessible to the average homeowner.  This post discusses (briefly) some potential benefits and options to think about when considering an investment in a home video surveillance system to help protect your home and family.

Why Have A Home Video Surveillance System?

No tool or technology will guarantee your home will not be burglarized. However, a home video surveillance system can be a powerful deterrent and, in the event your home is burglarized, can help police catch the perpetrators.  There have been several incidents recently in the City of Atlanta where video from such systems helped to break up burglary crews and even a major stolen-goods crime ring.

These systems do represent an investment of both time and money, and may require some additional effort to secure recorders (so the evidence doesn’t get stolen!), but definitely are worth taking a look at as part of an overall personal safety plan. 

Standalone DVRs

Standalone DVR systems are the heart of a “traditional” security camera setup and, like many things traditional, is a very safe bet at the expense of some inconvenience (think baking biscuits from scratch instead of from a vacuum can).

Pros

– Hardwired cameras and a standalone security DVR tend to be very reliable so long as power is available and generally can just be left running all the time.  A UPS of the sort one might use with a computer usually can power both DVR and cameras through a short blackout.

– The quality of hardwired cameras tends to be better on a unit-cost basis as more money is available for good lenses, CCDs and shielding when there isn’t a network card or wireless card in the camera.

– Hardwired cameras generally are harder to compromise than wireless or network cameras.

– Hardwired cameras generally are significantly less expensive than wireless or network cameras.

Cons

– Installation is more complicated as both power and signal cables must be run from the DVR to each camera, though combo cables (a single cable carrying both power and signal) can make this easier.

– Standalone security DVRs often are firmware and don’t (or rarely) get software upgrades for new features. What you buy is what you get for as long as you own the DVR.

– Standalone DVRs are expensive as compared to some other options (see below).

What are some of the other options?  There are as many alternatives as there are vendors, but I’ll try to hit the highlights.

Computer-Based DVRs

Add a multichannel video card to a standard desktop computer or a USB equivalent to a laptop computer, install the included software, connect some cameras (wired or wireless) and you have a software-driven, configurable security DVR.

Pros

– Assuming you already have a computer or buy a cheap one, the cost for the DVR often will be less than that for a standalone, even factoring in the cost of the card or USB device.

– The software for computer-based DVRs frequently has more functionality and customizable parameters than standalone DVRs, and can be upgraded with patches from the manufacturer.

– Like standalone DVRs, computer-based DVRs can use wired or wireless cameras.

Cons

– Computer-based DVRs are only as reliable as the computer. If the operating system crashes or the computer otherwise shuts down, the DVR is down and often has to be reset manually.  Most standalone DVRs will simply reset if there is a glitch, with almost no gap in recording.

– Computer-based DVRs often have less space available for recording security video (unless one adds hard drives, which impacts cost), resulting in either shorter retention of video to keep space available or reduction of recorded video quality to reduce file size.

– Multichannel video cards and USB devices often are made by obscure manufacturers with varying warranty and customer support available.  Same goes for the security DVR software.  This can increase the technical savvy required of the user.

Wireless Video Cameras

Like everything else in the modern world, security cameras also have gone wireless.  Instead of sending the video images to a security DVR (standalone or computer based) via a wire, the images get converted into radio signals that are captured and decoded by a receiver.  X10 cameras are a variation of wireless video cameras.

Pros

– Wireless cameras can be easier to install and allow the location of the security DVR to be changed without the need to re-run wires between camera and DVR.

– Wireless cameras can be placed anywhere a power source is available and still within range of the receiver (usually 100′ or so) which can allow for some interesting and useful camera angles.

Cons

-“Wireless” is a bit of a misnomer, as the camera still requires power usually delivered via a wire connected to a wall-socket. 

– Wireless cameras often trade off image quality for the convenience of one less wire and CCDs and lenses have to be smaller to accomodate the wireless transmitter without increasing the size of the camera body.

– Many wireless cameras (including the ones that claim not to) use frequencies shared by other wireless devices such as networks, cordless phones and baby monitors.  This often results in interference that limits video quality and really annoys the neighbors when their home wireless network suddenly stops working.

Network-Based Cameras and DVRs

A comparatively recent security camera innovation is to use computer network resources both as the security DVR and the mechanism by which cameras are connected to the recorder.  This can be accomplished as simply as connecting an off-the shelf webcam to a web-based recording service or, in more complex installations, using cameras that connect via hardwired data networks or wireless LANs.

Pros

– Network-based security cameras and DVRs can be as real or virtual as one would like and even outsourced just like any other data service.

– Video quality, especially when cameras are connected to a hardwired LAN, can be significantly higher than traditional wired or wireless video cameras.

– While non network-based security cameras and DVRs can be accessed remotely via the web, it generally is easier to do so with network-based security cameras and DVRs.

Cons

– The cost of the cameras can be significantly higher than for traditional wired or wireless cameras, especially when the cameras are going to be located outside.

– If the internet connection goes down, so does the network-based DVR if one uses a web-based service.  Same goes for local security camera webservers if the computers on which they are installed go down.

– It can be easier for an intelligent and motivated person to disable network-based security cameras and DVRs than the traditional counterparts.

The Bottom Line

So, what is the right answer?  Well, it depends. I personally have a standalone DVR and hardwired cameras.  The DVR I purchased connects to my home LAN so I can access it remotely via the Internet (or from a computer elsewhere in the house).  I have (but have not yet installed) a kit containing two wireless cameras and a receiver I can plug into the DVR that will allow me to place cameras on my two neighbors homes (with their consent, of course) to provide exterior views I can’t get with wired cameras on my own property. Finally, I use software running on a spare computer to duplicate the standalone DVRs files in real time so I can archive more video than the DVR itself can hold. 

What is the right answer for someone else?  It all comes down to:

1. Cost.  The more you can spend, the better a system you can get.  If your budget is more austere, some options may get more bang for your buck at the expense of features or reliability.

2. Features. Security DVRs generally do a small number of things very reliably (standalone) or a great many more things subject to higher failure rates (computer-based or network-based).  Higher reliability plus more features equals greater cost.

3. Reliability.  The more complex something is, the more prone to failure it will be.  However, more cost-effective options often are more complex and more features require more complexity.

With no other input on means and preferences, I generally would automatically recommend a standalone security DVR with a network interface and at least eight camera inputs (you will wind up needing more than four, trust me). I would suggest a few good-quality hardwired cameras initially (weatherproof, infrared, with glass lenses and 1/3″ or better CCDs) covering entry doors and accessible windows (protect the perimeter first!), followed by additional cameras (potentially wireless) for other vantage points you might want to cover, like the front or back yards.  I personally am not a fan of the network-based options, but they are improving and D-Link apparently has marketed a fairly sophisticated (and expensive) system that is on par with traditional systems but 100% network based.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not an expert, but I know what I like.  I am not a lawyer, certified security camera technician or anything else that gives me any credible basis to provide advice on this matter.  Your mileage may vary.  Etc., etc., etc.  Smiley

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2 Responses

  1. […] homes already have installed exterior security cameras covering doors and driveways, and recorders to capture suspiciou…. Many people are (understandably) made uncomfortable by the thought of interior cameras covering […]

  2. […] Installing a video surveillance system […]

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