Recently my family had an uninvited guest at our home, which was promptly detected by our security cameras, and I was able to monitor their presence. They were ultimately well meaning, but in the process of discovering this, my wife posted our security footage to our community Facebook page (a great tool, I’d highly recommend you sign up for your local one), and our neighbours were very helpful, and also curious about our setup.
Working in information technology, I take for granted the complexity of these products, so decided to take this opportunity to share my experiences, distilled down to the key points for consideration.
Part of the responsibilities of my job in software design, is security. A sobering acknowledgement across the industry, is that nobody can guarantee against intrusion and theft, so we focus instead on maximising the effort required by an intruder, to encourage them go somewhere else. If you happen to fall victim, you next want to detect, then finally minimise the resulting impact.
Protecting your home is no different.
Let’s Get Started
At the end of this article, I will discuss some of the product features to consider, but first let’s identify the key deciding factors you’re facing, and order them from least flexible to most.
1. Your level of technical competence and desire for autonomy.
2. How you want to use the system.
These points may be ordered differently for you, but I expect anyone bothering to read this article will probably categorise them in this order.
You want to begin by assessing the factor you are least likely to change – your technology competence, and willingness to maintain any system you install. Combined with how you intend to utilise the system, these factors will feed in to the product options enabled by your budget.
Technical Competence and Autonomy
The most common weakness of these devices, is the frequency of false positives – where an alert is generated for a benign scenario – your pet, sudden changes in lighting conditions, a spider crawling over the lens. If this results in you dialling down the sensitivity to the point where it no longer triggers during real intrusions – or you start to ignore the notification messages on your mobile device, then the system has become ineffective.
If you are more interested in monitoring your home ‘retrospectively’ – then this may not be an issue. Turn off the notifications, and just scan through the footage should something happen at your home that prompts you to do so (a neighbour reporting some activity, gate being left open, etc). If, however, you want to engage more proactively, you will want push notifications and live monitoring. A product like Cleverloop uses adaptive technology to learn what to ignore, and is a good balance between autonomy and cost.
How you want to use the system
Before you spend any money – ask yourself, do you really want to know what is happening when you’re not at home?
I was not expecting to be presented with this conundrum when I undertook this exercise. Unless your yard is physically secured, you will likely already be playing host to a number of uninvited guests – most of which never amount to anything, but you should consider how comfortable you are with knowing this.
My front yard has received numerous door-knockers, sales people, soliciting real estate agents, children chasing their pets, maintenance workers with the wrong address, and of course, people whom I will never know the purpose of their visit. Some individuals are clearly concerned only with proceeding directly to the front door, knocking, and leaving – others investigate with noses pressed against windows, or touring around the back yard. Often these guests will visibly notice the camera, causing them to promptly stop ‘rubber necking’, knock, and depart, indicating that even installing a dummy camera has significant value.
I’ll leave it up to you to investigate what these systems cost, both in parts and installation. However, our system is custom built and installed, sends movement notifications by email, allows me to view live footage from my iPhone/browser over the internet, and stores footage for a year. The cameras have night vision and cost about NZ$80 each, with a central controlling device that doubles as my family’s ‘backup hard drive’– costing about NZ$500. I have gone the extra mile and configured it so that it survives power outages as well, but I doubt it’s common that burglars cut power before entering a property… yet.
A camera with everything built in can run all the way beyond NZ$1000 per unit depending on its capabilities – but most can easily get away with NZ$150-200 per camera. The cost has certainly dropped in the last 5 years. Most cameras can also be installed with basic handyman knowledge. You will also need to consider whether there is a subscription cost for storing and accessing your footage remotely.
What to Look for in a Security Camera
- Resilience to downtime
A camera is no good if it’s not active. I would always choose a wired camera (connected to your network over Ethernet), over wireless. Wifi will be more susceptible to congestion caused by other data flowing on your home network, plus also interference from surrounding networks that may cause drop-outs in the video feed. Did you know that your home microwave can easily interrupt your wifi network?
Does the camera require an internet connection? Best to get one that can utilise its own storage in the case of network loss. If you choose one with remote monitoring capabilities, is your home internet connection up to the task? Generally speaking, if you run a speed test and your home network achieves less than 2 megabit upload speed, you’re likely to struggle to get the “live view” feature to work well.
- Tamper protection
Bullet type cameras are popular for some reason, they are cylindrically shaped, mounted on an adjustable arm. A down-side is that it doesn’t take much of an impact to move, or break these cameras. Conversely, dome cameras are more common in commercial systems because they can take punishment, and the camera direction cannot be changed without removing the protective housing. Consider where you will be mounting your camera when making a selection – bullets are highly versatile, domes are great for soffit installation under your eaves.
- Night Vision
Cameras require some form of illumination to be of any use at night. Expensive models can be so sensitive that the moon alone is enough, but it’s unlikely that these will fit within your budget. Consumer models come with an array of infra-red lights (similar to the light in the end of your TV remote) – which appear as a purple hue in captured footage, but is invisible to the naked eye.
Account for the linear size of your yard, considering the ability of the camera’s lights to illuminate the areas of interest – given the location you intend to mount the camera. Remember that the light would be most intense in the centre of the field of view.
Also check that the infrared lights are not mounted behind the same piece of transparent plastic as the camera lens. Failure by the manufacturer to physically separate these will cause a some of the infrared light to be reflected back into the camera sensor, degrading the clarity of the image – possibly degrading it entirely – the effect is impacted by environmental temperature, oxidation and surface damage of the plastic housing over time – so you might not notice it during demonstrations.
- Resolution and General Fidelity
Cameras are now more commonly available in HD resolutions, 720 and 1080 versions, with much higher resolutions also common – up to almost 2000 vertical pixels. As a rule of thumb, 1080 is referred to as 2 megapixel, 5 megapixel would be a 2000 pixel variant.
The reality I found, is that 1080 is more than enough for capturing detail at my front door. There are other factors that will impact the resulting quality, such as the level of compression that is applied to live and archived footage. If your camera saves everything onto the device, it can do so at a much higher quality (less compressed) than if it were transmitted to a cloud provider – at the cost of how much footage you can retain in the available space. If you choose a 5 megapixel camera and use an online service that either resizes the footage, or highly compresses it – there may have been no point in the extra expense.
Also know, that generally, higher resolution cameras are less sensitive under weak lighting – another reason why I choose never to use cameras with sensors higher than 2 megapixel.
There are many factors that impact the fidelity of your footage – too many to go into detail, but be aware that most home security cameras are made from cheap parts, and suffer from low quality optics.If you are given a choice, look for the following features:
- Sensors at least 1/3’’ in size, preferably Sony or Aptina
- Sensor resolution no greater than 1080p
- H264 compression instead of jpeg – but a lot do both. H265 is fantastic, but currently very rare.
- Branded units from large companies which also make consumer cameras (like Sony) will generally utilise software that achieve much better image quality from the same sensor specifications.
- Weather rating of IP65 or greater (allows you to wash the unit down)
- Cast aluminium enclosure
- Microphone and Talk-back – uncommon on good weather-proof units
- Ethernet, and Power-Over-Ethernet – aka ‘POE’ (simplifies installation)
- Audio capabilities
A lot of units also capture audio, and some even have talk-back abilities so you can let your guest know you’re watching. Be aware that the waterproof cameras are not going to capture audio very well – and to be honest, unless you have talkback, it’s not really that important.
I would instead focus on the video aspect of your security camera, and supplement the audio with a doorbell device such as the Ring video doorbell.
- Management Applications
Most devices these days have a mobile application compatible with Android and iOS – some still rely on a desktop web browser. Be aware that many cheap Chinese cameras will only work from Internet Explorer – which may be a hindrance if you use a Mac.
Try to download the App for which ever camera you are considering, or visit a vendor and trial it – the usability of the App will mean a great deal to your enjoyment of the system.
Cameras can be much easier than you would expect to install. Just take care to select a location that captures areas of interest given the field of view of the device, while still being located in an area that makes it difficult to approach the unit undetected (such as from behind).
You will need to penetrate your home’s cladding in some way for your cabling. If you are unsure about this – definitely get someone more skilled involved. If you have eaves, I would recommend a soffit installation for simplicity, and it puts the camera up high out of reach. It also doesn’t risk the weather-tightness of your home, protects the camera from the elements, and inherently tucks away the cabling.
If you camera does not have Power Over Ethernet, you can purchase a couple of small devices that will add this capability – these are known as POE Injectors and Splitters – you’ll need a pair for each camera. This allows you to run just a single cable (Ethernet) to your camera, by eliminating the need for a separate power cable.
Don’t install your camera where it could be exposed to direct sunlight and high temperatures – it’s still a sensitive electronic device and needs to be kept cool.
- Resilience to downtime