Home video surveillance recommendations

[Editor's note: John Honovich publishes this and other information on network video at IPVideoMarket.info.]

In this report, we offer recommendations for selecting and deploying video surveillance in your home. Though technologically simpler than systems used in businesses, figuring out the right solution for one's home can be tricky. Most video surveillance equipment is designed for use in business. Even when you do Internet searches for "home video surveillance," most of the results are more appropriate for business, than they are for home.

There are 3 questions I recommend you keep in mind:

  1. How much do you want to spend?
  2. How hard will it be to set it up?
  3. What features do you really need?

How Much to Spend
Cost is usually the most important factor for home systems. There's generally not a history of repeated thefts or security problems with high value items (unlike businesses). As such, it's hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on security.

On the professional side, most security integrators are used to specifying systems that are $5,000, $10,000 USD or more - and that would fall more on the 'cheap' end.

Today, it's possible to deploy an acceptable security system for no more than $500 - $1,000 USD. [We'll make recommendations at the end.]

How hard will it be to set up?
Most homeowners will install the systems themselves or with the help of a friend. This usually means that the IT or electronic skills are modest at best (if you are strong in these areas, this section does not apply).

This is reasonable given that most professionals will charge at least a few hundred dollars to come out for only a single visit.

The two hardest aspects of home video surveillance that I see are: 
  • Setting up remove viewing of the system: Almost every homeowner ranks remote viewing of their house as a top priority (for peace of mind, make sure their house or pet is ok while they are away). Doing this can be very difficult (also problematic to maintain if you replace your home router). The same tactics that your Internet provider takes to make Internet access easy makes remote access of your video surveillance hard. You'll need to setup port forwarding, DDNS and change ports on cameras (if you have more than 1 camera). Each brand of home office router has different setup options and naming conventions making this even more difficult to accomplish.
  • Connecting your cameras to a recorder/recording PC: Cameras often come with cables that are 6 feet / 1.5 meters (or less). If you need longer (and you often do), then you need to make or buy your own cables. Most people do not have the tools to make cables so buying is your best bet. The other option is wireless, though if you need to go through multiple walls, it frequently will not work.

What Features Do You Really Need?
This is a critical question because the range of options in video surveillance are significant - analytics, multi-month recording, integration with alarm systems, audio monitoring, low light viewing, super high resolution, etc.

The reality is that most homeowners need is only a small fraction of the features available in the professional market. Here are a few features that are commonly requested by homeowners:

  • Remote viewing: Basically all systems support some of form of remote vieiwing over the Internet. The most important differentiator is how difficult it is to view over the public Internet (i.e., when you are away from home).
  • Audio monitoring: This is often important for people with elderly parents, children or pets. Audio provides a way for homeowners to see and hear what is going on. The only practical (cost-effective) way to do this in a home is to use IP cameras).
  • Low light viewing: Most inexpensive cameras do really poorly in low light. The cheapest way to handle this is for the camera to have a ring of IR illuminators around the lens. This has big drawbacks for professional security applications (uneven illumination, limits in distance) but is cheap and ususally good enough if you are simply trying to illuminate a room.

At the same time, there are 3 features that are commonly needed in professional applications that are not crucial for most homeowners:

  • Long term storage: Business frequently store video for 1 month or longer. This is important because claims are often made by customers or employees weeks after an incident occurs. In your house, this is rarely the case. If there is an issue, you almost always know about it after the first few days or week.
  • Continuous storage: Because of liability concerns, many business record video continuously. This can dramatically increase storage use (300% to 800%) compared to recording on motion only. For most homeowners, as long as you get 1 or 2 representative images, that's enough.
  • High resolution: Businesses often need coverage of large areas and for large numbers of strangers. In these conditions, higher resolution (like megapixel cameras) can be useful. In homes, this is generally not the case.

Recommendations
Assuming you want to (1) spend less than $1,000 USD, (2) need less than 4 cameras and (3) are not technical, here's what I recommend:

  • Use IP cameras: You can find IP cameras for $100 to $200 USD each. While similar analog cameras are even less, the total cost and complexity for IP is cheaper. With IP cameras, the recording/viewing software will be provided for free and you can use your home PC [Note: you have to leave that PC on all the time so it can record]. IP cameras provide for transmitting the feeds by WiFi or using network cabling that can be bought at any computer supply store. By contrast analog cameras usually require you to make or special order cabling.
  • Use Cube cameras: Cube cameras, so called because they look like a cube, are the lowest cost IP cameras on the market. The downside is that you cannot change the Field of View of the camera (e.g., zoom the camera in) and these cameras generaly come with little intelligence. While professional applications usually avoid these cameras (for those reasons), they are a solid choice for the home.
  • Use cameras that provide managed remote access: You really want to avoid setting up remote viewing yourself. It's not simply that it's time consuming, it's likely that you will not get it to work or that it will stop working after a few months. Offerings in this space are starting to expand - for instance, examples include StarVedia's 'plug n play' cameras, D-Link's release of MyDLink, Alarm.com's video service and Secure-i's Hosted Video (the first two are free with purchase of the camera, the latter two require a monthly fee).

Conclusion
These recommendations will help you specify an inexpensive system that does the basic in an easy to deploy way. It's not going to be Hollywood nor will it even be close to what your bank uses but it should fit the budget and make it easy for you to see what's going on in your house.

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