My first intro to the world of video surveillance came when, in a flurry of poor economic decision-making, I purchased a Toshiba network surveillance camera which I installed as part of my mission to keep dogs from pooping on our lawn (daily). Although that camera turned out to be problematic, it got my feet wet in video surveillance. After limping along a few years with a single camera that crashed seemingly more than it ran, I decided it was time to upgrade the surveillance system to multiple cameras, and document that process for HomeFixated readers. In the content below, you’ll find essential tips and suggestions on everything from network switches to budget-conscious network video cameras that perform well.
Network vs CCTV
One of the first things you’ll need to decide is what type of system you’ll be installing. I have a strong bias toward network cameras (installed with ethernet cabling) vs. CCTV/Closed Circuit TV (installed with pricier coax cable and additional hardware to record your video). Network systems can often take advantage of your existing computers, monitors, etc. Network systems also make it possible for you to do cool things like stream video content online, or even view video on your smartphone. Network systems also open up the possibility of using Power Over Ethernet (detailed below), which can save you serious hassle running additional wiring for powering each camera. If you’re thinking about buying a system that uses tapes, just ask yourself how long that technology is likely to last, and what limitations you’ll have in terms of implementation.
POE (Power Over Ethernet) and the Network Switch
The previous network camera I installed had a separate power supply running to the camera. Depending on whether there’s convenient and unobtrusive electrical outlet, running a power supply cable may not be a big deal. Since I was installing four cameras, several of which were in difficult to access locations, avoiding separate power was a key priority. Thankfully, Power Over Ethernet technology makes it possible to install compatible network cameras using a single ethernet cable that carries both data and power. To do this, you’ll need a POE ethernet switch. An ethernet switch is basically like a giant splitter for your network. A single ethernet cable will connect your POE switch to your router/network. You can then plug in as many additional network devices as your switch allows.
Shopping for the right switch can be a bit daunting, with options ranging from $50 to $2000. Once you find some switches that are POE compatible, there are three things to pay close attention to. First, look at the number of ports that can feed POE. For example, a switch might have 8 ports, but only four might offer POE. If you anticipate expanding your system to more cameras, make sure whatever you buy has enough POE ports to cover your current and future needs. Second, don’t make the mistake I did and assume just because a switch has enough POE ports that it can power all your cameras. The first switch I bought could power three cameras without a problem, but failed to produce enough POE to power the fourth camera. Look at how much juice your cameras need and compare that with the max wattage for POE on your switch to make sure there’s plenty of power for your cameras. Estimate pessimistically since I read some reports of manufacturers over-estimating how much juice the POE ports can put out. Lastly, you’ll need to decide between megabit and gigabit. Depending on your existing network, it may not make sense to go with the faster gigabit switches. Since the rest of my network has gigabit performance, I opted for the more expensive gigabit switch to help all that video data flow efficiently.
Expect to pay at least $100 for a decent POE switch, or $150+ for Gigabit switches and/or more POE ports. Amazon has a great selection of POE Ethernet Switches. Smaller switches suitable for one or two cameras often don’t require fans. More serious switches tend to run a cooling fan 24/7, so keep that in mind if the switch will be located where the noise might be an issue.
Choosing a Network Video Camera
My first experience with network cameras was the Toshiba IK-WB11A. The camera had excellent image quality and particularly good low light capabilities. Unfortunately it was also very expensive and had buggy firmware that meant I would have to power the camera on and off regularly to reset it. Definitely not a good trait for something you’re counting on for security. Frustrated with the lack of reliability, I went on a search for a camera option that met several key requirements:
- Good Image Quality
- Good Low-Light Quality
- POE Compatible
Since I wasn’t guarding the Pentagon, I wanted a camera that struck a reasonable balance between quality, performance and cost. With some network cameras costing over $1000, I wasn’t about to drop thousands of dollars into a surveillance camera project. If you’re installing your system at the Gates mansion, or at a business, then investing in higher end cameras might make a lot of sense. Another factor you might want to consider are Pan-Tilt-Zoom, or PTZ, capabilities. PTZ enables a single camera to cover multiple vantage points and lets you get up close and personal with the zoom setting. Casinos love these things. For the time being, I opted for four fixed cameras. Ultimately, my search led me to the Vivotek IP8332. That search included reviewing camera footage on YouTube. While the footage wasn’t mind-blowing, I found it very good for the camera’s price point. These cameras retail for around $300 each, however Vivotek provided us with a discount on them for reviewing them in this article. The IP8332 Cams seemed to meet all of our criteria for an affordable network camera option with solid day and night performance.
Vivotek IP8332 Camera Review
It’s one thing to review test footage online and read spec’s, and yet another thing to see how the cameras actually performed in the real world. Happily, I have been largely pleased with these cameras. Each camera comes with everything you need: camera, housing, mounting bracket, wiring harness, manual, cd-rom, etc. Since I wasn’t keen on the silver finish of the cameras, I devised a scheme to camouflage them with a DIY, custom colored housing that I’ll be covering in another detailed how-to post soon.
Hooking up the IP8332 was a bit more hassle than I would have liked, mostly due to the way the wiring is engineered. Vivotek gives you two options for wiring. Use the main wiring harness which has connections for ethernet and power, or wiring a single ethernet cable straight into the camera. Wanting to keep things simple, I figured I would simply use the included ethernet coupler to connect the male ethernet plug from the wiring harness to the male ethernet plug on the ethernet cable I installed. Unfortunately I found the ethernet couplers Vivotek included were total junk. Almost all of them failed during installation, thanks to fragile connections that became misaligned.
Since I didn’t need the power connections anyway, and since I prefer to minimize network connections, I decided to wire my ethernet cable directly to the camera and skip the wiring harness. The only real downside to this approach is that you have to actually disassemble the back of the housing and then unscrew the camera itself. The camera then slides out and you can plug your ethernet cable right in. You’ll want to make sure you orient all the little parts for the weather seal correctly so everything fits together properly when you seal things back up. Vivotek also includes a little dessicant pack you’ll want to insert to prevent any moisture from condensing on the inside of the camera.
The downside to running your ethernet cable directly into the cam is that you’re forced to wire the camera wherever you plan to mount it. If you need to remove the camera, you’ll also have to disassemble the housing so you can unplug the ethernet cable again. We would have loved to have seen a female ethernet jack on the back of the camera so an ethernet plug could simply be plugged right in. A weather resistant cap could then have been designed to seal the back portion of the camera. If you’re minimizing or avoiding the use of couplers like I did, be prepared for some inconvenience with the direct-wired approach.
The IP8332 features an integrated Infrared (IR) illuminator. Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, but not to most video cameras. A ring of IR LEDs at the front of the camera light up at night (you can also disable them). The IR illuminators make a noticeable difference up to 30-ish feet away. I was impressed by their range. One downside with the Vivotek IP8332 cameras was a noticeable halo caused by the IR LED’s. As a result, a subtle circle of brighter light detracted from the image the camera produced in low-light conditions.
Like most network cameras, the exact functions and settings of the Vivotek cameras can be configured using your existing web browser. Getting proper settings is really key. By experimenting with exposure time, exposure level and max gain, I was able to squeeze out much better night image quality than the default settings. Be sure to use the “advanced” admin option, which provides much more detailed control over most of the camera’s functionality. You’ll find the exposure and gain options under “sensor settings” in the camera’s admin interface.
With a couple months of running four of the IP8332 cameras 24/7, I had to reset one of the cameras once. I’m not sure if that was related to the camera, the wiring, the ethernet switch or the software. Other than that, the cameras have been extremely reliable, even more so when you consider I was resetting my old camera multiple times a week.
Panavise Mounting Hardware
Although the Vivotek IP8332 came with mounting hardware, I wasn’t too excited about it. The mounting plate was relatively large, and for my particular installation needs it just wasn’t flexible enough to work in the four locations I planned to install the cameras. I also didn’t like the silver finish and didn’t want to deal with painting all the hardware pieces. That led me on a hunt for a versatile, unobtrusive camera mounting bracket solution.
I almost bought some cheap mounts with questionable reviews before I stumbled across a myriad of options from Panavise, maker of all things “visey.” I ultimately settled on the Panavise 845-246, which came in a kit for less than $20 on Amazon. I found mine at a local AV supply house for even less. The kit gives you a couple different mounting options, three different lengths for the stem, and a very adjustable ball joint next to the camera mount. These mounts are made in the USA, and are refreshingly high-quality in a marketplace filled with flimsy, semi-functional mounts. I highly recommend them.
Being the geek that I am, we have a Mac Mini running 24/7 that’s dedicated to home automation and security. If you’re also running a Mac, I highly recommend the software Security Spy, made by Ben Bird. The software has a cheesy name but cut the guy some slack, I think he’s in Europe. Security Spy is licensed based on how many cameras you need. The software is incredibly full-featured enabling you to setup a network server, remote access, ability to stream static or video images for webcam applications, scheduled recording, motion sensing in designated areas, time lapse recording, PTZ support, compression, ftp uploads, email notifications, and much more. Pricing is around $50 for single camera, $125 for four, $250 for 8 on up to $850 for unlimited cameras. It’s fantastic software with great support. If “you’re a PC”, you can either use the software that accompanies your cameras (many cameras include basic software to get you up and running), or you can purchase third party PC software. An example of free included software can be found with Axis Camera Companion (for Axis video cameras). Since we used Security Spy, we unfortunately don’t have any hands-on expertise or recommendations for camera-specific or third party PC software.
Running the Wiring
Running ethernet wiring in existing construction might very well be the most challenging task in setting up a video surveillance system. In my case, I had the advantage of most of the cables already being in place. Several years ago we did a remodel on part of the house. While the walls were open, I must have run a couple miles of ethernet cable “just in case.” The crew working on the remodel thought I was completely insane. Everyday I was showing up with a new spool of cat 5e cable (and even some cat 6 just in case). I did that because I have had the misfortune of trying to run wiring in existing walls, which, how can I put this gently? It’s a huge pain in the ass.
On this project, I did have to figure out how to run one cable from our 2nd story attic down to a first floor vantage point that covered our front door. Doing so required fishing the cable from the attic through a channel in the walls down into a ceiling space on the first floor. I was able to access the ceiling space by removing a ceiling light and then was able to feed the cable through the hole I drilled in the exterior wall using electrician’s fish tape, which is an absolute essential for fishing wires. Every house is different, so try to follow the path of least resistance/destruction when doing the wiring.
Where to Locate the Cameras
Aside from selecting all your video surveillance gear, where you locate your camera(s) is a critical consideration and can greatly impact how successul your installation will be. Too few cameras or cameras installed in bad locations can mean blind spots in your surveillance system. The last thing you want is to go through the effort and expense of installing a system at your home or business, only to have someone sneak right by the cameras and carry on with their evil deeds safely off-screen.
Another factor to consider is vandalism or camera theft. If possible while still maintaining a good view, you’ll likely want to keep the camera out of arms reach. I installed all but one of our cameras on the second floor, partly for a good view of the action, and partly to keep anyone from making off with the camera or pulling one of those bank heist movie tricks like spray-painting the lens, or hanging underwear off it. How much detail you need in the video also needs to factor in here. If you need to be able to recognize a face, you won’t want your camera installed on the third floor looking down at the top of the person’s head.
Even with a weather resistant housing like that of the Vivotek IP8332 camera, sheltering your camera(s) from weather can also be a very good idea. If you don’t, you might be wishing you had a windshield wiper during the first rainstorm (note, most cameras don’t come with windshield wipers). I tried to tuck our cameras tightly under the eaves of our roof to minimize any rain issues. Having a good overhang can also improve daytime image quality by shading the camera from direct sun (although the Vivotek IP8332 also has an integrated lens hood).
Lastly, consider your own access and ease of running wiring to the location. Ideally, you want a good vantage point that you can safely get to for the initial wiring, the actual physical installation and for maintenance. I mounted two of the cams next to balconies on the 2nd floor so I could easily reach them to periodically clean the lens (something you’ll want to do as well).
After you install your camera(s), chances are you’ll have some ugly blue or white wiring protruding. A quick trip to an auto supply store yielded several feet of wiring loom, which is basically a flexible tube of black plastic split down the middle. Simply cut a length to match however much wiring is exposed between the camera and the wall. Then just squeeze the wiring into the loom. The result is what appears to be a beefy black cable in place instead of a thin cat 5 cable. If you’re worried about the wiring getting snipped, another option would be to fish the wiring through some armored BX style cable housing (which can be easily painted if desired).
Now that my four camera surveillance camera system is in place, I have a few additional tasks on my todo list. Remote Access: I’d like to be able to check-in on my cameras remotely from my iPhone. I can do that now using a iPhone app designed for Security Spy, however it’s not set up to work remotely. Doing this is easier if you have a static IP address on your network, which I don’t. This process typically involves techy, scary things like “porting.” More research is ahead for that. Another addition I plan to make is a second monitor for downstairs, enabling the cameras to be viewed on both floors. I also might add one or two more cameras, including possibly a PTZ model. Lastly, with the Security Spy software, I might also setup a webcam for one of the cameras to feed images to a website (no, not THAT kind of webcam. . . this would be a shot of the exterior view).
So whether you’re looking to catch a thief in the act, deter crime, or just catch your neighbor’s dog pooping on your lawn, installing a surveillance camera system can be a rewarding project. Plus, if you catch any goofy criminals in the act, you just might be the next YouTube senstation! You can find the Vivotek IP8332 Outdoor Day/Night Network camera for just over $300 on Amazon. Stay tuned for related articles on how to wire low voltage ethernet cables and our crazy video camera camouflage project!