Surveillance Systems

This post will be continuously updated as tech changes or as I get new gadgets.

I’m not a surveillance system expert, but I have a few years experience tinkering with my constantly changing system. I therefore get a lot of questions and I wanted an easy way to provide my suggestions and preferences. Any links below are just for reference and not a recommendation to buy from Amazon. I also do not make any money from the links, so buy whatever you like from wherever you like.

Selecting a Camera

  1. Make sure you select IP cameras. These are cameras that have their own operating system and can essentially work by themselves on the internet without any other equipment. IP cameras can be easier to wire since they use ethernet cable and they can interoperate with different equipment.
  2. Outdoor cameras should be powered over ethernet (PoE). This allows you to power the cameras over the ethernet cable and you will not need to run a separate power cable. You will need a PoE switch or injector (more below).
  3. Select cameras and recording systems that support the ONVIF specification. This standard ensures different surveillance equipment will (or should) work together.
  4. Get cameras with a minimum resolution of 1080p and 30 frames per second (FPS). You will see cameras with higher resolutions, but many of these will have lower framerates. I had a 3 megapixel camera that could only support a maximum of 20 frames per second (FPS). I did not like how it looked so I downgraded the video quality to 1080p to achieve 30FPS. The playback is much smoother.
  5. Cameras to be used outdoors need to be water resistant. I recommend against using indoor cameras outside, even if under eaves or even a patio. This is because high humidity, moisture, and dust could be an issue.
  6. Outdoor cameras should have infrared so they may be used in complete darkness or low light. Cameras usually require more light than the human eye depending on the quality of sensor, so infrared is a must.
    • If you will have a camera close to an object during darkness you will want the ability to decrease the intensity of the infrared. Think of how it looks when a photo was taken too close and there is a camera flash reflection. This will happen with infrared since it is light – just a light the human eye cannot see. Don’t worry about dealing with a light coming on (such as a porch light) because any decent camera will automatically switch from infrared to normal mode.

Camera Placement

  1. You will want cameras out of reach so they are not easily vandalized or disabled, but not too high. The camera should be able to see people’s faces. If a camera is too high you will only be able to see the tops of heads.
  2. I like cameras to be visible to dissuade criminals, but not overly obtrusive.
  3. You can place an indoor camera behind a window facing outside, but infrared must be turned off because it will just reflect off the glass and nothing will be seen at night except the glaring reflection.
  4. Cameras generally have a somewhat narrow field of view so you may need more than one camera to cover a particular area.
  5. I like to have cameras placed apart from each other pointing toward a common point so they have a crossing view. Think of having a camera on each side of your garage pointed at the street at 45 degree angles. This can cover a large area with less blind spots. Alternatively, you can mount two cameras in the same location, but have them pointing away from each other. I would only do this if the cameras cannot be placed apart from each other due to obstructions.
  6. Know your sun patterns. Glaring sunlight can wreak havoc on surveillance cameras and make them useless during different times of the day. Placing cameras beneath eaves or bullet cameras with hoods are useful to deal with this issue.
  7. Know what the view is like before you commit to mounting a camera. I will connect a camera to a long ethernet cable and connect it to my network. I will then take the camera and my phone to where the camera will be installed. I hold the camera in the place it would be mounted so I see what the camera view will be. I have changed my mind more than once based on doing this.
  8. Indoor cameras should be very wide angle. This sometimes produces a bit of a fisheye (warped) look, but allows more to be seen. Many cameras have too narrow field of view for indoor use (in my opinion) unless you want to cover a limited area, such as a door.
    • An indoor camera is one of the few times I will agree to using WiFi. This is because the signal is usually sufficient inside a house. I also like to be able to move a camera around for temporary use.

Network / Wiring

  1. Power over ethernet (PoE) is highly recommended. This allows you to power a camera over the ethernet cable and you will not need to run a separate power cable.
  2. If only installing a couple cameras, you may use PoE injectors that cost less than $20 each.
  3. If installing three or more cameras, I recommend a power over ethernet (PoE) switch. If you will use a PoE switch just for cameras, a 10/100 switch should be fine.
    • 10/100 switch are generally much cheaper than an all gigabit model. Just beware not to overload that type of switch. You can buy 10/100 switches that have a gigabit uplink, which should be fine for cameras.
  4. The maximum cable length for PoE is 328 feet (100 meters). I have long runs of ethernet cable (unknown length) in a two-story home and there are interruptions because of having to use couplers (adapters to connect two ethernet cables together). I have no issues powering my cameras.
    • If you need to exceed the maximum length for running power over ethernet, you can place a PoE switch somewhere in between the cameras and your router or other non-PoE switches. For example, I have several cameras connected to a PoE switch in my garage. This switch then connects to my home network via a room above the garage.
  5. Since I recommend IP cameras that run over ethernet, I should recommend ethernet cable.
    • Be sure to use at least CAT5e or better.
    • When buying ethernet cable in bulk, make sure it is solid copper (referred to as bare copper on Monoprice) and not “copper clad aluminum.” Beware of the cheap bulk ethernet cable on Amazon. This is often the copper clad aluminum and it is crap.
    • I find CAT5e [generally] easier to work with than CAT6. I find it easier to strip the outer sheath from CAT5e since it is not at tight as CAT6. CAT6 also has a plastic strip down the center to keep the twisted pairs of wires separated. This makes the cable stiffer and more difficult to install the RJ45 connectors.
    • If I were to wire a completely new network, I would definitely use CAT6 to support speeds beyond gigabit. However, if cameras will be used on an existing CAT5e network, I would just use CAT5e for the cameras. This will be cheaper and easier to work with.
    • If you will be running cable underground to a detached structure, you will need “direct burial” cable. I would use sprinkler pipe as conduit merely to protect the cable from future digging. I would prefer someone hit the pipe with a shovel than the bare cable. This would be cheap and not difficult.
    • If you will be running ethernet cable in an air handling area like a drop ceiling, you are supposed to use plenum ethernet cable. This type of ethernet cable has a special insulation that has low smoke and low flame characteristics, but will increase the cost. Be sure to check your local building codes.
    • When using the more expensive plenum or direct burial cable, you can buy only the amount needed for the particular runs. You could then use standard ethernet cable for the remaining areas.
  6. I would avoid using WiFi unless you only intend to use only one or two cameras within an acceptable range of the wireless router. This may work for cameras inside the house, but you quickly run into problems when you get outside the house. You can add wireless access points or boosters to increase your signal, but that is a subject that would require a much longer post. I am not a fan of WiFi with cameras so I’m not going there. Once you need to start making changes to your wireless router, it’s location, or adding equipment, you may want to consider making the move to ethernet. Ethernet can [generally] handle more bandwidth and not have signal loss issues.
    • Though I generally recommend against WiFi, I had used a wireless bridge as a temporary solution when I had not yet run ethernet to a particular area. I took an old router and configured it to transfer my WiFi signal to ethernet cable going to a couple cameras. This worked well to bridge the gap where I did not yet have ethernet. I later had ethernet cable installed.
    • If you really must use WiFi, you can get wireless access points that have strong signals. The one I linked to requires power from a PoE switch or power injector.
    • If you have ethernet already run in your home and would like something a little more stealth than the access point mentioned above, this may work if it is close enough to the cameras and you already have ethernet in that area. This replaces a wall plate with a single ethernet port and adds two ports, one of which is PoE. This access point requires you provide it power from a PoE switch or injector on your network.
    • If your WiFi has a strong 5GHz signal, I would recommend using cameras that support 5GHz. Just be warned that 5GHz does not go as far as the slower 2.4GHz. Cameras with 5GHz will likely cost more than models with just 2.4GHz.

Installation

I may be tech savvy, but I am not good at running cable through walls and I am hesitant to cut drywall. I paid someone to run additional ethernet cable in my house. Luckily my house had ethernet in every room. This meant I just had to tap into existing wiring in a few locations.

If you will need to run all the cable for a surveillance system, it can be expensive depending on your house (or the structure). It can be anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to $600++. It can get expensive if you need to make several cuts in your drywall to drill through the framing for the cables. If you will go to an expense like this, run a lot of cable in case it is needed later. I recommend running two or three times the amount you think you will need. I have at least two ethernet ports in each room and this is not enough. I did not think to run ethernet for surveillance cameras or to areas for televisions/entertainment centers.

Installation Tip

If using a surveillance system NVR or computer that does not directly connect to all cameras (in other words, it has a single ethernet port), I like to run as many of the cables as possible to a PoE switch in the garage. I then run a single ethernet cable to the router inside the house. This obviously depends on whether or not your garage is in a location that allows optimal access.

Package Systems

I used to despise package systems from companies like Lorex, but these systems seem to have greatly improved over the years. These types of systems often offer IP cameras, but many still use coaxial cable. Most people should avoid coaxial. A big bonus with package systems are that they use cameras and network video recorders (NVR) that are compatible and are [somewhat] simple enough for consumers to use.

Before you buy any system, do research and know the answers to some or all of these questions:

  1. Can you install it or will it require a professional? What will it cost to have the system installed since this could be a major part of the cost (sometimes more than the surveillance system itself).
  2. How difficult is it to use the system (view, save video, export video, etc.). Some of these systems can be extremely difficult to use and many owners have no idea how to use them (or get the video when needed).
  3. Is the video in a non-proprietary format? It is annoying when a special program is needed to watch exported video.
  4. What format is used for the video? Hopefully it is h.264 or h.265 formats, which usually have the MP4 extension. This type of video is supported on many devices and has a compact file size because of compression. I would avoid video recorded in the MJPEG format or a proprietary format that requires a special program for playback on a computer. Want police detectives to view the video? Make sure it doesn’t require a special video player.
  5. Does the system use ethernet or coaxial cable? I would immediately disqualify anything that uses coaxial cable.
  6. Read reviews!

Buy Your Own Network Video Recorder (NVR)

If you are a techie, you may buy a network video recorder (NVR) and select your own cameras. This is definitely a cheaper option than the hardware I recommend for computer build below. I used to not recommend an NVR because they had weak hardware that did not support very many cameras at 1080p. Things have changed and I am seeing NVRs on Amazon that can handle eight cameras at 1080p video at 30 frames per second. This Amcrest NVR with a 4TB hard drive meant for surveillance systems is about $245 (the hard drive costs more than the NVR). This example NVR works best with Amcrest cameras (my preferred camera) and will require a power over ethernet (PoE) switch.

There are NVRs with PoE built-in so you would not need a separate switch. However, I prefer using a switch so the NVR may be placed anywhere with a single ethernet port.

Other Equipment – Ring Video Doorbell

Though the Ring Video Doorbell does not connect to surveillance systems because they want you to pay for video storage, it is worth mentioning. This camera system replaces your doorbell and even allows you to talk to people at your door via a smartphone. You can use the excuse you are bathing the attack dog or cleaning your guns in order to [hopefully] dissuade a burglar checking to see if anyone is home. You can set this device to activate when the doorbell is pressed or even if there is just motion. This is a great option if you are not ready to get a complete surveillance system (or even if you have one). There are models that run off ethernet, but I do not know too many people with ethernet near their front door. If you use the more common WiFi mode, you will need a sufficient WiFi signal. As mentioned above, this Ubiquiti wireless access point has quite the WiFi signal. If you have ethernet already run in your home and would like something a little more stealth, this may work if it is close enough to the doorbell.

Recording Surveillance Video to a Computer

What good is surveillance if it is only live? Not much. It is nice being able to check on your property, but what will you do if you find something happened and you do not have video stored? That is why you need something to record your surveillance footage.

I use the program Blue Iris (Windows only), which is well worth the price of $50 – $60 (though it can sometimes be found cheaper). The mobile app for your phone is an additional $10. Blue Iris is extremely configurable and can do a great many things. And don’t worry about being limited by the number of cameras – Blue Iris supports up to 64 cameras.

Though I really like Blue Iris, a big drawback is that it requires a fairly powerful computer with the Windows operating system. Blue Iris lists the following minimum hardware requirements:

  • Pentium dual-core or equivalent 2GHz processor or better
  • 2GB or more system RAM
  • Microsoft Windows XP SP3 or newer, or a server OS
  • One or more USB or Network IP cameras, or an analog capture card with DirectShow drivers

My recommended specs when using several cameras:

  • Intel core i7 or 4 to 8 core AMD Ryzen
  • 8GB or more RAM
  • Microsoft Windows 10, 64 bit
  • 7200 RPM hard drive for storing video

Another drawback to Blue Iris is that you will need some technical experience to configure it. There are more settings than you would expect. Luckily there are video tutorials and good documentation is included.

Too Complicated?

If this sounds complicated – it certainly can be. You may need to hire a professional.

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