A home surveillance system doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars or require fancy cameras– in fact it can be done with amazing video quality (high definition) for only $50 per camera coupled with a computer and some inexpensive software.
Searching on Google you will find that setups can get incredibly complex: many require special wiring, servers, infrared lamps, remote controls, and more– way over most people’s budget. After a little trial and error I came up with an inexpensive formula that works for me. I discovered that a quality CCTV system can be constructed piecemeal for a few hundred dollars.
Start small: a webcam can take you far
When thinking about video security, most people visualize weather proof cameras or domes posted on every corner of the house. Instead, consider pointing a webcamera out of a window.
The Microsoft LifeCam Cinema is a great little USB camera, for an excellent price (currently $49.70 on Amazon). The camera offers a high definition wide field of view, perfect for catching visitors at the front door, the yard, or carport.
Use a LifeCam Cinema with a long USB cable (Amazon 10ft USB cables are good quality at $5). Set the camera up on a windowsill or fashion a stand/mount so that it has the desired viewing angle. Connect it to your computer and install the LifeCam drivers.
The LifeCam has a TrueColor system that will automatically adjust the brightness of your camera to produce the best viewing under different lighting conditions. The camera works surprisingly well at night, too. Additionally, the brightness and saturation can be adjusted for better nighttime viewing.
Once the drivers are installed, the LifeCam application will show real-time video from your camera. One thing I like to do is keep the video feed open when the monitor isn’t in use. This way I can see who is standing at or approaching the door by simply glancing at my computer.
View your camera remotely using Skype
Let’s say you want to keep tabs on your house while you are at work. You already have a USB camera set up– with a few more steps you can configure it for offsite viewing using Skype. Skype is a great platform for streaming live video, and best of all it’s free.
Download and install Skype on your computer. You will need to register two accounts at Skype.com. One account will be left signed in on the computer with the webcam, to accept incoming calls. The other account you will sign in off-site.
Sign in with your dedicated account for the home computer. Configure Skype to use the webcam’s video and audio. Go to Tools/Options/Audio and Tools/Options/Video making sure the correct microphone and webcam are selected.
Now we need to configure Skype to automatically accept incoming calls, and only calls from the off-site account. First, add the off-site account to the friends list. Next, go to Tools/Options/Calls/Call settings and select “Allow calls from people in my Contact list only.” Select “Answer incoming calls automatically”, and “Start my video automatically when I am in a call.”
Your camera is ready for off-site viewing. Install Skype at work, log in with your off-site account, and then dial the home account. The video should open automatically. Another great aspect of the LifeCam is that the microphone is superb at picking up the slightest noises, for example I am able to hear messages as they are left on the answering machine.
Advanced: Multiple cameras, continual or motion-based recording
With multiple cameras it’s best to use surveillance software. Surveillance software will allow you to view and manage multiple cameras of differing formats (USB Cameras, IP cameras, etc.), record and archive video, and view the cameras remotely through a webserver.
I have found BlueIris to be the best software at $49.95. The application’s interface looks dated, but this program outperforms other, more expensive software in terms of stability, features, and ease of use.
Add your cameras to BlueIris by clicking “Add new camera.” Under the Video and Audio tab, choose the related devices for this camera. There are a number of other configurations, such as motion sensing, recording, and alerts. I suggest setting up motion sensing to record, and adding a text/graphic overlay to the video that displays the current date and time.
Another suggestion: Purchase a 1 terabyte hard drive (~$80), and set BlueIris to record all video to the hard drive. 1 terabyte will be plenty of space, even for multiple cameras. This setup will keep BlueIris files from interfering with the space on your primary hard drive.
Skype won’t work well for a multiple camera setup, but that’s OK because BlueIris can stream all of your cameras through a web server. Under the Options/Web server screen, check “Enable the HTTP web server on port.” It’s a good idea to change the port from 80 to something like 8080. Most ISP’s block port 80 and you wouldn’t be able to get to the web server from off-site. Port 8080 will need to be forwarded through the router to computer running BlueIris (visit http://192.168.1.1 and allow access for port 8080 through the firewall to your local computer – finding the local IP address by typing “ipconfig” in the Command Line Prompt). To access the page off-site, visit http://your-routers-ip-address:8080. The IP address of your router is displayed under the Options/Web server tab in BlueIris. It is also recommended that you secure the website by creating a password in the Web server tab.
Footnote: Wireless, Panning, Outdoors, Infrared Night Vision
Cameras with features such as wireless connectivity (IP cameras), weather proofing, panning, and infrared can be very costly. After looking at many options, I have found that Foscam is a good choice.
Foscam is a reasonably priced company offering products with all of the aforementioned features. You can buy a panning camera/IR (good for a living room indoors, such as for monitoring pets) or a weather proof/IR camera for ~$150. What’s nice about IP cameras is that you don’t have to run USB wires. Each Foscam IP camera has its own webserver software for off-site viewing. This software is adequate but I prefer to use the cameras in conjunction with BlueIris for better recording/motion tracking.