I occasionally get a strange look from people when they find out I have cameras placed throughout my house. Admittedly, I’m a bit over the top when it comes to knowing everything going on at all times in my home. That being said, having home security cameras for peace of mind while away from home is worth any strange looks. Plus it drives the kids nuts to replay something naughty they may have done…
This is a beast of a topic, so prepare for a read. I’ll go through the reasons to consider a camera system, basic coverage and placement considerations, securing your system from hackers, planning considerations, types of systems, and finally my system install. I will not spend much time on a walled-garden system (like Arlo) since I tried it and moved on. I will hit on each system, but I went with IP cameras and thus will spend most of my time there.
The argument for home security cameras
Keeping an eye on what matters most
The most common use case I promote for having cameras at home is for working parents that have in-home sitters. I trust the sitters we used, but it was an extra layer of comfort to be able to check in periodically. The same can be said for those with fur babies at home. About 6 months ago our dog disappeared. We figured out that he got confused by a gate being left open and wandered out in the yard. We narrowed down the timeframe as to when he left and checked the cameras. From playback we could get a general idea of the direction he went after leaving the yard. Using that information we were able to find and bring him home.
Are those alarms actually a real emergency?
False alarms will happen if you own a security system. Granted, I’ve been able to cut out false alarms almost completely by creating my own system and ditching the professionals, but they do happen. The alarm will also go off at 1:00am, on vacation, while you’re 12 hours away. In every instance I’ve been able to check which sensor was tripped and view the camera that covers that area to determine if something was really wrong. In my opinion, this is much better than finding out the police made a visit for a false alarm.
Reduce burglary risk
From a true security standpoint there are numerous sources that indicate visible security cameras reduce the risk of a burglary by up to 75%. Various studies have found that up to 60% of burglars move on to another target if cameras are visible. An additional 50% of burglars surveyed would abort the burglary upon discovery of cameras. The presence of an advertised security system reduces the risk even more. Most professional security systems offer integrated security cameras as part of a package, but why pay through the nose if you can install one yourself?
Coverage and placement considerations
Assuming you want to go all out the rule of thumb from most online security guides is to place home security cameras in such a way that you have a view of all potential access points. Optionally, place additional cameras in interior rooms with high value items (home theater equipment, computers, gaming consoles, etc.). Likewise, place dummy cameras in accessible, highly visible locations that also have a real camera providing coverage. See this article from Ring and this article from Swann for tips on placement.
In our house home security camera placement covers all access points and high value, high traffic areas. Interior and exterior cameras cover all access points. Another consideration during placement is to make sure your cameras are not easily accessible. It’s a lot easier to evade detection if you can find a blind spot and steal the whole camera (or at least take it out of commission).
One other note on placement: be aware of privacy concerns. Check your local and state surveillance regulations to make sure there are not any specific requirements. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your home security cameras do not point inside a neighbor’s property–this is an invasion of privacy.
Internet security for cameras
We’ve all heard the stories about internet predators hacking in to home security cameras and freaking out the homeowner. In most cases this was due to lax security procedures on the part of the homeowner. Frankly, if a hacker accessed the camera, they probably were able to access more than that on the home network. See this post for some beginning suggestions on improving home internet security.
The single best method for improving the basic security of your cameras is to replace the default password with a strong password you created. Use a random password generator and keep your passwords in a safe place. Most internet predators will move in to easier targets once the default password doesn’t work.
Likewise, you can enable two factor authentication (on systems that use it) and use hardwired cameras if possible. To further isolate your system, create a virtual network (or VLAN) only for security cameras. Devices on a VLAN only receive traffic specifically for that network, and VLAN traffic stays on the VLAN (unless you define exceptions). Finally, make sure your router is up to date and the firewall is on. A layered network security approach will make most hackers move on to easier targets.
Planning your system
The most important step is planning out your system. From personal experience, don’t just buy the first advertised system you see; I can almost guarantee it will be Arlo or Ring. I started with Arlo and found it to be a great system, but not what I needed. Consider the following:
What’s my use case for a camera system?
The first question to ask is how do you plan on using your home security cameras. Will you use them as an additional layer of security? Or will you simply use to them to keep an eye on pets and loved ones? Depending on the answer you may end up with a different system and different budget.
How many cameras will I need?
From a budget standpoint the most important question is how many cameras are required? At a minimum you should cover the front door, back door (if any), and ground floor windows. Additionally, if you have gates, alleyways, a garage, or basement access you should plan on covering those areas. In some cases you may want to have overlapping coverage. For example, I have exterior cameras that cover almost all my external access points. I also have interior cameras that cover the the main access points. In the event of an intrusion I have multiple cameras that will capture the subject from different angles.
Analog or IP?
Another consideration is whether to use analog or IP cameras. Most kits you find in the home centers or even Best Buy are analog kits; they use traditional audio/video cables to send data to the recorder from the camera. While these systems may be more secure, since the cameras are not on your home network, I personally went the IP camera route since it is easier to custom design and make a IP-based system.
How will I power my system?
An often overlooked consideration is power. How do you plan on providing power to the various components of your system? Power options for your cameras vary greatly, from using wall outlets to using solar panels. Often your use case and number of cameras will determine your best bet for power. Regardless of the system you choose, make sure you have a plan for getting power to each camera, as your decision will also determine final placement. You don’t want to be dragging out a 16 foot ladder in snow and subzero temperatures just to replace a battery.
How will I store recordings (and do I need recordings)?
Depending on how you will use your system you need to determine if you need to store your video streams. If your use is simply to check in occasionally and you have no need to go back a review video, you can forget about this. On the other hand, consider recording video if your system is meant to buff your home security. Even if you never need it for a burglary incident, there are many cases where you find having a record of events is handy.
Cloud versus local
Most companies now offer cloud storage, for a price. Ring, for example, charges per location (currently $10/month). Amcrest cloud storage is based on use, length of storage, and number of cameras (currently $6/camera for 7-day storage per month for motion activated storage and $9/camera for continuous recording). Advantages of cloud storage include advanced app support (push notifications through the app), full tech support, data redundancy, and no requirement for local storage (in some cases).
Many “walled fortress” systems (i.e. Ring) require you to pay for their subscription plan if you want any type of recording. Likewise, some may also require a monthly subscription if you wish to add more than a pre-determined number of cameras. Arlo cameras allow recording to a microSD card for free local storage, but you are limited in the number of cameras you can add to the base station with a free plan.
Local storage is only limited by the amount you are willing to put into the storage device. Local storage is very flexible and can be tailored to suit your specific needs. Most IP cameras can utilize local storage either directly on a SD card installed in the camera, recording to a network video recorder (NVR), recording to a network attached storage device (NAS) running surveillance software, or a dedicated network PC running surveillance software (e.g. Blue Iris).
Another consideration for cloud storage is connectivity. Cloud storage will only function if you have a working internet connection. If you lose power or your connection recording will stop. With the exception of cameras that operate off of battery and have a local microSD slot, you will not have access to any video during this period. Local network storage can potentially mitigate this if you place the server on a battery backup. Likewise, local network storage will continue to record as long as the local network is up (even if the Internet connection is down).
Can my network handle the additional traffic?
An often forgotten item on the list: can my network even handle the additional traffic created by home security cameras? Regardless of which system you choose there will be additional strain on your home network. I’ve discussed this briefly in a separate post. As an example, 11 cameras using H.264 compression, 5MP resolution, highest video quality, and 30 fps can occupy up to 264 Mbps of network bandwidth. Newer routers can support total throughput of 1000 Mbps. Additionally, if you are using a system that is exclusively wireless (Arlo) it will add to Wi-Fi congestion. Once you’ve decided on the number of cameras you need and the resolution of your cameras, use an online tool to get a ballpark idea of how it will impact your network.
The many different options
So you’ve completed your plan and it’s time to decide on a system. A quick online search brings up a ton of results from Amazon, home stores, and security professionals. Essentially we can break this down into a handful of big names: Ring (owned by Amazon), Arlo (by Netgear), Nest (by Google), Hikvision, Bosch, and Amcrest. There are various others available, but those brands will likely show up most often.
You will need to choose between a walled fortress system (Ring, Arlo, or Nest) that is maintained by a large corporation or a self-built system. Again, depending on your specific needs each system has its pros and cons. Arlo, Ring, and Nest all have smart home integrations, fancy user apps, and a robust set of features if you’re willing to pay for them. Amcrest, Hikvision, Dahua offer those features for a price, or you can self-host your system for only the upfront cost of building it. Tech-savvy users can often write their own coding to integrate cameras into home automation for no cost.
Other results are sponsored by big-name alarm companies like ADT or Simplisafe. You could go with a full-on monitored system integrated with your cameras, but be prepared to pay big money.
IP Cameras (Amcrest, Dahua, Hikvision, etc.)
The most flexible systems available (in my opinion), IP home security camera systems have many, many different options. Designed specifically for home and business surveillance, these products allow for any size system and components can be easily modified for changing needs.
What are IP Cameras?
IP camera systems operate on your home network. Each camera has a separate IP address on your network. Many IP cameras have the ability to be powered through the ethernet cable with a power over ethernet (POE) switch, eliminating the need for battery changes or a nearby outlet.
Different types of IP cameras
An attractive feature of building a IP camera system is the many available options when it comes to cameras. Additionally, if listed as ONVIF-compliant you can mix and match different manufacturers and still retain quality video recording.
- Bullet cams: these cameras are the standard cams with a rectangular housing; directionality of the lense is very obvious.
- Dome cams: these also include vandal dome cams; the lens is housed in a dome (often shatterproof) and directionality is hard to determine
- PTZ cams: these cams have rotate and zoom functionality. High end models have to ability to track moving objects to keep the subject in the frame.
- Fisheye cams: these cams are similar to some cams but are almost always ceiling mounted. They have a 360 field of view
- Pinhole cams: just as they sound, these are small form cameras meant to be hidden.
Another attractive feature of IP cams is the different storage options available. Most can record directly to a SD in the camera, but they can also record to a network video recorder (NVR), network server or storage device running surveillance software (Blue Iris, Synology Surveillance), or cloud storage. Note that cloud storage and surveillance software often require a subscription. Storing to a NVR just puts you out the cost of the NVR and the hard drive.
The upfront cost of a IP system is highly variable. Compared to walled garden systems costs are slightly lower. IP cameras are available for prices as low as $49. Additionally, you have to factor in the cost of recording. A typical NVR costs upwards of $160. Cost does tend to rise significantly if you have to factor in network upgrades.
Walled Fortress Systems
Walled fortress, or walled garden systems such as Ring or Arlo can often be bought as a packaged kit. These systems are attractive for many DIY’s since installation is usually fairly simple. Additionally you gain the resources of an entire corporation to fix problems. If you run into trouble you can simply email or call the help desk and somebody will fix your problem for you.
I refer you to the web site of the individual systems, but in a nutshell these systems will often have a smaller product selection versus IP cameras. For the most part all cameras are the bullet type, and with few exceptions are battery or wall powered. Ring offers a few indoor cameras that can be POE powered. To reduce the number of battery change outs most outdoor options have the option to purchase solar panels separately.
You are also limited to cameras specific to that system. In contrast to IP cameras, walled garden systems only work with the camera specific to that system. Most cameras available have built-in two way audio while IP cameras typically do not. However, you can get IP cameras with the feature or you can often add a microphone and speaker to the camera.
See the specific website for the system you are considering for storage details. All systems in this category offer cloud storage for a fee; some systems (Arlo) allow local storage to microSD cards. As a rule of thumb, you should consider at least placing your core network equipment on a battery backup to preserve recording functionality in the event of power loss.
You’re buying a whole system with a big company, technical support, app support, and fancy features. Expect to pay through the nose (just my personal opinion). In comparison to IP home security cameras, walled garden cameras typically cost $150 and up. Ring has a few exceptions, but remember that this is just for the camera. Accessories such as a solar panel, extra batteries, chargers, etc. will add to the cost. As an example, expect to pay $371 for a new Arlo Pro 3 system with 2 cameras. This does not include subscription costs or accessories. Likewise, if you have to upgrade your Wi-Fi network you should factor that in.
Odd heading…but with Arlo and Ring cameras theft of the camera is a real concern. Most often these cameras are placed in an area that is reachable in order to replace batteries. Unfortunately, that makes these cameras a target. If you are paying for cloud storage you can often have the camera replaced free of charge by the company, but if you opted to only record to a local SD card you’re out of luck. Likewise, you have to prove the camera was stolen. Food for thought.
When I would consider a walled garden system
I’ve owned Arlo. I liked Arlo as a novelty. Using it for home security cameras was not the best use. I found that the limitations imposed by a large company that wanted to keep money in-house were too binding for my use. That being said, these cameras are perfect for someone not wanting to spend a lot of time wiring a new system in. If the use case is simply to look in on your home or provide monitoring in only a few very specific locations, these are perfect. If you want scalability, have a large area to cover, and require reliable recording, go with an IP system. We’re going to walk through what I’ve done next.
Set up of a reliable IP camera system
Ready to get to work? After several months of researching various systems for home security cameras I settled on a IP camera system. Amcrest offered both the variety of products, cost efficiency, and features that I required. My primary goal was to buff my home security with visible cameras, and a secondary goal was to add remote viewing to look in as needed on our kids and pups.
My specific requirements are as follows:
- At least 10 cameras to cover access points and high value areas
- Local storage
- Ability to view remotely from a PC, tablet, or mobile phone
- Compatibility with different types of cameras (dome, bullet, PTZ, etc.)
- No subscription costs
- No battery change-outs but ability to operate without access to 120V mains power
Because of the amount of data I was adding to the network I had to upgrade my infrastructure. Since one requirement was to eliminate battery change-outs I went with POE cameras. That required running CAT6 cabling through the house; at the time I started with a blank slate so this was actually an upgrade for the entire house. My network restructure actually went through two iterations after learning from a few failures.
Since adding cameras can potentially introduce significant amount of new network data, CAT5e is the minimum requirement for cabling; I went with CAT6 to future proof for a while. Additionally, I stepped up from a consumer grade router to a prosumer router from Ubiquiti to have a little better control over my network setup. While not a requirement to do so, I stuck with one manufacturer to make network management easier. Ubiquiti has a very nice user interface that makes it easy for a DIY user like myself to see exactly what is going on in my network.
- Amcrest NV4116-HS 16 channel NVR ($139)
- IP4M-1026EB bullet camera (6 @ $59)
- IP4M-1028E dome camera (no longer available, alternate) (5 @ $108)
- Amcrest IP2M-841B PTZ camera (1 @ $39)
- WD Purple 2TB Surveillance HDD ($68)
- BV Tech PoE/PoE+ switch ($109)
- Tripp Lite 1500VA Smart UPS ($226)
Of note, make sure your specific POE switch can handle the power requirements you will need. Check the tech specifications of the exact cameras you will use to determine power consumption and verify that the POE switch can supply the required amount to all cameras. You can buy POE switches directly from Amcrest, Ubiquity, or any other network company. The switch I used above is an unmanaged switch and it only supplies power to the cameras. The upstream switch is a fully managed switch from Ubiquity.
Another item of note regarding the hard drive. Do not purchase a cheap drive from an unknown company. Stick with good names like Western Digital, Seagate, etc. Additionally, you want to purchase a drive specifically for surveillance because normal PC drives are not designed for the constant read/write environment that is present in a NVR. Purchase a drive within your budget and expectations for recording length; in my particular case I have a 2 TB drive. This provides me with 10 days of recording history with interior cameras recording on motion only and exterior cameras on continuous recording.
Basic Equipment Installation
You will need to follow the instructions for your specific system, but in general most IP systems will install and operate similarly. Personally I found it fun to do the wiring myself and I learned quite a bit along the way. You will also need to know how to terminate your own ethernet cables, and this is a skill you can use in other applications.
Cable runs and camera installation
Since I pretty much started from scratch I ran all my cable runs to each location first. Something to consider when planning your network and home security camera system is length of the run from the POE switch to the camera. While not a problem in most homes, you generally cannot exceed 300′ from switch to camera. Over 300′ will result in power loss through the cable and signal degradation. You can purchase equipment that boosts the signal, but its usually easier to plan secondary switches accordingly.
One other cabling consideration if you’re retrofitting an existing home is crawlspace access. If you have easy access to all areas via crawlspace or attic access this job is easy(ish). In my case I had a problem with getting cables from the basement to the 2nd story. Since a trunk of 20-some ethernet cables plus coaxial cables is actually pretty hefty, I placed a secondary networking box upstairs. It is a lot easier to pull 4-6 cables two stories versus 20+. The one consideration when doing this is bandwidth; to alleviate any potential issues I ran a dedicated CAT6 drop for my home security cameras. This drop is separate from my cable drops that service upstairs network jacks and equipment.
All of the cameras I purchased (except for the PTZ camera, it was provided as a beta test freebie) are rated IP67 weatherproof. All bullet and dome cameras can be directly in the elements. When placing my cameras I put bullet cameras outside. You can choose to put vandal dome cameras outside, but the bullet cameras are a little higher visibility and in my opinion a better deterrent. Since I don’t have to worry about battery changes, all are placed in elevated locations that are not easily accessible.
When installing your cameras you can either do as I did and mount directly to the soffit or add special junction boxes and mount the cameras to those. You will likely need adaptors (sold by Amcrest) to mount the camera to the junction box. I was lucky and had framing under the soffit in areas that made it easier to just mount the cameras directly to the soffit and framing. In either case, you want a stable mounting surface to reduce camera shake.
Once the cameras are placed and powered its time to get your recording device set up. I went with a NVR simply because its easier to set up and use. Alternatively you can record to a NAS or always-on PC running surveillance software. One of the most common options for software is Blue Iris. Blue Iris is very popular with home automation enthusiasts because it can integrate with many of the more popular home automation hubs. This allows you to use the built-in motion detectors on the cameras to run automation events.
Importantly, make sure the device you use for access and recording can support the number of cameras you need. For example, if you need 11 cameras you shouldn’t buy a 8 channel NVR. Some of the newer NVRs also include AI for facial detection and recognition; this is also built in to some of the newer cameras. Follow the directions specific to your device for setup, but in general you will install the HDD, turn on the NVR, and find the device config page to discover new devices.
Setting the recording schedule
The exact method of your recording setup will vary according to the device, but in general you can set your cameras to record continuously, on motion, according to a defined schedule, or only on alarm. Newer cameras with AI enabled can also record only on detection of a person. As an example, my cameras above are on two different schedules. I have an interior camera that is set only to record on motion to save HDD space and an exterior camera recording continuously.
Another handy feature with IP cameras is the ability to mask areas that you don’t to trigger recording. This is particularly useful for cameras that have a road in the field of view, or interior cameras that may capture windows or another room. Using the masking feature of the camera you can tell the camera not to trigger on movement in that particular area. If a car drives down the road and continues past your house, the recording won’t trigger. If, on the other hand, a car turns in to the driveway and enters the non-masked area, recording will trigger.
Setting up Remote Access
One of the last steps you’ll complete is remote access setup. Again, refer to your specific system for instructions on how to complete this step. If you use a system purchased from Amcrest this step is very easy. Each component has a QR code stickered to the device. Using the app (for Amcrest look for Amcrest View Pro in the app store), you take a picture of the QR code while on your home network and the app does the rest. Another reason why I went with a NVR: once all the cameras were added to the NVR I simply snapped the code on the NVR and all the cameras were viewable through the app.
Securing your system
I cannot stress enough to make sure your system is secured. The single best way to secure your cameras is to change the default username and passwords. You can skip this step, but only if you plan on leaving your system completely isolated from the web. Even then, I’d probably still make sure to change the default passwords. Amcrest cameras will force this change when you first log in as will most other manufacturers. Likewise, if your app or device supports 2FA, enable it.
Another step I recommend taking is to separate your cameras from your main network using a virtual local area network (VLAN). The steps to do this differ by router so follow your specific router’s instructions. Generally you will find this functionality in the advanced settings of your router. For Ubiquiti users it can be found under port profiles.
The advantage of a VLAN is twofold. First, a VLAN will segregate your home security cameras from your main network. If a camera is compromised, it doesn’t compromise your entire network. Secondly, data pertaining to that VLAN stays in that VLAN. This can potentially improve network performance as information segregation can reduce congestion on other parts of your network.
Odds and ends
Regardless of if you use Blue Iris or a NVR you get a feature set that, in my own opinion, outdoes that of Arlo or Ring. The NVR I purchased has the ability to send e-mail alerts with snapshots on event detection, can be tied in to an existing alarm system to trigger security alerts based on camera motion detection, and many more features that I currently don’t use. It’s because of the flexibility and robust feature set that I went with building my own system versus purchasing a pre-made system.
Even though I pieced the system together myself, I still have access to features seen with the big-name companies like Arlo and Ring, but without any subscription cost. I have access to view and playback from any PC or tablet on my home network. I also have access to an app that I can use while away. Even without an app, I can VPN in to my home network and access my cameras directly for viewing and playback. Moreover, I’ve got my NVR video outputs connected to both a monitor in the server rack and to the main TV in the living so we can keep an eye on our kids playing either outside or in their playroom.
How about that for a long read. Hopefully this gives you some direction on making your own system and gives you some ideas. Speaking from experience I have enjoyed the peace of mind that comes with being able to always visually see what is happening at home, even if I’m hours away. That being said, none of this replaces common sense practices. Keep your valuables in a safe place, lock your doors and windows, and avoid publicizing information that could increase your risk of a burglary.
For more information, see these authoritative sources on improving home security:
- ADT Safety tips and resource articles
- Brinks Home Security Tips and Tricks
- State Farm: How to secure your smart home devices
Please feel free to drop a comment or send an email if you have a specific question that I can help you with.
I am writing this as an amateur do it yourselfer. I have no affiliations with any of the companies mentioned in this article and no certifications or training in home security, law enforcement, or networking. If you are unsure of any laws or risks pertaining to the installation and setup of a home security camera system, please reach out to your local government or authoritative resources (home security companies, insurance agencies, etc.). This article is meant as informative only; you are responsible for any actions you take using this information.
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