Home Video Surveillance Introduction
From a single camera and monitor to multiple cameras that record a person's every move, a home video security system can provide an added layer of security for you and your family.
A good video surveillance system can help keep your family safe while making your home less prone to theft and break-ins. Other specific benefits include:
- Deter potential thieves
- Monitor nanny behavior
- Check in on latch-key children
- Record evidence to prevent bogus insurance claims
- Identify visitors
- Get insurance discounts
The most basic home security camera setup would be a single camera connected directly to a monitor and a recorder to store the video. If you want to monitor more areas around your home, you can connect multiple cameras to the same recorder. You can also get a system that helps you capture clear video at night, keeps cameras hidden, or records based on movement.
Use this BuyerZone Residential Video Surveillance Buyer's Guide to understand:
- What goes into a home video security system
- Which features to look for
- How to select the right CCTV sellers
- Typical prices for cameras and recorders
Once you learn how to purchase the right residential CCTV system for your home, BuyerZone can connect you with top video surveillance professionals in your area - free.
Some information for this Buyer's Guide provided courtesy of AboutCCTV.com.
Evaluating Your Home Surveillance System Needs
Before starting to compare home surveillance systems, sit down and think about your CCTV needs carefully.
First, consider what you want to monitor: General comings and goings? Vehicles passing by? Do you want to see facial features, clothing characteristics, or other details? Once you decide what you want to see, choosing CCTV components for your home becomes easier.
Next, decide what picture quality you need. Quality can refer to both how detailed the image is and how fast the frame rate is. Frame rate is simply a measure of how many individual pictures make up the video. "Full motion," what you see on television and on VHS tapes, is 30 frames per second, or fps. Some CCTV systems record at slower rates, which result in more jerky-looking images but allow for longer recording.
You should also decide whether your priority is to deter potential crimes or to catch perpetrators. Both can be important, but your priority will influence your purchasing decisions.
If you are more interested in deterring vandalism or break-ins, a visible camera is your best bet. If you're interested in watching a nanny or someone else without their knowledge, you'll want hidden cameras instead. It's a bit more expensive to install hidden cameras, and these also permit potential damage or theft while waiting for the police to review the recordings.
The number of cameras you'll need is based on your home's square footage and the areas you want to watch. If you just want to monitor a baby's room, for example, you'll likely need just one camera. On the other hand, thorough coverage for a larger home will likely require four to six cameras.
Home surveillance system monitors
Monitors aren't as necessary for home use as they are in business environments. Unless you need to watch surveillance footage live, you can usually just connect the cameras to your computer monitor or television to review recordings at your convenience.
Some homeowners want to know what's occurring on their property when they're not at home. A residential CCTV seller should be able to configure your home computer to provide remote access to your home surveillance system so you can see what's going on inside and outside your house.
Enabling and recording audio
Consider if you need to record audio. There are a few companies that offer audio-enabled cameras, but your state may have specific laws preventing audio recording without consent. If audio is an important functionality for you, check with all federal, state, and municipal regulations first to see if it's permissible where you live. It's also a good idea to talk to an attorney to make sure you're within your rights to record audio in your home.
With the layout in mind, your next step is to choose the camera (or cameras) that will be installed throughout your property. Many models include a range of specialty functions that enable you to capture high-res images and even see in the dark.
Home Surveillance Cameras
You don't need to invest a lot of money in video cameras - most home CCTV configurations can use any type of camera. The standard home surveillance cameras are "bullet cams" and "mini dome cams."
These cameras, roughly the size of a baseball or a can of shaving cream, cost about $100 apiece. Their small size helps them blend in with the décor of your home, but they are still visible enough to help deter intruders. For covert surveillance, pinhole cameras are easy to hide in everyday objects around your home but still offer quality recordings.
If you need to install a camera in a dimly lit area, you can spend a little bit more on CCTV cameras with infrared (IR) emitters that offer "night vision." The IR light source on or around the camera lens will allow you to view and record images in the dark that the human eye can't see.
Formats and signal processing
There are many technical terms and specifications that sellers may mention. Gaining a general understanding of these terms now will make it easier to talk shop with sellers when you meet with them.
Camera formats are measured in inches: most surveillance cameras fall between 1/4" and 1". This refers to the usable image size created inside the camera. For most security use, a small size is fine - 1/4" or 1/3" cameras dominate CCTV sales. Larger formats do not necessarily result in better images, but can be advantageous in dimly lit situations.
Many newer surveillance cameras use digital signal processing (DSP)to convert the analog video stream to digital information, improving picture quality and adding functionality. The DSP circuit in a camera can have a very large effect on the quality of the images.
Color vs. black and white
Since prices have dropped significantly, many homeowners today opt for color cameras over black-and-white models. For security and evidence purposes, color cameras are better. It's difficult to tell police to look for a "brown-haired man wearing a black leather jacket" when you can't make out the colors.
While black-and-white cameras can operate better than color cameras in extremely low light situations, many homeowners use CCTV indoors where there is a lot of natural light. In addition, many high-quality color cameras today can switch to black-and-white mode when necessary, providing both functions at one price.
Resolution refers to how detailed a picture the camera can see. The measurement to look for is horizontal TV lines (TVL). A normal surveillance camera picture is around 350 TVL to 400 TVL, with high resolution getting up to 480 TVL or 500 TVL. Sellers can sometimes upgrade resolution for as little as $50.
You also need to make sure your entire system is capable of supporting high resolution. If your DVR records 350 lines and your monitor displays 400 lines, upgrading to a camera with 500 lines would be a waste of money. Ultimately, the small cost to upgrade your camera may be multiplied by the costs to upgrade other equipment.
Note: Do not be impressed by pixel measurements in the hundreds of thousands. TVL is a more consistent measurement.
Signal to noise ratio
Signal to noise ratio (s/n) indicates how much "signal," or actual picture information, the camera transmits, as opposed to "noise," which comes across as static. An s/n ratio of 40db indicates that the signal is 100 times the noise, which results in an acceptable picture with some fine grain or snow. In contrast, 30db results in a poor picture while 60db produces an excellent picture with no static visible. Keep in mind that noise can be introduced by other components in addition to the camera.
Sensitivity to light is measured in lux. A sensitivity of 2 lux means the camera can see fairly well by the light of a 40W fluorescent bulb; 0.5 lux outdoor security cameras can make out images outside on a dim night. Your needs will depend on the lighting in the area being filmed, but lux ratings should not be the most important aspect of your camera decision.
Once you've chosen a camera, the next thing to do is pair it with a recording device. And the choice is relatively easy. Gone are the days of tape - everything is now digital. So this stage is simply a matter of figuring out the quality and capacity you need in a DVR.
Home Video Security System Recorders
Almost all video security systems include some sort of recorder to store the images the cameras capture. Years ago, the universal solution was the familiar VCR. However, the introduction of digital video recorders (DVRs), which record onto hard drives instead of tape, has dramatically changed the situation.
DVRs offer so many advantages over VCRs that they have rapidly taken over as the CCTV recording solution of choice. The benefits include:
- Ease of locating events - Instead of fast-forwarding through hours of tape, DVRs can instantly retrieve images from any specific time or date, or automatically skip to the point on a recording when something changed.
- Storage quality - Like all tapes, video cassettes start deteriorating almost immediately once you record on them - and the problem gets worse every time you reuse them. DVR recordings have no degradation at all since they are stored on a hard drive. This also makes the data easier to back up.
- Multitasking - While analog VCRs can either record or play, most DVRs can do both at the same time, letting you review images while still recording.
- Intelligent monitoring - The DVR can be set to take one picture per second or less - just enough to create a running record. However, when it detects motion, it can automatically bump the recording speed up to full (30 frames per second), getting every detail of the activity. Software that comes packaged with intelligent monitoring DVRs can also alert you in real time via phone, email, or text message when an incident takes place so you can immediately contact authorities or your home security system seller.
- Long-term recording - While security VCRs usually offer a time-lapse mode that lets them record for long periods of time, the resulting images are not a good record of events - they record only one snapshot every eight seconds. DVRs can record full motion for weeks or even months.
DVRs used to be considerably more expensive than VCRs. However, DVR prices have fallen considerably over the last few years and will continue to do so. Already, low-end DVRs and high-end VCRs have similar price ranges, and most manufacturers have stopped introducing new VCR models. Despite the increased cost, we recommend video security system buyers purchase a DVR whenever possible.
As part of your preparations, decide how much quality you need out of your DVR. There is no magic number or spec here; you need to decide how "good" the recorded picture needs to be, either for your own use later or possibly to use in court.
Once you decide this, you'll be able to look at sample recordings on the DVRs you're evaluating and see if they meet your standard. Vendors may be eager to throw compression settings, pixel counts, and other statistics at you, but those numbers are irrelevant if the picture doesn't offer the detail you need.
The size of the hard drive dictates how much you can record. On the low end, a 160-gigabyte (GB) hard drive will store about 10 to 16 days of full-motion video from one camera. Since you won't typically be recording full motion, this is more than enough space for residential users.
You'll also need to consider how many cameras you want to connect to the DVR. Keep your future expansion needs in mind - buying a higher-grade model to get more inputs and more storage space can save you considerable money in the future.
Other DVR specs
If you ever have to use your security images - in court or in other ways - you'll need to export the video. This is an important consideration; some systems let you create industry-standard .avi files, which can be played on any PC. Others only allow you to export proprietary formats that can only play on the same brand player. Most DVRs do offer the option to connect a home VCR or recordable DVD player. This allows you to simply tape the digital recording onto standard media.
When shopping for the right home DVR, don't go overboard with frame rate. Recorders that capture 3 fps to 5 fps are all you need for most home video surveillance use. While slow, it can still catch clean footage without impacting picture resolution.
Make sure the DVR offers 640x480 recording size, not viewing size. The North American standard for full screen recording is 640x480; any less and you may not be able to make out facial features or other details that can help authorities capture intruders.
It's now time to consider wiring. How will you connect the system within your home: through a hardwired configuration or wirelessly? It's important to know that one option is far more preferable to the other, and for a very important reason.
Connecting Home CCTV Surveillance Cameras
There are several ways to connect home CCTV surveillance cameras to the rest of your system.
The most common is standard coaxial cable, the same cable used to connect video equipment in your home. Some installers use unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cables, like the CAT5 cable used in computer networks, because they can reduce interference caused by electrical currents.
A simple switching device called a balun can be used to connect coaxial lines to UTP, so you can combine both in a single system. UTP is cheaper than coaxial cable, so for very large homes, this may be an advantage.
In most cases, wireless connections are not recommended for home video surveillance systems. While wireless technology has taken off in recent years, it simply has not reached the level of reliability that home CCTV users demand.
The frequencies they use are subject to interference from cordless telephones, air-conditioners, baby monitors, and almost anything with an electric motor. Users will have to expect snowy pictures, particularly in apartments and condos. In addition, CCTV surveillance cameras need electrical power - so you'll have to run one wire to the camera even if the video connection is wireless.
There are situations where wireless is the way to go: connecting across a public street, for example, where digging a trench is not a practical solution. Wireless systems are also better suited for rural areas, where there are fewer potential sources of interference. In these cases, wireless transmitters can make expensive or potentially impossible installations feasible.
Installation of a wireless system requires specific expertise to diagnose problems and to fine-tune the setup, so make sure your CCTV surveillance camera seller is experienced with wireless setups if you choose to go this route.
Compatibility with home security systems
If you already have a monitored home security system, make sure that any home surveillance cameras you purchase will be compatible. Certain home security manufacturers have proprietary systems that only work with their cameras.
Before you meet with CCTV sellers, let them know who your home security provider is so they can set you up with the appropriate equipment. You can also contact your home security provider on your own to see if it offers home surveillance equipment - you may qualify for a discount as an existing customer.
Choosing a Home CCTV System Vendor
The overall success of your CCTV system can hinge on the expertise of the installers who set it up. There are many important factors to take into consideration: lighting, optics, wiring, security, and more. In other words, your experience connecting your plasma TV to your Blu-ray player doesn't mean you should set up your home CCTV!
Most homeowners buy from integrators or sellers. These sellers usually work with multiple manufacturers to offer a range of products, as well as installation and support. As with most major purchases for your home, there are several key factors to look for when choosing a CCTV seller.
A seller's experience is a significant indicator of its reliability and long-term stability. You'll want to work with your chosen seller on an ongoing basis as you expand or upgrade your system, so choosing a company that will be around next year is important.
Research your sellers' backgrounds to sniff out so-called trunk slammers. These less-than-reputable sellers offer cheap, poorly made equipment, then offer no support after the sale.
One way to avoid dealing with a shady seller is to look for sellers who provide multiple contact methods - but most important is a phone number. If a seller's web site only lets you contact the company through an online form, you should probably look elsewhere.
The quality of a CCTV installation can have a lasting impact on your home. Qualified installers won't take a standardized approach to installation - they'll analyze your needs and make sure you get a system that is customized to your home. They'll also provide enough training and documentation to make sure your entire family understands the operation and maintenance of your system.
Nothing will give you a better sense of how well a CCTV system achieves your goals than seeing it in action. Some sellers conduct on-site demos, which gives you the added advantage of being able to see how the hardware will look in your home. Others will invite you to visit their facilities to see their products in action or will set up an online demo, which is helpful if you plan to view images remotely.
Another familiar way to investigate CCTV systems integrators for your home is to ask for references to other customers. Of course, you will be referred to the sellers' most satisfied customers, but you can still learn quite a bit from them. Here are some sample questions to ask the references:
- Has the CCTV system accomplished the goals you set for it?
- Are you happy with the overall quality of the images, both live and recorded?
- Was the initial installation sufficient for your needs? Or did you have to add components or upgrade?
- What do you wish you had done differently?
- Have you needed any support or repairs? How did the seller respond?
- Do you know anyone else who uses this system? (This can get you additional references to speak to, some of whom might be more candid.)
- If you had to say one negative thing about the system/seller, what would it be?
Home Video Security system Pricing
There are many components to home video security systems: cameras, monitors, recorders, and cabling to connect the system. Add in the need for a quality installation, and it should be apparent that shopping by price alone is not a good approach. See what other BuyerZone users paid for their residential video surveillance systems.
On the Internet you can find complete video security systems that include four to 16 cameras, including a monitor and VCR. Often they look like great deals, but most of the time, they're too good to be true. Low-quality components and a lack of support combine to create an offer that can do more harm than good.
Individual component pricing
The bulk of your home video surveillance costs will be in the recorder you select. Expect to pay about $500 to $700 for a single channel DVR with an 80 GB to 160 GB hard drive. You'll pay more as you add more memory and input. Intelligent DVRs start at $800 to $1,000 and go up depending on how many cameras you want to accommodate and how much memory you need.
If you'd prefer a VCR for recording, security-specific models are available for $400 to $600. You can also find older or used VCRs for a few hundred dollars. Since the costs of surveillance VCRs are comparable to those of DVRs, we recommend you stick with the more standardized technology.
Bullet, mini dome, or hybrid cameras for home surveillance typically cost about $150 to $250 apiece for reasonable quality equipment. Prices vary according to features - larger formats, higher resolution, and better sensitivity all drive prices up. Expect to pay a bit more for IP cameras for wireless setups - $250 to $700.
You may have to pay an extra $100 to $200 for cables, brackets, and other devices the installer will use as part of your setup.
Complete system pricing
Home video surveillance sellers can also provide complete systems equipped with four cameras, a DVR, a monitor, and cables for one price. These are not the poorly designed systems at cut-rate pricing that you may find online. Trustworthy sellers typically offer complete systems for your convenience, but ensure each component is high quality and fully reliable.
Complete, non-intelligent video surveillance systems range in price from $1,000 to $1,500, while intelligent system packages come in between $1,500 and $1,700 and high-end 4 camera systems can start at over $2,000.
Installation can make up a good percentage of your total costs: about $350 to $700 for a standard installation. You'll pay more if you need cameras installed in brick or solid oak, or if you choose lots of additional equipment. Installation requiring cameras to be hidden in everyday objects such as clocks, smoke detectors, and books will also add to your costs.
If you're buying a small system from a local company - say, two cameras and a standard DVR connected to your computer monitor - you may get the installation included in your costs. Just make sure you're working with a quality, experienced installer. If you get a shoddy installation for free, it could cause problems that will cost you even more in the long run.
As with most modern electronics, CCTV components are generally very reliable, especially if you're purchasing industry-recognized names. If they are going to fail, they will almost always do so within the first 90 days, while covered by the manufacturer's warranty. In most cases, it is not worth purchasing the extended warranty coverage that sellers will offer you.
However, you may want to consider a maintenance plan for your video security system. Having your seller regularly come in to clean and test your system can improve the overall performance and ensure that any problems that do occur are quickly remedied.