Security is a difficult product to sell. Like insurance, it never seems necessary on a good day. Until a driver gets t-boned in the middle of an intersection, the last thing on the driver’s mind is whether or not she has the right kind of coverage.
As a security consultant, I am often called in after a metaphorical crash – a break-in, a digital intrusion, an employee dipping into the till. The common thread among incidents like these is that they are all damage control. Adding cameras or installing a network-intrusion detection system won’t prevent the original incident but allows the business to better defend against future threats.
Even when a business is adequately protected, my experience has taught me that the same business owners often neglect protecting their own homes. Thankfully, security does not have to be a luxury item. The security hardware available to the public is more affordable than ever, and the quality of the equipment is unprecedented. You don’t have to hire a security consultant to protect your home. Regardless of your budget, there is almost assuredly a solution at your price point.
A camera system is one of the most essential pieces of physical-security hardware available, and thankfully it’s easier than ever for a nontechnical person to work with one. To have a working camera system, you will need just two components: the cameras themselves and a digital video recorder (DVR) designed to work with them.
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You may be familiar with television DVRs. These are similar. All the cameras tie into the DVR, which operates as a computer and manages recording. Sometimes users will set up certain cameras to record only motion, but the most common configuration is to just let the cameras run all the time.
After the DVR’s hard drive has filled up with video, it seamlessly “rolls over the tape” and starts overwriting the earliest entries. Ideally, the DVR should retain at least 15-30 days of video for residential use, in case of a break-in or other incident. This allows enough time to back up any relevant footage for law enforcement.
In the past, one of the primary difficulties faced by do-it-yourself security installers was cabling. Each camera had to be hard-wired into the DVR, which meant that homeowners either had to get creative with potentially hundreds of feet of wire or leave their homes looking like a rat’s nest. Crawling around in attics was a bare minimum, and to some that didn’t justify the effort.
Thankfully, that excuse can now be retired. Wireless cameras and DVRs are now commonplace and make setting up a system a breeze. You don’t even need wireless Internet; the cameras and DVR communicate directly using radio, so there’s no need to put on your network-engineer hat. In most cases it’s as simple as powering on the cameras and the DVR, and then clicking “add cameras” from within the DVR’s interface. Assuming the cameras are in range, they should start working immediately. (If you’re putting cameras in a 10-story mansion, you may wish to run cable instead because of the distance, but hopefully you can afford to pay somebody for that.)
An important consideration for DIY security is that the location of your DVR is important. If a thief decides to break in and sees your DVR sitting on the shelf with your Blu-Ray player, you can kiss your footage – and any chance of catching the thief – goodbye. Ideally, the DVR should be in a locked room or cabinet and should not be apparent to the naked eye. Even if the cameras are in plain view, a thief won’t likely spend a lot of extra time hunting for a DVR, although if it’s in plain view you can bet he’ll take it. This is another advantage of wireless systems.
How many cameras do you need? Some homeowners can get by with two, while others use 16 or more. This is often dictated by price. A decent-quality wireless DVR with two cameras will run around $500, and the price increases with the number of cameras. Modern DVRs make it easy to add new cameras – especially if you’re wireless – so it’s a perfectly valid approach to start small and work your way up. Homeowners need to ask themselves what needs to be protected, and what angles will allow a positive identification of a bad guy if the worst happens.
Entrances and exits like the front door, back door and garage are essential angles to cover. These might require trial and error to get right. Sometimes the shift in lighting from opening an outside door can cause a person to appear as a silhouette, obscuring any identifying details. Make sure you test your system thoroughly to make sure you can actually see your subjects when that door opens. Other key angles may be locations where valuables are kept, anywhere firearms are stored and children’s bedrooms. Each home has its own needs and challenges. Nobody knows those better than the homeowner.
The most important consideration with your camera system is testing it. It doesn’t matter if you bought ten $2,000 omnidirectional cameras if you forgot to turn the recording on. This sounds silly, but I have seen this time and again even in large corporate environments. Take the time to read the manual to whatever DVR you bought and learn exactly how to determine if you’re recording, and explicitly verify that regularly. Check on your DVR at least once a week to make sure everything is still running and recording.
You might need it someday.