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How to Set Up a Video Home Security System

How many cameras you'll need, where to put them, and how to adjust them
 

Video cameras can monitor the inside and outside of your home and property, and can automatically detect motion and send you alerts when this happens.

Part 1 of a series about the Logitech Alert and home security cameras in general; please also visit

1.  How to Best Set Up Video Monitoring at Your Home
2.  Logitech Alert 750 review 1
3.  Logitech Alert 750 review 2
4.  Logitech Alert 750 review 3

 

 

There was a time when the most sophisticated home security system was a loud bell that would ring outside your house if a window was broken or door opened, and hopefully a neighbor would call the police.

Flash forward to the present day.  The old concept of having micro-switches on doors and windows, plus motion sensors and pressure pads inside the house, connected either to an external bell and/or to a remote alarm monitoring company has now been replaced with the ability to have an audio visual system that will directly contact you (and any other people or monitoring companies you wish) when they detect motion.  A good place to start exploring this type of modern sophisticated alarm system is Safemart.com.

No more false alarms.  Simply look at the real time footage from your cameras, either on your phone or on a computer, anywhere in the world.  If you see bad guys breaking in, call the police.  If you don't, relax and adjust your motion sensitivity!

This first part of our new series gives you pointers on how to design and set up a home video monitoring system.  Subsequent parts review one of the best of the current crop of home video monitoring systems, the Logitech Alert system.

How to Best Set Up Video Monitoring at Your Home

You don't need to have every part of your property and home covered by a triply redundant camera system.  Just because your home might have four bedrooms, three bathrooms, two levels and a garage doesn't mean you need to have cameras in every room.

Neither also do you need external cameras on all four sides of your house.

For sure, more cameras are more fun (and more functional) than fewer cameras, but all you really need to do is to have an essential pathway inside your home monitored, so that if anyone is going to be coming into your home, moving around, and then leaving again, you may get a good video clip with a recognizable picture of the person (assuming they are not wearing masks or hoods, etc).

A single camera installation may be internal or external, depending on where you think the key common point is that anyone visiting your property will travel past.  Your objective is not to film a 'documentary' showing every last detail of where an intruder goes in your house.  All you want is to get early notification that someone is in your house, and then you call the police and see which happens first - the burglar leaving, or the police arriving.

A multiple camera installation might supplement an internal view or views with an external view or views (if you have a freestanding house) so as to ensure you get an earlier and certain detection of any intruders.

External Camera Considerations

Most burglars or other 'guests' of dubious provenance will first go to your front/main door and innocently knock on the door.  This is a great way for them to determine if the house is currently occupied or not.

If there's no answer, they know they've found a vulnerable property, but if someone comes to the door, they'll invent an excuse - maybe they'll say they're lost, or looking for the next house along, or pretend to be selling you something, or who knows what.

You're sure to have had such people at your door in the past - have you ever stopped to wonder if they were truly who they said they were, or if they were burglars scouting out your property and your presence?

So, an external camera should ideally be somewhere aimed towards your front door, so as to pick up on people when they arrive.  You can even use this while you are inside to see who is at the door - maybe it was just a deliveryman dropping off a package and you don't need to drop what you were doing and rush to the door.

If you want to add additional external cameras, then you need to think about other areas of interest or vulnerability.  If you were a burglar, how, other than down your driveway/along your apartment block corridor would you access the property? And where, other than through the main door, would you choose to break into the house?

Naturally, larger doors and windows that are on-grade are much more vulnerable than upper floor windows - ground level windows and doors are easier to quickly go in and out, and to pass stolen items through.

Maybe you have problems with people trespassing through your property as a short cut, or maybe you have a pool or hot tub you want to keep an eye on.  In that case, aim cameras in those directions.

Maybe you have a problem with parcels being stolen off your front door step.  Maybe you're as concerned with keeping an eye on what is happening around your property with your children, your friends, and invited guests.  In all cases, set up your cameras with sight lines to the relevant areas of vulnerability.

Think also about a second concept.  Maybe as well as a camera facing to the house from an external point, you might want a camera facing out to the street so as to possibly get details of the vehicle in which intruders drive to and from your property.

Internal Camera Considerations

Where are people invariably going to pass while walking around your house?  These are the 'hot spots' you want to have monitored by a camera or cameras.

There are three main categories of places that bad guys will probably visit.

First, the design of the dwelling itself probably includes a main corridor or hallway in your home.  Or possibly there's a set of stairs between two or more levels in the house.  In such a case, you'll want to get a camera facing these 'high traffic' essential choke-points.

Second, the bad guys will probably want to go to your lounge or den or computer room - the places where comparatively high value portable electronic items are present.

Third, the bad guys will almost certainly go to your master bedroom to look through your drawers for jewellery, guns, and other things of value.

So after setting up a camera to guard/monitor your main traffic choke point(s), if you wish to, you could add extra cameras in the rooms of your home where the most tempting goodies can be found.

Hidden or Visible Cameras

There are two main reasons for having a security surveillance video system.  One is to monitor the actions of people who are authorized to be in an area, the other is to detect and record the presence of people who are not authorized to be in an area.

The first scenario relates to situations such as employees wishing to keep track of what their employees are doing, parents wishing 'nannycams' to make sure that babysitters are acting appropriately, and so on.

In this type of situation, sometimes having visible cameras provides a deterrent/caution to encourage compliance with policies and procedures.  But if that is not working, sometimes having hidden cameras will then identify noncompliance issues.

However, the focus on our article here is not so much on this first scenario.  Instead, we are focusing on the second scenario - detecting/recording unauthorized personnel in an area.

Some people like to keep their cameras hidden, even in this second scenario.  But the reasons for doing so are generally not as persuasive as the reasons for making the cameras visible.

Prevention is better (and more assured) than cure

It is important to realize that your highest priority is not to catch a person who was filmed in the process of previously burgling your house.  Even if you get extensive footage of highest quality imagery clearly showing a person or persons at work burgling your house, there's no guarantee that the police can (or will even try to) use this to identify, locate, arrest, prosecute and convict the perpetrator, and there's even less guarantee they'll be able to recover your goods.

Instead, your highest priority is to deter criminals from choosing your home as their next burglary (or, massively more scary, home invasion) target.  That is why alarm monitoring companies give you a sign to put in the front of your property.

The reality is that your average burglar has thousands more properties to choose between than he can possibly turn over when going on a day's breaking and entering.  So he will choose the 'low fruit' - the easiest houses with the fewest complicating factors.  He will choose a house preferably not so visible from the street, without a dog, and absolutely without any signs of a security system.

Why would any burglar choose to wrestle with a security system when the houses on either side are probably totally unprotected?  So visible security systems will definitely deter casual burglars.

Assuming you have security cameras that are transmitting their imagery to some protected storage location, and assuming that they can't be disabled by someone sneaking up unseen from behind, it makes a great deal of sense to make them visible.  Make them very visible - add signs around your property 'warning' people about your security cameras, and maybe even paint the cameras in bright stripes or place bright backboards behind them outside.

The most prevention value comes from external cameras - cameras which, if seen, may dissuade a potential burglar from proceeding to actually break in to your house.

Once the burglar is in your house, there is less preventative value in highly visible cameras and a burglar is more likely then just to disable the camera or ignore it, and possibly to then rush through the rest of his burglarizing, getting out of the house before the police arrive.  They might well reason that they've already committed a crime and already been filmed doing so, and so decide to simply carry on and quickly complete their nefarious activities.

So while we recommend deliberately making your cameras prominent outside, that is less a factor for inside, and you should simply locate your cameras inside wherever it makes most sense for them to be, without concerning yourself about their visibility or concealment.

Height Indicator

Here's an interesting way of adding to the visual warning factor of your system.

Have you ever noticed the height measuring strips on the insides of the door frames in convenience stores?  Why not create a similar thing, but on the outside of any exterior doors you are monitoring externally.

Not only might this help you to get a more accurate estimate of a bad guy's height, but it will also add another visual deterrent to someone approaching your door and considering any sort of bad thing.

Tell-tale recording lights

Here is one additional consideration.  Some security cameras will give a visual indication when they are active and filming/recording.

On the face of it, having the camera actually showing that it is actively recording might seem to be even more of a deterrent.  But this is probably not the case.  Firstly, it assumes that a bad guy would understand what the indicator light means when it comes on or flashes or whatever.

Secondly, there's no point in letting the bad guys use this information to practice and work out exactly how sensitive your detection settings are and where the dead zones might be.

If you can adjust this setting, we'd suggest turning it off.

Day and Night Location Issues

When you're choosing your camera locations and angles, you want to be sure they won't have bright lights shining into them, either during the day or night.

Cameras typically have auto-exposure systems that will average the exposure across the image as best they can.  If the entire image has similar light/shade values, this works perfectly.  But if there is a very strong light in one part of the image, the rest of the image will be balanced out by making it too dark, and you'll end up with an image that has a bright featureless light in one part and a too dark and indistinct image in the rest of it.

Very bright lights can also harm the sensors inside cameras.

During the day, you want to do the best you can to make sure the sun won't directly shine into them at any stage.  And at night, you want to be sure that there aren't any streetlights or other lights that will shine into the camera.

Data Storage Location

Your cameras are only helpful if you are able to subsequently access the imagery they have recorded.

If a bad guy steals your cameras and also steals the computer onto which you were saving the video the cameras were capturing, you're left with nothing.

The good news is that it is rather unlikely that your cameras would be stolen.  Furthermore - and particularly if you have a Logitech Alert system, the cameras are simultaneously storing their video onto both a Micro-SD card in the camera and also to a central computer that you can designate.  That way, you are able to retrieve either the video from the camera (before it is over-written by more recent video) or from your central computer.

However, the computer on which you store the video is a point of vulnerability.  What is one of the things thieves most like to steal?  Computers.  So there's a significant risk your computer will be stolen.

For this reason, you might want to consider buying an inexpensive computer - possibly even a netbook type computer, costing a mere $200 or so, and hiding it in some obscure part of the house, using the netbook as your hidden data storage resource for the cameras.

Motion Sensing

There are several different forms of motion sensing systems used by home security systems.  Some systems use infra-red detection of shifting heat patterns, some are ultra-sonic, and others use radar.

Each has pluses and minuses, and varying degrees of sensitivity to genuine alerts and false alarms.

However, most security/video cameras will use a built in system whereby the camera compares the images on each successive picture it takes.  If the two images are mostly the same, it considers no motion as having been detected.

But if there is a change, then that may be a significant motion detection and trigger whatever event the camera system should do upon detecting motion - typically start recording, and possibly send notifications to pagers, text messages to cell phones, or something else.

In programming up the motion detection system, you will usually find you have several different settings you can adjust.  You of course will wish to walk a fine line between settings that are too sensitive and accordingly create a lot of false alerts, and settings that are too insensitive, allowing bad guys to sneak past, undetected.

On the other hand, if there's no real penalty for false alarms, it is better to err on the too sensitive side.  You don't want to be calling an alarm company or the police department for anything other than a 99.9% guaranteed real burglary, because police departments will often start fining you for false call-outs and/or ignore your calls in the future.

But if the only downside to a false alarm is another text message to your cell phone, that's probably not a problem.  It could even be said to be a good idea to have occasional false alarms, because that also sends you an implied notification that the system is working properly.

If you don't get a false alarm every so often, after normally receiving a couple every day, it signals an implied warning to check and see if something has happened to your system.

Detection Area

Most camera systems allow you to define which parts of the image will be used for motion sensing and which parts will be ignored.

This is a case where 'less is more'.  Look at the image your camera is receiving, and decide where in that image people are likely to appear.  If part of the image is somewhere where no human motion would be detected (too high up or too low down) then take those out of the area where motion detection occurs.  By doing this, you're simply reducing the number of false alerts you'll get by other types of motion seeming events in those areas.

Look also for areas where there might be likely to be false alerts.  An example would be an outside camera that has trees and bushes in the background.  What happens when the wind blows and the branches start swaying in the breeze?  False alerts, of course.  So try and eliminate areas that will give you false alerts.

The smaller the zone you end up with for triggering motion sensing alerts, the fewer the false alarms you will have.  You might also need to fine tune the sensitivity, however - for example if you just have a narrow zone which will only trap motion from part of a person's body, you might need to increase the sensitivity due to less motion being available for the camera.

If you have cats or dogs inside, you might want to not include the first foot or so above the floor in your detection zone.

Detection Sensitivity

Most systems have some type of sensitivity adjustment to vary the amount of motion needed to set off an alert.

Some even provide some sort of visual display to show when motion is being detected, so as you scale up or down the sensitivity, you can see the effects on a monitoring screen.

Otherwise, you should probably start at about a mid level value, then after a day or two you'll have a feeling for if it is too sensitive or too insensitive.

You'll know if it is too sensitive, because you'll be getting false positive alerts.  To test for it being too insensitive, simply go and act like a burglar yourself at different times of day and night, in different lighting conditions, and make sure that you always trip an alert.

Here's how to best and most quickly adjust the sensitivity.  Let's assume you have a sensitivity scale from 0 - 100 (100 meaning most sensitive).

Start off with a setting of 50 - halfway between the two extremes.  After however long, decide if it is too sensitive or too insensitive.  If it is too sensitive, move the setting to a new value halfway between its earlier value and the minimum, ie, to 25.  If it is too insensitive, move it to a value halfway between the past value and the maximum - ie to 75.

You'll soon get a feeling for if the new setting has now become too sensitive or too insensitive.  Make another adjustment to move the setting halfway between its previous value (ie 25 or 75) and either the minimum/maximum (if you need to keep adjusting it the same way) or halfway back to the value before that (ie 50).  So your new setting will be either 12.5, 37.5, 62.5 or 87.5.

Then after another test period, move the value again by another half value in whichever direction seems most appropriate, up or down (ie by 6 units).  And then, after another test period, move the value again by another half of a half value (ie by 3 units).

Keep moving in these small 3 unit values until you've gone too far and need to reverse direction, and then start moving in 1.5 unit values.

As you make these changes, keep a record of each change you make so you have a history and record of your setting and experiences at each setting.

This might sound complicated, but it is the fastest way to get to exactly an ideal value (analogous to a 'binary sort').

Note that each camera will need its own calibration process and will likely end up with a different value for sensitivity.

Note also that any time you make any adjustment to the camera you'll need to recalibrate its sensitivity.

Motion Period

If you have a setting that determines how long motion must be detected continually before triggering an alert, think this through.  You don't want to set it to 1/100th of a second, because even a brief flash of light might then be mistaken as motion.

But you don't want to go to the other extreme and set it for eg 10 seconds, because that would probably be such a long detection period that people could walk into the camera's field of view, through the field of view, and right out the other end again in less than the ten seconds and so the motion detection would never be triggered.

A too long detection period has two downsides - you need to consider them both.  Firstly, unless the system can be set to start recording from a period before the trigger event, you've lost most/all of the significant movement from your recording.

It might sound impossible to start recording after something has already happened, but good camera systems keep a few seconds of data in their memory, and so can start recording not only from the point at which the trigger event occurs, but can also add the few seconds of past data that was in their memory too

Secondly, if it only takes eight seconds for a person walking at normal/slow speed to go through the camera's field of view, and you have the motion period set for ten seconds, no-one is going to trigger the alert.

For most people, a time somewhere between about 0.5 seconds and 2 seconds will probably be correct.  Maybe start at about one second then adjust as needed up or down.

Fine Tuning the Motion Detection Sensitivity

When you get false alarms, see if you can play back the video to see what caused the alert, and then think about which of the different settings you can adjust could be changed to stop that alert triggering again.

Some things that the camera might interpret as motion include shifting patterns of light and shade.  Are there reflections or shadows that come and go?  Are there leaves on the ground or on the trees that are moving?  Are there pets or birds that are causing false alarms?  Do lights from passing cars shine onto your curtains or through your windows (a sudden appearance of brightness is usually confused by a camera as 'motion').

Another problem can be bad weather - in particular, it is very difficult for a camera to distinguish between snow falling and some other type of motion.

Summary

Now that you know a lot about how and where to set your cameras, it is time to talk about the types of cameras you should get, and the integrated system they provide for your home protection.

Please click on to the next part of this series for a detailed review of one of the best home video monitoring systems currently available, the Logitech Alert.

Part 1 of a series on home security/video monitoring systems; please also visit

1.  How to Best Set Up Video Monitoring at Your Home
2.  Logitech Alert 750 review part 1
3.  Logitech Alert 750 review part 2
4.  Logitech Alert 750 review part 3

 

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Originally published 12 Nov 2010, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 


 


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