Over the last few years, the market has been flooded with security cameras aimed squarely at the homeowner. You can find any number of cheap, high-spec cameras on Amazon. A lot of these cameras get decent reviews too. Generic/knock-off cameras are quickly bridging the gap with high quality manufacturers like Nest and Samsung. With increased competition continuing to drive down prices in the security camera market, building your own home security camera system has become an affordable DIY project for the average Joe.
Like a lot of people, I started out with the Best Buy special. My first foray into home security cameras was a Swann analog camera 4-pack with a 500 GB DVR for $350, purchased in 2012. Something similar to this:
I went home, hooked everything up, and at first it seemed like the best system ever. I had access to my cameras when I was at home and when I was away from home. The picture wasn’t the greatest, but I was happy with it. Everything worked, well, for a while that is.
The Swann cameras started going out, the night vision never lasted more than a few months. The DVR started locking up on a regular basis. The app started being more hassle than it was worth. I started losing video feed on cameras and was calling Swann customer support on a regular basis. In their defense, they did send me two new cameras to replace the ones I was having trouble with. But those cameras didn’t last either.
Around the same time, I was also wanting to expand my security camera system to cover interior rooms too. I realized that the Swann system just wasn’t going to cut it. I was prepared to move forward, but I wasn’t done shooting myself in the foot yet.
It was 2014, and in my quest for IP cameras, I came across the Logitech Alert system. I paid around $550 for this system. The kit included two night-vision capable cameras and the Logitech Alert Commander software so you could view your cameras from a PC! Yep, that’s right, a PC. I was excited about it back then, but now it just seems kind of silly. I don’t remember much about the smartphone app, except that it was a pain to use. The cameras had “digital pan and tilt”, which pretty much meant that I could zoom in and then move the picture around. I didn’t have to worry about networking, because it used the power lines in the wall to transmit the data. It was going to be better than the Swann system, because it couldn’t be worse, could it?
Logitech Alert went belly up shortly after I bought in. I was actually looking to add more cameras, and couldn’t figure out why the prices were so high on Amazon. After a little research, I figured out why. Logitech was no longer offering the system. It’s sad, but you can’t buy anything digital now and expect future support. Companies drop products in a heartbeat nowadays. It’s a fact of life now. To add insult to injury, one of the cameras also quit working. I had to re-imagine my home security camera system from the ground-up for the third time.
Hopefully I can help someone else avoid the mistakes I made when I started building the security camera system for my home.
I came across Blue Iris while researching how I could integrate my Swann and Logitech camera systems. This occurred right before I decided to give up on both companies and their products. So I dabbled in Blue Iris and discovered that I really liked this software! It took a little while to get used to it, but once I did, I was impressed. As far as software goes, it’s expensive. I paid $60 for it. It’s a one-time purchase, no subscription required. That gets you a license that supports up to 64 cameras, which is probably way more than anyone needs. But Blue Iris worked, and it worked well. It worked way better than my Swann DVR, and it was easier to connect to than the Logitech Alert system. I bought the smartphone app (again, pricey at $10 for an app). I finally had the DVR I had wanted all along.
The main advantage of using Blue Iris is that it works with almost any kind of camera, so you can buy the camera hardware you want. You don’t have to buy into an “ecosystem”, which may be obsolete by the end of the year.
Now, Blue Iris does come with some caveats. It’s PC-based software, and the computer will need to stay on around the clock. It needs at least a Core i5 processor, but I’d recommend an i7 (or AMD equivalent). You’ll also need enough hard drive space to hold your camera footage. That alone adds to the price (unless you already have a computer that meets those specs). I look at it like this. Yeah, it’s a lot of money for a security camera DVR. However, the PC is dual-purpose as it also functions as my home office computer. And the DVR software stays up-to-date. Try to find that kind of software guarantee with any other DVR manufacturer.
For a full review of Blue Iris features and a tutorial on how to use it, you can check out this page here.
I still wanted to further expand my home security camera system, but I didn’t run enough Ethernet cable when I built my home. I was extremely skeptical about going wireless. I didn’t want to tie down my WiFi with bandwidth hogging cameras, but I had no choice to reach certain areas. My first wireless camera was the Samsung SmartCam HD Pro. I paid $187 for it in April of 2015. The same camera now runs $119 on Amazon (36% cheaper than when I first purchased it)! It’s actually the most capable WiFi camera I own, as it has support for 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands, as well as an Ethernet port. I own three of these cameras, only two are used wirelessly. I highly recommend these cameras.
I was actually pleasantly surprised by the performance and reliability of these cameras. There wasn’t a noticeable effect on my other wireless devices. The connection didn’t drop that often, and even less now that I’ve upgraded my wireless router system. Still, I only own a handful of wireless cameras. I’d only recommend using wireless cameras if you can’t get a wired connection to the desired location.
Choosing the Right Cameras
It was a long time coming, but I finally decided on Blue Iris as my “official” DVR and that meant I could retire the Swann system. The Swann cameras and DVR were in operation for less than two years when I pulled the plug on them. This was not the kind of investment I wanted, neither in terms of time or money. It was a hard choice, but I wanted equipment that actually worked without having to fight with it. I decided to get serious about researching the cameras of the future.
My next camera purchase was a Dahua SD59230S-HN high speed pan and tilt camera with 30X optical zoom for my front porch. It didn’t take me long to realize that this $700 beast was overkill. I can zoom in down the street on my neighbors’ homes, like, all the way down the street. I like the high speed pan and tilt though, it works for my intended purpose of catching license plates of vehicles that turn down my street. I like the preset tour feature, and can keep a roving eye on my property at night. I can also set a motion-activated preset to focus on my front door when people walk up. It’s a good camera, but more than what I needed.
I decided that I liked Dahua enough to try their turret cameras. Of all the cameras I own, I like these small form-factor cameras the best. I love the way they look as interior cameras (I also use one outside beneath the soffit as they are IP67 rated). They have great night vision, and of course the picture clarity is tops too. No complaints, but don’t expect any frills here either. No pan and tilt features, no powered zoom. You just point them at the area you want to monitor. And at sub-$100 prices, these are probably the best bang for your buck that you’ll find. The newest version of the IPC-HDW4300C (the ones I own) can be found here for $65 on Amazon.
If you’re interested in these cameras, you can head over to my Dahua web page for more information on installing them and using the web interface.
Upgrading the Network
I became a security camera junkie. We originally had 2 locations prewired for cameras when we built our house. I now have 9 cameras monitoring my home and property. The interior cameras are nice to have so we can see what the kids are doing when the house gets too quiet. The rest are monitoring outside of our home or entry points into the house.
To support this increase in network traffic, I had to buy a few gigabit switches. Netgear makes a really good 5 port switch (GS105) and an 8 port switch (GS108) that I have used to expand my network. Additionally, my Dahua turret cameras are PoE-powered with this Netgear switch.
I also set up a QNAP TS-651 TurboNAS to store my Blue Iris recordings after they’ve been converted to .mp4 format. This allows me to keep several months worth of recordings on hand. I also get piece of mind knowing that my camera footage is getting backed up.
There’s not really anything left to do. I thought about segmenting my home security camera system from my main network, but I haven’t done it yet. It just seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I may decide to beef up my camera server at some point. And of course, I’ll replace any cameras or components that happen to fail. I’m three years into my current setup, and it works well. I haven’t had any problems, and I don’t anticipate any in the future. We use our cameras to keep an eye on our home while we’re away. If you’ve ever been robbed, you know firsthand how not fun that is. With a home security camera system, even a cheap one, you can rest easy on vacation knowing you’re protected.
If you’re building a system from scratch, I highly recommend putting some thought into the placement of the cameras. Think about wired vs. wireless. Think about whether you want to run Blue Iris on a network PC or buy a dedicated DVR. Don’t just read the reviews of cameras on Amazon and think it’ll work out. I wish I had been more assertive in my research. I wasted so much money it’s actually embarrassing. I also think about how much easier some of my camera installations would have been had I put more thought into the wiring when my house was being built.
In my defense, this was all new to me. I had installed PoE cameras at work, but consumer options were limited at the time. So, if you’ve been on the fence considering whether or not now is the right time to get into home security cameras, I’d recommend you take a look on Amazon and see what’s out there. In the past three years, the quality of the cameras has gone up while the prices have continued to fall.
- Read more about the Samsung SmartCam HD Pro
- Read more about the Samsung SmartCam HD Plus
- Read more about Dahua Turret Style Cameras
- Read more about using Blue Iris software
- Read more about Google Home
- Read more about automating your home with Tasker