April 14, 2021

Security Cameras – DIY

With some recent crimes of opportunity and the theft of personal property, there has been some interest in cameras at the entrances and exits of the neighborhood. When your personal property is stolen or vandalized, feeling violated and angry is normal. Feeling like your rights are being infringed upon by neighborhood cameras is normal too. What’s the right answer to find the right balance of privacy and evidence in the event of crime? I don’t plan to elaborate on that, but instead offer some insight on my experience of installing a security camera system at our home. If you are feeling adventurous, lets get started!

When we installed our cameras, we looked at them regularly, but the content was pretty boring. Quickly we forgot they were there. The only excitement we’ve experienced from them is regular visits by deer and neighborhood pets at odd hours, and the occasional blooper of one of our kids doing something silly. Still the cameras record 24 hours a day and our system has the capacity to store roughly 3 weeks. There are a lot of options on the market for security cameras. In my opinion the three most important features of any system are:

  1. Quality of the video/cameras (can you read the license plate and make out facial features)
    • If you can’t distinguish anything in the video as evidence, your investment in cameras is useless.
  2. Ability to access the system remotely while you are away from home
    • Being able to check in while you are away allows you to have piece of mind
  3. Motion/Event Triggers (so you don’t have to manually watch hours of video)
    • Everyday life being recorded is dreadfully boring and your time is valuable

Instead of using the more popular cloud connected options like Nest, Ring, or any others which require monthly fees, I chose Blue Iris. This is a program you purchase for a Windows PC. The software is licensed to you and includes all updates and support for $69.95. The system supports up to 64 cameras and has as much storage space (ability to save weeks or months of video) as you can physically install inside the computer. After 12 months you can choose to renew your support agreement and software updates for $30, or you can continue to use it as is until the end of time. The computer you install this software on will need to be operational 24 hours a day, so while you can install this on a PC you use everyday, I wouldn’t recommend it.

On eBay, you can find used business PCs for less then $200 all day long. I found one for $137.96. This one sits in my equipment closet with only Blue Iris installed, recording video 24 hours a day. The PC you use to install Blue Iris on will need more or less “power” depending on how many cameras you plan to record. More cameras will require more system resources. The reliable operation of this PC is important, so having it connected to UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is necessary to prevent failure during unexpected loss of power.

After the PC, you will need to choose some cameras. I’ve been using Amcrest, and so far have zero complaints. The built-in software and features of Amcrest doesn’t really get the best reviews, but I’ve never used it, that’s what Blue Iris is for. As with most technology, there are so many acronyms and abbreviations. With cameras, these are some you will want to familiarize yourself with. It may look rather technical, but if you are shopping, you will see all these terms:

  • WiFi – Wireless Internet
    • You can use a WiFi camera with Blue Iris, but there will still need to be power supplied to the camera
  • CAT5e or CAT6 – The type of cable used to connect devices to a network
  • RJ45 – The type of connector on the end of the cable that plugs into devices/cameras
  • POE – Power over Ethernet means the data connection and power for the camera is supplied by the same cable
  • IP Camera – Camera which connects to a network and is assigned an IP address
  • Resolution / Mega-Pixels – The size of the image recorded by the camera
    • The higher the resolution the more details you can see (reading text on the license plate), but this requires more storage space too
  • IR – Infrared emitters are on the camera. When the light level becomes low, the cameras switch from color to black and white and turn on the Infrared emitters to increase visibility at night. They tend to have a red glow when on.
  • ONVIF – You don’t have to use Amcrest cameras, but any camera you use with Blue Iris must be Onvif compatible. If the camera doesn’t have this, it will not work.
  • PTZ – Pan/Tilt/Zoom, some cameras can be moved after installation through buttons in the Blue Iris interface. We have a PTZ camera in the bedroom of our two youngest sons as a nursery camera so we can check each bed . The PTZ cameras we use also have a microphone so we can hear them when they start crying.

A good place to start would be with 4 outdoor cameras like the one above. This is the Amcrest UltraHD 4k outdoor camera. It’s currently $110 on Amazon. It is a POE camera, with 4k (3840 x 2160) resolution, and 164 ft of night vision. This is going to offer the highest quality video to make out all the details, as well as offer a microphone to hear what’s happening outside too.

Another less expensive option would come in at $60 per camera. This is the Amcrest UltraHD 5MP (2592 x 1944), it’s a little lower resolution, still POE, and provides 98 ft of night vision. These are just suggestions, as long as the cameras are ONVIF compatible, they will work with Blue Iris.

After the software, the PC, and the cameras, you’ll need to get it all connected to your network. The diagram above is a basic representation of how most IP cameras are connected to a POE switch. If you don’t know what a switch is, think of it like a “splitter”.  Your network at home is likely vastly different than my network, but think of each camera like it’s own little computer. It needs power and a connection to your network. This is less complicated when each camera only requires a single wire (POE) instead of needing to be sure the camera is close to a power outlet. Most people likely have never bought a POE switch, but they aren’t too expensive (less than $50 for a 4 port POE switch). You will need to make sure you have enough POE ports for how many cameras you are installing or plan to expand to in the future. 4 cameras = 4 POE ports, etc… These are some examples from a quick search.

After you have purchased all the hardware, you’ll need to get a few specialty tools for installation. I added similar items to an Amazon cart for all 7 tools below for right at $95.43. Would you need all of these? No, at minimum you’ll need the RJ-45 crimp tool if you are running CAT5e/6 for POE. If you ever needed to supply a wired network connection to a TV, Gaming Console, or another PC, you would already have all the tools from this camera project too.

  • Sheetrock Saw – Cutting into interior walls to mount a wall outlet for a professional install
  • Tone Generator – When you run 4 cables to your POE switch and you don’t know which cable went to which camera. Plug this up, wave the magic wand and it will beep identifying the cable.
  • Cable Tester – CAT5e/6 has 8 small wires, a cable tester insures the terminations match on each end and the cable isn’t damaged
  • Fishing Rod – This helps push and pull cables through walls or hard to reach spaces
  • Fishing Cable – This helps running cables through tight spaces and sharp angles
  • Punch Down – This tool terminates the CAT5e/6 wires into a keystone outlet or patch panel for the pro-look
  • RJ-45 Crimper – This tool crimps the ends on the end of CAT5e/6 cabling. There is definitely a technique to using this tool successfully.

Next comes the accessories to finish up the installation like a professional DIY. You won’t need all these parts, just depends on your use case and installation. At minimum, you will need:

  • CAT5e/6 cable spool ($43.95 – 250 ft | $69.95 500 ft | $119.95 1,000 ft | prices from Amazon)
  • RJ45 ends (50 pack for $8 on Amazon)

The end goal being connecting the cameras to the network POE switch. As long as it works, and you didn’t pay an installer, you’re golden! There is a limit to length for CAT5e/6 though and it’s right around 100 meters or 328 feet.

The image below is from my cameras as an example of what you can you view from any computer or device connected to your network, or while you are away and have setup your network correctly for remote access. Blue Iris also offers an app for iOS and Android for $10 from the device app store.

To complete this project using minimum resources and adding 4 cameras outside your home, the cost comes in at $580. You can adjust the cameras and “extras” as needed to suit your needs or budget. This system is completely closed, meaning only you and your family will have access to it. There are options for backing up the video on the internet to any popular services in the event of a catastrophe and your home is destroyed.  But this system isn’t a monthly subscription, you own it and are free to add more cameras, fine tune the motion sensitivity, and adjust the notifications. It’s all yours!

If you’re ready to take the plunge and complete this project, watch some YouTube videos like this one below to get more familiar with Blue Iris. If you start your project and get stuck, feel free to reach out and I’ll be happy to help.