Wireless Webcams for Security

Background

As the economy falters, bank robberies, burglaries and other crimes are on the rise.  You may already protect your home and/or business with deadbolts and an alarm system, but these days it pays to stand out as someone with a little more protection.  Video surveillance is one way to add extra protection, but most video surveillance systems cost thousands even before you add the installation fees to pay for people crawling through your attic to set them up.  Let's see what can be done with relatively inexpensive webcams that can be set up by your average home or business owner. 

Choosing the right webcam

When it comes to webcams, there are so many choices that you could go crazy before you decide on one.  Let's assume you want to keep it simple and effective.  There are webcams that you can clip to your laptop, cheap ones you can place on your desk, wired webcams, wireless webcams, and so on.  Unless you fancy crawling around in your attic running wires, let's assume you want a wireless webcam.  Let's also assume that you have wireless internet in the form of high speed internet (DSL, cable, FIOS, etc.) and you have a wireless 802.11 router.  These are reasonable assumptions in this day and age, as most of us have high speed internet and a wireless router so we can user our computers and laptops online without running an Ethernet cable to them.

What we are looking for are wireless 802.11 webcams.  Often called " wireless IP cameras" or "wireless network cameras", these wireless webcams have their own built in web "server".  These cameras will connect to your wireless network and will operate whether your computer is on or off and they require no additional recording devices as they are self contained and only need power and a healthy wireless internet connection to operate.  They sit and watch an area and most can be set to send an email with attached photos/videos when motion is detected.  These photos and videos can be sent to cell phones or PDA's that are internet capable and many even allow you to log on to the camera and view a live feed right from your cell phone or PDA!  The purpose here is obviously to use the camera as a sort of watch dog that reports to you whenever it sees motion.  You can then refer to the photo/video of that motion to decide whether it is something that requires a response.

Even limiting yourself to IP cameras leaves you with a plethora of webcams to choose from such as webcams that can pan/tilt versus ones that do not, webcams that can see in total darkness (night vision webcams), webcams with built in microphones to pick up sound, and other features.  Let's take a look at a couple webcams that consistently get good reviews when used for security or surveillance.

Panasonic Network Webcams: The Panasonic BL-C series webcams are solid performers that offer great features and good low light capability.  The BL-C131 is a good choice, if a bit expensive at nearly $300.  This model offers pan/tilt, email notification, live view, and abundant features to get the motion detection and notification just right.  The BL-C131, like the vast majority of webcams, is meant for indoor use so it must be mounted inside.  It can easily be mounted near a window with the camera shooting through the glass to monitor driveways, walkways, courtyards, and more.  Just be aware that while this model offers heat sensitive motion detection, the heat sensor will not work through a window so you'll have to use the image motion detection which simply detects when the image changes significantly.  When using that type of motion detection, be aware that shadows from blowing trees and even clouds can set off the motion detection.  While this is one of the better webcams for low light, it does take rather long exposures to perform in low light so unless you have very bright lights, at night this camera would render motion such as a person walking rather blurry, making identification difficult.  The BL-C131 offers a built in microphone so you can monitor sound as well as video in the live feeds.

Y-Cam: Y-Cam makes webcams that offer night vision.  By using infrared LED's, the Y-Cam can take pictures in total darkness up to about 20 feet from the camera.  Y-Cam also makes an outdoor enclosure so you can mount the camera outside (the night vision does not work through glass).  Of course, having a visible camera outdoors is a deterrent in itself as people will likely recognize that there is a camera (or cameras) there.  Y-Cams don't have quite the wireless range of the Panasonic cameras but are usually good enough for most applications.  In addition, some Y-Cam webcams are night vision equipped while others are not.  Be aware that the night vision Y-Cams like the Y-Cam black will return images that look a bit "surreal" because they are infrared cameras.  As a result, the images/video will have a bit of a pink color cast and green leaves on trees may look more white than green.  That's the price you pay for night vision but as night vision wireless webcams go, the choices are few so the Y-Cam with its outdoor enclosure is a good choice for monitoring your property before anyone can get inside.  The Y-Cam does include a microphone so you can hear what is going on in the live feeds, but if you buy a Y-Cam, be sure to get the second generation model as the first generation model was not compatible with cell phones and PDA's.

Others: Of course, there are many, many more choices when it comes to security capable wireless webcams.  When shopping for a wireless webcam to help secure your home/business, keep these factors in mind:

  • Pan/tilt: do you need to be able to pan/tilt and look around in different directions?  This can be useful when you get an email notification that motion has been detected and you want to log in to the camera from your cell phone or PDA to "look around" and see what is going on right now.

  • Email: make sure the camera can send an email notification when motion is detected and make sure it can attach a JPEG photo or MPEG video of what it detected.

  • Live view: be certain that the webcam is advertised as one that can allow viewing the live feed from most cell phones/PDA's.  Some webcams use a video format that is not compatible with what most cell phones/PDA's can handle.  If the webcam isn't advertised as being able to send the live feed to a cell phone/PDA, you will probably not be able to see the live video from those devices.

  • Wireless: most of the webcams we are discussing will be listed as 802.11 compliant.  That means they should work with your wireless router: the same one that allows you to connect to your own network in your home/business using your laptop.  Wired webcams are cheaper but obviously not as portable since with a wired webcam, you have to run an Ethernet cable from the router to the webcam.

  • Software: take a look at the software that comes with the webcam.  For your webcam to be "live viewable", it will use your IP address: the one assigned to you by your internet service provider.  If you have a static IP address, no problem.  If you have a dynamic IP address that changes from time to time, you may need to use software (such software usually comes with webcams but there may be a monthly/yearly charge).  Note that you only need this additional software if you have a dynamic IP address and you want to view live feeds.  The webcam should be able to send email notifications when motion is detected regardless of what type of IP address you have.

  • Sound: do you need to hear what is going on when you view the live feed?  Some cameras offer a built in microphone while others do not.

  • Reviews: take a look at online reviews and read what people are saying about the webcam you are about to buy.  Amazon is a good place to go: just search for the model number there and see if they have reviews.  Read them!  If you see a lot of the same complaint like "impossible to set up" or "doesn't work on my iPhone", you can get a good idea whether or not it will meet your needs.

  • Price: of course consider the price but as of this writing, most webcams with decent functionality and performance are in the $200 to $300 range.

How many?

If you are going for added security or peace of mind, how many webcams do you need?  Of course, that depends on how many entry points are available to would-be intruders, how many of those are likely to be used, lighting, budget and other considerations.  Of course, try to place your webcam(s) to minimize the number needed.  For example, if you can mount one camera to cover both the front entrance and one side entrance, you can kill two birds with one stone.

The fact that a webcam can pan/tilt doesn't necessarily mean you'll need fewer of that camera, because the pan/tilt functionality is generally only useful for live viewing: the camera will only pick up motion in the direction it is pointed and it cannot pan/tilt to "look" for motion in different areas.  At $300 a piece, good security webcams are not cheap, but even buying four of them to cover all sides of a building is often cheaper (and unarguably easier to set up) than dedicated video surveillance systems.

Other considerations

As with any measure, security cameras are only a deterrent.  If the cameras cannot be seen and you don't use "video surveillance" stickers, the webcams will primarily serve to warn you when something is already in progress.  You need to decide whether or not to "announce" that you have video surveillance or not.  As with most things, it's a double edged sword.  If you tell people you have video surveillance, you are warning experienced thieves that the cameras need to be disabled (and everything can be disabled/defeated).  On the other hand, if you don't announce that the cameras are there by making them obvious or using appropriate signage, the cameras are less of a deterrent and more of a "counter measure" to catch someone in the act.  Unfortunately, by the time anything can be done, the crime may already have been committed!

Dedicated video surveillance systems often use 4 or more wired cameras to send data to what amounts to a hard drive video recorder (DVR) inside.  Webcams are more easily defeated than dedicated systems so don't be lulled into a false sense of security and get complacent about setting your alarm, using your deadbolts, and keeping your eyes open.  While webcams are rather easily defeated if you know how, they do send data off site (like to your cell phone) so that you have a record.  Dedicated systems that record to a DVR are prone to theft themselves as the thieves can break in and steal the evidence!  Suffice it to say that there are pros and cons to any type of video surveillance system, but the webcam solution is something that your average consumer can find at Best Buy and set up in an afternoon.  There's a lot to be said for the do-it-yourself solutions because they allow you to set them up for your own needs and tweak them whenever necessary.

Summary

Looking for a way to add entry level video surveillance to your home or business?  Readily available webcams can do the job and are cheaper than most dedicated video surveillance systems.  With the information in this article, I hope to have given you enough information to buy the right product that you can set up yourself.  The applicability of webcams that can send motion alerts via email is quite broad.  You need not use them only to thwart thieves, but also to assist with many other tasks such as keeping an eye on your pets while you are away, pointing the camera at your car parked on the street to catch those vandals, and much more.  For anyone with wireless network/internet capability, the wireless webcam can easily be used for all types of surveillance.  While wireless webcams are generally user friendly and can be used by the average consumer, some knowledge about your own equipment such as your network, router, and your wireless security is a must.  Be prepared to spend some time configuring your webcams in addition to mounting and pointing the cameras.

 

-- Mike Chaney