Security Cameras

While remodeling the house I decided to add security cameras to the front.  There are two reasons I wanted to add them.

  1. I wanted the security deterrence.
  2. It’s really entertaining to see all of the activity at my door.
This cat visits my house fairly regularly.

The Cameras

Security cameras come in two flavors, analog cameras and network cameras.  I went with network cameras because I knew I wanted to monitor them digitally.  Analog cameras are cheaper but you need something to convert the image to a digital stream if you want to use software to muck with it.  Figuring that out wasn’t something I wanted to do so I stuck with the network cameras.
In my case, I wanted full coverage of my front entry way and my car port and I only wanted to use two cameras to do it.  As a result, I needed to go with cameras that had a wide angle of view.  In digital cameras you have two options for adjusting your angle of view, picking a wide angle lens and picking a higher resolution camera.  In my case I went with cameras that have 1920×1080 resolution as opposed to the standard 640×480 resolution.  
HD Image – Click for Full Screen
This picture demonstrates how much less you see with a low end IP camera:
640×480 is really small eh?
I tried out two different cameras when selecting, the Y-Cam Bullet HD 1080 and the Vivotek FD8362. The Y-Cam has terrible reviews on Amazon and it was clear to me that they were earned.  I found the camera to be pretty flaky, it wouldn’t keep a steady image stream and didn’t do as well in low light as the Vivotek does (the cat picture at the top is a night shot).  The Vivotek camera is great, it’s a lot more than the Y-Cam but it’s also a commercial grade camera, designed for this use case.  The dome style also meant that I could mount it less obtrusively.  The Vivotek was more money but it was well worth it.
The cameras are hard wired to my network and powered over ethernet.

The Software

I tried two different systems, ZoneMinder on Linux and Blue Iris on Windows.  ZoneMinder is free and seemed more configurable but I couldn’t get it to play as nicely with the cameras and configuring it was more painful and took longer while being less reliable.  For $50, Blue Iris is a steal.  

How well does it work?

Here’s a video of some solicitors coming to my house.  Make sure you set the video quality to 1080 to see the full quality.  The footage was shot in debug mode, so Blue Iris adds the red box where it sees movement.  

The quality of the video was good enough that I was able to play CSI:Seattle.  I zoomed in on the handout in the video:

I enlarged the handout in a photo editor
And I was able to match it to a handout from the Jehova’s Witnesses Website.  The coloring looks right and it’s pretty clear that there is a guy’s head on the left edge of the photo.

A JW flyer, I guess I should put up a “No Solicitors” sign 
The downside is the number of false alarms I get.  I’ve been playing with the settings on Blue Iris, but I still get the occasional false alarm when a cloud passes overhead or when a car drives by at night and the headlights reflect off of one of our cars.

Is this legal?

Funny you should ask, the answer is, it depends…  Also, I’m not a lawyer so this isn’t legal advice.  From what I understand, in Washington state, you are allowed to record public spaces when there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.  This means that the front of your property is ok, and it’s how Google Maps gets away with the street view images.
Google Street View of a random house
What probably wouldn’t be ok is putting a camera on your second floor and pointing it into the second floor of a neighbor’s house.  In my case, I have the cameras setup to capture the front of my house and only trigger when there is movement on my property.

Key Pad Locks

Three years ago when I bought my house I replaced the deadbolt we use every day with a key pad deadbolt.  Why these aren’t standard on homes I don’t understand, they’re better to keys in every way.  Way more convenient than having to have a key on you, my wife appreciates not having to fish the key out of her purse.  It’s much more secure, instead of giving my house cleaner or contractors a key to the house that they can copy, I give them each an individual code that I can change easily.  I’ve also given distinct codes to trusted friends, so that they can get in if we need them to (like when I forgot I had a package coming when I was going on vacation, my friend picked it up and left it in the house).

There are two main competitors in this space: Schlage and Kwikset.

I went with the Schlage lock because I prefer the feature set: It’s a manual turn lock and has a larger key space.  The Kwikset lock has a motorized dead bolt which wouldn’t work with my house as my front door is just a hair off from the frame which means I have to hold the door closed when turning the deadbolt.

Kwikset Lock

The Schlage lock

Because I’m sort of  a paranoid person, I’m a little worried that I’ll miss the “low battery” warning and actually lock us out of the house.  I’ve mitigated this concern by putting an old fashioned key inside a combination locked key safe on the outside of the house.  I use the Masterlock key safe that I installed in a way to make sure it isn’t visible from the street.

Total cost for this upgrade: $120.00.  Well worth the convenience and security.

My home is my castle

A few years ago my house was broken into, thankfully nothing was taken but the would be thieves left the door open.  We’re sure we didn’t leave it open as it’s a door we never used and our neighbors noticed an unfamiliar car in our driveway.

We think Harley, our, thirty-five pound labradoodle scared them off.  He’s normally locked in the basement, and if you can’t see him, his bark can be ferocious.


My wife got home before me and called the police.  They came quickly (under 5 minutes) and swept the house to make sure there wasn’t anyone inside.  When they opened the door to the basement, our ferociously barking guard dog ran the other way, deeper into the basement.  I rescued him from the backyard after he escaped through the dog door.

Make the home harder than the one next to it.

As you can imagine this really upset us and so we looked into what we can do to secure our home.  There’s an old joke: “How do you out run a bear?” A: You don’t, you just have to outrun the guy next to you.  This was our strategy to home safety, we decided to make our house harder to get into than the ones next to us.

 The first thing I did was replace the rear door and the side door (the one that was used to break in) with modern doors that opened outward.

The reason to make the door open outward is because it’s almost impossible to kick a door in if it opens out.  If you are going to make a door open out make sure you use armored pins in the hinges.  With the door opening out, the hinges are now on the outside of the house.  A traditional pin can be pulled out of the door without opening the door.  An armored pin is protected from removal when the door is closed.

We also replaced all of the screws connecting the door frame to the house with 3″ (or longer) screws that connected the door frame to the studs in the walls next to the door.  In standard construction, the door is connected to the door frame, and the door frame is attached to the house.  If you’re not careful, the door frame won’t be tightly connected to the studs, if that’s the case then a bad guy with a crowbar can pry the door frame away from the house.

This cost us about $2,500.  Two custom wooden doors plus labor to install them.

Second thing I did was put the front porch light on an astronomical timer.  These are marevelous devices that take your latitude and longitude into account and calculate sundown and sunrise every day.  I programmed mine to turn on 20 minutes before sunset and turn off 20 minutes after sunrise.  This switch combined with an energy efficient bulb means my front and side door are well illuminated at night.

Here’s the switch I have: Honeywell Econoswitch.  Under $40, easy to justify.

Third thing I did was make sure all street visible windows are covered with blinds.  Price here varies, but a temporary shade is as little as $10.00.

Fourthly, we put some lights on timers so that the house looks occupied.  I like this one because it allows you to set a random jitter.  This will prevent the light from turning on and turning off at the exact same time every night.

Fifthly, I added a motion sensing light to the back yard, it’s a three bulb 300 watt beast that makes the entire back yard glow if the motion sensor is triggered.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the dogs.  Our dogs may be small and adorable, but if you can’t see them, they sound fierce.  I don’t know that security is the best reason to get a dog, but it is a nice benefit to having one (or two).

What else are we thinking about doing?
We’re looking at doing two more things, I want to add two more motion sensor lights, one to each side of the house as the sides are a little darker than I’d like.

We’re also going to investigate adding security film to our windows, the film is amazing in video, and should keep a bad guy from breaking a window to get in.

The video is really amazing and speaks for itself:

A burglar won’t want to do that for very long, it’s a very loud and very distinctive sound.

What about an alarm?
We briefly thought about an alarm but decided against it for a few reasons:

  1. The police officer who responded said that the average burglar is in a home for about 8 minutes.  I doubt the response time from alarm going off to police on site will be under 8 minutes.
  2. There isn’t a good solution for false alarms, and with two dogs, false alarms could be a real problem.  In Seattle, you pay $115 per false alarm.
  3. They’re expensive, and reactionary.  If the alarm has gone off, the bad guy is already inside.  
  4. I don’t actually believe they prevent burglaries, no data on this, I just don’t buy it.