In 2001, I got my first real-world experience with installing security equipment. It was an all-in-one gizmo that was supposed to provide some kind of alarm and video from a couple of cameras. The customer bought it off the shelf from a wholesaler. It was such a giant piece of junk that pieces started to fail as we installed them. That experience led us to avoid security for nearly 10 years.
Video security has not always been a major part of Gigastrand but we have seen how small companies and box stores are able to sell cheap, prepackaged CCTV systems at ridiculous markups. For us, that has never sat well.
Folks aren’t video security experts, however, and are not likely to become so just to purchase a system.
So, what do you look for and what do you avoid? We have compiled a list of some of the pitfalls customers have faced with other systems.
Look out for narrow lenses
This piece of advice only applies to the actual “eye” of the system: the camera. Regardless of the type of video system you are trying to install, as any photographer will tell you, the lenses are the most important part of any camera.
Most camera lenses are measured by focal length in millimeters (mm). The higher the number, the more “zoom” the lens has. This might sound good, but on a video security system you want as wide of a shot as you can get to get the most out of each camera.
Cameras with varifocal lenses (lenses that can zoom in and out) from 2.8 – 12mm are the best, but most low cost cameras come with a fixed focus lens. These are also less expensive – which is ok if you know what to look for.
For nearly all applications, you want a focal length of 3.6 or below. This will give you 80 – 90 degrees of view. Avoid lenses that have a fixed focus of 4mm or more, unless you want to shoot down a long hallway or over a field as they excel at a distant, level view.
Why is this so important? A 2.8mm lens can cover 2x the area of a 6mm lens in the types of shots customers want to see. This means a 2.8mm camera will be more valuable in an install and you could potentially use fewer cameras.
Can’t find the focal length? Avoid the camera and any system it comes with.
This applies mainly to analog CCTV systems. Off-the-shelf systems will very often come with a very thin coaxial (coax) and power wire in one. This wire is complete garbage. It breaks easily and when it does break, it can’t be repaired. Customers have often thrown away cameras because they think it is the problem. Professional installers use a thick version of this wire that doesn’t lend itself to breakage and can be repaired easily.
One way to tell what kind of wire is packaged with the system is the size and weight of the box. If the box is fairly small and light (or even the same general size and weight as all the rest of the systems on the shelf) it probably has this thin wire.
So, pretty much just leave the box store stuff alone and avoid installers trying to sell you stuff that kind of looks like it. On average, things start to fail on those small boxes after only a year. You might be lucky to get 3 years of use on an appliance type system.
Appliance (often called embedded or standalone) systems can’t be upgraded, and the software to view them is usually of poor quality or won’t keep up with your technology. In some cases, you never even know they have failed until it is too late. They continue to run despite a failed hard drive.
This tale starts with a story. A few years back traditional analog solutions started to be left behind in favor of IP/network systems. Companies who were used to selling and installing analog systems struggled with the network technology required to run the new, megapixel cameras.
So, the industry responded with something called High Definition Composite Video Interface (HDCVI). High resolution cameras that work over that work over existing analog lines.
Up until this point, this has been a critique of the technology itself. HDCVI is a fine technology that delivers what is says it does. However, it is a stop-gap technology and not an industry standard like analog or network based systems. If you need the resolution, go with a network video security solution like the Gigastrand NVR. If not, stick with standard analog and upgrade the DVR. It will often be less expensive and the right DVR will improve the look of your cameras.
Recommendations for HDCVI
While we do not strongly recommend it, if you do decide to go with this type of system, make sure that it is backwards-compatible with existing analog technology so you don’t spend a ton on replacing perfectly working equipment. This is often referred to as bi-mode or tri-mode. If you can, get a system that will also do a couple of IP cameras as well (tri-mode systems will often have this capability).