Make your own DIY surveillance system


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When talking IT and security we often just think of securing the computers, and our valuable personal information. But the digital revolution can help us secure other things as well. It is surprisingly easy to make sure you know what’s happening at home when you are away. Yes, there are fine extensive surveillance systems on the market complete with installation service and all. But you may not be willing to pay big bucks, or you like this kind of DIY-challenge. If that’s the case, read on.

I’m going to describe an easy way to get camera surveillance for just a couple of hundred bucks. You also need to be a little bit computer savvy, but you do definitively not need to be an expert. With this system you can have any number of cameras at home and receive an e-mail when something moves in front of them. With a smartphone you can receive these mail wherever you are.

Ok, let’s first check the requirements for this to work.

  • You must have an Internet connection at home.
  • You must have a wireless network at home.
  • Have you ever used the browser to open the configuration screen of a router or other similar network component? If you have, then you know what kind of work you will be doing here. You can of course also call in a nerdy friend if this sounds scary.

Next select the places to put the cameras:

  • The entrances to your home is naturally critical places if you for example want to catch burglars.
  • Make sure you have the face of visitors towards the cameras. Filming backs is of little use.
  • Avoid filming against the light. All you get is dark silhouettes.
  • Try to get the camera as near the objects as possible. Especially cheap cameras have limited resolution and persons may not be recognizable if they are far away.
  • Avoid moving objects in the picture, like bushes that sway in the wind. (They will trigger the movement detection.)
  • Do not point the camera through a window. It may work in daylight but reflections will ruin the pictures at night.
  • You need to route electricity to the cameras. Note that most power supplies aren’t made for outdoor use even if the camera is, leave them inside and bring the low-voltage outside.
  • Your wireless network need to be strong enough where you place the cameras.
  • It’s OK to use cameras in your own home, but be careful if you plan to place the cameras so that they can see a public place. Check the law in your country if you plan to do this. Also check if you need to post warning signs about the CCTV system.

Now is the right time to select the cameras. Here are the requirements:

  • They must have support for wireless networks (WLAN, WiFi).
  • They must have support for “Motion detection alert via email”, or whatever the vendor has selected to call that feature.
  • Select wide-angle or tele-cameras depending or their location. The wide-angle models tend to be more useful.
  • Select outdoor or indoor cameras depending on their planned location.
  • Prefer models with night vision. They have integrated infrared LEDs and can film in complete darkness.
  • Prefer models with a 12V power supply, rather than 5V, if you need to extend the power cable. The higher voltage is less sensitive to voltage drops.

Foscam FI9801W is an example of a suitable wide-angle outdoor model. Cameras like this may sell for around $200 but there are cheaper models too. Shop around on the net and you will have no problem finding the right model, if your local dealer doesn’t happen to have suitable cameras.

Ok, time for the installation procedure:

  1. Create a mail account at some free mail provider, like Gmail or Microsoft Live (former Hotmail). This account will receive pictures from the camera. Do not use your ordinary mail account as the volume may get quite high.
  2. Configure the camera(s) to work with your wireless network at home. Follow instructions in their manual. Note that the initial setup often need to be done with a network cable connected to the camera. The wireless connection will not work before you have done the initialization.
  3. Install the cameras in their final locations and connect electricity.
  4. Use the browser to log into the camera’s control panel. (Again, see the manual.) Look for the settings controlling “Alarm settings”, “Motion alarm” or “Motion detection”. Here you need to make the following settings:
    1. Select to send mail when motion is detected.
    2. Configure the server address that receives outbound mail. This info is provided by your Internet service provider and may be something like “”. You may also have to specify a port number, try 25 unless the service provider instructs you to use something else.
    3. Configure the e-mail address that alerts are sent to. Use the address that you created in step 1 above. Specify the address that appears as sender in the mails, this can be your own address.
    4. Adjust the sensitivity. This is the threshold that decides how much movement must be detected before a mail is sent. Start somewhere in the middle of the scale. Log in and adjust later if needed, decrease sensitivity if you get false alerts, increase if people can walk by without triggering a mail.
    5. Note that the alert- and e-mail-settings may be located under different headings in the configuration utility. You may also have to turn on motion detection before the e-mail settings become visible, or vice versa.
    6. Check the mail account via webmail or add it to your mail program, like MS Outlook for example. See the instructions provided by the mail provider and the vendor of your mail program. Google is also an excellent source of instructions. Try for example “Gmail Outlook”, or whatever combination you use, and you will find plenty of instructions on-line.
    7. Add the new mail account to your smartphone and you will be able to get alerts immediately wherever you are. See the smartphone’s instructions if needed.

That’s it. Now you should get a mail message with a couple of still pictures every time there is movement in front of one of your cameras. And a nice plus is that the data is transmitted offsite immediately. Cutting the power to your property will naturally neutralize the cameras. But its futile for burglars to look for the video server once they have been captured, their pictures are already in your inbox.

Yes, this requires a little bit of understanding about how network components are configured. If you feel uncertain you can always talk to a tech-savvy friend and ask for help. And remember that this isn’t a full-fledged security system. Valuable properties should have proper security systems rather than hacks of this kind. But even a simple system like this can prove very valuable if something happens. Not to mention that just a visible camera and CCTV-sign can prevent crime.

Safe surfing,

PS. But what if I want to watch live video? That’s easy when at home, but doesn’t provide much value. It is usually possible to make the cameras accessible from other places too. But this is more complicated and depends on how your service provider handles inbound connections. I will not cover that here, but if you call in that nerdy friend to help, you might have a good opportunity to get it set up at the same time.


One of the biggest benefits of a connected home is being able to know what’s going on when you’re not actually there. Whether i am checking in on my kids, pets, or an exotic jewel collection, a home surveillance camera is a great tool for keeping an eye on things from afar.

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