Monday, September 21, 2015

Dropcam Pro Installation

Dropcam Pro - For many years I have been trying to convince my neighbors and fellow homeowner association members that we need a community surveillance system. We didn't have enough funds in our reserves to fund my first attempt in 2008, it would have required an assessment, plus it didn't go over well at the annual HOA meeting.  My beautifully orchestrated PowerPoint presentation was a flop.  I licked my wounds and went on with life.  Fortunately my motivation for wanting a neighborhood surveillance system felt less urgent after a local hoodlum was caught and incarcerated. Coincidence or not the mini-crime spree that occurred in my neighborhood shortly after my wife and I moved in stopped at that time.  We hadn't experienced any incidents of crime at our own home but I was concerned for wife and neighbors and a surveillance system seemed like a good deterrent to me.  My wife would say "that's just gonna help you find out who killed me".  I suppose she's right.

The three quotes I solicited for professionally installed surveillance camera systems including tag cameras ranged from $7,000 to over $25,000.  That was in 2008.  I live in a small community of only 55 homeowners making my proposal was really a non-starter.  Technology has gotten cheaper every year since then to a point where now in 2015 it seemed affordable.

I read about a few other camera systems and wrote about one option in my blog Lake Spivey Webcam.  I eventually decided to purchase a Dropcam Pro for the Lake Spivey Civic Association in the Spring of 2014.  I wrote about that initial experience here.  I wanted to install the camera overlooking the lake near my house.  The kindness of a friend whose home overlooks the lake allowed me to do just that.  I connected the Dropcam to her Wi-Fi network which has ensured relatively uninterrupted viewing for almost 18 months.  The Lake Spivey live webcam can be viewed here.

That experience led me to purchase a second Dropcam Pro camera for the civic association.  I haven't used the second camera except on one special occasion.  I installed it to provide live streaming video of a Swim Across America charity swimming event at the lake last spring.  I thought it would be pretty cool for people not at the event to be able to view the swimmers on live streaming video.  After the event was over the camera went back into the box.  Both of the cameras that I purchased for the civic association are on the same Dropcam/Nest cloud recording account.

The ease of installation and flexibility to allow multiple cameras, each on different networks, was appealing.  I purchased a third Dropcam.  This camera was for myself.  At this point I decided to approach my HOA board with a new proposal.  I proposed that the HOA should install several Dropcams in the neighborhood.  Each camera would be installed at a different home and through the use of different networks we could provide some degree of video surveillance security at minimal cost.  The board approved my plan although they basically did very little.  The cost for each camera through is about $200 would be incurred by anyone volunteering to host a camera.  The cost for cloud recording is about $100 for the first camera and $50 for each additional camera.  The board approved a $50 expenditure for the difference in cost between the first camera recording and the other cameras.  Each resident who volunteered to host a camera also had to volunteer the use of their Wi-Fi network, electricity and and additional equipment, i.e. Wi-Fi extender.  Each volunteer would also pay for their respective cameras cloud recording.

I created a new Gmail account specifically to sign-up for the new Dropcam/Nest account.  With four neighborhood volunteers and myself, I was able to install five cameras throughout the neighborhood, each camera at a different location and on a different Wi-Fi network.

Of course someone has to know and enter the Wi-Fi Service Set Identifier (SSID) and password for each network.  In every case I sat down in my neighbor's home with their new Dropcam connected to my laptop and they allowed me to enter their password.  I could have just as easily used their computer and turned my head as they entered the password because during setup is the only time it's needed.  Once the camera is set up it automatically connects to the network when power is applied.  In turn, for the use of my neighbor's Wi-Fi access I gave them my Dropcam/Nest account login and password information.  That way they can each change the setting on the camera, notifications, and monitor the video, should they choose to do so.

Camera locations in my neighborhood
All the cameras are set up for "public" viewing and are embedded on a secure password protected page on the neighborhood website.

The Nest Homepage
Camera 2 Daytime image
Camera 5 Daytime image
The night time images are less impressive but much of that has to do with the installation method for each camera.  If the camera is located inside a home and placed against a window for example, the night-vision lights (and any inside light) reflects off  the glass, especially if the windows are thermal pane (two sheets of glass separated by a gas filled space) .

Camera 5 night-time image without night-vision enabled
Camera 5 night-time image with night-vision enabled
The camera must be right up against the glass if placed in a window.  If the camera is 1/2" away from the glass the reflection at night from either indoor lighting or the camera's night-vision itself will render the camera useless.

The pros of the system are obviously the previous Dropcan App and now the Nest mobile App.  It's so cool to be out of town and check the camera(s) for the weather on your phone.  The cloud recording and motion detection are also nice.  The notifications feature works well.  However, when five cameras are connected to one account the number of notifications gets overwhelming.  Each car, truck, bird, and sometimes shadows create a notification.  Additionally, they create a tab on the recording history which makes searching for events easy.

A screenshot of the Nest App Home screen

A screenshot of the Nest App Camera Screen
The cons of the system are that, for the Dropcam Pro which records in 720 resolution, the resolution isn't as sharp as I'd like, nor is the night-vision and the camera's ability to record vehicle tags.  In fact, the camera would likely only capture a vehicle's tag if that vehicle were stopped, or park, right in front of the camera.  Part of the reason is that the cameras have a wide 130% field of view.

I installed my camera inside a birdhouse that I purchased at my local home improvement store for under $16.00.  I had to wallow out the opening to accommodate the camera and install screws and washers to hold the camera securely to the opening.  I spray painted the opening flat black to reduce reflections at night before installing the camera.  The cable is coiled up securely inside the spacious birdhouse.  I purchased a outdoor case for the camera but never used it.  I was surprised that the case had no seal at the cable access hole.  The ants will love that!  There is a Dropcam Birdhouse case available on that already has the a larger opening.  I can't speak to it's construction or weatherproofing abilities since I went a slightly different route.  I will say that wallowing out the hole in my birdhouse where a small hole already existed was a pain.

Dropcam in a birdhouse
Inside the birdhouse
Spiders love to string their webs in front of the cameras which wreaks havoc on the motion detection.  A spider the size of a pinhead looks like a monster on the camera.

Three of my installations required the addition a Wi-Fi extender.  I installed my network router in my basement, which incidentally I love.  It's the Linksys WRT AC1900 Dual-Band+ Wi-Fi Wireless Router.  It's sooo much better than the piece of junk AT&T modem/router installed for me as part of their U-Verse package a few years ago.  I wrote about the installation of my new router in a blog entitled Goodbye U-Verse.

Basement Internet Modem and Router
I purchased the Netgear N300 Wi-Fi Range Extender because they were inexpensive and easy to install, not everyone of my neighborhood volunteers had Wi-Fi range for the best camera placement.

Netgear N300 Wi-Fi Range extender installed
How does the Dropcam Pro 720p camera compare to the newer Nest Cam camera which has a resolution of 1080p?  I can't answer that question.  Online reviews seems to be mediocre.  I think though that the complains are with the Nest introduced App and PC changes as compared to the Dropcam interfaces people were used to.

Along with the Dropcam system, I finally convinced my neighbors and the HOA to install a surveillance system with real vehicle license tag cameras.  The 2015 installation price for that system for $3,000 per entrance.  My neighborhood has two entrances so that's $6,000 in total.  That price doesn't include the electrical work we needed completed before hand.  That was another $1,000.

Now we have tag cameras and a network of Dropcam's.  The neighborhood is as safe as Fort Knox.

For an added measure of safety a few neighbors have surveillance systems at their homes.  These were installed before we had any video surveillance at all in place.  Coincidentally, a neighbor contacted me this week about his home surveillance system.  He wanted me to get the word out to our neighbors regarding an experience he had.  I'm like the communications guy for the neighborhood.   This neighbor has a professional weed and feed lawn service.  The other day he was home and saw that there was a flag in the front yard and a note on the gate to the backyard indicating service had been provided.  The flag indicated that the lawn had been serviced with fertilizer or weed pre-emergent.  The note stated that the gate to the backyard was locked and the service technician was unable to treat the backyard.  The homeowner was inside the house at the time but the technician didn't knock on the door to request access.  The homeowner saw that the technician had moved to service a lawn across the street.  After reading the note the homeowner approached the technician and said he would unlock the gate and asked him to treat his backyard which he did.  He also treated the front yard at that time.  After reviewing his surveillance system he found that the technician had initially done no work at the home other than placing the flag and note.  Thinking that the homeowner wasn't home he hadn't even treated the front yard before moving on to the next customer.  

One might think all these cameras are overkill or that I (or we) are paranoid.  I would counter that I'm a realist.  I watch the news.  I know what can happen.  I live in a very nice neighborhood in a pocket of south Atlanta where many would be considered affluent.  We have nice homes so it would only be natural to surmise that we have nice stuff.  I want to ensure that my stuff stays where it is and my family is safe.  A surveillance system seems like the best option for me to do that.

The reason for this blog is that maybe some residents in neighboring communities will read it and install systems of their own.  Ultimately I'd like to see a network of cameras in the neighborhoods around Lake Spivey.

Thanks for reading.