Installing DIY Home Security Cameras

A few weeks ago, we talked about one of our most frequently used technology projects in our house, the video distribution system. We actively use that on a daily basis. However, we also have another fun DIY home technology project that runs in the background everyday, and that is our DIY home security system.


Installing DIY Home Security Cameras

Our home security system is linked with our home automation system (more on that in a future post!), but anyone can set up their own DIY security system in their house. Now, of course, there are some downsides. 1) A DIY home security system won’t be linked to any company that will notify the police if your home security system is triggered. But, it is significantly less expensive, and, 2) based on the inputs from some folks who have security systems installed by large companies, we’ve never had any sort of false alarm.

I won’t go into the details of all our security system elements for obvious reasons, but here are a few of my favorite parts:

1) We receive an e-mail any time any door or window in our house opens or closes.

2) We have video cameras installed throughout the house, which we can view at any time on a computer or on our iPhones. (we like TrendNet cameras and we use the LiveCams Pro iPhone app to remotely view our cameras

3) The ability to remotely control our home door locks and lighting (this is more on the home automation side though).

This can be an easy project for beginners, but can also be uber customized for technologically-advanced folks (like my husband).

Here are some of the basics:

  • You can choose a fixed camera, which means that you can only view it from one angle, or a pan-tilt camera, which means that you can remotely move the camera up and down and left to right to get different perspectives in the room. This is great for large rooms where you only want one camera. Pan-tilt cameras are slightly more expensive than fixed, so you should weigh the costs and benefits of what you want. Plus, if you install a pan-tilt camera in a room that you can’t see with just one camera, then you’ll always have some area that is not covered by the camera. And since you can buy two fixed cameras When you install your cameras, you may want to consider hiding the wires in the wall, so you don’t have an ugly power cord strung in the corner of your room with the camera. But that is entirely optional.  We’ll explain how to do that in a future post too.
  • E-mail notifications when something occurs in your home. This can anything from doors and windows opening, motion sensing (which may not be all that useful if, for instance, you have pets), or a light gets turned on. This is pretty basic and requires things like door sensors and a controller. We’ll talk more about this in posts about our home automation system.

As we talk more about installing your own home DIY security cameras, we’ll also talk about an even simpler option that we used to use when we lived in an apartment and just wanted to keep an eye on things when we were away on vacation. For that one, all you need is a computer (that you’re willing to leave turned on the entire time you’re away) and just a simple webcam.

Have you worked on any DIY home security system projects? What equipment did you use?

Backing up our Data

We have a strange addiction in our home. Not anything that would qualify us for the TV show or anything, but the other day, after UPS delivered a package to our front door, Ken said, “Yay! Hard drives!”

This is a phrase that is spoken often in our house. “Yay, Hard drives.” When we got married several years ago and I asked Ken what he wanted to add to our gift registries, he said, “Hard drives??” I said no, and later we settled on power tools and seasons of True Blood and Dexter being added to our registry.

Why this strange obsession with hard drives?

Well, we are pretty much obsessed with backing up our data. OBSESSED. But we also need the space for primary storage.

Why, normal people may ask, do we need that much storage space? Well, the first reason is that we have lots of digital-based hobbies and projects. We both share the hobby of photography (even long before we met each other), so that means we take lots of photos. After a week-long vacation, we can easily return with a combined 100+ gigabytes of photographs. Since I’ve been scanning in family photos for the last 4 years or so, storing those newly digitized photographs (which I scanned at a very high resolution), now take up nearly 400 gigabytes of hard drive space. Ken has digitized probably hundreds of old home movie films from his childhood. Since video files are HUGE, he has several terabytes of movie files that are just from his childhood! Ken also has an HD video camera, and after a vacation or big family event that we record, we can have about 20 GB or so of video footage.** I also recently digitized family video footage from Hi–8 and Mini-DV tapes that takes more than 1 Terabyte of space.

Green floppy disk

So I think it’s pretty obvious that our projects require us to have lots of hard drive space! But, we are also compulsive about our backups. Before I met Ken back in 2007, I used to think I did a pretty good job of backing up all my files. Every six months or so, I would back up all my computer files (including pictures and music) to CDs, label them, and tuck them away in jewel cases in a desk drawer.

Then I learned what Ken did for computer backups. Our current system is mostly modeled on what he has been doing for years.

1) We use Chronosync to backup our files on our individual computers to individual hard drives we store externally in a dock.*** Chronosync runs daily on each of our machines. I used to use Time Machine, the Mac built-in system, and I was always pleased with it. However, I switched to Chronosync after hearing Ken sing the praises that Chronosync allowed for much more customization in what you back up. But, Time Machine (since it’s free), will work great for most folks!

2) Once a month, we take the external hard drives that contain our Chronosync backups to our safe deposit box at our local bank. While we are at the safe deposit box, we take home the hard drives we dropped off their the previous month. In other words, we actually have two sets of backups. One we call Set “A,” The other one Set “B.” That way we always have one set of backups in the safe deposit box. The reason we like storing our hard drives in a safe deposit box is in case we ever have a house fire (which Ken has experienced in one of his old apartments), or if our house is ever broken into and thieves steal our computers and external hard drives. This may seem like overkill, but several of our projects, like photo scanning and film digitizing, took years (YEARS!) to complete, so we’d hate to see that wiped out by some hard drive crash or thief.

3) I also backup some of my critical files to Carbonite. I don’t backup any video files to Carbonite, but I do back up all of my photographs, including my scans, and documents. Ken and I used to use Mozy, but they jacked up their prices about three years ago, and since we had so many gigabytes of storage, we weren’t willing to pay their new high fees. Ken gave up on the online backups altogether after Mozy’s price increase, but I switched to using Carbonite, which works for what I want it to do. My primary complaint is that their upload speed begins to throttle after you upload X gigabytes of data (I think it was 100), and so now it can take me nearly a month for photos from a recent trip to upload completely. But, I consider Carbonite to be reasonably priced, so I continue to pay for the service. I hope that Amazon Cloud or Google storage comes down in price soon and I can switch to those. The reason I choose to do an online backup in addition to storing hard drives in a safe deposit box is in case of catastrophic-type incident. We live less than a mile from the bank that we store our hard drives at. If our area was ever hit by a tornado or other disaster, it is likely that both the bank and our home could be destroyed. Wow, I’m paranoid! Yeesh!

4) Once we have a hard drive that contains information we probably won’t be updating very often (like files and documents that are older than 10 years ago, or sets of videos that we have digitized), we will back those up to a separate external hard drive (different than our A and B Chronosync backup drives) and just drop those off at the safe deposit box. Since the files don’t change on the drive that we keep at home, there’s no need to constantly be running Chronosync on it. Chronosync is great, however, for your day-to-day files that you update and access regularly.

I am always so sad when I hear friends mention that their hard drive crashed and that they lost years worth of photos of their children or of fun vacations. It is so easy to backup your data. If you use something like Chronosync or Time Machine, all you have to do is set it up once, and it will automatically backup everything for you according to the time schedule you set (daily, weekly, etc.)

How do you backup your data. Don’t say that you don’t, or I’ll be so sad!

**Strangely enough, our HD video files these days are much smaller than older files that we have digitized. Modern technology does a much better job of compressing the files to a more reasonable size without sacrificing quality.

*** These days, we typically buy hard drives in the 1–3 Terabyte range. For folks with less data, you can obviously get a smaller and cheaper hard drive, maybe in the 500–750 GB range. (Like this)

Scanning in Old Family Photos

Starting in 2008, I began scanning old family photos.  I have scanned approximately 11,000 photos and attempted to organize them both digitally, as well organize the physical photos.

Our old family photo organization was an absolute mess.  Some photos are in albums, some are loose in drawers.  The ones that are in albums are sometimes in no particular order.  There are photos from my first birthday are right next to the photos from my sixth birthday.  We never had much money growing up, so it looks like my parents just bought whatever the cheapest camera was when an old one broke.  The physical quality of the photos vary greatly, from photos that look barely faded, to photos that are almost unrecognizable and were so fuzzy.  A lot of photos are in those horrific sticky page albums, and it’s easy to rip the photos if you want to take them out to scan them.

So, I’ve been scanning in and organizing these photos.  Over the years, I’ve made changes to my workflow to help with the scanning process.  These are some of the things that I use:

  • Photo enevelopes

  • Photo boxes

  • Negative sleeves

  • Canon 8800F scanner (I think this is now an old model)

  • Nikon negative scanner

  • Image Capture (a Mac program used for, among other things, scanning.  VueScan is another good option)

  • Adobe Photoshop (optional, but will help speed up some parts of the scanning and organizing process)

  • Adobe Lightroom to organize the photos (other programs will work for this too, like iPhoto, Picasa, Aperture, etc.)

So, I’ll walk you through the lessons I’ve learned scanning in old family photos and offer up a lot of the tips and tricks so that you can do the same!

Over the next few posts about photo scanning, I’ll walk you through the step-by-step tutorial of what worked for me, and some important lessons I learned along the way.


Gathering and Organizing Photos for Scanning

Although this guidance has nothing really to do with with any actual scanning, it is an important first step, especially if part of your goal is to also organize the physical copies of your photos.

This guidance works under the assumption that, like my family, you have a mix of photos in albums and some loose photos in drawers (or all loose photos).  It also works under the assumption that the many (or all) of your photos are not organized well or labeled with the event and year.

So, if your family maintained perfectly organized photos in photo albums or boxes all neatly labeled and arranged by year (ahem, my husband’s family), then you can probably skip this post and wait for the next one.

Take an evening to yourself and do some very quick organizing.  You’re going to organize your photos just enough to get them ready for the next steps.

Dump.  Take one drawer full of photos and dump it in the middle of a clean floor with ample space around you.  Take a deep breath, put on some upbeat tunes, and have a pen, marker, envelopes, and photo baggies, all within reach.

Triage.  I call this step triage instead of sort or organize because your assessment of the photos has to be quick.  Don’t worry about chronology at this point, we are only “sorting” by general subject.  Trying to sort chronologically at this point will drive you crazy.  When I triage a drawer, I have several piles, including:

  • Weddings and wedding showers.  Just put all wedding photos in one pile, even if they’re from different weddings.  You’ll sort it more thoroughly later.  Remember triage should be quick to prevent it from being too overwhelming.

  • Christmases and New Years.

  • Birthdays.  Again, anyone’s birthday from any year all goes in the same pile.

  • Family get-togethers and reunions.

  • School events.  Plays, talent shows, etc.

  • Religious events.  Baptisms, communions, etc.

  • Vacations and trips.

  • Professional photos.  Old school picture day photos (whether yours or friends’ photos that you exchanged), pictures taken at photo studios, etc.

  • General baby and kid photos.

  • Holidays other than Christmas.  Halloween, Easter, 4th of July, etc.

  • Miscellaneous major events.  First day of kindergarten, high school graduation, etc.

  • Old black and white photos.  These are usually of people that I don’t know, so I can just take that pile and show it to my parents or grandparents to see if they can identify the people

  • Garbage pile.  Photos that are too dark or blurry to see what they are.

  • Unknown places and people.  Put pictures in here of people that you don’t know or pictures where you can’t tell where they were taken.  Typically asking around in your family can reveal some clues.

  • Negatives

Label and Put Away.  Now it’s time for a break.  But before you can do that, we’re going to put your triage piles in envelopes (for smaller piles) and large baggies (for bigger piles).  Put the photos into an envelope or bag, and label the outside of the bag or envelope with the pile’s name/category.  Congratulations.  Your photos are considerably more organized at this point!

Repeat the Dump, Triage, Stack steps until all your drawers of photos are in an appropriate triage pile.

Why is this process so important? Can’t I just scan them in and sort them into files later?  Ummm, sure. But, in my experience, this is not optimal. When I started scanning old photos, I followed this process.  It made the photos infinitely easier to sort into more detailed folders once they were on the computer.  (For instance, I just had to find the “Weddings” group and then I could sort it into “Mary and Joe’s Wedding” and then “Mark and Michelle’s Wedding.”)  About two years ago, my mom found a HUGE box of photos in the garage that were a disorganized mess.  I did not sort these photos according to this process.  Instead, I just scanned them willy nilly.  Ugh, organizing them digitally now has been a time consuming nightmare. Finding and sorting photos by thumbnail is a lot more annoying than sorting a physical 4×6” photo. So, I definitely recommend this process (or something similar), but if you’d prefer to skip it, go ahead.

If you have photos in albums, keep them in there, at least for now.  There were several albums that, as I scanned in the photos, I determined that it would actually be detrimental to keep them in the albums.  Those albums included many sticky page albums and albums that were yellowed or otherwise discolored and were affecting photo quality. Other albums that were in good shape I

Has anyone else organized drawers full of old photos?  What are some of your tips?

Our Video Distribution System, Part 1 (An Overview)

In our house, we always seem to have several projects going on at once. And even once a project is “done,” we still always seem to be tweaking things. Some projects are more useful than others, but one of the most frequently used technology projects in our house is our video distribution system.

To hear Ken talk about it, having a video distribution system is the sole reason he bought a house almost five years ago. Because he couldn’t set up a video distribution system in a rented apartment. Seriously.

Within a few weeks of moving in, I remember I was napping on the sofa (hey, unpacking is hard work!), and I was woken up to Ken practically skipping with excitement throughout the house and waking me up to show me the fruits of his labor (and the fruits of dozens of packages arriving at our door) from the previous weeks.

It looked like this.



Meh, you may say. In fact, “Meh” is kind of what I was thinking in my half-asleep state. But Ken’s enthusiasm for his project was contagious!

So, what the heck is a video distribution system? Well, let’s start with what it’s NOT. It is not synonymous with home theater. However, it can be how your home theater system operates.

Let’s take a look at what a video distribution system allows you to do.



Notice anything about these photos? (Besides the wood paneling in the basement?)  NO components! No cable box, no DVD player, no TiVo, no Play Station, no Wii. Does that mean that we watch basic cable or whatever you can watch without a cable box or DVD player? Nope!

All of our components are in one closet in our house. We affectionately refer to it as the server room. Although that may be a bit of a misnomer. It’s more like a command center.

All of our components are located in the server room, and are wired to each television in the house. This allows multiple TV’s in the house to simultaneously watch, for instance, a DVD on the DVD player or Blu-Ray on the Play Station 3.

How do you make your own video distribution system?  For the non-technologically oriented (like me!) the following sentences may sound a bit scary. But not to worry. I have Ken explain everything to me, and once I know that I can understand it, I know others can understand it and build it themselves in their own homes.

Before you begin you have to figure out or decide if you even want a system like this, depending on your setup it might be overkill or not even doable. For starters if you only have one TV you probably don’t need to do this. The whole point is to allow you to use the same components on multiple TVs. If you only have one TV this it probably makes the most sense to just keep all your components near to that TV. Also if you are going to this trouble it would make sense that you have modern equipment, by that I mean HD TVs with HDMI input, and components with HDMI output. You can get away with a couple of exceptions (the Wii, for example does not have HDMI) but the majority of your devices should have HDMI.

And, once you get the basics down (which we’ll explain to you over the course of several posts), you’ll realize that even a technology beginner can build this in their homes.

Our Arcade

So, we have an arcade in our house. I feel it necessary to mention this because anyone who comes over to our house, even people like contractors, always comment on how amazing it is.

Our Arcade at Home


In late 2009, about six months after we moved into this house, Ken and I were finally getting around to planning a housewarming / end-of-summer party. It would be the first big get-together we’d have at our house. About three weeks before the party, Ken says: “I want to build an arcade for the house and have it ready by the party.”

This is a relatively normal conversation for us. My first question was “How much will it cost?” The second question was, “How much space will it take up in the basement?”

Both of Ken’s answers were reasonable, and to be honest, I was pretty excited at the prospect of having an arcade in our basement! So, like most projects in our house, packages started arriving at our door a few days later.

Building your Own Arcade

So, what is involved in building your own arcade?

There are six main parts:

  1. Arcade Cabinet – this is the housing of the arcade and what makes it look like more than just a computer playing old games.
  2. Arcade Controls – This is also key, using professional grade buttons makes it feel and play authentic.
  3. Video & Sound
  4. Computer Hardware – You can use an old desktop computer your have laying around.
  5. Computer Software
  6. Accessories & Enhancements

You don’t have to complete any of these steps in this specific order. For instance, you can get your computer set up and software ready to go while you are still building the cabinet. Also if you plan on using a CRT TV (a big tube TV) as your video display (more on that later), you should keep an eye on Craigslist because you likely won’t be able to buy a new CRT TV.

Arcade Cabinet

First, you’ll need to figure out how you want to house your arcade. You basically have three options:

  1. Build the cabinet yourself. This is an option and you’re a handy person, you may want to build your entire arcade cabinet from scratch. If you have the tools, desire, and talent that can be a fun way to go. Building it yourself ensures that you get the look and features that you want. You can also get existing blueprints and information online to help get you started [find links].
  2. Retrofit an existing cabinet. If you aren’t handy enough to do it yourself with saws and routers (which includes us), then another way to get a cabinet for your arcade is to retrofit an old cabinet. If you can get your hands on a broken arcade machine retrofitting a cabinet can look awesome. Be aware in the arcade modding enthusiast community (this is a real thing!) it’s considered bad form to modify a working arcade machine into using a computer like the arcade you’re going to build for your house. Although if you do have a working one and you want to play other games on it it would probably be more economical to sell that one than to destroy it. Also, depending on the shape of the existing cabinet, you might need to do some sanding and painting.
  3. Assemble a new kit. Finally if you can’t find a used cabinet or you just want something new, pre-made kits are a great way to go. They ship in flat packs and go together just like Ikea furniture. The company we used is called North Coast Customs and they have many different styles to choose from.

If you are building it yourself or buying a kit, the next step is you have to decide what style cabinet do you want. This depends on what you are looking for aesthetically as well as how much space you have. There are many variations but these are the main categories:

  • Upright – If you’re a child of the 70s, 80s, or even 90s, this is what you think of as an arcade machine
  • Bartop – Think of this as an Upright with the bottom cut off. You can set it on a desk or table without taking as much room. Although this takes a little bit extra planning because you don’t have as much room for all the hardware.
  • Cocktail – These were popular in the 70s. This is a good compromise if you don’t have much space because it can be used as a table when not in use.
  • Showcase – This splits up the display and control areas. If you want to use your huge 100 inch TV as our arcade display this is the way to go. Although least authentic this can be really fun.

In our next posts about the arcade, we’ll talk more about assembling our arcade and figuring out the software and hardware.