Watching Mr. Ed


Being a computer guy I try to keep up with modern gadgets but I had no experience with surveillance cameras–excluding appearing in any video footage submitted as evidence in any court case for an alleged crime. We had been having trouble with the toilet paper being switched around from unrolling off the front to unrolling off the back. Apparently someone was breaking in at night and switching it around. This was a perfect opportunity to try out a new surveillance camera by mounting it near the bathroom ceiling focused on the toilet paper and catch the culprit in the act. When I shared my brainstorm with my ever-loving wife, “Prissy” (not her real name), she was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped.

Fortunately, but sadly, another opportunity arose.

Our neighbors, Nick and Gilda, have a little horse farm and when Gilda found an oily substance in the water bucket and around a horse’s mouth and some horses in the adjacent farm died under suspicious circumstances they decided it would be a good idea to install a surveillance camera to keep an eye on the stalls and watch for any miscreants. I jumped at the opportunity.

IMG_20150117_120616988Since the horse farm was a few miles away from their house, they needed a camera they could view remotely over the web. I chose the Foscam FI9821W v2.1 for its reasonable price and combination of features. That has proven to be a nightmare. More about that later.

Foscam FI9821W V2.1
Foscam FI9821W V2.1

This kind of camera is called an IP (for Internet Protocol), which means that it can be connected to the router directly using an Ethernet cable or by wireless. You don’t have to have it connected to a PC for viewing the video. You do, however, have to connect it to a PC temporarily to configure it, e.g. to set the wireless network password.

After you connect the camera to the local network you can use a web browser from anywhere in the world to watch the real-time video feed.

Outdoor antenna booster
Outdoor antenna booster

On the horse farm the wireless router was in a house about 100′ away from the barn so the signal was too weak with the little antenna that comes with the camera. So I bought a TP-LINK TL-ANT2414A 2.4GHz 14dBi Outdoor Directional Antenna for about $50 to boost the signal. At 10″ by 10″ it is about the size of a big book.

The barn wall faced north but the router in the house was northwest so I built an angled bracket to mount the antenna to the outside wall of the barn. I bent a metal strap with holes into a triangle and bolted the sides together to make the correct angle. (Click through slideshow to see the process.)

  • Drill holes in strap for bolts as needed

The bracket and the antenna worked like a charm. In some situations you would need to put a directional antenna on both ends, which in this case would have meant putting one on the house too, but that wasn’t necessary this time. I highly recommend the TP-LINK antenna.

Camera mounted upside down with power cord and antenna cable connected
Camera mounted upside down with power cord and antenna cable connected

I mounted the camera upside down so that it wasn’t pointed into the rafters. The software has a button to automatically flip the image right-side up. This camera can pan and tilt by clicking on buttons in the browser.

Camera with antenna in background
Camera with antenna in background

Gilda is excited to be able to watch the horses on the HorseCam any time night or day. (At night some infrared LEDs come on that let the camera see in the dark.)

Up until now this was a 3-hammer project. Maybe even a 2-hammer. But the software is maddening.

I tried to configure the motion detection feature, which is supposed to take a series of snapshots or a video when the camera detects motion. The software is all backward. There is a calendar for setting which days and times to detect motion. When you enable it the default is never, which not only is counter-intuitive but there is no indication of that. The only thing that happens is … nothing. It never detects motion or creates the snapshots. OK, so after you figure that one out you still don’t get any snapshots. Why? Because you have to mark which areas of the picture to watch for motion. The default, as you might guess by now, is no areas. When you click on the picture it makes a red X on that little square area. Does the red X mean to pay attention to that area or does it mean to ignore the area? I thought it meant to mask it out and ignore it. Silly me.

Masking the motion detection area
Masking the motion detection area

I masked out the swinging sign and the spinning ceiling fans but it is difficult to mask out the horses without masking the doors to the stalls where a person might be messing around.

(Theoretically) the camera can store the snapshots in either of two places: the little SD card plugged into the back of the camera or an ftp site. For security you would want to send the pictures to an ftp site because if you store the pictures in the SD card and the scumbag you’re trying to catch steals the camera, he also has all of the pictures.

It is not difficult to set up your PC as an ftp site. In addition to installing the ftp software you need to get a (free) domain name, e.g., that you plug into your router so that the camera can find you across the Internet. What is rocket surgery, however, is getting the Foscam software to work with ftp.

You can click the button for testing the ftp connection and it will report success. But when motion is detected and it tries to send the pictures it will fail. There is no log or meaningful error messages. It just doesn’t work.

Rather than prattle on about how difficult it is to get the browser plugin to work, or to upgrade the firmware, or to get helpful tech support, or manuals written in real English, let me just say that although the camera itself works, the software is atrocious. Save yourself a lot of frustration and gray hair by choosing a different camera brand for your HorseCam. You’ll thank me for it.

If I find a good camera for the bathroom project I’ll let you know. But we’ll have to keep it a secret from Prissy.


4 thoughts on “Watching Mr. Ed”

  1. Gary,
    I’ve had IP cameras inside/outside of my home for several years so I thought that you may find my feedback useful…

    1. If you’re going to use IP cameras, I suggest using wired cameras that support POE power rather than Wifi cameras. Wired POE cameras require a single Cat-5 cable to a POE router/switch/injector (and no separate power cable) and will be more reliable/stable with fewer video delays and without needing to worry about wifi antennas. It’s almost always possible to find a way to run a Cat-5 to a camera location. My outdoor camera cables enter the side of the house directly into a media closet where the router and POE switch are installed. Another advantage of powering all cameras from a single location is the option to add a battery-backup at the POE location so if power is lost, or shut off, the cameras can continue to record.

    2. I have found motion detection on outdoor cameras to be unreliable. When I tried it, I was getting too many false positives due to moving trees, birds and other problems. Setting up the sensitivity of the motion detection can be a nightmare. Instead, my cameras record constantly to a NAS server and enough disk is allocated to each camera to save about a week’s worth of video. I use a Synology NAS with included surveillance software that can communicate with many different brands/models of cameras (simultaneously) for live viewing and recording. When I’m traveling, I connect to the NAS from my laptop, iPhone or iPad and can view all cameras’ live video or recordings (Synology has their own dynamic DNS server so remote connecting is easy). This approach to recording does not require use of FTP.

    3. The camera you chose is not intended to be an outdoor camera. If you’re mounting a camera outdoors, you should choose one that is in a case designed for outdoors. Also, rather than using a camera that physically moves for pan/tilt/zoom, there are cameras that do those functions electronically. I buy cameras with extra-wide-angle lenses so that I can see a wide area and then I can manually have the camera’s internal software zoom/pan (sometimes referred to as ePTZ) or I can set up an automated series of images that changes over time. This works well if the camera has at least 1MP resolution. My cameras have 2MP resolution.

    4. You will likely find the software in a camera to be of higher quality if you buy camera brand/models that are used by professional home electronics integrators/installers.

    5. IP cameras have become popular mostly because they can support higher resolutions than older-style analog cameras which are limited to SD NTSC 480i video. However, an IP network is quite complicated for security/surveillance. For example, if you’re traveling and your router crashes, you may not be able to view or record video (this, by the way, is the value of local SD-card recording). There are products that support remote router reboot but this makes the setup even more complicated. There are products that support high-resolution surveillance video over coax directly to a DVR/NVR using simpler communications protocols. The NVR can record and be connected to your IP network for remote viewing but if the IP network crashes, the link between the cameras and NVR still functions. Some of the relevant protocols are: HDcctv, HD-TVI, HD-CVI, HD-SDI. These protocols require specific camera models and a compatible DVR/NVR is required. They were originally created to help people who already have CCTV coax wiring in place but they also have the advantage of being simpler and more reliable than packet-switching IP.
    – wwkd

    1. For this project I was severely limited in my networking options because the barn doesn’t have a PC and Gilda didn’t want one installed there. The house about 100′ away from the barn is owned by a tenant and burying Cat-5 in a trench under a gravel driveway to get there didn’t seem feasible or appropriate (even if the owner consented). The tenant is sort of an employee so the wireless arrangement was agreeable.

      Without a PC in the barn I couldn’t make use of a NAS or any other local storage technology beyond the SD card. With Gilda’s house being about 5 miles away, my only option for storage was to ftp the video to her PC. If the ftp worked we would have what we needed.

  2. Gary, you are brilliant. I love your persistence when faced with challenging tasks. I can hardly wait to learn what the surveillance cam picks up. But if that somehow fails, just ask Mr. Ed what happened. Remember, he speaks English.

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