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Grow Your Business Technology

Video Surveillance Systems for Business: A Buyer's Guide

image for Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock
Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

A good video surveillance system is important for almost any business. After all, it's difficult to be profitable if you can't protect your assets.

Video surveillance systems have come a long way from fixed security cameras. This technology now functions as miniature computers, offering features such as motion sensors and automatic mobile notifications or automatically contacting law enforcement. There are also newer, more efficient ways to manage and store recordings, allowing business owners easy access to past videos.

Small business owners now have access to immensely powerful video surveillance systems at relatively affordable prices. An average video surveillance system for a business will cost around $1,500, depending on what type of system you are using, the number of cameras, building size and other factors unique to your business.

When it comes to buying and implementing a new video surveillance system for business, most vendors allow a large degree of customizability, meaning you can tailor a system to your business's needs. Whether you need a widespread system that covers multiple locations or just a few cameras to watch your storefront, there's a solution for everyone.

Not sure where to start? Here's our 2019 video surveillance buyer's guide to break down the components of these systems.

Editor's note: Trying to find the video surveillance system that's right for you? Fill in the questionnaire below, and our vendor partners will contact you with free information.

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Before diving into the details, it's important to note the many benefits of a video surveillance system. Not only can surveillance cameras deter criminals and help law enforcement quickly catch any would-be thieves, but these systems can improve the accountability of your employees, help you monitor productivity and sometimes even reduce your insurance premiums. While the upfront costs of installing a video surveillance system can be a little steep, the long-term payoff and peace of mind may well be worth the expense.

Are you in the market for a video surveillance system? Check out Business News Daily's best picks for video surveillance systems.

There are two primary types of cameras that can be wired into a video surveillance system: internet protocol (IP) cameras and the traditional analog cameras. IP cameras are the modern iteration of analog cameras, and while the individual cameras tend to be a little more expensive, they offer several features that analog cameras do not. Here's a look at the differences between the two types of camera.

IP cameras are far more powerful than analog cameras, usually shooting footage of 1MP to 5MP (megapixels). That makes for incredibly clear image quality, especially compared to the grainy analog footage, which runs around one-half of a megapixel. IP cameras generally have a larger field of vision than analog cameras.

IP cameras have additional features that analog cameras don't offer, such as video analytics, which can trigger mobile notifications and automatic recording if there is movement within the camera's field of vision. This is particularly useful when your business is closed and you want to be alerted if someone is moving around inside the premises. You can configure the system to flag events like this and send notifications directly to your smartphone, along with recorded footage of the event. Some systems also offer a direct, one-touch connection to local law enforcement.

Wireless IP cameras can connect to a Wi-Fi network with password protection to make sure your connection stays private. Digital transmission for Wi-Fi-connected cameras is less easily affected by neighboring devices than transmission for analog cameras, but cameras in network-complex areas may experience some interference. Image quality is dependent on the strength of the wireless connection, so make sure your Wi-Fi signal is consistently strong if you go this route.

IP cameras are compatible with network video recorders (NVRs), which offer several other benefits over the older digital video recorders (DVRs) that this guide will cover. In short, NVRs record higher-quality video and allow systems to scale up much more easily than with DVR. For more information on video recorders, see the section below.

IP cameras can also connect to a power-over-Ethernet (PoE) switch, which both sends data from the camera and provides power to it. Analog cameras, on the other hand, require a switch to run the signal from the camera as well as a separate power source, meaning a more complex setup and more wires. PoE switches are generally a more secure way to transmit data as well. 

While IP cameras are generally more expensive than their analog counterparts, the total cost of a full IP system tends to be slightly lower than that of a comparable analog system. Since IP cameras have a wider field of vision, an IP system can often work with fewer cameras than an analog system.

All the cameras in a given system require a central video recorder to transmit and archive the footage they capture. DVRs evolved from the older VCR models, while NVRs represent the next step in the evolution of video recording technology. Here's a look at how DVRs and NVRs compare. 

DVRs generally offer D1 resolution, which is the traditional video quality used in closed-circuit television systems. D1 equates to a resolution of 720 x 480 pixels, which is considered standard resolution. 

NVRs, on the other hand, can record in 1080p, which is high definition; it offers a significant improvement in video quality over the DVR system. For comparison purposes, 1080p equates to a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. This results in a much clearer image.

You connect analog cameras with a DVR system by directly plugging a BNC cable from the DVR into the camera. To connect more cameras to the DVR system, you need additional cables. DVR systems are difficult to scale up, because once every BNC connection is occupied by a camera, you need to purchase an entirely new DVR before adding another camera to the system. DVRs also require the connected cameras to be near the recorder; otherwise, the video quality begins to degrade.

The NVR eliminates these problems, because it connects directly to a network instead. IP cameras connected to the same network, usually by way of a PoE switch, are then able to transmit footage to the NVR. Systems based around an NVR are much easier to scale up than DVR systems, simply because they can accept a new camera once it is added to the network. In the worst case, all you would need is an additional PoE switch.

Some IP cameras are also wireless and can transmit footage to the NVR over Wi-Fi. There are no proximity limitations so long as a camera is connected to the same network as the NVR. The largest downside to an NVR system, however, is that not every IP camera will work with every NVR. You'll need to find out whether your cameras are compatible with a given video recorder before buying. 

Hybrid video recorders (HVR) are video surveillance systems that run both IP and analog cameras. The versatility of these systems is desirable: If you're upgrading an old system and don't want to do away with all of your old analog cameras, for example, an HVR can help you make the transition and prepare for a fully IP system in the future. 

Resolution: This is one of the most important considerations in selecting a camera. For a sharp image, you'll want a camera that can shoot at least in 720p high definition, which means an IP camera. If you want to guarantee that your camera will have a clear, identifiable image, you don't want to cut corners here.

Frame rate: This is another key aspect of a camera – the higher the frame rate, the smoother the video. Video is simply a series of still images stitched together to create a motion picture. The lower the frame rate, the less frequently a still is taken, resulting in choppier footage. You'll want to consider the frame rate of the camera before deciding on a purchase. For reference, "real time" is typically measured as 30 frames per second (fps). 

Models: There are several types of security cameras out there. Some of the more common ones are bullet cameras, which are the rectangular boxes you might see protruding from a wall; dome cameras, which are often attached to a ceiling and housed in a tinted cover; and pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras, which offer remote-control capabilities to adjust the field of vision. You'll want to consider which types of cameras to use in outfitting your system based on your particular security needs.

Indoor/outdoor: Some security cameras are made specifically for the indoors and won't stand up to Mother Nature quite as well as their outdoor counterparts. If you plan to use cameras outside, make sure you purchase weatherproof models. Otherwise, water or dirt might interfere with the quality of your video feeds or, worse, break your camera. Some security cameras are minimally resistant to weather, while others are completely weatherproof. Be sure to understand what level of protection from natural conditions your security camera offers. 

Lighting: Many security cameras can shoot in what is known as "low-light infrared," enabling them to capture clear footage in dark conditions. These cameras rely on infrared LEDs, which cover the darkened area in infrared light. Unlike humans, the camera can see this infrared light, so when those wavelengths reflect, it's as if the camera is shooting footage in an illuminated room. The more IR LEDs a camera has, the better it can see at night. If capturing footage in the dark is a priority for you, make sure your camera has plenty of IR LEDs.

Audio: Whether audio recording is an option depends on the camera and the manufacturer. Some cameras don't pick up audio at all, while others can record and store it. Some even enable two-way audio, so a person watching the camera can communicate with a subject in the camera's field of vision. 

Storage capacity: For video recorders, the first question you must ask yourself is how much storage you will need. The answer hinges on a couple of factors: the number of cameras in your system, each camera's resolution, the amount of archived footage you intend to store and how long you plan to keep recorded footage. If you have many cameras shooting in high resolution, the footage is going to eat up storage space quickly. You can set a video recorder to overwrite the oldest footage once you reach the system's capacity, but if you're not careful, the system might overwrite archived footage that you still need. 

If you're running a large system with high-quality cameras, you'll want to scale up your video recorder's storage capacity. There are several tools online that can help you calculate how much storage space you'll need based on the details of your system.

For example, a four-camera system that runs 24 hours a day using IP cameras, each with a 2MP resolution and a frame rate of 5 fps, with video compressed into MJPEG files on an NVR, would require 2.79TB of storage space for footage, according to the Supercircuits calculator

That's quite a bit of data for a moderately sized system, so it's important to plan accordingly and know what kind of capacity you'll really need. It's also wise to maintain a bit of a cushion beyond that calculated number, letting you store any particularly interesting footage you might need to refer to.

Cloud storage: You can store recorded video in the cloud in addition to on your video recorder. There are a few distinct advantages to doing this, including remote access to your videos and higher storage volume. It's important to upload large video files in a way that won't eat up all your bandwidth and slow down your network. This can be done by either scheduling video uploads to the cloud or uploading them after peak business hours.

Be aware that many cloud services charge a subscription fee, especially to store video files in perpetuity. On the plus side, storing videos in the cloud means that even if your hardware is damaged, stolen or tampered with, you'll still have access to your video archives. Make sure the company takes the appropriate cybersecurity measures to protect your data.

Camera compatibility: Not every video recorder works with every camera. Of course, DVRs require analog cameras, while NVRs use IP cameras, but the compatibility question extends well beyond that distinction. Some NVR systems, for example, are only compatible with IP cameras from certain manufacturers. When buying a video recorder, you must first make sure that the device will work with the cameras you've purchased. If you're working with a surveillance system integrator to configure your system, the cameras should be able to provide you with the necessary information.

Compression: Compression eliminates unnecessary data from the footage transmitted to your video recorder to save space. Two of the more common compression techniques for high-definition video are MJPEG and H.264. You can also use MPEG4, but the quality tends to be lower than that of MPEG4's aforementioned counterparts. Compression methods are relatively complex and vary in their applications depending on your needs and hardware. SecurityInfoWatch has created a handy primer on compression technology to help you delve into the details of video compression.

Power-over-Ethernet switches apply only to NVR systems, but they cut out other components that would be necessary for a DVR system, like additional power sources and the BNC cables used to connect cameras to the DVR. Instead, when you connect a PoE switch to your network, you've got a power source and a means of transmitting data to your NVR all in one package. The biggest consideration in which type of PoE switch to buy is the number of cameras that will be on your system. The next consideration is how likely you are to scale up in the future.

Some NVRs have a handful of built-in PoE ports, while others have none. If you need to buy a PoE switch, the smaller ones start at around $40 to $50 and offer about five ports. Each port represents a data connection and a power source for one camera. However, if your plan is to scale up and implement a very large system, there are PoE switches that feature as many as 48 distinct ports. These solutions are vastly more expensive, like this one from Netgear, which is listed at $485 on Amazon.

There are also wireless IP cameras that require little more than mounting, but those might be less secure than wired connections. If you choose wireless, you'll need to make sure the signal can't be easily intercepted. It all comes back to your needs and the type of system you're trying to construct. 

Additional reporting by Kiely Kuligowski.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer with more than 20 years of media experience. A graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff as a senior writer. Currently, Chad covers a wide range of B2B products and services, including business phone systems, time and attendance systems, payroll services, and conference call services. Before joining Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. Chad's first book, "How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business," was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.