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Archive for July, 2011

Big Brother: 5-minute guide to cameras on the cheap!

 

One of the problems of owning a place in another country – is keeping an eye on it. I guess this really applies to anyone with two properties – or perhaps an SME with a small office or factory unit.

Not everyone can afford expensive cameras and most people would not have a clue how to fit them. Costs mount up and so for most people, camera security is simply something that the larger companies use.

Well, that certainly does not have to be the case. Here’s my “5-minute guide to remote cameras on the cheap”.

When we got our place in Spain it was always going to be the case that it would be unoccupied some of the time – you can’t be in two places. I started to investigate the cost of camera systems – most of which can be very expensive. Your traditional COSTCO multi-camera packages are useless for remote viewing and assume you’ll plug in a monitor. That’s not much use when you’re thousands of miles away sitting in a restaurant and wondering if someone’s breaking onto your office.

And so without further ado – here’s my adopted solution.

There are a number of cameras on Ebay and elsewhere called “IP Cameras” – that is the camera runs on your WIFI or wired network… and can be accessed from a web browser anywhere in the world. All you need is broadband and a mains socket!

Sadly they vary a lot – the largely Chinese suppliers have major difficulties with the language and seem to pin up manufacturer’s specs without even checking them.  I’ve seen umpteen ads for cameras “with sound” and when checking with the supplier this was a mistake and they’ve changed the ad.

External IP CameraI was basically interested in two kinds of camera – Internal IP Camerathe external weather-proof kind (see image on the left)– and the internal variety with pan and tilt control (see camera on the right). It seems in the low-cost area you can’t have both in one.   Also external cameras tend to need more LED LIGHTING as the distances viewed tend to be greater. On camera left, note the increased number of LED lights around the lens. They vary from model to model.

I settled on cameras who’s manufacturer is Foscam – at least, that’s the name you’ll see on most of them – there’s a very limited set of chips out there and various manufacturers are actually producing more or less the same thing. I’m not going to get into specifying models here – you’ll need to look at what’s out there. But I can make recommendations…

  • Make sure you don’t get old models that will only work with Internet Explorer
  • Internal – make sure the photo shows an audio socket (round) if you need audio – and make sure it specifies 2-way if you want to talk as well as listen. Does the camera have an internal speaker and mic or do you need external.
  • External – make sure the camera has lots of LEDs around the lens.
  • Check carefully – prices vary. Expect to pay around £45-£90 (inc postage) depending on models and quantity – and expect to wait 2 weeks if you’re ordering from China.

Back of internal cameraThere is some setup to do and you get instructions with them – you’ll need a PC to set them up and either wired or wireless connectivity. To access these remotely, if your service provider doesn’t give you a fixed IP address you’ll want to go to a DDNS company like no-ip to ensure that even if you lose connectivity at the other end temporarily and end up with a changed IP address – you still get to talk to your cameras remotely.

Most of these cameras also have motion detect in an a control output (for a lamp) but that’s beyond the scope of this article as they are generally 5v inputs and outputs and you’d have to do your own interfacing. Personally I plan to make a relay setup so I can control a floodlight remotely.

So – you have your camera, wired or wirelessly hooked into your broadband – it’s got power, you’ve set it up and can now see your place from anywhere in the world… how best to do this?

For some time I’ve been using a program called Mobiscope to monitor several cameras – but it has the disadvantage that although it handles multiple camera types and is available on both PC and iPhone, it has no control over the camera so if you find the camera whiting out due to extremes of light – you can’t control it…. no pan and tilt etc.

So you can imagine my joy when I discovered that there are now several programs (variations on a theme) for iPhone to fully control these cameras (which is why I specified Foscam). One program called EASYN for iPhone does a CRACKING job, offering controls which vary with the camera. In the case of the models shown above, it will control the output, brilliance and contrast of the EXTERNAL camera, while on the internal camera, in addition it offers pan and tilt control and the ability to turn auto-scanning on and off – and take snapshots.

Incidentally, from the PC interface, all of these cameras can be set to automatically upload single images to a website – or even email you when they detect movement.  Yes, amazingly for the price these features are becoming commonplace.

Internal controlsExternal controls

So there you have it – for WIFI operation you need no wires, simply plug the camera into the wall socket, set it up and you’re off.

So – to get started – go to Ebay and look up “IP Camera” – you’ll find plenty to choose from – choose well. With the right software and hardware you can monitor and interact with several cameras all over the world, from the comfort of your car, hotel or local pub!

Solar Panels–worth it or not?

All that effort for £70 a year?

Back in October 2010, a company visited Wark offering free solar panels for anyone who wanted them – while offering to sell said panels for those who were keen to pay and take advantage of the generous feed-in tariffs. By solar panels I mean photovoltaic panels, the ones that generate electricity, not the ones that heat up water.

I was originally very cynical but decided to “give it a go”. I missed the original meeting at the town hall but called up the company who then came to visit us. The plan was to fit panels to our flat roof here in Wark but also to our more standard roof up in Bellingham.  Both are south-facing and therefore able to make best use of the sun. We opted for the free version. We received paperwork suggesting that we could make a saving of around £220 a year.

To explain, when the companies fit free panels to your home, they make money not only on solar power you use, but also solar power you don’t, via the frankly ludicrous “feed-in tariff”. The government used to give grants for buying solar panels but in 2010 changed that to one in which they pay you for all the solar electricity you produce – whether you use it yourself or “feed it back into the grid”.

This is becoming big business – but it is entirely artificial – it is making money for those who provide these systems for free – or for those who buy them, NOT because it is green or in any way an alternative to other forms of power, but because of the taxpayer-funded highly-inflated feed-in tariff described above… so when you’re told that someone has “gone green” – they can be as inefficient as they like – and you, the taxpayer, are paying them an economically unsustainable amount per kilowatt that they generate – even if they use it for their own purposes – how weird is that.

After much ado, receiving brochures of suitable panels, the company finally admitted that the flat roof was a non-starter which left us with the property in Bellingham. We signed up for the panels but were then heard nothing for months. I rang up and was told that due to changes in funding the flat roof was a non-started and for the pitched roof in Bellingham we’d have to re-do the paperwork.

I then read this…

http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/utilities/free-solar-panels

It would appear that if you take the free option you could be looking at savings of around £70 a year, a figure significantly LESS than was originally suggested to us… the company on the other hand stands to make £1,030 a year. Assuming the panels last £25 years and the tariff lasts that long, that’s not a bad rate of return on their investment – which according to Money Saving Expert is typically around £12,000.   That profit is coming presumably from the tax-payer. Georg Monbiot of the Guardian calls the whole thing a rip-off – read his blog here. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/solar-panel-feed-in-tariff

And what happens if you sell your house? Best check the fine print on that one…. would potential buyers of your home be wary of getting involved with a house where the roof is leased out? What if your roof gets damaged underneath the panels?

The government says the feed-in tariff payments will run for 25 years – but then this is a government so broke it is reducing public sector pensions after it’s predecessor took every cent they could out of businesses and still left us in the lurch. What it tomorrow there is a major breakthrough in solar or wave power, dwarfing current efficiencies and finally making a practical alternative to coal and oil and reducing the cost of electricity– does anyone believe that a broke government will keep to that 25-year commitment for the older technologies?

So, £70 a year real saving on the one hand and “earn up to £1,500 a year tax-free” thanks to publicly-funded payments on the other (http://solardirectsavings-px.rtrk.co.uk/?utm_source=Reach%2BLocal&utm_medium=PPC&utm_campaign=Reach%2BLocal)

How green is this? Doesn’t seem very green to me.  How else could you save £70 a year?

Well, it’s been suggested that unplugging your mobile chargers could save you money – personally I think that’s tosh. I went out and bought a meter to check electricity use – not one of those ones which tells you how many kilowatts you’re using (though they are great) but one you put between the wall socket and an individual appliance. The amount of electricity used by modern “switched” chargers is insignificant. The amount used by your SKY box on the other hand, in my case is 23watts and not much less on standby.

Let’s look at that, 23w, 24/7 totals 200kw/h a year. At 15p a kw/h that’s £30+ a year.  It does not therefore take too much thinking about to realise where you can start to make savings. Put the thing on a timer so it’s OFF during times you’re unlikely to be making recordings or watching TV – which for some of us is 75% of the day.

Let’s take lighting – I recall some time ago listening to two women in Tescos as they were looking at the lighting section and one, rather ignorantly said “Oh, we don’t use those in our house” referring to compact fluorescent lighting… well, I do and I also use LED lighting. High power incandescent lamps have been taken off the shelves and rightly so. I’m working under powerful LED lighting right now and it’s wonderful. I have 3 spots of the newer kind, using 3w each  and replacing what would have been at least 20w halogens though I suspect the output is half way between the 20w and 50w halogens. Then there are the now inexpensive compact fluorescents…and for those who think they’re not bright enough? You can get 40w CFs equivalent to 200w conventional lighting in Spain for £3 – I’m sure someone will do them here.

I just did the maths – in my office alone I have 11 13w fluorescents… they operate at least 10 hours a days. The would have been 60w lights originally. Running cost would have been £32 annually, it’s now around £7 saving £25.

So the saving by converting to low-current lighting and perhaps putting that Sky box on a timer could match the total savings you make with a complex and risky solar panel installation – and you can still opt for solar panels in the future when they make them a lot more efficient?

So what of solar hot water? Isn’t that a better bet? According to the energy savings trust you’re looking at anticipated savings of between £50 and £85 a year… a mere drop in the ocean.  http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/Generate-your-own-energy/Solar-water-heating