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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Someone to Watch Over Me

When your mailroom is being confused with a men’s room several nights a month, it greatly simplifies your board’s decision to install a surveillance system to monitor the area 24 hours a day. That’s what prompted an Upper West Side building with just over 40 units to seek professional security advice. As in so many other properties, the decision to install security cameras was, in the industry jargon, “event-driven.”

But when smaller buildings start looking for surveillance systems, they soon find that it’s easier to put the problem on the backburner and hope the annoyances will eventually go away. The reason? The systems being offered seem to be aimed more at single-family-home set-ups or at larger buildings with larger budgets. The basic recommendation for the mailroom problem is to install a covert camera of some kind, together with a time-lapse videocassette recorder (VCR) and a monitor located in a nearby secure location. Quotes for this simple set-up run from $1,500 to $3,500. One problem is that the superintendent or a board member has to be responsible for replacing tapes at regular intervals and checking that the tapes are still recording properly.

What are the alternatives? The latest generation of recording devices eliminates tapes and makes maintenance a much simpler proposition. Phil Digrazia, of Speakeasy Intercom and Electric Service, a company that has been installing intercom and security systems for 30 years, says that, for most buildings, digital video recorders (DVR) are the way to go. A DVR is like a small computer. The images are recorded on a hard drive, there are no tapes to change, and huge amounts of data can be captured. In addition, since the system is digital, it is easier to find a specific event. But a DVR is more expensive than a VCR by several hundred dollars, and it doesn’t eliminate the cost of linking up the camera to the recording device.

At some point, most boards will ask about wireless installations to try and avoid the cabling costs. Digrazia disparages the idea of going wireless. Although that can greatly reduce the cost of installation, it is generally regarded as not being reliable or powerful enough to use for building-wide security systems (such equipment can be adequate for home installation, however).

For buildings that have access to high-speed internet connections, there are other solutions. A company such as WebEyeAlert can eliminate most of the cabling problems by transmitting and even storing the images via the internet (a conventional cable link is still needed between the camera and an internet-connected computer, however). Again, smaller buildings are at a disadvantage: they are unlikely to have the infrastructure in place. While many residents may have individual high-speed internet links, there is no connection point for the building itself.
An even more radical solution to eliminating the cost of cabling is to “piggyback” on the electrical wiring already in a building. But, Ambient, a company that installs this broadband-over-power-lines equipment, is currently only interested in working with buildings with a minimum of 100 units (see “Hotline: The Next Big Thing,” Habitat, October 2005).

One solution that may work for smaller buildings is to investigate offerings on the web. Several sites, such as and, offer an extensive range of cameras, recording equipment, cables, and other accessories together with extensive guidelines. Most of these sites also offer telephone or e-mail assistance to select the appropriate packages. If someone in the building can devote time to studying the options, a great deal of information is readily available.

But the solution found for the mailroom problem in the 40-unit building was a unique piece of equipment that eliminated cabling and complications by putting everything together into one small, palm-sized unit called a MemoCam. Video Domain Technologies, a company based in Israel (where security developments are, not surprisingly, on the cutting edge), developed the unit. The user-friendly nature of the MemoCam stems from the fact that the whole surveillance system is built into the one small unit and its operation will be very familiar to anyone who has used a digital camera. Instead of transmitting images to a separate recording device, the pictures are stored on a removable memory card. That’s where the similarity ends, however. The device looks nothing like a camera; its invisible pinhole lens and lack of a viewing screen make it ideal for covert installations.

What transforms this camera into such an effective security-monitoring unit is its ability to link image-recording to selected events. With a combination of motion-detecting and infrared heat detecting, the unit can be very precisely configured. The area being monitored can be as specific as an entranceway or a telephone on a desktop. It can be set to monitor movements in front of a window and to completely ignore any movements going on outside. The unit comes with a mounting device and the only connection that’s needed is to a power supply,
When there is an event to investigate, the memory card is removed and the images can be viewed on a computer screen by using a card reader attached to the computer. Someone in the building still has to be computer-savvy enough to be able to install the software and use a card reader, but it’s a procedure that has become so standard now for viewing images from digital cameras that it’s unlikely to be a stumbling block. The images, which are time- and date-stamped to clearly identify an event, can be downloaded and stored on a computer hard drive or e-mailed. For convenience, they can also be viewed on a pocket PC, making it possible, for example, to provide the building’s super with a viewing facility without setting up a monitoring station.

Models that record in black and white are available for around $500 on the internet. For another $100 or so, you can add color and a new resolution technology that allows you to zoom in on a 1.2 megapixel image to see the finest detail. Maayan Kijel, manager of the U.S.-based Video Domain office (201-735-0249/ recommends buying from an authorized dealer if you are going to set up the camera yourself so that you can access continuing technical support directly from Video Domain itself. She will provide a list for your area, including authorized websites. Basically, the unit is simple enough for self-installation with some minimal initial programming by a remote control unit. However, if you prefer to have professional advice on locating the device or incorporating it into a larger system, the general rule of thumb is that such a move at least doubles the cost of the equipment.

Reports, meanwhile, from the mailroom front indicate that the incidents have stopped. One issue with any covert set-up, especially in a busy area like a mailroom, is just how long anything can stay covert. But, for nearly a year now, the room has been dry and there have been no incidents anywhere else. So, perhaps, just taking action was a sufficient warning that the board is keeping a strict eye on things.

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