When my father passed away a couple of years back, we began to worry more about intruders taking advantage of the situation, with my mother away being away for long periods and sometimes home alone. We needed a home security system on a budget, but also had to contend with a historic building that did not have external power outlets for outdoor cameras. We also needed to act fast, so decided to go with battery-powered cameras so we’d have something in place straight away with minimal setup.
We settled on the Arlo Pro series based on its battery life and video quality – both in daytime and in night vision mode – but also noted that it could charge from solar power which would give us options later. That said, most manufacturers of wireless home security cameras now produce similar options and accessories, so much of what we talk about here will be applicable to other brands.
Battery power – claims vs. reality
Most of the wifi security cameras we’ve looked at use rechargeable batteries that are manufacturer-specific (not the generic ones you can buy in stores) with marketing often claiming 3-6 months with “average use”, but this is of course highly dependent on how busy the area around your home is – you’re not just accounting for people and cars, but also animals that will trigger your camera. If you have any large trees (or big plants) with leaves that sway in the wind, this will also trigger your camera and reduce battery life. Cold temperatures also have a big impact; based on our experience I would say 2 months is more realistic for outdoor wireless security cameras, but you may get well 4+ months with indoor cameras – assuming its warmer inside, you have no pets and you use the smart cameras’ features to switch off when you’re at home.
You will want to ensure you make use of your mobile phone or other smart devices to help turn cameras off when you’re at the property, and on when you’re outside. Most manufacturers’ mobile apps using geofencing for this, and many will allow you to register multiple family members’ or friends’/employees’ phones. With this in place you’ll minimise false alarms, as well as maximise battery life by preventing unnecessary recording.
We also found that there was a very noticeable difference in lag depending on the source of power: when plugged into AC power, recordings would capture from the moment a person came into the camera’s field of view (and even before). Under battery power, recordings tended to start after the person was already well inside, which could mean you’d lose crucial seconds in which time someone could obscure their face. We also noticed that two-way audio also lagged by quite some time (there was a lag under power too, but not as long) which can be quite confusing for whoever you’re speaking to at the other end.
If you’re expecting to constantly live stream video – rather than use it as a security camera system that triggers short recordings only when motion is detected – then battery power is also not an option; most devices will expect a permanent connection to a wall outlet to operate in continuous recording mode. Most can still be used as a recording device for short periods however, by trigger recording through the web interface, mobile app or (in the case of Ring) Amazon Alexa.
The Arlo Pro cameras we got used a rechargeable battery pack that was interchangeable. You could charge another battery pack inside the home and swap them, or you could leave the battery in the camera and attach a charger to it. Arlo sells long outdoor power cables that attach to their cameras with a magnetic clip, enabling you to charge cameras in situ without disrupting functionality.
Solar-powered security cameras?
We found the best option was to install an inexpensive solar panel to provide a trickle charge sufficient to keep the battery fully charged all year round, provided your camera is placed in an area that gets some sunlight during the day. Arlo’s solar panel charger provides 2 watts of power, so it’s not going to function as if it’s plugged into mains power (see above), but as long as the area covered isn’t too busy, you shouldn’t need to plug it into a wall outlet for charging again – just make sure you charge it to 100% at the time of installation.
Until scientists figure out a way to wirelessly transmit power over longer distances – and despite some wild claims being made online, at the time of writing this kind of wireless technology doesn’t actually exist! – solar is probably the only way for security cameras to stay truly wireless.
Leaving cameras permanently plugged in
I’m including this bit for completeness but I’m guessing that if you bought a wireless system, you probably want to avoid wires, otherwise you’d have bought a wired security camera instead! There are a few different ways of keeping them always plugged in: as the charging cables are not thick, if you have a window that can be locked while slightly ajar, you could run the cable out of a high window and trail it down to your outdoor camera. If you can’t do this, you’d probably have to drill a hole through a wall or door/window frame to push the wire through. We have seen a number of suggestions to use ethernet cable together with a router that can supply power over ethernet (PoE) but these are not relevant to the type of security camera we’re talking about here, rather they’re for traditional IP cameras and not for wireless devices. Most newer smart security cameras won’t even have an ethernet port, as they are designed to work only within wireless systems, sending their video signal either directly to the cloud or via a base station – instead of a PoE camera that would transmit to a network video recorder.
With a video doorbell camera, you may be able to have a wired system without running new cables, by re-using your existing doorbell wiring. Ring provides such an option but remember your existing doorbell chime will no longer work, so you will have to install a separate smart chime that’s compatible with your video doorbell (it’ll probably have to be from the same manufacturer!)
I should note here that your first step should be to consider the best location for cameras – i.e. if you were getting a professional surveillance camera system installed, where would they put cameras? – without being influenced by wireless signals or the closest power source, as an intruder isn’t going to consider those things when deciding how to enter your home! There are a number of great options to resolve power and signal issues, what’s more important is to ensure the camera records what you need it to.
Local storage or cloud subscription?
We initially considered using local storage, which would saved just under $10 per month by saving video footage onto a memory card in the base station instead of uploading it to the cloud. The downside however is that a potential intruder could simply take the memory card – this is akin to an intruder taking or sabotaging the digital video recorder in a system with traditional security cameras, something you may have seen in the movies! You could of course put in your own automation to ensure recordings were uploaded promptly to your own off-site storage but, considering the effort and the fact that we’d need to allow non-techie users like my mother access, on balance we felt it was worth paying the subscription fee and letting the camera company deal with it all. In the case of Arlo, the subscription gives you the benefit of smart security camera features that rely on processing on the cloud – such as differentiating between people, animals, vehicles and other types of motion (such as swaying trees) and only sending alerts for the categories you want to monitor. Facial recognition, offered by manufacturers like Wyze & Google’s Nest, also generally require a subscription to enable smart camera features.
For greater peace of mind, you can make your wireless security system more robust by introducing a backup power source and internet connection. In case of power cables being cut, buying a basic uninterruptible power supply (UPS) unit should suffice as you’re unlikely to need more than an hour of power – long enough to capture any attempted intrusion and upload video footage to the cloud – to your wireless cameras’ base station and to your wireless router.
For further resilience in case your internet connection is lost, or if telephone/fibre-optic cables are cut, you can consider a router that has mobile data (4G/5G) backup – you will need to get a mobile data SIM card with sufficient data (I would recommend at least 2GB+) to enable you to view a live feed as well as ensure cloud uploads continue. Make sure you test it too (by unplugging your main internet connection) as you will want to ensure sufficient 4G/5G signal strength from wherever the router is placed. Some telecoms firms provide packages that combine a hardwired connection with mobile data backup advertised as “hybrid connect” or “interruptible internet” that may be worth looking into, please bear in mind however that any additional devices they supply will also need to be connected to your backup source of power in order to work during a power outage.
You can also find battery-powered wireless security cameras like the Arlo Go that can connect both through a wi-fi network or with a mobile data SIM. If you only need a single camera, this combines ease of use with resilience. However, if you need a number of cameras this can get expensive as you’ll need a mobile SIM in each one, and a mobile data-enabled camera will cost around 20% more than a regular wireless outdoor security camera.
I hope this helps. We have much better choice in the market today, and I’ve noticed solutions improving every year. Would love to read your comments, especially if you have better ways of dealing with these challenges!