Monday, February 8, 2016

On-board video system

I've been writing up a gargantuan blog post on all our projects here in Riviera Beach (forthcoming momentarily) when I realized I should probably break this one out into its own post.

By far the biggest project I've tackled here has been installing the video camera system. I actually bought this system back in October, when we spent a month in Washington, DC, thinking I could get it done there. But the system arrived missing some parts, and in the Amazon universe, rather than just send the missing parts, a wholesale exchange had to happen. Losing a few days to that process aced me out of the time there to get it done.

It took me the better part of three full days to install. The bulk of that time was running the four included 60'-long cables from the helm console to the engine room, and drilling holes in various parts of the boat to get the cameras mounted. At less than two hundred bucks for the entire system, which includes an eight-port DVR/switcher, four cameras, and all the cables, I had very low expectations, but have been pleasantly surprised by the results.

The whole system came in this one box. We ordered "eyeball" camera housings rather than the cylinders pictured.

While this item is marketed and sold as a security system (and it will also serve that function for us), the real purpose of a video monitoring system on a boat is to give the watchstander more information about the environment without having to leave the bridge. The big gap for me, especially when docking, is a view of the area immediately astern, but it is also nice to be able to see into the engineering spaces without having to send someone below (though we still go below once an hour for systems checks).

The aft deck camera, giving a view over the stern as well as anyone entering the door.

This project has been a "round tuit" project for some time; it had seemed to us a mere nicety rather than anything critical, and it's been hovering close to the bottom of the list. The list is still very long, but readers may remember an event last year that swiftly moved the camera system much closer to the top of the list. To wit, our friends aboard Blossom had a fire in their engine room, under way in Nassau Harbor.

We do have a working smoke detector in the engine room, which also sounds in the pilothouse if it goes off, so we are not dependent on the video system as a means of detection. But Blossom has a window in the engine room door, so they were able to see inside before rushing in with a fire extinguisher, whereas Vector does not, so a camera in the engine room may well be the only way to know if we should even go in to firefight, or just abandon ship. Short of a breach in the hull, fire at sea is the most dangerous thing that can happen on a boat.

The engine room camera, mounted for the best overall view of the space. Note the custom white mount.

Blossom's engine room camera and DVR also came in handy after the incident was over. By playing back the engine room video in slow motion, they could see exactly where and when the fire started, and they had video to send to the manufacturer/installer of the failed component. Between these two factors, we were convinced we needed to escalate the priority of a video system, and that it should have a DVR as well as live video.

With four cameras included in the package, in addition to our original goals of a stern view and an engine room view, we were also able to put a camera in the tiller flat (or lazarette), an area we seldom see and which is difficult to access in heavy seas, giving us a view of the rudder mechanism, the bilge, and the overboard discharge lines for both engine exhausts, as well as several other pieces of equipment. And we opted to put the last camera in the pilothouse, with a view of the helm area, to document our activities there in case of any sort of incident under way.

The pilothouse view camera, mounted in the hallway to the galley.

I had hoped that this last camera would also capture a view out the pilothouse windows of the water ahead, again to document any type of incident. But the cameras lack the dynamic range to have both indoor and outdoor scenes at the same time. We decided to use the included day/night "eyeball" camera for the pilothouse, and, with four spare ports still available on the DVR, I will add a wide-angle "dashcam" for the forward view at a later date.

Video shown in four-up format on the main monitor. You can see me at lower right taking this photo.

The cameras could stand to be a bit wider-angle, but otherwise it's perfect. We have a view of what we need, and it's all recorded for later review. I mounted the DVR in a deliberately inaccessible location, in the event we do have a break-in while we're away from the boat, so the miscreants can't take the evidence with them. I did pick up a wireless USB mouse (the DVR came with an el-cheapo wired one) due to the remote location of the DVR. As a bonus, we can check on the boat from a smartphone while we're away.

What it looks like on my phone, so long as we have Internet aboard.

The main video monitor for the system is the 19" Proscan on the helm, which also serves as the chartplotter display. We switch to the camera view to operate the DVR (which is mouse-controlled) or for docking. But we wanted to have a camera display available even when using the plotter under way, so after getting everything else squared away, I bought a 7" monitor ($24) to keep on the helm. It's really too small to view all four cameras at once, but it works fine with the DVR/switcher rotating through all the cameras one at a time.

Cheapo monitor so we can see the video even when the chartplotter is using the big screen.

The system came with a pair of power supplies, one for the DVR/switcher and one for the cameras, that plug into 120VAC power, which is what I was expecting to have to use. It turns out, though, that these supply 12VDC to the system, and I just cut the wall-warts off and wired everything directly to ship's DC power.

I needed to make mounting pads for the cameras in the engine room and tiller flat. I made these from HDPE plastic, which is widely used in the marine industry and sold under the trade name "Starboard" (and how confusing is that, to have both a material and a side of the boat with the same name?). The dirty little secret, though, is that inexpensive kitchen cutting boards are made from exactly this same material, and we've got bits of cutting board all over the boat, including these, which I made from scraps left over from a head project a while back.

Total cost of the system came in at right around $220, including the small monitor, the wireless mouse, and some adapters to connect the BNC video output from the DVR to the RCA input of the monitor. I already had the VGA cable for the main helm monitor leftover from the old chart computer (the new one uses HDMI output); everything else needed came in the box with the system. I discarded the supplied mounting screws in favor of stainless items from my parts box.

For that kind of money, we could not be more pleased. Now that it's all installed and working, it's hard to tell it apart from the $5,000-and-up systems we just saw on many boats at Trawler Fest, installed by marine electronics contractors, and many of those systems lack Internet upload and smart-phone integration.


  1. I'll try again. Thanks Sean for great article . Can you tell us the name of surveillance kit manufacturer?
    Regarding your engine room safety, have you looked into a fire suppression system. An all encompassing, fill the room with AFFF, or CO2 or whatever is substituting for Halon now. It would be pretty nasty having to fight a fire there wielding a hand held extinguisher.
    Mac the fire guy sells some RV related foam systems that would work in your application.

    1. Send me your email and I will give you the link to the actual product. I don't want to post the manufacturer, make, and model here for security reasons. My email is in the "Who We Are" page.

      Yes, we have looked into total flooding engine room fire suppression. I'd like to install one before we take the boat across an ocean. The bottle itself is about $2k and by the time you add in the shutdown system and installation we're looking at maybe $10k for a system, so we've deferred this expense to a later date.

  2. Sean,
    Thanks for another great tech. post. Just the project I would like to do. Could you post the actual kit you found and the mouse and small 7"screen as I haven't had much luck finding these. Thanks again, Bob

    1. As per my reply above, send me an email for the video system. The monitor I bought, with two video inputs and made for in-car systems, is here: and the mouse I chose, the least expensive model with Prime shipping, is here:


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