Peephole or video doorbell? It’s the classic debate over low-tech versus high-tech. A basic peephole gets the job done with little fuss. But a video doorbell with WiFi capabilities might be the answer for those who can’t be bothered to get off the couch or want to see who’s at the door when no one’s home.
A peephole has its perks
The virtues of a glass peephole are threefold:
- It rarely wears out.
- It’s cheap.
- It doesn’t require electricity.
On the downside, it only works when the homeowner is on the other side of the door peering through. Even then, the view typically comes with fish-eye distortion and a limited field of vision.
Peepholes have been around as long as strangers have been knocking on doors. Visit a historic place like Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, and you’ll see peepholes with a swinging cover built into doors at eye level.
This was before high-strength glass became widely available. Back then, a peephole was literally nothing more than a hole drilled in the door with a sliding metal plate covering the aperture from the inside.
The video doorbell’s debut
Fast-forward a few centuries to the WiFi video doorbell, which consists of a ringer and a camera that mounts over the door. The camera transmits a signal linked to an app, typically on a smartphone.
When someone rings and you hear the doorbell sound, the camera activates and turns on the app. Presto: Whoever’s at the door appears on your phone screen, tablet or computer monitor.
“With WiFi doorbells, the cameras work as advertised,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, a consumer product safety organization formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories. “They can transmit to your phone. You can be 20 miles away at work and see who’s at the door. You can even be in another country.”
You can talk to the visitor on your end and hear what they have to say over the camera’s built-in microphone. You can also tell deliverymen where to leave packages or even scare off would-be burglars without coming to the door.
All this convenience in a high-tech package comes at a price – at least $100. More expensive models feature cameras that deliver better picture and sound. Some are battery-operated. Others connect to doorbell voltage wiring and come with a battery backup.
Pricier packages come with multiple cameras for front and back doors, over the garage, almost anywhere you want to surveil, Drengenberg says.
Motion sensors on some models activate the camera whenever someone approaches. They’ll even record video, which can be saved automatically to a hard drive inside the house. The sensors also notify the homeowner on a smartphone app.
“Shop at stores you trust and do a little research before you buy,” says Drengenberg. “Some cameras are not smart cameras; they just connect to a monitor inside. If you want to check remotely, the camera has to have WiFi connectivity. A very cheap camera might not have all these features.”
How’s your WiFi?
Consider the strength of your WiFi signal when shopping for a WiFi-enabled video doorbell. A weak signal will be harder to receive through walls. Another thing: When you’re away from home, you’ll have to use your phone’s data plan to interact with the doorbell camera.
The most expensive systems come with an Ethernet port to run a cable from the camera to an Internet router inside the home. That way, the Wi-Fi signal transmits completely indoors from the router to a smartphone or tablet and doesn’t have to penetrate an exterior wall.
Installing a video doorbell
Anyone reasonably skilled with hand tools and looking for a home improvement project should be able to install a doorbell camera, says Drengenberg, an electrical engineer with decades of experience.
“There’s very low energy in a doorbell wire, so it wouldn’t compromise your safety by connecting a camera to that. If it’s within the homeowner’s capability, they can install it themselves. It’s not like changing an outlet or light switch where you have to turn off the power.”
Renters should ask their landlord if it’s okay to drill holes in an exterior wall or door-frame to install the hardware before they get started.
Which is safer?
A decent doorbell camera could provide added peace of mind over reliance on a peephole alone.
“Peepholes have a certain field of vision,” Drengenberg says. “Smart criminals may know to stay outside that field of vision. They may also work in teams with one criminal dressed in a fake delivery uniform while his accomplice crouches out of sight, below the range of a peephole.”
Several thousand home invasions occur daily, he says. “The fact is your peephole has a limited field of vision, and you have to make sure you and everyone in your family understands that. Also, make sure your kids have a little step-stool by the door so they can use the peephole, too.”
If you do stick with a basic peephole, make sure you pick the safest one.
UL runs tests on peephole strength. Products that pass muster display the UL approval label.
“We test them for safety and burglar resistance,” Drengenberg says. “With a peephole, you want it to be bullet-resistant. We have a ballistics range where we test all kinds of glass by firing different caliber weapons through the material.”
UL also evaluates video doorbells. Before buying security electronics like video doorbells, Drengenberg encourages consumers to look for the UL approval label on the packaging.
Whether you take the high-tech or low-tech route, Drengenberg says there are safety precautions common to both. “If it’s a delivery man, make them show their ID to the peephole or hold it up to the camera so you verify their identity.”
“Both [peepholes and video doorbells] can be used to help keep you safe” if used properly, Drengenberg says. “You can make a decision for what gives you the best feeling of security.”
Steve Evans, a former reporter for SNL Financial and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, writes about insurance for MoneyGeek.com.