What you need to know about fiber optics
 
What you need to know about fiber optics

Feb 1, 2001 12:00 PM
CHARLIE R. PIERCE

If you have never worked with fiber optics or have not looked into fiber optics in the past couple of years, then you are in for some pleasant surprises. The best part is that even with all the improvements, enhancements and simplification of fiber-optic processes, the basic technology has not changed. Let's start by addressing some myths about this industry.

Myth 1: Fiber-optic systems require continuous maintenance. Twenty years ago, it was a true statement. The average optic transmitter needed to be tuned and tweaked every six months or so due to the general loss of intensity of the optic emitter and the weaker, less stable receivers. Today's systems, however, use higher-grade electronics and, for the most part, monitor and self-correct for normal wear of the optic emitter. Additionally, the higher-quality receivers do not desensitize as quickly. The net result is low-maintenance fiber optic transmission/reception systems.

Myth 2: Fiber-optic systems require extensive training to design, install and/or troubleshoot.

With today's systems, an average Joe or Jane can run a fiber-optic cable, attach connectors and power-up a simple system using nothing more than the instructions in the box. Granted, more involved systems require training and experience. But at the end of the day, common sense is the rule, not the exception, with designing fiber-optic systems. You do not need to be an engineer or technician to learn fiber optics. As for installation and troubleshooting, what can I say? We have simple crimp-on connectors that anyone can do, and many of our transmission/reception systems are totally self-diagnostic and even, in some cases, self-adjusting.

Myth 3: Fiber-optic systems are extremely expensive. Granted, fiber-optic systems may not necessarily save you money on the up-front or in a single-camera, short-run scenario. But it might.

Consider using a single coaxial cable for an outside camera application. Let's make it simple and say that the run is 500 feet long. To properly install this single coaxial cable system outside, you should install a surge protector for lightning, and will probably require a ground loop corrector (GLC) of some sort. Well, you just ran the cost of that coaxial cable up by an average of $150. The fiber-optic system may require a transmitter and receiver, but it will not require surge protection or a GLC. At the end of the day, your overall cost on this simple, single fiber run will be about 20 percent more than if you did the job with coaxial. Since fiber-optic cable can be run in the same conduit as high voltage (depending upon local electrical codes), you could save a fortune not having to tear up your parking lots trenching for coax. Before you throw fiber optics out the door because of cost, you should do a serious comparison of both short-term and long-term expenses. In most cases, when fiber costs more on the up-front, it will save you a lot on the long-term.

Myth 4: Fiber-optic cable is fragile and hard to work with. I think this myth came from the old days of grind-and polish connectors. Granted we still have and use these styles of connectors. When first learning to install them, the average person can break the optic glass ... so it seems that the fiber is fragile. The fact is, however, that fiber cable is stronger and more flexible than coaxial cable because 98 percent of the fiber cable is designed for strength while less than 5 percent of the coaxial cable is designed for strength. Additionally, fiber-optic cables are made with pure glass. Pure glass is flexible and strong.

Tale 5: Fiber is great, but we can only send a maximum of four video signals down a single fiber. Oh this is a really big one ... We are able today to transmit up to 64, real-time, full-resolution video images, bidirectionally (128 actual video signals) on a single fiber simultaneously and ... on the same fiber, at the same time, send 64 channels of stereo quality audio, bidirectionally (128 actual audio channels) and ... on the same fiber, at the same time, send 64 data or control signals, bidirectionally (128 individual controlling signals). Now, daisy chain this system up to five times with up to five miles between points, and you have 320 bidirectional, real-time signals. Now expand the system and start adding things up. What a hoot! If nothing else, you should be able to see that there is a huge list of potentials for fiber-optic applications between a simple, single camera run and the end of your imagination

OK, with the myths out of the way, we can concentrate on the fiber-optic systems.

Overall, I have developed a few "Golden Rules" of fiber-optic design that I live by. They are as follows:

Fiber-Optic Golden Rule 1: You will always be better off working with fiber-optic companies that specialize in CCTV and/or security applications - this versus telephone- and/or data transmission-related companies. Why? Telephone companies run hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable each year. They handle millions of data and audio signals each hour. So why wouldn't these folks be the best to go to for my surveillance fiber needs? Because your surveillance/security optic specialists will

- understand your applications better;

- have a wider, more applicable line of equipment designed especially for the CCTV security industry; and

- have a stronger base of knowledge and support available for the design, installation and servicing of surveillance/security-based fiber-optic systems.

Bottom line, if you have heart problems would you go to a general practitioner?

Fiber-Optic Golden Rule 2: Work with the best equipment and fiber-optic cable available. Pinching pennies on fiber-optic cable and/or equipment falls in the same category as pinching pennies on coaxial cable. You will save on the up-front, but will pay in the end. Ending payments come in the form of extensive system downtime, repeat problems, interruptions of security and extensive service costs.

Fiber-Optic Golden Rule 3: Verify the credentials of the individual(s) who are designing your fiber-optic transmission system. If you have a few cameras and a basic, run-of-the-mill application, it's OK to let someone break their teeth on your system design. Fiber is that easy to work with! On the other hand: If you are planning a major system of 10 cameras or more, have extensive cable runs, and/or are looking for speciality or involved applications, you need to check credentials. Make sure that the individual(s) doing your design and/or installation work have the proper training, experience and manufacturer support to do the job right. Fiber is that involved! You notice that I mentioned manufacturer support. On the CCTV side of the fiber-optic industry, manufacturer support is available and unprecedented. A simple phone call can save hundreds of dollars in errors and hours of frustration. In the fiber industry, it is possible to speak directly to the experts you need on any level. The majority of the individuals you will speak with on this side of the industry have grown up with the industry. They have been here since fiber optics was nothing more than a prediction. No, theyre not that old. They have just been at if for the past 20 or 30 years. That's about as long as fiber optics have been used in the CCTV industry.

CCTV Fiber-Optic Golden Rule 4: Plan, review, plan, review, and plan some more. Granted, on a simple, smaller fiber-optic system, there is little planning necessary to have a trouble-free environment - buy it off the shelf and put it in. However, the larger the system, the more planning and review you should do before buying a single piece of equipment. There are so many options for system interface and cooperative transmission that you need to plan carefully.

CCTV Fiber-Optic Golden Rule 5: To fully appreciate what the fiber systems of 2001 can do to enhance your CCTV system and security in general, you need to shop around and ask questions.

Learn about the technology that is available before you spend too much time or money designing the controlling, transmitting, and/or hardware side of your CCTV system or upgrade. The first step to any CCTV system is to lay out and design the purpose of the overall system and then each individual point of observation or camera. After that you go for the transmission media and controlling systems. It is at that fragile point between purpose and controlling systems that you should familiarize yourself with what is available from the surveillance optic groups. Learn about the potentials, advantages and applications where fiber optics can be applied, and I think you will be amazed at what you can do. Simple stuff like running long-distance cables parallel to high voltage without any interference.

Fiber-Optic Golden Rule 6: Don't let the technology intimidate you. Fiber optics is nothing more than turning electrical signals into modulated light and injecting that light into the end of a piece of glass or plastic. At the other end, the modulated light is transformed, through photosynthesis, back into electronic signals. You don't need to understand the technology involved to take advantage of this medium. You do need, however, to investigate the advances that fiber optics have made over the past five or 10 years. These are the hidden assets that will take your overall surveillance security into and beyond the future at an affordable cost.

All right, we have covered the myths and the golden rules of fiber optics. It sounded a lot like common sense, didn't it? What did you expect? At the end of the day, a truly good designer is nothing more than an experienced (sometimes), trained (sometimes) individual with a strong presence of common sense, a large reference library, and a lot of contacts. We pay these people to represent our best interests. However, as a designer of systems, I can honestly say that my best customers are those who take the time and effort to open their eyes and minds to their own dilemmas and take part in the decisions from an educated, common-sense perspective. Take a good look at fiber ... take your time ... it's not that difficult, and the overall advantages are huge.

 
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