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Adding a Back-Up Camera to Your Car

Options for Various Budgets and DIY Preferences

(updated July 1st, 2014)

Rearview cameras, which project an image of what's behind a car on a dashboard screen when the transmission is shifted to Reverse, have become more common on new vehicles, and are now found even on some entry-level models. And they're about to become mandatory. Earlier this year, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a long-delayed ruling requiring that all new vehicles under 10,000 pounds must include a back-up camera beginning in May 2018.

The ruling is the result of safety advocates pushing for the technology to prevent what's known as "backover" accidents that happen when a driver doesn't see a person behind the vehicle and then rolls over him while backing out. Tragically, the most frequent victims are children. According to, an average of 50 children are backed over every week in the U.S., resulting in at least two fatalities.

But even though the NHTSA rule doesn't go into effect for several years and many more cars now have cameras, you don't have to wait until your next vehicle purchase to get a back-up camera for an extra measure of safety. You'll find a variety of back-up camera systems available at local car stereo shops and "big box" electronics stores. While these outlets usually provide installation, typically for a fee, auto parts stores and online retailers also provide plenty of solutions for do-it-yourselfers.

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With so many choices it can be a bit overwhelming to decide what type of camera is best for your vehicle. But you can begin to break it down depending on whether your car already has an in-dash screen. For a vehicle that already has a screen, cameras range from $150-$400. Count on $400-$600 for labor.

If your car doesn't have a screen, there's additional cost, of course: $150-$200 for a screen alone and $500-$1,500 for new head unit with a screen.

Back-Up Camera Types
Back-up camera systems come in three basic types:

  • Camera-only systems that can be added to a car that already has a stock in-dash screen.
  • Individual camera and display components purchased separately.
  • All-in-one systems that include a camera and a display.

Camera-only systems are straightforward and usually lower in cost since they simply integrate into the car's electrical system to display images on a stock in-dash screen.

"The key is using the correct interface to get the video signal from the aftermarket camera into the factory screen," says Derek Kenney, owner of Sound in Motion, an aftermarket car electronics shop in the Boston area. Beyond this, the biggest issues to note with a camera-only system are typically the camera type and quality and how it's mounted to the vehicle. More on this in a bit.

All-in-one systems are more complex and are also more varied. They range from camera-and-screen combos, such as the Peak PKCORB, that are hard-wired into a car's electrical system, to wireless systems such as the Pyle PLCM34WIR, that use radio frequencies to send images between the two main components. Some portable navigation systems also do double duty as displays for wireless back-up cameras, as with the Garmin Nuvi 2798LMT.

But Kenney warns that wireless systems use radio signals and so while they are easier to install, they also can be subject to interference. And no matter the type of all-in-one system you purchase, be careful not to skimp on price and end up not being able to clearly see what's behind you. Purchasing a camera and a screen separately may be your best bet on getting a back-up system that best fits your car, Kenney adds.

Camera and Display Mounting Options
A big decision with any type of system will be where to mount the camera. An even bigger decision for vehicles that don't already have an in-dash monitor is where to install a separate viewing screen. Camera-mounting options are somewhat easier, since back-up cameras are small and can be placed in several locations.

"Most newer cars have an area near the trunk handle or license plate lights that we mount the camera to," Kenney says. "This way the camera is more protected and looks stock."

When deciding on a mounting angle for the camera, Kenney suggested setting it up to take in the bumper at the bottom of the screen for reference when backing up. One easy solution is a back-up camera that's installed in a license plate frame. "But you still have to drill a hole and run the wire in and through the trunk, hatch or tailgate," Kenney says.

Adding a screen that's easily within the driver's view is a bit more complicated in the tight confines of a car. It could involve replacing the stock radio with an aftermarket unit with a screen, or even swapping out the rearview mirror for one that incorporates a small screen. Adding a small screen to the top of the dash is a common solution. Each option comes with trade-offs, such as screen size versus clear visibility.

Get a Clear Picture
A primary concern when you're considering any type of aftermarket back-up camera is visibility, specifically how much and how well you can see behind a vehicle. This means making sure that the camera captures a clear image and that the screen displays it well. A camera with a wide viewing angle and a deep focal length will show a better image of what's behind your vehicle.

The clarity of the image largely depends on the resolution of both the camera and the screen, as well as the size of the screen. The larger the screen, typically the better the view from the camera will be. Both camera and display resolution are measured in pixels, while the focal length is rated in feet. The viewing angle is determined by degrees. Higher numbers are better in all cases.

Another camera specification to look for is the lux rating, which measures performance in low light conditions, Kenney notes. The lower the lux rating, the better the camera can see in the dark. A camera with a 0.1 lux rating, like the Accele RVCLPMB, is much better in low light conditions than a camera with a 1.0 lux rating. Some back-up cameras also have LEDs or infrared LEDs to help illuminate the area behind a vehicle, but Kenney describes cameras with infrared LEDs as "useless."

If your vehicle already has an in-dash screen, you may be willing to spend more on a high-quality camera to integrate with it. But Kenney says that back-up cameras usually have lower resolution than factory in-dash screens.

"Most screens are capable of high-resolution images, but most cameras are only rated at standard definition," he explains. Other features that can be part of an aftermarket rearview camera include selectable viewing angles, support for multiple cameras and grid lines that help you gauge how close you are to an object and where a car is headed.

Other Benefits of a Back-Up Camera
In addition to the safety benefits of a back-up camera, there are other advantages to adding the technology to your car. One is being able to see how close you are to objects while maneuvering a vehicle into a tight space, such as when parallel parking.

If you drive a large vehicle like a van, SUV or pickup, which also have sizable blind spots, the extra set of eyes behind you gives you extra confidence when backing up. Back-up cameras also come in handy if you tow a trailer or boat. If you get a camera with multiple-angle capability, you may never need another person to help you line up a hitch on the back of your vehicle. But the best reason of all to install a back-up camera is to make sure a loved one doesn't become a tragic statistic.


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