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Types of Safe Locks

Updated on February 14, 2011

Safe Lock Basics

A safe’s primary function is common knowledge - it’s a container designed to keep your valuables secure. But do yo know all that goes into making them secure? They’re far more complex than most people give them credit. Quality and thickness of steel, mounting assembly, flood and fire protection; these are just a few characteristics that play a large role in determining a unit’s overall effectiveness, but perhaps the most important features are safe locks.

First of all, it goes without saying (even though I’m saying it now), that a safe would essentially be useless without a lock. The locks were talking about, however, aren’t the same ones you used to use to lock up your bike at by the soda shop. The unit keeping a two ton jewelry safe secure is going to have a little more bang. We’re talking about systems with multiple levers, relockers, notched tumblers, gamma ray resistance. even locks constructed to protect against explosions. These are the kind of models you want guarding your goods.

The characteristics above may sound like something out of a Hollywood heist movie, but they’re actually pretty easy to find. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is an international mega company that specializes in testing products. They test everything from alarm clocks to internal-combustion engines, and if a product you’re using is brandishing the UL mark of approval, you can almost guarantee it will perform as advertised. Their endorsement on security products is no exception. Here’s an article that provides an extremely detailed look at UL’s safe and lock rating system.

Obviously, the dependability of the lock, as we covered, is a huge factor, but nearly as important is the type of lock itself, particularly if this is going to be a unit that you’ll be accessing frequently. With the exception of keyed entry locks, which can be found primarily on smaller units, there are three secure ways to access a safe; combination, electronic, and biometric safe locks.

Combination Safe Lock

Old school, but very reliable.
Old school, but very reliable.

Types of Safe Locks

Combination locks: Combination safe locks are an old, trusted and tested design, which have been around for well over a century. In fact, some of the first combination locks in use are still functioning today. They’re incredibly reliable, and virtually maintenance free. If you own a safe secured by one of these mechanical dial units, all you generally need in terms of maintenance is to have a locksmith come and run routine maintenance on it every five years. Keep it up, and it will last you forever.

The downside of this type is that gaining access is incredibly slow, changing the combination can be very difficult for a novice (a certified locksmith is often required to complete the task), and it lacks many extra security and convenience features boasted by the subsequent models (we’ll cover these in a moment). That said, combination locks still remain my favorite, as I’m a simple man who enjoys a maintenance-free lifestyle.

Electronic Locks: Electronic locks are quickly becoming the most popular breed of safe locks. Access is granted by entering the correct combination (usually six numbers) on a keypad, making this class far more convenient than the relatively slow and clumsy operation of the aforementioned mechanical lock. On many customizable models, the keypad doesn’t even have to be on the safe itself. The S&G 6120, for instance, can be parked up to 10 feet from the safe. In addition to enabling significantly quicker and convenient access, electronic locks, particularly higher end models, can be very feature-rich.

One feature found amongst the majority of them are configurable user modes, allowing you and several others to each have unique own codes - usually administered using a master code. This is an ideal option in a retail or office environment. Electronic locks can also feature lockout thresholds, time locking, duress mode, which will open the safe and page the local police if entered (for use during a hold up). As mentioned, electronic locks can be synced up with alarm systems, motion sensors, and even integrated with surveillance cameras.

The downside to electronic locks is maintenance, though this is progressively changing for the better. Electronic locks usually run on 9 volt batteries, which in a typical household setting will need to be changed about once every year - not too bad, really. It’s strongly recommended, however, that the combination be changed on at least a monthly basis - especially when used frequently. Over time, punching in the same combination can leave marks on the keypads, revealing the numbers used. You generally don’t want to give a burglar those kind of hints.

Aside from changing the batteries and codes, electronic locks occasionally encounter other problems - they are after all, electronic. Corrosion and short circuits can often warrant a replacement or a visit from a locksmith, but again, the reliability of these units improves on nearly a monthly basis.

Biometric Locks: As far as safes go, biometric locks refer to systems which grant access when a finger is swiped on the scanner matching the pattern stored in the system. Fingerprint reading technology sounds complicated - it is. It’s also very cool, and convenient. Biometric locks are extremely popular for use on personal handgun safes, where the owner can get to his pistol in under a second simply by swiping his finger. Full size gun safes also employ this technology, making entry enabling even quicker than the electronic keypad.

In addition to speed, fingerprint scanners also provide for redundant security. The S&G Z03 system, for instance, can optionally combine both electronic keypad entry, as well as a fingerprint recognition. This kind of integration allows for incredible levels of security. As in the case of electronic locks, biometric scanners usually allow user modes as well. Some models can store up to 50 fingerprints at a time, allowing a family of five to scan in each of their fingers (just in case you couldn’t do the math).

The downside to biometric locks is that while near perfection, they still aren’t perfect. Though it’s not easy, they can be spoofed. This became very evident in Mythbusters when Adam and Jamie fooled a scanner with a photocopy of the correct print. That’s what’s known as false acceptance. On the other hand, fingerprint safes can also produce false rejection, which occurs when an authorized user is mistakenly denied.

Biometric technology is very fascinating, and offers amazing potential, and while it’s great when used in combination with another form of entry (ie - a keypad), at this point, I wouldn’t trust it to guard my most expensive belongings on its own.

For more detailed information, be sure to check out the following article on safe locks.

Operating an electronic safe lock

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