Tag Archives: fire safes

Controlling Humidity in Gun Safes

In much of the country humidity can cause rust problems for guns and other items locked inside a safe.  Here in Michigan, for instance, where almost every house has a basement, gun safes frequently end up in basements.  While some basements do not have humidity issues, many are quite damp.  Old “Michigan-style” field stone basements or lake-side houses tend to be especially humid.  There are two good ways to control humidity inside gun safes.


1)  Heat bars are sold under several names like Dri-Rod and Golden Rod.  These heat bars are put in the bottom of the safe.  An electric cord goes out the back of the safe into a wall outlet. They run all the time, heating to about 120 degrees.  They dry the air out, and the warmed air rises, causing circulation.  I advise against using heat bars in a safe which holds photos, stamps, historic papers, leather items, etc., because I believe the warmer air will artificially age these items.

2)  Desiccant is hygroscopic – it actually absorbs moisture from air inside a safe without changing the temperature.  Desiccant is what they put with electronics, medicines, etc., to keep moisture from affecting products during shipping and storage.  Usually it is in the form of little beads in a paper pouch.  For use in gun safes desiccant comes in one-pound bags, boxes and cans.  Desiccant eventually gets saturated and needs to be dried out to be useful again.  Typically these larger packs have some kind of indicator that tells when the beads are saturated.  Drying them out normally takes many hours in an oven at about 200 degrees – not very convenient.

Eva Dry brand desiccant products are what I personally recommend for humidity control.  Eva Dry comes in two sizes that work great to dry out air inside a traditional safe or gun safe.  They are plastic containers full of beads with a colored indicator that tells you when the unit needs to be dried out.  The good thing is that rather than using your oven, Eva Dry has an electric plug that you just plug into a wall outlet.  In 10 to 12 hours the unit is ready to go to work again.  They usually last three to five months in your safe before needing to be dried out, depending on how often the safe is opened.

If you are concerned about guns rusting in your gun safe, controlling humidity is an inexpensive form of insurance.

Securing Historic Documents, Signatures, Stamps, Part 2

The last post was about why most fire safes are not appropriate for securing collections of historic documents, signatures, stamps, etc.  Media/data safes are the best way to store these items.

Media safes are built to protect computer discs, tapes, thumb drives, etc., which get damaged at much lower temperatures than paper.  175 to 200 degrees F – or high humidity — is all it takes to ruin discs and tapes.  Data safe insulation does not give off moisture like traditional fire safes, and it will keep the inside temps lower.  During the same test in which the inside of fire safes must stay below 350 F, the inside of data safes must remain below 125 F or 150 F, (lower than the melting point of plastics).  While the inside of most fire safes will become saturated with moisture in a fire, data safes are built to stay under 80% humidity.  Doors on media safes are also more air tight, and many units even have two air tight doors.

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There are trade-offs with media safes, however.  Thicker walls and doors mean that for safes with comparable exterior dimensions, data safes will be smaller inside.  They are not as burglary resistant as some other safes, either; it makes sense to keep the safe holding your collection in a locked room.  Cost of a new data safe is about three times that of other types.  But since few businesses now use data safes, used ones are selling cheap.

For example, the used Schwab 1844CTS pictured is rated 1Hour/125 F.  During the one hour test up to 1700 F, the inside will stay under 125 F at less than 80% humidity.  It is 50.5”h x 22.75w x 13d outside, 38.5 x 12.8 x 13 inside.  Original list price was over $8000, but we’ll sell it in like-new condition for $1000.

Don’t let your bit of history be ruined in a fire.  Protect your collection in a data safe.

Securing Historic Documents, Signatures & Stamps

Collectors of signatures, historic documents or stamps should secure their collections in good safes with two-hour fire ratings, right?  Maybe not.

Fire safes protect papers from charring and burning if there is a fire.  If you experience a fire, however, your documents are likely to be damaged by moisture in most types of safes.  When subjected to heat the insulation gives off water vapor to the point where the inside air is saturated with water.  As the safe cools down, lower internal temperatures cause the air to become super-saturated, so that papers will become damp or even wet.  They will get wrinkly and inks may get blurry.  In addition, water pressure from a fire hose may penetrate the crack between the safe door and frame, forcing water into the safe.  If the safe is in a basement and water pools up there, that water may also seep inside the safe.

People in the safe and gun safe industries usually recommend that valuable documents be protected by putting them in plastic sleeves or Tupperware-type containers to protect them from moisture damage.  This advice may be erroneous.  There are hundreds of different plastic compositions and each has its own characteristics. Good information is hard to find, but the melt point will vary depending on the exact chemical composition.

Consider Tupperware:  Most of their products are made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE) or high density polypropylene (HDPP).  From what I can find these materials begin to melt at temps as low as 278 degrees F for HDPE, or 266 F for HDPE.  Characteristics of the melting process also vary by chemical composition – they may just lose their shape, they might become sticky or they might give off damaging chemicals.  That process might damage the items you are trying to protect.  When fire safes are tested the inside temperature can go as high as 350 F before they are considered to have failed.  Plastic containers, therefore, could potentially melt inside a safe that is “performing well”.

Next:  A better type of safe for historic docs.

Plastic Fire Safes

The photo shows a very low-end fire box or fire safe which is sold at big box stores.  We get these in at our shop because they frequently need some kind of work.  The cost of our labor often approaches the cost of a new unit.


These fire boxes have an Underwriters Labs “1 hour 350” rating so they apparently do well in a fire.  The problem with these, however, is that people buy them for burglary protection because the packaging calls them a “safe”.  You need to look pretty hard to find any steel here – both the exterior and interior are plastic, as are the working parts.  Even the metal bolts are held in place by plastic.  Poor excuse for a lock, too.  If a burglar breaks into your home and finds one of these units he will go into a “happy dance” before he pops it open.

You need to use some common sense when buying a safe – if you are going to put valuables in it, spend enough money to buy real burglary protection.

Used Round Door / Square Door Safes

In past years a particular type of two-door commercial safe was common in grocery stores. A large fire rated compartment, for cash register trays and paper work, had a big square door. This compartment was usually on the bottom.

Large amounts of cash, like the day’s bank deposits, were kept in a small top compartment, which usually had a small round door. This high security money chest (usually TL rated) has a heavy plate steel body which is encased in about 200# of concrete.


A single outer steel skin encloses both safes into a single unit. If the money chest is on top the units are top heavy and tricky to move. Weight requires these double units to be placed on concrete floors.

These units fell out of favor about twenty years ago because the high security compartment is too small. In addition, it is difficult to fit round doors with electronic locks. Stores seldom want these safes anymore, so that creates an opportunity for homeowners: Used round door /square door safes are readily available at safe shops for reasonable prices. Protect your personal papers from fire in the fire rated lower part, while your cash, silver and gold is safe from burglars in the high security money chest.


The last post was about what makes gun safes different from fire safes or fire/burglary safes. So what are the differences between a fire safe and a fire/burglary safe?

Fire safes are geared toward protection against fire, but that is only for fire. These are the products you find at box stores. Many of these products are rated by Underwriters Laboratories for one or two hours. But the fire rating can be accomplished with paper thin steel or even plastic safe bodies. Better units may also be “drop tested”, in which they are dropped 30 feet onto concrete while still hot from the fire test.  These safes may have good locks, but frequently the locks are very low security and made of plastic.  Lock bolts are normal small, few in number and often made of pot metal.

Most fire safes are on the small side, made for residential use. Some commercial units, however, are up to 80 inches tall and wide enough to require two doors. These giants normally still have steel that is only about 14 gauge thick. The composite insulation in fire safes is usually relatively light-weight and is made to retain moisture.

Fire/burglary safes are obviously intended to keep burglars from breaking in, in addition to providing reasonable fire resistance. To enable the safe to stand up to drills, cutting tools and prying tools the steel is typically heavier – 11 gauge, 10 gauge or 3/16 are common.  Lock bolts will be large and made of solid steel.  The composite material is likely more dense, too. The denser material may contain stones or other things to make drilling more difficult, and these materials resist sledge hammers better. There is a trade-off, however, in that the denser composite is not as fire resistant as the lighter material. So when you get better burglary resistance, you probably only get 30 minutes, or a maximum 60 minutes of fire protection.  Fire/burglary safes will always have good locks.

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One picture above shows 14 gauge steel which is common on fire safes, compared to 10 gauge which is common on fire/burglary units — 10 Gauge is 80% thicker. The other picture shows samples of the two composite materials used by one safe manufacturer. The more effective fire insulation, left, weighs 0.5 pounds. The more burglary resistant material on the right weighs 1.5 pounds.

When looking for a safe think about what you want it to do. If you only want it to protect papers from fire, a unit from a box store may be OK. If you want it to provide security against theft, then get guidance from a knowledgeable safe dealer.

Fire & Fire/Burglary Safes VS. Gun Safes: Big Differences

The vast majority of fire or fire/burglary safes, are built with an outer steel shell and an inner steel shell. The space between the steel layers is filled with a poured-in composite material similar to concrete. (Note that box stores sell frequently sell safes with plastic inner linings, and even plastic on the outside — don’t waste your money.) Photo on left shows a high quality Gardall fire safe, with steel interior and poured in composite insulation.



Almost all gun safes consist of an outer steel shell lined on the inside with drywall, and no inner steel. Most use Type X drywall which contracts and breaks into pieces during a fire. Drywall is a poor insulator compared to the poured-in composite. That causes manufacturers to misrepresent their fire ratings. Photo on right is a typical gun safe – fabric covered drywall, no inner steel.

Most quality fire safes have an Underwriters Laboratories fire rating of one or two hours. These safes have been tested independently under standard procedures at temperatures up to 1700 and 1800 degrees, respectively. Some have also undergone a 30 foot drop test. Imported units are normally tested according to Korean or Japanese standards, which are similar to U.L.’s. Gun safes will rarely pass U.L. tests so most manufacturers and importers do their own tests, or they make up numbers without testing. They often mislead consumers by mentioning “U.L. Rated”, but the U.L. rating they refer to has nothing to do with fire.

There are all kinds of ways to cheat when you test your own product. I have been told by people who worked there, that one company actually caulks the door shut during their fire test. Another way to fudge is to put the inside temp recorders in the bottom of the test unit where temps are lowest. Putting some kind of thermal barrier in front of the safe during the test also works well. For instance, remember how effectively even a sheet of paper blocks radiant heat coming off a camp fire.

If you want to protect papers or cash in a safe with the very best fire ratings available, you really should not get a gun safe. If a gun safe with inner steel and poured-in composite makes sense to you, look at Graffunder safes or Amsec’s BF series.

Fire Rated Safe Saved Family’s Life Savings

The Hercules fire safe shown here in pictures was sold by Hoogerhyde Safe decades ago. It is really filthy and smelly right now because it just went through a bad house fire. It is small, 12 x 14 x 12, a light duty one hour fire rated unit.  With little burglary resistance it is not the kind of safe that a person should put much value into, but our customer had his family’s life savings in it – lots of cash.

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The fire was severe so the customer was afraid that his savings were gone. When we got his safe open he was ecstatic to find that everything had survived. He now has an emotional attachment to this safe so he wants it cleaned up and the lock repaired. His family’s life savings should go into a safe with higher security. If his safe had been discovered by a burglar rather than being burned in a fire there would probably be nothing left to protect. His retirement would take a dramatic turn for the worse.

Too many people will use a safe like this inappropriately. For protecting large amounts of cash or other valuables, buy a safe with burglary deterrence in addition to a good fire rating.

Got a “Smelly Safe”? What to do:

People sometimes complain that their home fire safe stinks and it makes the contents smell bad, too.  This is caused by leaving the safe closed for long periods of time, especially when it is moist inside.

1)  All safes should be opened every two weeks or so to let the old air out.  This is especially true with new units because the poured-in insulation may not yet be completely dried.  Just leaving the door open for several weeks might get the smell out.

2)  Clean the inside of the safe with detergent or bleach.  Then enclose one or two laundry drier sheets inside.  We use Bounce/Febreze and it normally fixes the problem.

3)  If the smell persists there is probably mildew growing in the insulation.  We have had success by putting a bowl of bleach in the safe and closing the door for a week.  It seems like fumes from the bleach kill the mildew.

4)  Still got a problem?  Buy a new safe and open it regularly.


Disclaimer:  “Fire proof file cabinet” is a commonly used misnomer.  They should be called “fire resistant files” or “fire files” because they are not technically fire proof.  Most have a one hour fire rating while a few are rated for two hours.

Many people are not aware that there is such a thing as a fire file.  When they have massive amounts of important documents that need to be protected from fire, folks usually buy a fire safe for storage.  But few safes have drawers, so organization of papers is difficult.  Fire files make organizing easy and efficient.  They come in 2, 3 and 4 drawer units, for either letter or legal size papers.  Vertical and lateral styles are available.  90% have key locks, and combination locks are optional upgrades.  New units will run $1000 to $3000 so you might want to find used ones.

A good safe is harder to break into than a fire file.  However, if fire protection and organization of papers are the key issues, then get a fire file.