A great recent development in security is the electronic safe lock. The majority of gun safes, vault doors and commercial safesgun now come with them. They are easier and faster to use than traditional combination locks. Another advantage is that owner can easily change the combination himself, whenever he wants, without calling a locksmith or safe expert.
Well, while working on a project last week I discovered something interesting. One of the safe manufacturers told me they actually – intentionally – make it hard for consumers to find instructions on changing codes for their electronic locks. They do this because most of their dealers don’t tell the consumer how to change codes and don’t give them operating instructions. That way the dealer can charge a fee for going to the customer’s home and doing it.
I don’t know whether this is treating the consumer unfairly or not, but it seems greedy. We always provide personal instruction as well as owner’s manuals for electronic locks. We do charge when changing combos on mechanical locks because there is potential for the safe owner to make an expensive mistake.
When buying a safe, gun safe or vault door with an electronic lock, make the dealer give you instructions for the lock.
If you need to put your safe or gun safe in the garage here are the steps you should take:
- Invest in a heavier, higher quality vault, preferably TL-rated like American Security’s RF series gun safe.
- Conceal the safe the best you can. Build a cabinet around it or drape a blanket or something over it. American Security sells what they call a “Safe Cloak” for gun safes which is a fabric cover that makes your safe look like a cheap storage cabinet. It attaches to you gun safe with a magnet across the top and hangs down to ground level. If possible, put the safe in a back room or around a corner.
- Don’t allow service people or delivery personnel to go through your garage.
- Keep your garage door locked at all times to keep people out.
- Increase the perceived risk to a burglar — put up a sign stating that the house and garage are monitored. It helps to install a very conspicuous camera, even if it is fake.
- Anchor your safe to the concrete floor using high grade anchor bolts. Most fire safes are light enough to be picked up. If you don’t have the right tools or skills, hire someone who does.
- Don’t keep pry tools, sledge hammers, torches, etc. in the same area – keep them locked up in the house.
To avoid problems from cold and fluctuating temperatures in northern states:
- Use a dehumidifier rod (heat bar) inside the safe to keep temps as stable as possible.
- There can be a problem in those first warm humid days of spring when the ground is still very cold. The cold floor will keep pulling warmth from the safe causing condensation, making the safe sweat, which encourages rust. Antique safes are especially prone to rust. It is best, therefore, to have a small amount of contact with the floor. Thin squares of wood or plastic at the corners will minimize the problem. We usually use pieces of the plastic shims used to install windows and doors. Important Note: Don’t raise the safe too far off the ground; the bigger the gap there is between the floor and the safe, the easier it is for someone to move the unit. A big gap makes anchoring less effective too.
- Battery life in electronic locks will be shorter in cold situations. I would guess that electronic locks themselves would have shorter lives, but that is just speculation. Dial locks are less affected by cold.
Keeping your gun safe in the garage is less than ideal. Minimize risk by taking proper precautions.
This low end gun safe was being used in a pharmacy (wrong safe for the application). When the cheap lock failed the owner called a local locksmith to open it. For some reason the locksmith started out by drilling six holes in the left side, and when that did not work he cut a large hole in the door to remove the lock. We were called to repair it, but the cost to repair and make it presentable was more than the safe was worth. How would you like to pay this locksmith’s bill for destroying your safe?
If we had been called first we would have opened the safe without drilling it at all, or by drilling one hole behind the keypad where it wouldn’t show. Calling the right technician first would have avoided:
- Needing to buy a new safe
- The hassle of removing and disposing of the old safe
- The hassle of moving in a new unit
- Wasting time to clean up the mess left by the locksmith
When you need a safe for your business, don’t go to a box store — go to a safe store where they carry appropriate safes. When you have a safe problem, anywhere in West Michigan, call a properly trained safe technician, not just a locksmith.
Here is a call we often get that drives me crazy: “My safe quit working today and I can’t get it open. The lock started acting up about four months ago and kept getting worse, but now it won’t open at all.” The safe now needs to be drilled open and they complain about a bill of $300 to $400.
The most common reason a combination lock goes bad gradually, and then fails completely, is a loose “spline key”. When you turn the dial on a good combination lock a spindle transfers that movement to the lock body which is mounted on the inside of the door. Three or four wheels and some other parts are held in place on the spindle by a tiny L-shaped spline key, pictured on left. The other photo shows the inside of a Group 2 lock. At the center of the “drive wheel” is the spindle. It is grooved to hold the spline key (here pointing to 10:00) that in turn unites the wheels to the spindle.
When the spline key gets loose the wheels move, so they are no longer in sync with the dial. The lock will not open consistently even when dialed accurately. Keep trying to use the lock and the spline key will loosen up more, until it hits the inside of the lock cover or it falls out completely. In either case you are locked out of your safe.
When your safe acts up, don’t put it off. Avoid paying to drill it open by calling a competent safe technician immediately when you have problems.
We get this phone call every day: “My safe has an electronic lock and I have changed the batteries but it still won’t open.” Usually the problem is that they put in cheap batteries. Yes, there is a difference.
Whether the lock is on a fire safe, commercial safe, gun safe or vault door, the ONLY batteries that will consistently work electronic safe locks are Duracell and Energizer alkaline. Store brand batteries and even the other famous brands are inferior. The voltage will be the same on most of them, but the amps will be higher on Duracell and Energizer. Electronic safe locks need high amps to work properly. Use batteries that are fresh from the store, not the ones that have been sitting in that kitchen drawer for six years. Don’t use rechargeable batteries, either.
One more word of advice: Be really careful when changing batteries on electronic safe locks so you don’t break the contacts or connecting wires. That will require the help (and the fee) of a safe technician.
Two weeks ago I attended the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoors Trades Show in Las Vegas. Most attendees of SHOT are there for the guns, ammo, knives and other cool outdoors gear. I go to see what is new with gun safes.
One of the things I discovered this year was that some of the sellers of Chinese-made safes know almost nothing about what they are selling. Visiting with the folks selling Chinese safes I made it a point to ask whether their safes had a lock system with a real lock body or just a solenoid plunger. Most were puzzled by the question and did not know the difference. I would get referred to someone else, who sometimes referred me to another person. They would question back “what difference does it make?” After a short explanation it was suggested that they should read what I posted on my previous blog post ($700 Gun Safe).
People selling safes are asking customers to trust them with protection of their most prized possessions. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that the sellers should actually build in a reasonable amount of security? Shouldn’t they at least know what kind of lock it has? Buy American!!
People always point out to me that they can buy a gun safe at box stores for $700. “There can’t be that much difference between the one for $700 and the ones you sell for more than twice the price” they say. Well, today we got in another one of those $700 gun safes. It is the third one brought in to us in the last three months with failed locks.
Note: Bringing these safes in is not that hard for the customer because they only weigh about 300#. Lack of steel ya’know, makes for light safes. Note #2: Almost every $700 safe is Chinese made junk.
The picture on the left is from an American made real safe, which offers real security. You can see the S&G Group 2 lock which has the internal relocker. You can see the external relocker next to it. Behind the lock is the heavy steel mounting plate, which holds in place the ball bearing hardplate to keep someone from drilling into the lock.
Now look at the picture on the right showing the electronic locking arrangement on the $700 Chinese made gun safe. (The all-American name on the front of the safe is a well-known one that you would recognize.) See the lock body? No, there isn’t one – just a solenoid with .305” diameter plunger. No internal relocker, either. Or external relocker. Or mounting plate. Or hard plate. Sometimes people accidentally ruin this solenoid mechanism just by putting pressure on the safe’s spoke handle when the safe is closed.
So how did our safe technician open this “safe” when the lock failed? High powered drills or expensive specialized equipment? No, he took off the keypad on the front of the safe. A piece of wire about twice the thickness of a coat hanger was bent in a particular way, then run through the hole which is there for the lock cable. Without even being able to see through the hole he used the wire to punch in the solenoid plunger. You don’t need hammers, screw drivers, drills, scopes or anything except the wire. By the way, all three of these which have come to our shop in the last two months failed between 12 and 15 months after purchase, so – you guessed it – they are off warranty. And THAT is what you get when you buy a $700 gun safe! So spend more money and buy your gun safe (or a vault door) from a safe store.
There are a number of less common types of re-locker devices. For example, high security safes sometimes come with ”glass relockers”. There is typically a piece of tempered glass with two holes in it, and wires under spring tension are hooked into the holes. If a person pounds on the lock it will shatter the glass, causing the relock pin to snap into place, which blocks the safe boltworks from being forced open. Hitting the glass with a drill bit will also break the glass.
Thermal relockers are found only on high end, high security safes. Normally there is a piece of metal or a soldered piece in a wire arrangement, all under spring pressure. The metal melts at a very low temperature, maybe 250 degrees. Heat generated from a torch, or even from extensive grinding, will melt the metal which sets off the relocker.
Some relockers do not actually block the boltworks from moving. On some units firing a relocker causes a heavy bolt to shoot out from the door, behind the frame of the safe. This is great way of keeping the door from being forced open. The photo shows a unique system: The relock can be fired either by an attack on the lock, by a torch cutting through the cable, or by melting the soldered thermal joint just above the lock encasement. When set off this is actually a double relocker. One part (not shown) blocks the right side boltworks from moving. The vertical bolt shoots out about an inch — this is accomplished with a heavy spring which can’t be seen here. It is then behind the door opening of the safe body where it very stubbornly keeps the safe door closed.
Once again, only experienced safe technicians should work on your safe. Inexperienced technicians may accidentally set off a relocker, perhaps costing you hundreds of dollars.
Most safe manufacturers tell you that they have relock devices in their safes, but they never tell you what one is or what it does.
The most common form of relocker is the “internal” relocker. “Internal” because it is located inside the lock body on safe locks that are rated Group 2 or higher. Burglars attempting to break into a safe will frequently smash the lock dial on the outside of the safe with a hammer, bat or anything else they can swing. The force of that blow will drive the dial spindle back into the safe, against the back cover of the lock body. The lock body is located inside the safe door. Enough force will cause the back cover to break away along a line that is intentionally made weak by the lock manufacturer. When this occurs a spring loaded “relock trigger” pops into a hole in the lock bolt. The lock bolt is the part that actually keeps your safe locked, by preventing the big bolts in the door edge from being pushed back in. With the relock trigger in that hole, then the lock bolt is deadlocked and cannot be forced to unlock.
Picture on left shows back cover of S&G Group 2 lock. Picture on right shows lock with cover removed. Relocker is the angled brass piece in lower right. Since the lock cover is removed the relocker is “fired”, and you can see the right end of it is in the hole on the lock bolt.
If the relocker is set off this way a burglar is much less likely to get into your safe. You will not be able to open it either. An experienced safe technician will be able to open you safe and make it useable again. Note that most locksmiths are not skilled at opening locked safes, especially when a relocker has been set off.
Next posting will be on external relockers.
If you are looking to buy a cheap gun safe with a dial-type lock, be careful. Cheap units with dial locks frequently use what is called a “direct entry” lock system. These are much less secure than a safe with a Group 2 dial lock. Try this: With one hand put pressure on the safe handle, and with the other hand turn the lock dial. If you feel the lock turning with the hand on the handle, then it is a direct entry lock. An experienced person can determine the combination when he can feel what is going on inside the lock. The picture below is the inside of a very cheap direct entry lock system. The round silver parts near the top are the three lock wheels. The slot going from the center to the outside edge of the wheel corresponds with one of the numbers on the dial. You can determine the lock combination when you feel the openings on the wheels through the safe handle.
When a safe has a Group 2 lock you cannot feel the lock through the handle. These locks, as well as the whole locking system, provide much more protection. Naturally they cost more, too. Spend more money — buy a quality safe with a Group 2 lock if you want your safe to provide real burglary protection.