When your safe or gun safe needs service you should contact a real safe company, rather than a locksmith. This is especially true if the safe is locked shut and needs to be opened. Safe technicians have more knowledge and experience in this area than a traditional locksmith. They also have specialized tools to do the work properly.
The pictures show an Auto Dialer connected to a gun safe that we recently opened. These specialized machines are great for some situations where a safe with a mechanical combination lock is in good working order but the combination is unknown. The Auto Dialer is mounted on the front of the safe, gripping jaws are attached to the lock dial and electronics are then programmed. When turned on the Auto Dialer will systematically dial every one of the 1,000,000 possible combinations on standard Group 2 mechanical locks. When everything works properly the machine comes to a stop at the right number, and a display shows you the combination.
The advantage of opening a safe this way is that there is no drilling, no holes at all to compromise the unit’s security. No damage to the paint either.
Very few of these machines are out there. They are expensive and a traditional locksmith is unlikely to own one. For obvious reasons not everyone is able to purchase an Auto Dialer. In fact, I have always suspected the FBI has a file on me as a result of owning one.
While the Auto Dialer is great for some situations there are many limitations which keep it from being an “every day” tool:
- Auto dialers only work on certain types of mechanical locks. They work on standard three wheel Group 2 locks, locks that mimic Group 2, and several other types. They do not work on Group 2M, Group 1, Group 1M, and many old locks. Sometimes the type of lock on a safe is difficult to determine, which makes a safe tech’s knowledge and experience important.
- Auto Dialers can work fast and don’t take breaks, but they can still take a long time to find the combination. Think about how many combinations “a million” really are. You might get lucky and get the combination in an hour if the combo’s first number is low. But when set on the fastest speed it can still take three straight days if the first number is high. Some locks, for a number of reasons, need to be run at slow speeds so it can actually take as long as two weeks! Occasionally the process can be shortened. For instance, if it is suspected that the combination was a “MM-DD-YY date”, these can all be run quickly. If it is known that the safe owner only used “zero and five” numbers for ease of dialing, these possible combinations can also be run quickly. If the first or second number is known for certain, that dramatically reduces the number of combinations that need to be dialed.
- The lock needs to be in good working order. Certain parts inside the lock might move too freely or may bind up. Dirt in the lock or old grease can prevent proper movement of parts. Parts can also be too worn for the machine to work.
- The very process of using the Auto Dialer can wear out the lock before finding the right combination. If the machine needs to run a long time, that by itself will be more work than most locks see in a hundred years. Even when the machine opens the safe we frequently replace the lock due to wear from the process.
- It is not worth hooking up the machine to locks with plastic or nylon parts. They will almost certainly not last long enough for the combination to be found.
- Potential for theft of the machine severely limits where we can use it. We don’t want to be responsible for the wrong person getting their hands on an Auto Dialer. As a result we seldom use it in the field. We usually use it here in the shop when someone brings a safe to us. It can run in the back room for hours or days without us worrying about it.
- There are times when everything seems to be perfect, but the machine just plain cannot find the numbers it is looking for. It may take two weeks, dial every combination, and still give the message “Combination Not Found”. Then you still need to drill the safe.
The Auto Dialer is certainly not the Silver Bullet cure-all. It is a good tool when people bring us locked safes they bought at auction, or they inherit Grandpa’s safe, the combination for which he took to the grave. Maybe they just forgot the combo and lost that little piece of paper with the numbers. Few locksmiths have this tool, or the other specialized gizmos we have. It takes lots of special, expensive tools, along with lots of experience to be really good at vault door or safe work. Look for that kind of company when you need safe service.
As I write this our Auto Dialer is in the back working on a vault we bought yesterday. It has not been opened in 20 years. It has the right kind of lock, the lock seems to be working well, the machine has tried about 35,000 combinations so far without stopping. I just KNOW that this is THE ONE – the safe packed with silver and gold bars that will allow me to retire . . .
Safes and gun safes left in unheated garages or buildings are subject to problems with condensation when weather suddenly warms up. Pictured is a beautiful, but very massive, antique Diebold Safe. It demonstrates the problem perfectly.
We recently suffered through a cold snap during which night time temperatures went below zero every night for about a week. It took days for this 4000# antique safe to drop completely down to these temps. Likewise, when temps quickly warmed up to 55 degrees, it took time for it to warm up again. Our snow all melted in about two days, making the air very humid. Warm damp air created so much condensation on the cold safe that water was running down the safe’s surface. That water by itself will slightly damage the beautiful artwork. But when temps plummeted again the paint was further damaged. Just like freezing water trapped in tiny crevasses will crack the surfaces of rocks or concrete, it will crack old paint. This kind of moisture is also bad for safe locks.
Gun vaults left in unheated environments can be damaged the same way. Some kind of heart source inside the old Diebold would have minimized damage by keeping it from getting so cold. We recommend using a Dry Rod, Golden Rod or even a light bulb inside gun safes to moderate temperature swings. If you plan to keep your gun safe, or any kind of safe, in a garage, ask a safe expert for advice.
A nearby small town newspaper recently ran a story about a local restaurant robbery. The story related how the safe with an electronic lock had been opened, without damage, perhaps by a method shown in an internet video. The author and the local policeman came to the conclusion that no electronic safe locks can be trusted, so they warned people to only use dial type locks. They are flat wrong.
The real story is that when it comes to safes and other security devices, you get what you pay for. The “safe” in question weighs 14 pounds and can be purchased online for $125. How much security do you think you can get for $125? It certainly was not appropriate for use as a restaurant safe because the paper-thin steel would never keep out a burglar. Further, when employees see a piece of light weight junk being used to store cash, they can come up with a plan to empty it. Certainly this was an inside job, and the restaurant owners are to blame for stupidly tempting an employee into committing a crime.
It is true that many of these cheap electronic locks can be defeated easily. Internet videos show how to open some of them too. (Certain low-end gun safes also use similar inadequate locks.) If this restaurant had invested in a real safe with a high quality electronic lock the safe would not have been opened without damage. There are many U.L. Certified electronic locks that will not leave you vulnerable to theft.
Don’t be cheap and stupid: When buying a safe for a business use some common sense about what you need to spend for security.
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.