a local social event, I met a locksmith, and we started talking shop on the
topic of securing assets with locks and the what’s what in the safe world. After a
brief but very interesting conversation, I felt inspired to do a little
research about the wide world of safes. What I learned was both fun and
Ways Safes Are Rated
for safes are separated into two categories, performance ratings and general
construction ratings, which were established decades ago and reflect
widely accepted manufacturing standards. Construction ratings, while still
useful, are less popular since there is only an implied level of security versus a tested level of security.
ratings stem from simple assessments of a safe’s physical build
box. The assumption is that these boxes are better than a locked drawer but
not all that secure from a determined individual with a large flathead screw
driver and a hammer.
rating for safe with a 1/4” of metal in the walls of the cabinet and
1/2” of metal in the door.
defined as a cabinet’s having a minimum thickness of 1/2” of
steel in the walls, a minimum thickness of 1” of steel in the door and
Laboratory, a global leader in certifying, testing and inspecting products,
gets to have far too much fun with the testing and rating of safes, utilizing
teams with skill sets ranging from brute strength to mechanical genius.
these characters with the blueprints of the safe, a supply of high-end
portable tools, torches, explosives, a stopwatch and a desire to get into the
tested safe as fast as possible, all as part of the process of certifying
safes. Only safes that meet UL’s minimum build specifications qualify
for testing by the organization.
take away revelation was that most safes are opened in less than fifteen
minutes. Very few safes survive the testing process to the thirty
minute mark, and even less survive to the one hour mark. This doesn’t
mean that an average person can get a safe open that quickly; it simply
serves as a benchmark for the fastest time top professionals can open it.
Most of UL’s testing stops after 30 minutes, and no testing goes beyond
60 minutes. At that time, a safe receives a Tools-60
rating, a Torch-60 rating or an Explosives-60 rating. Most rating are Tool
rating with the addition of a torch or explosives rating.
lesson relevant to performance testing was that the backbone of all security
assumptions for safes is that when someone starts the process of getting
into a safe, he/she has only a limited amount of time to complete the task
before getting caught.
Decoding UL Performance Ratings
indicate what attack method UL used:
that the attack used tools
that the attack used a torch
that the attack used explosives
indicate how long the safe survived during attack testing:
- 15 means
that the safe survived up to the 15 minute mark while under attack
- 30 means
that the safe survived up to the 30 minute mark while under attack
- 60 means
that the safe survived up to the 60 minute mark, at
which point the testing stopped
Examples of UL ratings include:
of the UL team could not get into the safe in under fifteen minutes of
continuous work time using their prescribed list of high power portable tools.
of the UL team could not get into the safe in under thirty minutes of
continuous work time using their tools or a prescribed portable torch
of the UL team could not get into the safe in under an hour using tools and
ratings give the consumer an understanding of what
it takes to get into big steel and concrete boxes. These numbers are
extremely useful to consumers because many safe manufacturers do a fantastic
job of looking and feeling secure, heavy and sturdy while doing a horrible
job of actually being “safe.” Many gun safes, for example, are
notoriously bad in this regard. The manufacturer builds a beautiful stout
looking box, fills the doors and walls full of low-grade plaster or concrete
and turns these products loose on the consumer market, touting them as high
quality products. Unfortunately, the reality of these safes is that the
average highly motivated 17 year old male with tools from somewhere in the
neighborhood can probably get into most of these “safes.”
Special U.L. Rating: Residential
The minimum performance rating of U.L. rated
safes is the “U.L. Residential Security Container rating.” This
rating means that it took the UL testers at least five minutes to get into
the container using a large screw driver and a hammer.
Here is a
description of the basic minimum build specifications for all UL ratings
(with the exception of the residential security container):
safe must have a UL Group II, Group IIM, Group I
or Group IR combination lock (described below).
ensure that the safe be difficult to move, it must be either heavy or
immobile. UL requires that it either weigh 750 pounds or more, or have the
ability to anchor to the floor and a set of
instructions about how to secure it there.
• The body walls of the safe’s cabinet and
door must be made of a material equivalent to at least 1” open
hearth-steel with a minimum tensile strength of 50,000 psi.
• Walls must be fastened in a
manner equivalent to a continuous 1/4” penetrating weld with a minimum
tensile strength of 50,000 psi.
Word about Locking Mechanisms
Whether on a
high quality safe with a high UL rating or on a low-cost, low-quality safe,
the locking mechanisms you will find fall into one of three categories:
electronic, mechanical or hybrid. Just as with the safes themselves, there is
no such thing as an impenetrable lock; some just take more time than others
Ratings for Mechanical Dial Locks
other characteristics of safes, Underwriters Laboratory has standardized the
certification system for different locks. There are four UL categories for
mechanical dial locks; Group IR, Group I, Group 2M and Group II. The vast
majority of the safes have a group II locking
take into account the fact that safecrackers or burglars can X-ray simple
mechanical locks to get a view of their inner workings, making the locks
easier to open. Some newer locks use materials that do not show up on X-rays,
making those locks harder to crack.
descriptions of UL safe locking mechanism ratings in ascending order:
• Group II: This mechanism can, in the hands of a
skilled professional, be opened in less than twenty minutes.
• Group 2M: These locks provide a
moderate degree of difficulty and have passed the two man-hour manipulation
• Group I: These mechanisms take at least 20
man-hours to open but, if X-rayed, can be opened in a shorter period of time.
• Group IR: These locks have the same requirements
as Group I locks and also can fend off being X-rayed or other radiological
attacks within reason.
Ratings for Electronic Keypad Locks
years, electronic locks have become extremely popular versus their mechanical
counter parts in the domestic safe market and have some definite advantages.
To start with, it takes a fraction of the time to open the lock and get into
the safe, which promotes daily use of the safe. It also takes more
sophisticated tooling to manipulate a basic electronic lock. Most have a
lockout time period of five to fifteen minutes each time three wrong
combinations are tried. In addition, some locks can handle multiple
combinations and maintain a log of when the safe was opened and which
combination was used to open it.
For the most
part, Type I electronic safe locks are superior to mechanical locks with one
important exception: When electronic locks do fail, they fail
without warning and you have to get into the safe manually (that is, you will
have to hire a professional to break into your
safe). Old mechanical locks, in contrast, usually give the user a
little warning before they fail in the form of a
rough feeling dial. That said, many electronic locks last twenty years or
more without failure. It’s best to contact the locksmith company that
would most likely help you get back into the safe if there is a failure and
ask its experts for their opinions about which brands of electronic locks
specifies only one rating, Type I, for electronic locks. To get this
rating, the lock must have specific build specifications:
• The combination is kept in the part of the lock
inside the safe to prevent a thief’s changing the external parts of the
safe, replacing them with a known combination unit.
• The lock combination is stored electronically in
some form of Non-Volatile Random Access Memory (NVRAM), so that if the
battery dies or is removed, the locking mechanism won’t erase the
memory and the code, locking out the rightful owner of the safe.
• The lock itself---not the keypad---has to
initiate the drawback bolt. Again, this is so that the keypad can’t be
replaced or the wire cut and random voltage input signals delivered to the
wires to compromise and open the lock.
• The batteries must be located outside the safe to
prevent the rightful owner of the safe from being locked out through power
to the burglar container safes that described above, another safe option is
safes that are built into structures such as homes or offices. If you would
like to have a safe built in, a little forward
planning with a contractor can go a long way. Wall safes, floor safes and
entire safe rooms can all be easily constructed during the initial
construction phase of the house. A pre-manufactured door can be added
afterwards, and the performance and construction ratings would apply to the
also be worth looking into the fire rating of the safe. Many fire safes have
minimal burglar resistance, and many burglar safes have minimal fire
resistance, but there are a couple of models that offer both.
UL offers a two part performance rating for fire resistance. The
first part gives the temperature and the second part gives the time exposure
that standardized contents were able to survive. For example, if a safe is rated a UL Class 350 One-hour safe, it withstood
350 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour before breaking down.
Questions You Must Answer Before Buying a Safe
1. What will be stored in this container?
a. What are the size requirements for the inside of
the safe? (What volume do I need?)
b. What is the market and personal value of it? It
makes no sense to keep $1M in a $500 safe or $20K in a $10K safe.
2. Where will the safe be kept?
a. What are the size requirements on the outside of
b. How much can it weigh and still safely be moved
c. Can the floor hold that weight of the safe and
whatever contents you would like to store in it?
3. How many people will be using it?
a. Does it need to have multiple combinations and an
electronic tracking system?
4. How frequently will the door need to be opened?
a. Will it need to be opened every 15 minutes (in
which case an electronic lock might be preferable) or every 30 days (in which
case a simple dial might work fine)?
5. Are there any insurance benefits to upgrading to
a safe with a higher security rating?
a. In some cases, significant insurance breaks can
be realized or coverage can be increased based on UL performance ratings
6. How far away is the nearest response to an alarm
a. If the police response time takes more than 45
minutes, you probably need to go with a higher rather than lower rating.
remember that the most secure safe is the one no one knows exists.
Larry sells precious metals at the
Silver Trading Company, LLC. Visit us at www.silvertrading.net . Worried
about storage issues? Ask us and maybe we can help.
Larry LaBorde Llabord@aol.com
Owner of Silver Trading Company:
Silver Trading Company is committed to providing silver and gold at the
most reasonable price directly to our customers. We strive to do this by
keeping our overhead low and our volume high.