Individual Unit Alarms

Individual Unit Alarms
Security, revenue opportunities and a marketing advantage

By Douglas Carner

Is your self-storage facility secure? Are you sure? Any potential thief can rent a storage unit. This provides a convenient place for him to store goods he steals from other units. If he replaces the unit locks once he cuts them, it can be weeks before his crime is detected. The thief can then vacate at his convenience, leaving you to guess who actually committed the crime.

This type of theft is increasingly common because it can't be stopped by video surveillance, guard dogs or perimeter beams. You can't be at every unit all the time, but door alarms can. Once viewed as a luxury item, individual door alarms are now an industry security standard.

Most of your customers have some form of security at their home or office. They expect a high level of protection, even when the threat of crime is very low. To remain competitive, your facility must offer the safest, least expensive solution for storing customers' prized possessions. By incorporating individual door alarms into your security program, you can provide an effective crime deterrent while simultaneously comforting nervous tenants.

At the same time, having door alarms will increase revenue and provide a marketing advantage. There are more than 15 million storage units in North America and it's a buyers' market. Your customers want advanced security and can get it from your competition if you don't provide it. Individual door alarms are a powerful marketing tool. If your competition has them, you can bet they'll be prominently listed in their advertising.

A reliable door-alarm solution requires planning. It should match your immediate needs and budget. It must adapt as your security requirements and unit mix change. Following is a collection of insights and advice from each of the major door-security vendors in the self-storage industry.

Site Layout and Design

The planning and purchasing of security hardware and software requires an understanding of your specific site layout. How will your access keypads and sirens interact with the door activity? Will your door activity reach the security panel by wires or radio signals? What path will the signal travel and what obstacles must be overcome?

Every door-security vendor has its preferred solution, but they all agree on one thing: They want to see your site plans so an appropriate security solution can be prepared. "The first step is to make sure all of your drawings are accurate and all conduit requirements are in place," says Franklin Young, vice president of business development for PTI Access Controls in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Taking care of your site preparation from the beginning will ensure you the greatest cost savings."

"Avoid hidden costs by asking about your security vendor," advises John Fogg, general sales manager for Denver-based Sentinel Systems Corp. "Do they include every part needed for installation? Do they offer quality installation, clear documentation and knowledgeable support staff? Do they manufacture their own boards and use waterproof enclosures? How long have they been making their products?"

According to Tony Gardner, lead security installer for QuikStor, "Your security vendor can run a comprehensive analysis to determine the proper placement and quantity for its equipment. Expect to see a timely quote with competitive pricing and very flexible options. The promised installation needs to be fast and simple, without disrupting your tenants or cutting pavement. Don't become an experiment. Your model/version of door alarms should have a proven track record at hundreds of sites."

"Look for a system designed to operate within the self-storage environment and made from scratch," suggests Steve Cooper, marketing director for Digitech International Inc. "It must be tamper-proof against magnetic force, entry into the unit or wall removal. Product installation and servicing are the most expensive part of your security system. Your main ongoing costs are from maintaining the door contacts."


The fewer the parts, the simpler the installation and the lower your maintenance costs. The required parts must be matched to the construction and usage patterns unique to your facility. A one-size-fits-all mentality will not serve anyone's best interests. The same is true of how you promote your security. Your security vendor should be able to clearly explain the system benefits so you can pass this information on to prospective customers.

While Fogg suggests using the Yellow Pages to promote your security features, Young ads that even before your facility is open, "You want to establish a strong security presence based on the competition in your area. Your security vendor will help you from a competitive marketing point of view."

You will likely spend between $40 and $100 per unit for your door security, so make your money count. "Unit security isn't just an expense," explains Quikstor's Gardner. "It can also be a thriving source of income. These door alarms can be rented individually to the tenants who value this service. Your rental rates remain competitive while you purchase only the security you currently need. This marketing method has proven itself to be an amazing money maker."

But not all vendors agree this is the best approach. Fogg recommends alarming every unit and then raising rental rates across the board, not just charging a premium to those tenants who choose the security option. "By using a wired system, you avoid the need for installing and changing batteries in your equipment," he says.

Wired vs. Wireless

The initial cost of installing door security will depend on how much of your facility already exists. If your site only exists on paper, then you have the advantage of running conduit during construction. If this conduit is properly planned, you will avoid costly change orders and licensing delays. If your site already exists or is difficult to wire, then wireless is an easy and cost-effective solution.

Wired door security has been around for decades. "Wiring is often done in darkened areas," says Darrell Hoblack, president of Demco Electronics. "You can save time by ordering your unit wiring in pre-cut lengths with pre-installed connector plugs. Be sure to leave a few wire pairs free for adding future features like beams or motion detectors."

Wiring technology has advanced dramatically. Some electrical codes require plenum-coated wiring to reduce the generation of poisonous gas during a fire. If you live in areas prone to rats or lightning, you can buy specialized wires that offer environmental protection. Be sure to check your local code requirements to see if you will need special permits to wire a low-voltage security system.

"Wiring units can mean a tangle of wires leading to each door contact," Young points out. "A system that uses one wire as a shared common will reduce wiring confusion and cut wire costs in half. It also makes trouble-shooting much easier. By using contact leads exceeding 2 feet, you can also reduce the number of connections and potential failure points," he says.

According to Dan Webster, president of Wham Systems, "A matrix wiring scheme will dramatically reduce the amount of wiring required. This configuration lets a single wiring cable protect more than 500 doors." Digitech's Cooper adds, "Matrix wiring means fewer paths for static electricity to travel. Using a single common for a wired system is less secure because a single wire break can disrupt many units at one time. Wireless is the product of the future for both existing and new construction. It is less prone to losing blocks of units from a failing wire."

Wireless technology comes in two varieties. Narrow-band systems are best suited for compact facilities with metal storage doors. Narrow band uses the metal surfaces as mirrors to enhance the range of the entire system. Repeaters are used to further increase area coverage. Each repeater will require nothing more than a nearby wall outlet for its power. The primary benefit to narrow-band systems is their extremely long battery life, with some designs exceeding 20 years.

Systems with a 900-Mhz spread spectrum work best in wood and/or cement facilities where sheer force is required to reliably pass the message from a door contact back to the management office. They are also suitable for expansive single-story sites that have limited access to electrical outlets. The trade-off is battery life, which is about seven years. Replacement batteries cost about $5 plus a few minutes of labor. Security vendors that offer both wireless technologies will help you evaluate which solution is correct for your facility.

"The security system must remain fully operational during adverse circumstances," says Gardner. "If repeaters are required, they must include their own anti-tamper protection plus battery backup that can survive power outages over 18 hours." Wham's Webster adds that the use of wireless door alarms should be transparent to the user and be safely enclosed in a waterproof casing.

How They Work

"Some wireless sensors can be installed outside of the storage door within a few minutes," explains Gardner. "These units are installed without ever requiring access into the storage unit. Because these sensors fit securely on the door frame, they can't be knocked out of alignment by careless tenants. Each wireless door sensor acts as a visual crime deterrent, and a clear indication of your facility's level of protection. I have seen sites that suffered from perpetual break-ins become crime-free after the installation."

Door alarms work on a simple concept: When the storage door is opened, a magnet on that door is moved away from the security contact switch. These doors are made of thin metal that is frequently being slammed and bumped by busy tenants. Both wired and wireless door-security systems use a wide gap-magnet solution to compensate for potential door wiggle and misalignment. A 2-inch to 2.5-inch contact-to-magnet gap has become the industry standard.

"One solution is to embed the alarm contacts into the floor of the unit directly beneath the door," says Mike Skrentny, president of MSTC (Mystic Systems Technology Corp.). "Another solution is to use a switch that reacts upon door locking." These methods eliminate the effects of door play, but can be expensive to install.

Some problems do not show up until years after the installation. A small bend in the contact's mounting bracket can dramatically reduce the magnet gap you can rely on. Door contacts molded into a single-piece mounting assembly, and contacts that don't require any mounting brackets at all, provide the most reliable long-term protection from false alarms and expensive maintenance calls.

Sometimes extreme circumstances, such as violent winds, will cause the door contacts to briefly trip. The intelligence within your security controller determines how the sirens and phone dialers will respond. A system with self-learning logic will detect sensors with a history of "trigger-happy" behavior and place less credibility on momentary events that occur with those units. The controller will then recommend a service call.

"PC-based security controllers offer the widest range of features, servicing simplicity and real-time self-diagnostics," says Webster. Gardner adds, "PC-based controllers allow facilities to customize cause-and-effect actions for almost any type or group of events. An alarm on the second floor may be set to only sound the siren on that floor. A group of units covered by a specific video camera can begin digital video recording when one of those units goes into alarm."

Site Map or Graphics

All versions of security controllers accommodate a powerful marketing tool called "site graphics" or a "site map." These systems "show off" your security using a large colorful screen display of your facility you can strategically place in your front office for customers to see. The displayed color of each unit reflects its current status and the presence of that unit's tenant. The quality and size of this display is directly related to the size of monitor or television used.

The electronic site map is seen as a natural extension of your door-alarm security. It brings together all the elements of your access and door control into a dazzling visual report. Another display method is to have a large framed picture showing an overhead view of the entire site. "Small lights are inserted into the picture at each unit," says Hoblack. "This provides a clear indicator of tenant access activity without relying on a second computer monitor."

Individual door alarms provide many ways of increasing revenue and security as well as a marketing advantage. But most important, your system should be reliable. "If you want the best reliability, choose a company with a long- established record that offers software and security in a fully integrated package," Fogg recommends.

A well-planned door-alarm security solution will bring you years of economical and reliable performance. Your system must be scalable and grow with your business needs. If planned wisely, security becomes a powerful asset to your overall marketing strategy. When it comes to security, individual door alarms are your best return on investment.

Douglas Carner is a senior vice president at QuikStor, a security and software company that has installed more than 100,000 wireless door alarms and access keypads since 1987. For more information, visit

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