Master-Keyed Lock Systems

Master-Keyed Lock Systems
Liabilities vs. benefits

By Christopher Shope

Facilities should maintain no more than two master keys at any given time and store one of them in a "key safe" at a remote location, such as the company's main office.

Mention "master keying" to many self-storage operators and the immediate response is a nervous "I don't want to leave myself open to liability." It's natural to fear the unknown--especially when you add to that fear the messages put out by some industry attorneys who have advised against operating a facility with this capability. It's easy to understand why some would have that reaction.

Operators worry a master-keyed system may put them in the position of a warehouse operator rather than a landlord. And the concern may be justified to some degree. If you put up a facility, throw a generic master-keyed system on the doors and don't include any mention of it in your lease, you will definitely leave yourself open for problems.

Twenty years ago, industry experts recommended that operators not sell locks for fear of liability. Ten years ago, it was suggested there was a problem with the cylinder lock that had the overlock function. Now the big controversy is master keying of facilities. But the bottom line is: If you conduct your security program in a professional manner and draft a thorough lease that explains all aspects of reason for entry, you'll be legally protected. And you can reap the benefits master keying has to offer.


There are two elements to a successful master-key operation: a professional operating system with management controls, and a lease that addresses all the pertinent issues without getting you into the dreaded "warehouse" territory. First, let's talk about operations.

If you decide to operate with a master-keyed cylinder or padlock system, you must make sure the keys are restricted. A restricted key is one with a blank your local locksmith or hardware store cannot duplicate. You must also make absolutely sure the lock you use has sufficient key codes. For example, on our high-security system, we can achieve approximately 3 million different key codes. This assures that every unit has, without question, a different key number.

Key control is an essential part of this program as well. Facilities should maintain no more than two master keys at any given time and store one of them in a "key safe" at a remote location, such as the company's main office. A key safe creates an audit trail, which accounts for the keys' location 24 hours a day. Each authorized person has an individual code, so when the safe is opened, it logs who removed the master key and the time and date. Our customers who use this type of program also typically employ 24-hour video surveillance, access control and, in some cases, individual door alarms.

Lease Construction

Now, let's tackle the legal side of this system. It is critical to draft a clear and detailed lease that has an addendum explaining the master-key system and conditions for entry in simple terms. One of our largest customers operates with master-keyed cylinder locks in 21 facilities and six different states. A section of their lease clearly states the landlord's right to enter. As you can see below, they have laid out all the instances where the master key would be used to enter a renter's unit in simple and plain terms. (The following excerpt is for illustrative purposes only. You should consult with a qualified local attorney in the construction of your own lease. Be advised that self-storage laws and regulations vary from state to state, and sometimes even from one local area to another.)

Landlord's Right to Enter

Upon the reasonable request of Landlord, Tenant shall provide access to the Landlord to enter the Premises for the purpose of inspection, repair, alteration, improvement or to supply necessary or agreed services. In case of emergency, Landlord, its agents or employees may enter the Premises, without liability there-for and without affecting Tenant's obligations under this lease, for any of the above stated purposes without notice to consent from Tenant. The term "Emergency" shall mean any sudden, unexpected occurrence or circumstance which demands immediate action. Tenant agrees to allow Fire Department and Landlord, its agents and employees to enter the premises at all times which are reasonably necessary to insure the protection and preservation of the facility or any personal property stored therein.

Communicating the lease and this particular section to potential renters, as well as re-emphasizing it in your rental agreement, will ensure your tenants have full knowledge of the system's capability and when it would be put into use.


Another important issue to consider with master-keyed systems is the practice of "recycling" cylinders or padlocks after they have been returned by renters. Our clients usually charge a security deposit for the lock and two keys. If the tenant does not return both keys to the lock he was issued, the lock is taken out of circulation and the tenant loses his deposit. If both keys are returned, the facility returns the lock and keys to circulation after six months.

This is where operating with a restricted-key system comes into play. If you operate with a run-of-the-mill standard keyway where keys can be duplicated, you take a big risk. If you employ a restricted-key blank and a 3-million key-code system, there is virtually no chance of unauthorized access to any unit.

Liability is a constant concern in this industry, and for good reason. No one wants to be accused of criminal acts, especially in his own business operation. However, in self-storage we face far greater liability issues than those associated with a well-run master-keyed facility. For example, look at all of the companies in this industry that sell tools that manipulate locks, such as drilling tools, "disk busters" and--even scarier--lock-picking tools, the advertisements for which clearly state they allow users to "gain discreet entry in seconds."

Such tools are the last thing in the world I would want at my facility. I was once out making sales calls and stopped at a storage facility. The assistant manager was on duty but got called out to the yard by a customer. When she left, I noticed a video on her desk containing instructions on how to break locks. Imagine if I weren't an honest person--I could have stolen the tape and started robbing storage units for a living. Imagine if I were a potential renter and had seen that! Tools of this kind belong in the hands of bonded professionals, plain and simple.

Since 1986, when my company pioneered master-keyed systems for the storage industry, neither we nor any of our clients have been faced with liability issues or a key-duplication problem. A master-keyed system isn't for everyone, but if you operate a professional security program and write a lease that accommodates your system, the worries of liability are better saved for other aspects of your business.

Most of our clients who operate with master-keyed systems aren't cowboys out to rock the boat--they are industry leaders, attorneys and even association officers. What they get with master-keyed systems is the highest level of security. Master-keyed systems feature flush-mounted cylinders with hardened steel fronts that resist the threat of break-ins. At the same time, they provide managers the ability to safely and legally access units in an emergency, under carefully controlled circumstances. The only people who love high-security master-keyed facilities more than renters and operators are local fire marshals and zoning boards. The payoff is significant market visibility as a safe and secure facility.

Christopher Shope is the national marketing and sales director for Lock America Inc. (d.b.a. L.A.I. Group), which manufactures a complete line of security locks and custom-designed security hardware for the self-storage and other industries. The L.A.I. team is committed to taking knowledge gained from other security industries and applying it to the self-storage market. For more information, call 800.422.2866;

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