Secure Your Self-Storage Investment

Secure Your Self-Storage Investment
Hardware, software and peace of mind

By John Fogg

Building the plan for your security system at a self-storage site can be a monumental task. More and better technology is being developed in the security industry, and some of it will apply to our industry. Some of the choices for securing your property will be easy. There are basic items that should be incorporated into the design of the site. Other security options will require more research and planning. Basic factors you will want to consider are:

  • How unique is the design of my project? What "special" security is required to protect the site, my customers, my personnel and the business? Most facilities are fenced around the perimeter or between buildings. Some unique buildings or building conversions require securing all entrances, including entrance doors, emergency exits and overhead access doors. The physical layout will impact your decision. Single-story, multistory, inside units, hallways and outside units all play a part in how you will configure your security system.
  • Early consideration of the security system is important for several reasons. Budgeting the proper amount of money is crucial. Trying to save money by cutting corners on security does a disservice to the marketability of the business and your tenants.

Budgeting the proper amount of time for installation of a complete system is just as crucial. Nearly 90 percent of the security-system installation needs to be accomplished after buildings are erected and doors are hung. Installers need access to storage units and common areas. While the temptation will be to start renting units to generate revenue, the wise and patient owner will budget time to ensure a quality installation.

Entrance, parking and controlled-access areas warrant a certain amount of space based on the layout and traffic flow of your site. Architects often draw up plans with little knowledge of how a gate entry should be laid out. Most of the plans that come across my desk show the entrance gate as a one-inch straight line, labeled "gate." This should be given greater consideration at the outset of the project.

  • How sophisticated do you want your system to be? Many different systems are available, such as access controls, individual door alarms, cameras, perimeter beams, graphics displays, etc. Each of these has different options or features to choose from. New technologies are being incorporated all the time. A state-of-the-art facility often attracts a high dollar if sale to a major developer will be pursued down the road.
  • What your competition has to offer makes a difference on how you will want to approach security. Do they have an access gate, cameras, 24-hour access? Does the neighborhood dictate that you have individual door alarms on each unit?
  • Use your security system as a marketing tool. Let your prospects know you have a leg up on your competition because your storage units are more secure. Have you advertised your cameras in your Yellow Pages ad? Does your sign mention that you have individual door alarms?
  • The more time you spend researching and evaluating the security aspect of your project, the more informed a decision you will make. Consult the professionals who specialize in these systems exclusively for self-storage. Find out about the companies you will deal with. How long have they been providing these kinds of systems? Do they manufacture their own products? Do they have the infrastructure to support these systems? Are they equipped to keep up with new technology as it changes?

Now for the nuts and bolts. An overview of self-storage security options will help you focus as you do your "homework." The choices for securing your site can be categorized into four major areas: access control, individual door alarms, closed-circuit television (CCTV) and additional security options. But first, I'd like to make a few comments on software.


Your software decision will have an effect on the security of your site. There are companies that supply management software for the operation of your rental office as well as the systems for securing access and door alarms. Providers of both management and security systems should offer a completely integrated product. When these systems are integrated, information necessary for the operation of and access to the site is exchanged automatically.

For example, when a move-in is entered on the management software, the customer's gate-access code or gate-access card number is immediately logged into the access system. When someone moves out, the gate code or card number is automatically removed from the system. If a tenant is late on rent and should be denied access to his unit, the management software again communicates this to the access-control system. When that tenant pays up, their original access code or card number is reactivated. This makes for a smooth operation.

Some companies provide one piece of the puzzle--either the management software or the access-control/door-alarm system. With no communication between the two, transactions like move-ins, move-outs, denying access to late pays and re-enabling their code when they pay up becomes a process of making "double entries." This can be time-consuming and leaves more room for human error.

To eliminate the necessity for these double entries, software and security suppliers have written various "interfaces" to other companies' products. These interfaces work with some companies and some products only some of the time. Representatives from most of these software and security providers have met in the past to establish specifications for one "universal interface." This universal interface would become the industry standard for making two different suppliers' products communicate, thereby eliminating the need for double entries and allowing for smooth facility operation. The exact requirements for the interface were determined, outlining required features and functions. Any reputable supplier to the industry accepts this universal interface. When choosing your software, be sure the brand you consider complies.

The decision on what software to use should be based on the individual needs of the business. The information the program provides should be what the owner or manager most needs. Owners should be wary of purchasing solely on manager recommendations, however. They should be very familiar with their software program, or they put themselves at risk of employee theft or embezzlement.

Access Control

Most self-storage sites are fenced or have a combination of fence and buildings around the perimeter. This warrants the need for an access gate. First-generation sites had a manual drive gate, which was left open during yard hours and locked after hours. This allowed free access in and out throughout the day. To secure access to the property, automatic gates are now a necessity.

There are three basic types of gates. Swing gates are seldom used for self- storage. The number of cycles for a facility gives too much wear and tear on this style of gate. Traffic flow is also restricted because of the area needed to swing the gate back and forth.

Vertical-lift gates pivot like an elbow on a table. They are counter-balanced so they can be easily raised manually if needed. This design is used when there are space limitations. When no area is available to roll a gate back, vertical gates are used. (Though I do know of one owner who chose a lift gate so it could be viewed swinging up in the air from the street to attract attention.)

The most popular gate style is the slide or roll gate. Earlier designs had these gates on rollers on the ground. Recommended now is the cantilever design. The cantilever gate has rollers that roll on a mid-rail attached to a fence section. This mid-rail supports the gate and allows it to open and close without touching the ground.

Sometimes the layout will require more than one gate location. Keep in mind this can drive the costs up. If a gate is only to be used for emergency, moving van or garbage truck, it may not need to be automated.

The mechanism that automatically moves the gate is known as a gate operator. Vertical-lift-gate operators are usually purchased along with the gate itself. Slide- and swing-gate operators can be purchased separately. If you are working with a particular installer or gate company, they will recommend the brand of operator they are familiar with for this application.

Every gate layout should include a walk gate. It should be locked from the outside and unlocked on the inside. The manager can have a key, if it is necessary to enter. Wire mesh can be welded on to keep someone from reaching around the gate and gaining entry.

The "access system" refers to the keypad, card reader or proximity reader for restricting entry and exit to a secured area. Generally, it includes access devices, stands, wire, office components and access-control software. These access devices send a signal to the gate operator or door-lock device to open the gate or door. In the case of a gate, a detector loop is located in the drive to detect vehicles. This acts as a safety device and as a signal to close the gate.

Designing your entry/exit is something that should be done early in your project. Too often we see plans reflecting gates that don't fit, no provision for keypads or card readers, no conduit specified, and little consideration to the flow of traffic and parking spaces for prospective customers. As an industry, we spend many hours concentrating on square footage and unit mix, yet we neglect to address where the prospect is going to park and how he will get in and out of the office and yard.

Traffic-flow considerations should include:

  • Sufficient driveway for rental trucks to pull in, out of the way of street traffic.
  • A parking area for prospective customers outside the secured storage yard.
  • Visibility of the office entrance from the parking area.
  • Visibility of the parking area and gate from the rental office.
  • Handicapped parking and office access.
  • A safe distance between the keypad or access device and the gate.
  • Left-hand flow, so the keypad is located on the driver side of the vehicle.
  • Adequate safety devices and design to ensure pedestrians or bystanders are not at risk of injury.
  • Any other local requirements.
  • An exit keypad.

An exit keypad is necessary to track how long a tenant has been on site. If a security situation arises, gate-activity reports will be printed from the computer. Anyone who has been spending long amounts of time on site should be considered suspicious. Without an exit keypad, you won't know how long someone is on site.

Access-control systems are becoming more sophisticated. Different types of access can be assigned to different customers. One system can limit access to a certain area within the storage property, such as hallways or RV parking areas.

Keypads are the norm for access devices. Each customer is given a unique code to punch in when entering and exiting. Also available are touch-card readers, proximity-card readers and vehicle-tag readers. Garage-door "clickers" are also being developed for customer use. Deluxe keypads are available with a pinhole camera and intercom in one housing. Keep in mind these added designs and features will drive up the cost.

It is imperative you choose an access-control system designed for self-storage. Generic systems will limit your ability to assign separate codes and will not interface with management software.

Individual Door Alarms

Individual door-alarm systems are still the best way to secure your investment. Increasingly more owners are utilizing door alarms on new construction. How do they work? The tenant enters his code at the gate. The gate opens, his unit door alarm is turned off, and he does whatever he needed to at the unit. The door alarm is reactivated when he "codes out" of the property.

Most individual door-alarm systems are hardwired. Door switches are wired to a multiplexer in each building, which "polls" the status of many unit doors. This communication is sent back and forth from the office computer via a communication cable, which eliminates the need to run wire from each unit back to the office. Door alarms are also used for sites or parts of sites without gates. A central keypad is located at the entrance or on each building.

More than 60 percent of self-storage break-ins are executed by tenants. An individual rents a unit, probably paying cash. He spends a fair amount of time on site, observing activity where unit doors are open so he can see what's inside. When the opportunity presents itself, he cuts the lock and sorts through the contents, placing the valuable items at the front of the unit. He then closes the door and secures it with his own lock. Once he has eight or 10 units secured, in comes the truck and out go the goods. The unit doors are left locked and no one is the wiser until the original tenant returns to find his key doesn't fit. Individual door alarms eliminate this scenario. As soon as the thief opens the first unit door not belonging to him, the alarm sounds, and the office or monitoring company is notified.

Sites can use door alarms to their marketing advantage by posting signage, describing and demonstrating them to every prospect, and including mention of them in their advertising. With any luck, this will send problem tenants down the road. After all, why would a burglar choose a target that has individual door alarms when he can go down the street to a facility that doesn't?

The marketing potential for door alarms is huge. Through advertising and demonstration, prospects learn your site is more secure than your competitors'. Sites with individual door-alarm systems are able to charge higher rents, and tend to stay full in competitive situations. The idea of adding a door alarm at the time of move-in is not practical--hardwired or wireless. The additional revenue lost by not wiring every door and justifying top-dollar rents on every unit is leaving money on the table.

Wireless door alarms should be used only as a "last resort." The front-end costs may be slightly less, but maintenance and battery-replacement costs more than offset the original savings. The reliability of these systems is uncertain, and changing conditions in the surrounding area can have affect. They may have some usefulness, however, in some retrofit situations.

Door Switches. Several different types of door switches are used. A floor-mounted switch is one design for roll-up doors. The device is anchored to the floor on the inside of the unit. The magnet is mounted on the inside of the door with a bracket. Another type of switch, used on swing doors, is mounted to the door header and the magnet is mounted on the door. A bracket is usually not needed, unless the swing door has no header.

Some sites will use the swing-door switch on overhead doors to cut costs. The magnet is mounted on the upper part of the door (inside) and to the side. The switch is positioned by using a bracket, which is mounted to the unit wall.

A new switch has been developed for roll-up doors called the quick switch. This mounts on the door track by the opening that receives the door latch. The door-latch opening and closing triggers this switch, which installs in about one-fifth the time of other switches. It requires less wire than a floor switch and is more economical. It is important to let your door manufacturer know if you plan to use the quick switch so the right type of latch is specified for the door. These switches can be used with any reputable door-alarm provider's product.

Individual door-alarm systems are reliable and can be a productive security and marketing tool for an extended period of time. It is an active form of security. It is essential to get quality material and installation of the system.


Closed-circuit television systems are being used more frequently in self-storage. New technology has helped this boom. In the beginning, camera systems ran one camera to one monitor. Then switchers were developed to allow different cameras to be viewed on one monitor through different locations. The problem was the recorder only recorded whichever camera position was showing on the monitor screen at any given time. I know of sites that still use switchers. One recently missed the opportunity to catch someone running into its gate because the switcher and recorder were set on another camera position.

Multiplexers are common now. They allow viewing and recording of up to 16 cameras on one monitor and recorder. When playing back a security incident, the image is enlarged on the full monitor screen.

Digital cameras are also available, which have improved image quality. Digital devices will record camera activity to a computer hard drive. Playback and real-time viewing is done through a monitor. This means an owner can use his laptop computer to view, in real time, his site in California from a hotel room in New York. These devices can also be set to only record when there is motion at each camera location.

Cameras can be costly. Lighting changes on site can impact the choice between equipment that records in color or black and white. An auto iris lens adjusts to the change, but black-and-white cameras still show better resolution in these situations. The decision on how many cameras to buy should be based on the site design. Hallways and multiple entrances will increase the number. If door alarms are utilized, it may decrease the number of cameras needed. Cameras at the gate, in the office, in all hallways, or just the entrances are all considerations. Keep in mind that cameras are a more passive form of security. You may not see a break-in when it occurs. Individual door alarms are a more active form of security.

Camera systems do have marketing value when monitors are displayed in the office. They act as a deterrent to the potential burglar, hopefully sending him down the street to rent elsewhere.

Additional Security Options

Site-Graphics Displays. These systems provide a full-color map of the yard and buildings, etc. Unit colors are changed based on the status of the unit--rented, vacant, delinquent, on-site, door open, etc. They will often include the latest gate-activity message across the bottom of the monitor screen.

Graphics are most effective when displayed in the office on a separate color monitor, especially along with camera monitors. If site graphics will be incorporated into the office display, planning should be done early for the location of this and all other equipment. You may have monitors flush-mounted in a wall or in its own separate cabinetry. Some offices will place monitors on a shelf with brackets. There will be some components that need to be connected behind the scenes, such as the recorder, multiplexer, etc. The uniqueness of each rental office dictates the design of this security option and construction should be done at the site.

If a storage prospect is still uncertain about renting at your property when he walks in the door, one look at your security display, with graphics and camera monitors, should tell him, "This place is safe. These people are in complete control of this operation." Some software programs will also have the graphics on the computer monitor as an option for the manager. This is a nice glitzy feature, but probably a crutch for the manager. The true value of site graphics is displayed as a security/marketing tool for prospects visiting the site.

Intercoms. Intercoms are an easy way to provide voice access between the rental office and key points throughout the facility. Intercom systems include a master station and one or more substations. Master stations are designed to support one, two, three, five, 10 or 20 substations. Other variations, including piped-in music, are available and priced accordingly. Substations are relatively inexpensive, generally come with a plastic or metal face, and should always include a call button to provide a way for each substation location to call the office.

All primary security systems should include provisions for an intercom system. At a minimum, intercom substations should be associated with the keypads or card readers supported by the primary system. The use of intercoms has been one of convenience in the past. Today, intercom systems are viewed as security and safety devices and are being installed throughout the site, particularly in inside corridors, multistory buildings, etc. The real decision is not whether to install an intercom system, but how large a master station to buy to meet your existing and future needs.

Perimeter Beams. Perimeter beams are a line-of-sight projection of an infrared beam that, if interrupted, will sound an alarm. They are commonly used along fence lines surrounding the facility, but can be installed at other points if that is useful. They are referred to as PIR beams.

PIR beams were originally introduced as a single-beam system where only one beam was transmitted to a receiver/reflector. They were only moderately dependable, as almost anything (weeds, birds, dust, etc.) could interrupt the beam and cause an alarm. Dual beams followed and reliability increased, since both beams had to be interrupted at essentially the same time to cause an alarm condition. Quad beams are now the most common and are much more reliable than dual- or single-beam systems.

PIR systems are priced on a distance-sensitive basis, i.e., the longer the beam, the more it costs. Many beam systems offer control-enhancing equipment to allow the system to stand alone and operate as an independent entity. Beam systems used in self-storage are more commonly connected to the site access-control system and operate under its control. PIR systems should be treated as ancillary security, used only when a specific need is identified. They have limited value as a general security system.

Fence Sensors. Occasionally, someone will inquire about fence sensors for self-storage. Fence sensors employ a cable running through or along a fence, which senses vibration or change in the line. Any vibration would trigger an alarm. Sensitivity settings are adjustable. These systems are stand-alone and can be quite costly.

Lighting. It is a proven fact that a well-lit site is a deterrent to theft and vandalism at any location. There are an abundance of lighting options to choose from. Consult your electrician in the planning stages about adequate lighting.

In the end, successfully secured and marketed self-storage properties consider, plan and budget early on. Rely on the expertise of self-storage security vendors and installers to provide you with input on your project.

John Fogg is the general sales manager for Sentinel Systems Corp. of Lakewood, Colo., which has been manufacturing self-storage software and security systems since 1975. Though he has worked in self-storage since 1986, Mr. Fogg has been with Sentinel for the past nine years. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]; call 800.456.9955;

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