By Steve Cooper
The bottom line is the bottom line in any business. In today's self-storage environment, security sells. Building a safer and more secure facility from the ground up, or upgrading an older site to better keep up with the competition, not only makes sense, but also adds revenue and profit. Experience proves that what says, "You'll be secure here" to customers in the current marketplace is individual-unit door alarms.
General security is important. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles lay the foundation for a more secure facility, then the specific security systems add benefits for safety, better risk management and more thorough operational control. "Access control and surveillance systems play a major role in keeping any establishment safer, but the one single item that more customers pay attention to in your advertising and in your facility is knowing there is specific protection for the unit they will be renting," says Bill Hamilton, president of San Diego-based Price Self Storage. "Individual-unit door alarms provide the protection our prospects and customers expect. They get real comfortable when they know the unit is alarmed."
Several security vendors serving self-storage have used a variety of approaches to provide a secure solution for each unit. Dating back to the mid-1970s, some of the earliest attempts to adapt available alarm technology could have been more successful. Since that time, innovations in technology and improvements in installation-labor methods have brought reliability and economy to the practice of alarming every door.
"If I were building my own facility, there's no question that I would put door alarms on," says John Arsement, division manager with John E. Hall Electrical Contractors in Virginia Beach, Va. "Since we learned how to install them efficiently, we have installed more than 10,000 sets of door contacts. We're proud of our record because the owners happily tell us that the systems are working well with no false alarms." Arsement comments that in cases where alarms have not worked well, the installation itself is usually suspect. "Somebody didn't do something right, if they have a lot of false alarms. With today's generation of matrix wiring systems, the problem shouldn't be in the equipment from the major suppliers. We've worked with at least three of the suppliers, and that gives us a basis of comparison."
The concept of arming a monitoring and alert device for each door is simple, but the engineering and execution can prove intimidating to most engineers, especially when there are limits to the cost that self-storage operators are willing to absorb. "The traditional self-storage environment is just too harsh for a lot of electrical and electronic systems," says Jon Loftin, vice president and systems engineer for Digitech International, a vendor of security systems designed especially for use in self-storage. "Components must be able to withstand and operate properly, regardless of heat, cold, dust, rain, ice and anything else that nature throws at them. With the hardwired system we've been using the last few years, we were able to overcome all of that."
In addition to hardwired systems, a few companies have experimented with wireless alarms, some with minimal success. According to Arsement, Loftin and others, the problem has been in trying to adapt equipment designed for residential and light commercial applications for use in the self-storage environment. "The difficulty has been trying to take off-the-shelf parts and make them work for a use where they were not intended. I've tried similar equipment at my home that didn't perform that well, so I would never expect it to work at my facilities," says Hamilton.
According to Loftin, "The spread spectrum technology is a good idea, but most of the equipment we've all tried in the past is really about the same as what's used for garage-door openers. It's subject to quite a bit of interference, but the main thing is, it's not designed to be used in or around an all-metal building. That's why we went all the way to ground zero to engineer an all-new approach that does work. We went back to basics and engineered a new device to meet all the specific demands we've encountered, the environmental factors, how to send and receive a radio signal when the transmitter is surrounded by nothing but metal, and how to easily retrofit an existing facility at a competitive price."
Hardwired systems, though effective, can be labor intensive. "We use apprentice-type labor to pull all the wire and apply the contacts," says Arsement. "Then we bring in the higher-priced technicians to do all the terminating and testing. We have learned the hard way that doing it right the first time is the only way. Once the units are rented, having access to the unit to do repairs or testing makes it hard on everybody: the owner, the manager, and the customer."
According to owners, installers and vendors, the appeal for someone to present a viable wireless solution to the industry has been eliminating the need for working inside the unit and reducing both the amount of labor involved and the skill level of the technicians. According to Loftin, "We could have come to the market a long time ago with a solution using what's called high-security alarm contacts, but it was way too expensive. Now, we have a solution that will be price-competitive with our hardwired system. Owners building new facilities will have a choice, and those with existing facilities will have a new affordable option they've never really had before."
Regardless of the technology used, customers appreciate the assurance that the unit they rent has the additional protection. "When I was in college," says Wendy Earley, a typical storage customer, "I rented a locker for the summer in a place that looked nice and was well-fenced. Somebody apparently jumped the fence, even though there was an automatic gate. My parents and I had to replace a microwave, a toaster oven and everything else that seemed to have value. The next summer, we stored in a place that had better alarms."
Arsement says, "Every door should be armed, even the vacant units. That way the manager knows, not only who is coming and going, but also whether or not they are actually going to their unit. We've seen where tenants would come on site just to use the dumpster." He also mentioned that alarming the empties keeps them clean and ready to show to prospects. "If even the vacant units are locked and alarmed, they're not available for people to throw trash into, or use as a place to relieve themselves, as we have seen on occasion."
Crime-prevention experts talk about "hardening the target." According to Roger Austin, CPTED specialist with the Tempe, Ariz., police department, "Anything you can do to make it hard for a criminal to do his thing will help. We have instituted a crime-free program specifically for mini-storage. In the past three years since we started the program, we've seen a 50 percent drop in calls to storage facilities."
Each call saved is money in the bank. Industry surveys consistently show individual-unit door alarms are the largest contributor to the feeling of security customers enjoy. Surveys also show that alarms help justify premium rates in a competitive situation. Owners and self-storage customers seem to agree. That makes individual-unit door alarms a win-win security solution.
Steve Cooper serves as marketing director for Digitech International Inc., a supplier of crime-proofing access-control and security systems manufactured especially for the self-storage industry. For more information, call (800) 523-9504; www.digitech-intl.com.