By Anthony Gardner
Security in the self-storage business has undergone a dramatic evolution. No longer are padlocks and a chainlink fence enough to keep burglars out of a facility and away from tenants' belongings. Prospective tenants may not always ask specific questions, but they are certainly looking at the services you offer to protect their valuables.
Your security considerations must span from the planning stage through to your grand opening and beyond. This article will cover potential pitfalls and describe how to plan security that will draw tenants and repel criminals. Even mature and established facilities will find dozens of valuable tips and professional security strategies.
Location is everything. Select a site that has great visibility from the public road, passing freeway or highway. This is not only a great way to showcase and advertise your new facility, but it also inhibits potential burglars from sneaking around your site unseen.
As with all construction, an affordable and attractive building requires a skilled general contractor (GC). I have seen self-storage projects that exceed twice their scheduled time and budget due to the inexperience or inability of a GC. The GC will select the other trades and vendors that will construct your facility; this includes the electricians and possibly your security vendor. There are some great contractors across the country, and I have worked with many of them. Do your research at this stage; your overall profitability and your tenants' happiness will depend heavily upon it.
You need to get everything on blueprints before the contractors and vendors have been chosen, and well before construction begins. The GC will usually take care of all the construction permits. Confirm with the GC that he has familiarity with your local codes. For example, low-voltage permits are required in some counties and not others. It was just a few months ago that one of my largest clients ran into problems in Dade County, Fla. They had not secured their low-voltage permits and had to pay heavy fines and redo sections of their work.
Avoid change orders and extras whenever possible as they can cause your construction costs to skyrocket. This means you and your GC should get everything onto the plans. Any trade/vendor, particularly a security vendor, that is an afterthought can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars in extra fees once your building is nearing completion. The big killers are conduit and electrical capacity. Including more conduit or electrical capacity from the get-go adds very little to the overall job price. But adding just one conduit or more circuits and electrical capacity can cost thousands of dollars worth of change orders. A little more planning now will save a lot of headaches later.
Landscaping and Lighting
Landscaping is often an overlooked part of construction. Let's examine this from a security point of view. Large trees and bushes visually block your facility from prospective tenants and provide places for thieves to hide in wait for tenants. Trees are rarely a good choice because they can quickly grow too large for the landscaping of your site. Keep bushes and hedges trimmed low and keep the number of trees to a minimum.
Lighting is often an afterthought, too. A well-lit storage facility is important for the safety of your tenants and minimizes vandalism. Make sure the entrance gate and offices are spotlighted. These areas are the first places your tenants see. Hallways or corridors should have sufficient lighting to illuminate walkways and the storage units.
For energy-conscious owners (and you all should be), I recommend putting hallway and corridor lighting on a motion sensor, so electricity is only being used when needed or when someone is moving about. This is another good way for a manager who lives on-site to be able to tell when someone is on the premises after hours. A light coming on late at night could indicate someone lurking around your facility.
Pay careful attention to your electric security options. Storage security has matured rapidly over the last few years, and some solutions can even become an active source of income. Some companies specialize in one field of security, such as software, access controls, video surveillance or door sensors. The obvious choice is to select a company that caters to all of the above. The fewer vendors required, the easier your installation and ongoing maintenance.
Look at the record of the security vendors you are considering. How long have they been in the business? What security options do they offer? How many facilities have they secured with the type of system you want? What is the level of customer satisfaction with their products and installation? Ask them for a nearby facility where you can view the security installation and overall appearance. Talk with the owners or managers of the site about the system. Question its ease of use for tenants and management.
What types of security components should you include at your site? What do you really need to keep your site and tenants safe? Have a consultation with your security vendor. Together you can determine where to concentrate or emphasize security and what is needed most. Security options include:
- Individual door alarms (wired or wireless);
- Access controls for gates, hallway access doors, and/or elevators;
- Sirens and dialers;
- Smart-logic controllers that provide record keeping, etc.;
- Video surveillance cameras, monitors and time-lapse recording;
- Site graphics and monitoring; and
- Motion sensors to protect boats and RVs, plus perimeter beams.
Individual Door Alarms
There are two technologies with door alarms: wired and wireless. The correct choice will depend on the layout of your site and which phase of construction you are in. There are advantages and disadvantages to both as listed below.
- Cost is the same as wireless if done before construction;
- The method of installation is familiar to most installers; and
- Electrical needs can be placed on the construction plans.
- Expensive labor costs and tenant inconvenience when installed after the construction phase (conduit needs to be run to, or through, every occupied and vacant unit);
- Requires access to tenant spaces for servicing, risks an upset or no-show customer;
- Rarely modular if you want to add more sensors later; conduit and wiring needs for existing wired sensors may not allow for easy additions; and
- Maintenance costs are high if any door-alarm magnet is knocked out of alignment or security wiring breaks.
- Easy installation and maintenance; sensors can be added to the outside of unit doors whether occupied or vacant without requiring access into the tenant's unit;
- Completely modular; a manager or owner can easily add a new sensor to any unit;
- Less expensive than wired systems when retrofitting an existing facility;
- Available in two formats, narrow band and 900 MHz, to accommodate a wide range of construction and site layouts;
- Provides a visible crime deterrent;
- Can be rented to tenants on a unit-by-unit basis;
- Magnets are outside of the unit and cannot be knocked out of alignment.
- Wireless sensors require battery replacements, costing time and materials;
- Tendency toward a one-size-fits-all mentality; and
- Expansive sites may require repeaters to increase coverage area, which can require extra electrical outlets in specific locations.
The most vulnerable part of a wired security system is the alignment of the door magnet. This is the primary cause of false alarms. Rather than a traditional bracket-mount magnetic alarm contact, you can use a door-latch contact. These are fairly new devices that show good promise but lack the track record to guarantee performance.
Another method for wired systems, albeit more expensive, is to have the door contacts mounted flush into the ground. This is very reliable, but quite intrusive to the infrastructure of the building. It is time-consuming to either saw-cut the concrete after the slab is poured or form the hundreds of small holes that need to be in place during construction (plus running all the conduit).
Wireless comes in two varieties: narrow band and 900 MHz. Narrow band is a better choice for cavernous metal hallways. The metal surfaces act as mirrors to provide extraordinary area coverage. The 900 MHz variety uses brute force and is best suited for cement structures. Sites with both types of structures will need to be analyzed to determine the correct technology. Regardless of the chosen system, wired or wireless, select a security vendor that has proven experience in the field and installations you can visit before buying.
Create a logical flow of traffic throughout your facility. If you plan on having multiple access gates, consider making one an "entrance only" and the other "exit only." This will accomplish two things: It will prevent bottlenecks of people trying to come in and go out of the same gate, and it will provide one point of entry to monitor.
Keypads for gate entrance and exit, elevator control and access doors have been a standard for storage security for decades. New keypad features are now available for tenant services and property management. Gone are the days of a small featureless keypad that just lets a tenant in and out of a facility. Now, when a tenant comes to your site, he sees a screen display that welcomes him by name. He can also use a built-in intercom to summon the manager. An extremely popular feature is the ability for delinquent tenants to make payments at the keypad using a credit card.
Sirens and False Alarms
Sirens can create a love/hate relationship between managers and tenants. On the one hand, they quickly and effectively indicate a break-in for a particular unit; on the other hand, they can be very annoying to tenants if they sound often, especially due to false alarms. What causes a false alarm? There are two key considerations:
Is it really a false alarm? When a tenant enters an access code at the gate, elevator or door, the system proceeds to disable his sensor so no alarm event happens when the unit door is opened. If the tenant follows, or tailgates, another tenant into the facility, the system cannot know the tenant is onsite. Therefore, that space is still armed. When the tenant opens the space, the siren sounds. This scenario is very common and can cause grief to the tenant and manager. With any alarm system, some tenants may need to be reminded how to use their security protection.
Was the door-alarm sensor installed properly? This is something that needs to be addressed during construction and installation. There are two parts to a unit-alarm sensor: the actual sensor and a magnet. The magnet is installed on the door and the sensor is installed next to it on the doorframe. If the gap between these two components is misaligned or too wide, then false alarms will occur. Outside units are especially vulnerable to a bad installation as high winds shift the door in its tracks.
Sirens can be placed on each floor and/or in exterior locations. You must balance your desire to scare away intruders with the need of nearby shops and homes for quiet. The above scenarios describe legitimate alarm soundings that will be perceived as false alarms and disruptive to other businesses. Telephone dialers are less intrusive to your neighbors, but can result in expensive response calls if faulty installation allows normal door play to cause "false" alarms. Spot check the installer's work by trying to shack a closed unit door to cause a false alarm.
The controller is the brain of your security system. Whether you only have a single access point or a total security solution with all the bells and whistles, you will have a centralized source to control and monitor everything. Controllers come in two varieties: hard-coded and PC-based.
A hard-coded controller is a stable, featureless box that has minimal user settings and expandability. PC-based controllers reside on the other end of the spectrum. These are jam-packed with features, and most can be easily customized and upgraded. For example, a good PC-based controller can specify which sirens react to which door events. PC-based controllers are similar to your office computer. They depend on a Windows operating system and have vulnerable moving parts. Both systems should easily integrate with your management software or work as a stand-alone system. The newest controller systems are Linux-based dedicated systems. They have no moving parts yet provide all the features of a flexible PC controller, plus the stability of a hard-coded unit.
A typical self-storage facility contains a maze of hallways and driveways. These hidden areas are a natural place for surveillance cameras. The main entrance gate and office should be monitored at all times. Those cameras should be highly visible to serve as a marketing tool and crime deterrent. To increase visibility, use an auto-panning camera system. The next most important areas to monitor are the elevator lobbies and exterior access doors. Since these are on the protected side of your facility, static cameras are acceptable here.
By this time, you will have anywhere from six to 16 cameras. Rather than having a separate monitor screen for each camera, you should use a video multiplexer to display several cameras on one screen simultaneously. Multiplexer models are available to share four, nine or 16 cameras. The 16-camera version divides the monitor screen into squares too small to be useful. If you have a high quantity of cameras, it is better to have two monitors, each with a nine-camera multiplexer.
Use a large monitor or television to show off your video-camera coverage. I recommend using one or two 19- to 25-inch monitors mounted to a wall bracket in the rear corner of the office. This allows the tenants and manager to see your security monitors with minimal effort.
The office should have two VCRs. One is a dummy VCR that is publicly seen behind the manager, while the real VCR is hidden in the back room or other lockable space. You will need one real VCR for each multiplexer in use at your site. Rather than using a common six-hour VCR, select a 40-hour, time-lapse system that can record without frequent tape changes. For about a 25 percent increase on your video budget, you can have a motion-sensitive, digital-recording VCR. This provides recording from only the cameras that are seeing movement. As an added bonus, the digital picture quality is superior to its analog counterpart.
Site graphics display a graphical layout of your facility. The most common system uses a large monitor mounted to a wall bracket in the rear corner of the office, opposite the surveillance monitor. Each storage unit is shown in a color that represents its current status. A vacant unit may appear green, while a unit opened by a tenant may show as blue. With one glance, your manager can see the status of every unit at your site. The key consideration is to plan for the site-graphics monitor to be large and visible to your tenants. This is a powerful sales tool and conveys a strong sense of security.
Motion detectors enhance your site security to also include hallways and office space. These are typically passive infrared (PIR) devices that detect motion and transmit an invisible signal back to your security controller. Some vendors offer wireless tabletop motion sensors your tenants set in their boat or RV. Tabletop units can be easily added or removed and rented to your tenants. Tabletop PIR has the added advantage of not requiring any installation. Just select some free counter space in the RV and aim the PIR unit at the door.
Another form of motion detector is the perimeter beam. This is a chain of invisible, laser-like beams that encircle your facility. If an intruder passes through any beam, the interrupted light signal triggers the controller to sound the alarm. Birds or guard dogs can also trip these light beams, so their use should be balanced against the risks of false alarms.
Protecting Your Protection
Your keypads, door alarms and cameras provide strong protection for your site, but they can come under attack by a determined thief or careless tenant. Consider the following:
- Bollards, or crash posts, should be mandatory protection for any keypads in the path of vehicular traffic. A 4-foot-high-by-4-inch-thick concrete-filled pipe is the industry standard. Paint them in a neon color, mount reflectors or use reflection tape so they can be easily seen at night. If your company colors are bright, consider using those on the bollards.
- Mount security cameras close to the roofline, high and out of the way of potential vandals. Vulnerable exterior access doors should have two security cameras placed at opposite sides of the door for protection. Any person trying to tamper with one camera will be seen by the other.
- Never mount or run anything into or through a tenant's space. Tenants have a way of finding very creative ways to utilize your security equipment and wiring. Recently, I saw rows of clothing hanging from alarm conduit. The tenants desire for storage efficiency resulted in a failure in the wired door security of the nearby units. This was an expensive, and avoidable, service call.
- Ground everything. Outside equipment will be subjected to all kinds of weather, including lightning. A good equipment ground will significantly reduce the possibility of equipment damage and tenant injury. Although no amount of grounding can provide 100 percent protection from lightning damage, equipment that uses optical-isolation surge protection will provide the greatest chance of survival for your security investment.
- No matter which system or vendor you choose, maintenance is a fact of life. Ask your security vendor or GC to define which parts of your security will be within tenant units, under pavement, within walls or other inaccessible areas. Each area that cannot be reached will dramatically increase your costs should those sections ever need servicing.
When it comes to planning your site security, a few hours spent now will save you valuable time and money later. A secure and profitable site will not happen by accident. It requires your participation in the planning and preparation stage. Take the time to ensure the planned security matches your business goals.
Tony Gardner is director of security installation for QuikStor Security & Software, based in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He specializes in commercial and industrial security. For more information, visit www.quikstor.com.