“The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”
This well-known song excerpt sums up the future of self-storage technology. The next few years promise better and simpler management software that tightly integrates with advanced security systems; wireless devices that can be mounted anywhere and moved in a flash; IP-based equipment; and software with remote-monitoring abilities. Of course, the hardest part of predicting future developments is imagining technology yet to be discovered. In the meantime, let’s envision how existing tools may come to be applied in the self-storage arena.
Twenty years ago, a major computer manufacturer advertised “the network is the computer,” meaning networking abilities were a PC’s most critical function. Today, the Internet is the computer. If your PC isn’t connected to the Internet, it’s a boat anchor. Regardless which self-storage management software you use, it will soon necessitate an Internet connection—if it doesn’t already. Why? There are several reasons. The first is flexibility.
Most of today’s management and security applications are written with personal productivity tools. They have limited abilities regarding networking and Internet access. But rewriting current applications to be web-accessible with database engines that can accommodate one to hundreds of users means self-storage owners don’t have to change software as their business grows. Being able to access information from anywhere at anytime also increases productivity.
For the software provider, the flexibility afforded by the web means it can offer one application that will work for all of its customers, regardless of the size of their operations, simplifying upgrades and support. The same flexibility allows self-storage tenants to securely pay their rent, view payment history or rent units online—all without extra fees for using a third-party provider.
As management software integrates more closely with a facility’s security functions, self-storage operators will be able to create online access logs for customers who depend on deliveries made to their units, such as pharmaceutical representatives. The logs can provide detailed information about when packages were dropped off or picked up and even include video of the actual deliveries.
Access-control software that monitors door alarms, keypads, gates and surveillance cameras will also benefit from the web, giving owners the ability to run security locally at each site, centrally from a single location or a combination of both. For example, an owner with only one or two sites may run all his security locally with a resident manager. But an owner with 10 locations may choose to operate security for all his sites from one facility, giving him the option to use only day-time managers and outsource off-hours security to a monitoring service.
At some point, browser interfaces may be incorporated with other devices, such as keypads, cameras, muxes, controllers, etc. Although few managers would wish to open a browser to see what is going on inside their keypads, technical-support personnel might use a web facility to troubleshoot problems. The greatest value for customers will certainly center on implementation of access-control and management software into powerful web-accessible database applications.
Wireless applications are flying at us so fast it’s like trying to get a sip of water out of a fire hose. Every day, a new feature emerges, like last year’s big entry: the ability to take and send digital photographs with a cell phone. This year, streaming video was added, allowing text messaging, e-mail and Internet browsing. These days, we expect that wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we can acquire information. We expect wireless solutions, even in self-storage.
Wireless door alarms have been an alternative to hard-wired door alarms for years. Soon, wireless keypads, intercoms and video cameras will allow easier installation and flexibility for owners who decide to add equipment to their site or update current technology. For example, adding hard-wired equipment such as a keypad can mean expensive trenching for additional conduit. But broadband wireless applications will eventually eliminate these costs.
Wireless security cameras are in their infancy. They are generally based on an Ethernet connection (similar to the Internet), which has been used by businesses for years to provide network connectivity to conference rooms, guest offices or laptop users who want to move around the office without being tethered by wire. Because digital video involves transmitting lots of information, wireless cameras don’t currently offer the picture quality a storage operation demands. But the product will mature, and when it does, adding a camera to building six will be as simple as bolting it to the building, aiming it, then configuring it on the DVR in the office.
Will there come a day when installing all devices on a wireless network will be less expensive than a wired solution? My bet is yes, but it will take time. We’ll see what unfolds as the wave of wireless solutions comes at us.
IP (Internet protocol) devices are great for moving large chunks of information like computer data, voice communications and video. Over the last year or two, network video recorders and IP cameras have become the products of choice in the commercial security market. They’re still more expensive than DVRs and traditional video cameras, but as the price becomes more competitive, these solutions will find their way into the self-storage arena.
Intercoms are also coming available in an IP version. While these lack some of the basic features of traditional intercoms—like the ability to play background music and running announcements—these deficiencies will disappear as the technology improves. The main benefits of IP intercoms are ease of use and configurability. Instead of needing an office intercom station with an array of push buttons, messages come over speakers via a PC. Add wireless to the intercom solution, and you can add stations all over the facility with minimal effort.
Finally, as IP phones come to small businesses and local-area wireless solutions become available, self-storage managers will be able to take phone calls from anywhere on the property. As the phone works off the facility PC, it may one day be possible to integrate the phone and intercom system, allowing you to make and answer calls through any intercom on the premises.
Electronic Door Locks
Customers continually expect the latest in security from their storage sites, and the industry has answered with the addition of personal electronic door locks. Standard door locks with exposed door latches are fine for most properties, but for added protection, facility owners can now offer units with electronic locks and keypad or card access.
Like the online access logs mentioned earlier, these solutions are particularly useful to storage tenants who rely on deliveries to and from their units. Code-access electronic locks relieve the facility owner of responsibility from accepting packages or keeping keys for customers. And they allow business tenants to accept packages even when they aren’t physically present to sign for them.
Unattended Self-Storage: Maybe Yes, Maybe No
As security undergoes a technological revolution and the web gives us unceasing access to information, reducing the need for onsite managers, does “unattended” self-storage make sense? It’s tough to say. The business drivers are there. Many owners complain of the difficulty of hiring qualified employees. It’s hard to find people who want to live on site and have good sales and operations skills.
Technology exists that will allow site security to be monitored remotely. Rentals and payments can be handled online and via self-service kiosks. Even voice or video conferencing is an option to provide customer assistance from a remote location. But when a tenant really needs help, it’s hard to replace the human touch. Other businesses that have experimented with self-service options, such as grocery stores and airlines, still keep an attendant on hand for assistance. While unmanned self-storage sites may be on the horizon, it’s difficult to say whether they will ever be completely automated. Certainly, developments like electronic door locks, remote site access, kiosks and Internet access will make the possibility more viable.
Tools and Integration
For decades, self-storage security crept along the technology curve. Keypads controlled entry, and then came card access and video surveillance. But eventually, two things changed the world: the Internet and the events of 9/11. Businesses and consumers have become more security conscious, resulting in a revolution of offerings.
What did this transformation mean to the self-storage owner? Greater systems integration and more equipment options than ever before. Management software merged with access control to heighten monitoring abilities and streamline daily business processes. Not only does the software work with entrance and exit gates, it collaborates with video surveillance, elevators, lighting control, alarms, climate control and sprinkler systems. New purchase options include web-based features, centralized and remote facility monitoring, wireless and IP devices, and electronic locks. There are limitless customizable solutions for every facility. The future is very bright, indeed.
Tom Lewellen is the sales and marketing manager for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based PTI Integrated Systems Inc., which offers a complete, integrated management-software and access-control system for self-storage worldwide. For more information, call 800.331.6224; visit www.ptiaccess.com.