Secure Satellite Storage

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It’s amazing how much can be learned by listening in on conversations that take place at a tradeshow booth. During recent industry events, “unmanned facility operations” has been among the concepts creating a buzz. What is a remote self-storage operation? How does it work? Are there special requirements for security? Let’s find out.

Richard and Jill live in a nice ranch-style home that tops a low hill in southern Ohio. He commutes 12 miles to administrative duties in the regional hospital. Jill plays mom to two youngsters. But that’s not all. When her phone rings during the day, she answers: “Valley View Self Storage has great prices, great service, and great views of the valley. How may we help you?” Valley View provides a service to the community, even though it has no full-time onsite manager. Jill runs the 181-unit facility from her home a mile away.

Likewise, Glenn, a commercial real estate developer in one of the Midwest’s larger cities, operates his holdings from a central downtown office. Sometimes referred to as a “hub-and-spoke” arrangement, Glenn’s five remote sites pose a different set of operational requirements than a traditional manned store with a full-time staff.

As industry consolidation opens the door, national and regional operators take the opportunity to bring multiple facilities throughout a widespread area into their folds. As a means of saving time and money, executives dream of having systems that will allow totally unmanned facilities, with expanded automation connecting them to a home office.

Whether a facility is a “mom and pop” operation, a local real estate venture or part of a national chain, its owners will seek out ways to minimize overhead and maximize profits as they run the business day to day. Of the estimated 45,000 self-storage facilities dotting the face of the United States, many follow a business model that does not include a full-time manager. Built to take advantage of the high demand for storage, these facilities are known as “remote” sites.

The Quandry

Jill and Glenn meet at a self-storage tradeshow. While browsing security equipment at the booth of one vendor, they discover their operations have something in common: remote management. It makes for some insightful conversation.

“You know, the requirements for running the facility are the same whether you have a full-time staff or not. You still have to make it easy for people to do business with you,” says Jill.

Glenn agrees, “We’ve all got the same issues. Keeping tenants happy takes customer service. They want a clean place to store, and they want to feel that what they’re storing is going to be protected. Depending on the size of the store, there’s a way to do all of that and still not have a full-time staff.”

Security is a business tool with two purposes. Obviously, protection of property is one. The other is to keep your facility competitive within your market. Better security may be the very item that makes the difference to prospects. For example, if your store has a fence and automatic gate, it will naturally be more secure, attracting customers concerned about safety.

Tight security results from a good plan: You need to combine management systems and equipment that match the needs of your location and operation. Though facility types vary, security fundamentals remain the same.

“When it comes to security, we start with the basics,” says Glenn. “Since we use a central office, it’s easy to standardize procedures. As well as we can, we make sure our tenants are who they say they are. We require photo IDs and background information, and we even keep a photo and fingerprint of each customer. We also give each tenant a disc lock with a security sticker. We know it’s the most secure lock they can use, so it’s part of the rental package. When we do our onsite inspections, we can quickly see if someone has tampered with any units.”

Jill’s in a different boat. Though her facility is doing quite well, having stabilized at about 88 percent occupancy in two years, security is still a sore spot. “We just had our third break-in in two years,” she says. “We can’t abide that, so I’ve got to find some new options.”

A Solution

A sales representative overhears Jill’s quandary and offers some assistance. “We can provide all the same electronic security tools for a remote site that we can for a manned facility, so long as we have electrical power,” he says.

“The big difference is how information flows between the two locations and how it’s handled. In a manned office, all pieces of equipment are within easy reach of each other via wiring. The only thing that changes in a remote setup is the method for moving the data stream. A local-area network (LAN), wide-area network (WAN), or even a wireless connection can easily be set up to transfer the information that helps security systems work seamlessly.”

Those systems include access control, individual unit alarms and video surveillance. Access control includes the automated functioning of gates and doors; assigned codes ensure that only tenants whose leases are valid and accounts are paid have access to the property. Individual unit alarms still rank at the top of the list of features that appeal to customers. Many feel more secure about using storage when they know their space is “armed.” Likewise, many facility owners feel their business is more secure when they use video surveillance on the property. With today’s digital video recorders, even smaller facilities can afford to enjoy heightened security.

“With a fence and a good automatic gate, you’ll cure better than 80 percent of any theft problem you would ever have at a facility,” says the sales rep. “If you want proof-positive security, an individual unit alarm will do the trick. The alarm system can be hard-wired or wireless. Both options have proved to be valuable, especially in a remote location. Any unauthorized entry will cause an alarm condition to startle an intruder and summon you or the authorities. So long as they are installed properly, these systems work very reliably for years.”

Jill is impressed, but this doesn’t entirely solve her dilemma. “I’m more concerned about seeing who’s at my facility at any given time. How can I use cameras to see them from the house?”

The rep is unphased. “If you have a high-speed connection, you can run all your access control, alarm notification and security cameras right over the Internet,” he says. “Just like the major self-storage companies that view their facility cameras from all over the country, you can see what’s happening at your site in real time right on your computer screen.”

As the sales rep mentioned, the difference between security at a manned and unmanned site is related to the flow of data. In the case of short distances, such as two facilities across the street from one another, transmissions can be made via a wireless modem. Otherwise, the simple data for the access-control and alarm systems can travel on a standard telephone circuit, while larger transmissions such as video from security cameras will require a high-speed Internet connection.

More Options Than Ever

With connection devices readily available—and the technology always improving—remote site operation has become viable and affordable. Many owners are taking a close look at the new kiosk-type equipment. Whether for standalone use at an unmanned site or as a robotic “support” manager at a staffed facility, these self-serve stations can connect to a home office or call center to handle all the tasks required for rentals. They can even maintain the paperwork for customer relationships.

“Along with automation, built-in and add-on security features give you all the systems you need to keep up with the competition,” says Glenn, who has been listening to the sales rep’s pitch. “We have been able to use a combination of security systems at our remote sites and operate them very efficiently. Of course, we still have someone doing the daily property and lock checks, but the investment in the technology has really paid off by keeping our overhead down.”

Another owner who’s been listening in says, “We really don’t have a remote site, but we might as well. We have a manager, but my wife and I like to travel, so we’ve added the necessary connections to keep up with what’s going on at home. A couple of weeks ago, we were watching our site over the Internet on a pocket PC while sitting on a beach in Maui. It’s a great way to take care of business!”

If you are one of many adding to the buzz with questions about unmanned storage stores, your answer about security is, “Yes!” Properly planned features will help protect your property and add appeal for prospects—even more so because you operate without a manager in sight.

Steve Cooper is part of the marketing team at Digitech International Inc., which produces comprehensive security solutions for the self-storage industry. The company’s product line includes gates, access control, video surveillance, individual unit alarms, management site control and onsite marketing tools. For more information, call 800.523.9504; e-mail sales@digitech-intl.com; visit www.digitech-intl.com.

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