Catch the Wave

Self-Storage Security
Systems offer facilities not only protection, but marketing as well

By Tom Brecke

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Everyone wants to be safe and secure, right? Of course. And tenants at a self-storage facility are no different. Locks for units are an industry standard, but more and more facilities are stepping up their security beyond the common lock. Properties offer individual door alarms--both wired and wireless-gate access and even video surveillance to combat the proliferation of crime around the nation. At the same time, the industry is creating a marketing opportunity to give customers what they want: peace of mind.

According to statistics, violent crime for adults may be declining, but property crime is up just about everywhere. It doesn't matter where you live--just read the paper or watch the evening news. Small towns, big cities, rural farmland--crime happens everywhere and it's not picky.

Enter self-storage security systems. If you have a crime problem in your area, or even if you don't, some sort of security package at your facility is a good idea--not only from a safety standpoint, but also from a marketing one. The public at large has to come to expect some sort of protection for their belongings and themselves.

Catch the Wave

Whether you believe the statistics or not, or even if you live in a "safe" place, security systems are becoming a way of life for the self-storage operator. It's a matter of perception for customers who see the crime in the paper and watch the news and want to know if their goods are going to be safe while stored in your facility. If you don't have some sort of security system, and your competition down the street does, you may have a tough time trying to convince customers that crime really isn't a problem in your neighborhood. If you truly have a crime problem in your area, or just want a marketing advantage, security in the self-storage industry is the wave of the future.

"I think the overall security issue has come to the forefront in people's minds," says Dennis Castelli, owner of Greensboro, N.C.-based Crest Electronics. "For years (owners) have kind of sat back and said 'well, we're a little place' or 'we're out in the middle of nowhere and we don't have those problems.' But we're getting more and more break-ins, illegal dumping and vandalism and it's becoming a big expense."

And the number of facilities investing in security systems is increasing, says Dan Webster of St. Davids, Pa.-based Wham Security Systems.

"There's been a sharp rise in the percentage of new projects which have a high level of security beyond access controls. It's very uncommon for a facility to open now without cameras or individual door alarms, or both," says Webster. "Ten years ago, the percentage of new facilities that had either of those, may have been 20 percent. Today, it's probably close to 60 percent--and it may be higher than that."

Webster chalks up the increase to lower costs, better products and the need by facilities to compete in today's marketplace.

Craig Thompson, sales manager for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based MSTC, agrees and says security is quickly moving forward as a necessity rather than a luxury item.

"The fact of the matter is, crime isn't going anywhere," Thompson says. "Crime does pay, and it pays big for the criminal. Our market isn't any different from other markets when it comes to loss prevention and all the security issues that come with it."

One of the more common ways thieves hit self-storage properties is to become a tenant. According to statistics, 60 percent of self-storage thefts occur this way: The tenant/thief cuts the locks of the units around his and, when the coast is clear, goes in to move the valuables of another unit to the front. After re-locking the unit with his own lock, the thief comes back at a later time, often with a large moving truck, and cleans out those targeted units. Usually, no one's the wiser until later, when the proper renter can't get into his unit because his key won't fit the lock. This can be a lengthy period if the renter doesn't use his unit on a regular basis. By this time, the burglar is generally long gone.

Door Alarms: Wired vs. Wireless

The self-storage security market basically breaks down into two categories: property access and individual door alarms. Video cameras are also beginning to pick up steam in the industry in an effort to thwart crime and provide another tool to allow owners an edge on the competition.

Hardwired Systems

When it comes to individual door alarms, there are two styles to consider: hardwired and the relatively new wireless systems popping up throughout the industry. Which type you should use hinges on several factors and opinions will vary depending upon who you talk to. Each style has its pros and cons that industry veterans are more than happy to comment on.

The wired systems are generally straightforward, using a system that uses one of several different types of wiring schemes. The most common being a multiplexer installed at each building to collect and convert the mass of wires running from a magnetic contact and reed switch into each unit. The wires are usually connected at the mulitplexer and run to the control system in the rental office.

According to Dave Reddick, president of Lakewood, Colo.-based Sentinel Systems, there are several different types of reed switches available for different types of doors. The floor-mounted switches are ideal with roll-up doors, he says. The device is anchored to the floor of the unit on the same side as the door latch. The coinciding magnet is mounted on a bracket on the inside of the door. With swing doors, Reddick suggests mounting the switch to the door header and the magnet on the door. You can use the swing-door switches with roll-up doors, and it's often more economical, but Reddick says there are several arguments for using the floor-mounted switches with roll-up doors: The point at which these switches and magnets are mounted is the most stable position of the door and more likely assures that the alignment and operating gap are maintained for an extended period of time. Secondly, the magnet never gets rolled up inside the door when the door is opened, thereby avoiding the wear and tear that causes magnets to fall off over time.

Accroding to Doug West of Ashville, N.C.-based Doug West & Associates, the advantage of using a hardwired system is that they work consistently and are the tried-and-true method. Another advantage is that there is no distance limitation as with a wireless system.

"There are those in the security industry--not just self-storage--that will tell you that if you have a hardwired system, you're better off than if you don't," says Reddick. "There's fewer things that can be induced in the system. Some people say they don't have to run all that wire and hang these things in every unit and instead just put transmitters somewhere on the property. Whether or not that is reliable and works to the same degree as hardwired is a big question."

But there are also disadvantages: If a wire in the system breaks, it can be extremely expensive to pull and fix, and they can be vulnerable to things such as rats, vandals and lightning. If you're in a facility that isn't currently alarmed, and you're interested in retrofitting, the cost of a hardwired system is also expensive. Unlike new construction where trenching and conduit can be added during the construction phase, retrofitting requires running wires on the outside of the facility and can cost upwards of more than $100 per door as compared to $30 a door during construction.

The logistics of retrofitting is also a challenge, considering that wires and switches need to be run into each unit. "The retrofits are tough because of a number of variables, the toughest being that the units are rented," says MSTC's Thompson. "If they are rented, and you want to go in and wire up every unit, then you're talking about unlocking units or cutting locks, and just causing chaos. Mini-storages are made up of an array of tenants, some of whom may be living in other countries or other cities. It's tough to get those people in."

It is possible to run the wire on the outside of the units, but again, costs rise significantly. Outside wires need to be covered by some sort of molding product--at a cost of about 85 cents per foot--to protect against the sun and other environmental aspects. Also, any switches mounted on the outside of the door require an anti-defeat-type switch, warns Reddick, who says the costs run about $12 more than a normal switch.


Wireless alarm systems have a lot going for them. They have the marketing advantage of being able to sell space-age-like technology and can be a breeze to set up.

In the past, wireless systems got a bad rap because of extremely low battery life--one to two years. But now, Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Quikstor has brought a battery to the self-storage market that it says will last 20 years. Doug Carner, Quikstor's director of marketing, says companies are currently working on batteries that exceed 20 years and may last a lifetime.

Carner says the sensors are about the size of a pager--1 1/2 inches by 3 inches by 1 inch--and can be attached to the unit by an adhesive strip that you merely peel off. The sensors contain the antenna and the reed switch and include a tamper switch to protect from vandals. The magnet is the only exposed piece in the unit. "If someone were to open the cover of the sensor, it would instantly sound the alarm," says Carner.

Most of the industry's wireless systems work on a private radio frequency that sends out a message multiple times per second when a door is opened or closed. The base station receives the transmission and if the facilities software hasn't communicated with the security system to say it's OK to have the door opened, an alarm will sound.

"From the tenant's perspective, when they enter their code, the sensor disarms the unit," explains Carner. "In reality, when the tenant enters the code, it tells the software that when the door opens, it's OK. The door doesn't know when it's armed or disarmed, it's the software that says it's OK."

Installation of hardwired systems may be its biggest advantage. With the exception of the base stations, the rest of the set up is rather easy. The sensors come with an adhesive backing, which attaches to the door track, and the magnet, which attaches to the door itself.

"The tools needed for installation are a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a roll of paper towels--and a bottle of Formula 409 if it's a really messy door," relates Carner. "If a sensor is destroyed, you don't call a repairman, you just reach under the counter and pull another one out."

Boats, RVs and portable storage containers are also easily monitored with security by using a wireless system.

While others still question the effectiveness and stability of a wireless system, a clear disadvantage is if the signal is out of transmission range, you may need to add a repeater somewhere on the grounds, or use solar panels to generate the electricity.

Access Control

Although nothing new, gate-controlled access to facilities has come a long way from its origins. Today, automatic gates are often controlled by computer software using either keypads or magnetic card readers at the entrance and exit of the facilities. A typical scenario would be a renter driving to the gate and entering his unique pass code or running a magnetic-striped card through a card reader for admittance. The gate opens, the renter drives into the facility, and the gate closes behind him.

The access technology can serve many purposes that include allowing the renter to arm and disarm his unit when he enters the gate and the ability to pay an invoice at the gate using a credit card, among other things. From a security standpoint, not only does it keep out people who shouldn't be on the property, it also allows the tenant's movement at the facility to be documented, as well as prevents renters from "skipping out" and not paying their bill.

Access-control systems can also be used to control entry to an interior corridor or additional floors, keeping those who don't belong in those areas at bay.

From a technical point of view, it's important to remember that the access-control systems only signal the gate to open. The gate motor (gate operator) controls the opening and closing of the gate.

Sentinel Systems' Reddick says the gate is usually held open by the use of safety loops connected to a loop detector inside the gate operator. Loops are wires embedded in the ground in front and behind the gate to sense a vehicle in the path of the gate.

Gate types vary, but most self-storage properties rely on sliding gates--those that roll on a track of wheels--or the vertical pivot gate. Other lesser-used styles include swing, roll and cantilever gates.

Often the determination of gate style depends on the weather at the facility. In an extremely cold climate, a roll or cantilever gate may freeze. In these areas, a garage-style roll door might be a better choice. Others are determined by the uniqueness of the facility and, of course, local fire codes and restrictions.

Reddick says the design of your facility's entry/exit should be done early in the project to avoid common oversights, such as gates that don't fit, no provisions for keypad/card readers and little consideration to entry and exit traffic flow.

Marketing the Security

Property crimes around the country may be going up, but ironically, it's probably not the actual crime rate that is driving security in the self-storage industry. In the end, it's more likely that it's society's perception of the problem and the competition that arises from the tenant's state of mind.

Given the chance to rent a facility down the street with door alarms and a big, guardian-like front gate, or one without any security system, who would you rent from?

"Gate-access control and door-monitoring systems are basically installed to prevent skip-outs. It's kind of expected in the industry and installed primarily as an advertising feature," says Darrel Hoblack, owner of Inglewood, Calif.-based Demco Electronics. "Everybody is so competitive. You have to build at least to the standards that the public expects."

Keep in mind that people wouldn't be bothering to pay money to store something that wasn't valuable to them, says Thompson. So if they're paying to store it, they will probably pay to protect it.

"It's not just security, it's benefits," he says. "When you look at self-storage, it's different than product. The only thing it has to sell is benefits: 'Why should I store at your facility vs. your competitor?' Most people will pay for it, just like people will pay a ridiculous amount of money to have a fancy cup-holder in their car. People do pay for those types of benefits."

But not only are companies seeing the advantages of selling the security as a benefit, others are using wireless technology to market the actual sensing devices as an ancillary product.

"In a wired system, if the guy down the street charges $50 a month for a 10-by-10 and you've just spent $30,000 or $40,000 for security, you still have to charge $50 for a 10-by-10," says Eric Young of Quikstor. "If you raise your prices to $55 per month, you're going to lose a lot of business. If you use wireless, you can charge $50 for the 10-by-10, but charge $5 for this service. Now your collecting $55 in rent, but you didn't lose anything. Even if you only look at it for 10 years, $5 a month at $60 per year, that's $600 on your $50 investment-that's not a bad return."

Other ancillary items available include key-chain sensors that allow renters to simply click a button for facility access, disarming their unit, logging the visit and updating the property's records on that tenant, adds Young.

Doug West of Doug West and Associates, says while the industry is selling security systems that really are protection, it's the image and perceived quality of the product that will win over customers.

"In the self-storage industry, we're selling the dynamics of security systems," says West. "It is a true security system, but it's the marketing appeal that's going to turn your investment into a good return."

West says when he talks to clients at tradeshows, customers are generally more concerned with what potential tenants will think, more than whether or not the system is a quality one.

"Image and performance go hand in hand," explains West. "You can't have image without performance. So what you have to do is look for performance first, then image." As an example, West cites a facility that uses a black-and-white camera while another uses color. Both work the same way as far as performance is concerned, but the color monitor will most likely produce a better image in the tenant's mind about the property.

Video Security

Video-camera security is another method picking up steam in the self-storage industry. It's far from being a new technology, but in the last few years it has been embraced by the legion storage operators.

"Video gives what we call 'legal chain of custody,' the act of the person entering the property to the point at which he leaves and what he does while he's there. If you have proper video positioning up and down the aisle, and a tenant rents a unit and breaks into another two aisles over, you actually have video coverage of that," says Crest Electronics' Castelli, who adds that insurance companies have especially taken a liking to facilities using video monitoring. "We get a lot of people who rent a unit, and then a week, three weeks or a month later claim their unit has been broken into. They claim they had $25,000 of jewelry and furniture in there. These fraudulent claims are bad for the insurance industry and of course the insurance company can't really prove if it was fraud or not. With the tapes, they can prove the tenants did rent the unit, but they didn't put anything in it."

Castelli says most facilities use a 31-tape library, in which the tapes are simply numbered to coincide with each day of the month. When the manager comes in for his morning shift, he just puts in that day's tape. Some facilities color-code the tapes and use a 60- or 90-day cycle in case of a lagging claim, although Castelli says the 31-day set is the choice of most operators.

The basic video coverage, according to Castelli, consists of three or four cameras that record activity at the front gate, down the outer bay, the back and down the opposite side. Additional add-ons include cameras for every aisle or hallway, and any area on the property grounds that receives a lot of use.

Although the tapes run 24 hours a day, the camera remains idle until it is triggered by movement.

"The machine sits in an alarmed position until the beam is broken," says Castelli. "There's a video motion sensor in it and when somebody crosses that beam, it turns on the machine. As long as they stay in range of the camera, every time they break the beam, the recorder turns on and continues to play as long as they are there. You can set the sensor for 30 seconds, or one or three minutes.

Castelli says the average facility has eight cameras, usually starting with four and increasing from there. Bigger facilities can have upwards of 60 cameras on site.

"The owners of these facilities have made a big investment. They've found the application of the cameras was an expense at first, but now it's not only a necessity, but also a sales tool," he says. "Where are you going to store? Over here where they don't even have a gate, or at a facility that has gate controls and cameras? So it may cost me an extra $5 a month. The value people put on what they store--maybe pictures of the family or albums--to them is priceless, so they're going to pay the extra money. A lot of facilities have been able to increase their rates based on the securities they offer.


Crest Electronics
3706 Alliance Drive
Greensboro, NC 27407
Phone: (888) 50-CREST
Fax: (910) 855-6676

Crest Electronics Inc. was founded more than 20 years ago with the goal of providing quality video security/surveillance products to the marketplace. Crest manufactures and distributes cameras, monitors, time-lapse recorders and many other video products. With offices in Greensboro, N.C., Crest provides shipping to all parts of the world using UPS, Fed-Ex and other shipping companies. Crest products can be placed anywhere, from small cameras that fit in your hand to those that can see in complete darkness.

Doug West & Associates Inc.
One Sunny Ridge Drive
Asheville, NC 28804
Phone: (800) 523-9504
Fax: (704) 645-6227
E-mail: [email protected]

Doug West & Associates provides security and surveillance systems to the self-storage industry from its trademarked Digitech Security Marketing Systems, including its color DigiGraphicstm; DigiGatetm access software and equipment; CCTV and video systems; individual unit alarms and an all-aluminum keypad. Doug West has a staff of more than 35, including service technicians, an in-house CAD department and engineers, among others. The DigiGate-700 features the virtually indestructible all-aluminum keypad and the DigiTech door alarms feature the exclusive TrueTrak wide-gap alarm contact.

7430 East Butherus Dr
Phone: (800) BUY-MSTC

MSTC, Mystic Systems Technology Corp., is now in its 14th year of providing management software and security to the self-storage industry. MSTC was one of the first companies to create an automated property-management software system; conceptualize billing-sensitive keypads; develop a PC-based access-control system; and offer 24-hour, seven-day-a-week customer service. MSTC has announced the forthcoming release of its Account Manager property-management software system, a 32-bit descendant of its flagship DOS-based Mini Manager program.

Preferred Technology Inc.
8271 E. Gelding Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85260
Phone: (800) 331-6224
Fax: (602) 991-1395

Since 1979, PTI has designed and manufactured the highest quality industrial-grade components available. Its PTI Security Graphics let self-storage managers know who's there and who's not there at a glance. The PTI Falcon/PC Software allows remote control of its security systems via telephone modem-for unmanned self-storage operations--including unit alarms. PTI's equipment is built from the ground up for its intended purpose, rather than relying on off-the-shelf devices modified with add ons.

14011 Ventura Blvd., Suite 206 East
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Phone: (800) 321-1987
(818) 990-5575

QuikStor has supported the self-storage industry since 1986. Two years ago, QuikStor sold one of the industry's first self-storage programs written for Windows 95. The company has also pioneered other industry standards, including pay-at-the-gate, automatic overnight processing, digital photography, automatic credit-card processing, user-changeable site graphics, and 100 percent wireless door alarms. QuikStor software is written and supported by self-storage professionals. Founder Dennis Levitt owns and holds interest in several self-storage facilities. The software has been running in more than 1,000 self-storage facilities around the world.

Sentinel Systems Corp.
1050 South Wadsworth Blvd., Suite A,
Lakewood, CO 80226
Phone: (800) 456-9955/
(303) 936-9955
Fax: (303) 936-1230

Sentinel Systems has been a leader in providing security electronics and property management software to the self-storage industry for more than 22 years. What began as a way to eliminate break-ins for a group of self-storage facilities has grown into one of the largest security and software suppliers in the industry. The firm now serves more than 11,000 systems worldwide, with a tenant-user population in the millions. "Our mission is to provide superior products and outstanding customer service through innovations in technology, people, systems and marketing," says Dave Reddick, president.

Wham Security Systems
223 Ravenscliff Road
St. Davids, PA 19087
Phone: (610) 341-9426
Fax: (610) 341-9427

Wham Security Systems is a provider of gate-access control and individual door-alarm systems, both wired and wireless.

Demco Electronics
10516 Grevillea Ave.
Inglewood, CA 90304
Phone: (310) 677-0801
Fax: (310) 674-5445

Demco Electronics is a security and access-systems supplier.

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