As you can imagine, operating 2 million square feet of self-storage across a dozen states in an unmanned format has its challenges. With no one on site to act as a human presence or deterrent, security has been a major focus for us since we launched 10 Federal Self Storage five years ago.
While we rely on many traditional security measures, we’ve also invested heavily in technology enhancements that strengthen facility management and monitoring from afar. Some of them also offer customer conveniences, which benefits our value proposition and, ultimately, the bottom line.
Let me walk you through our security program and how we keep an eye on things remotely. Many of these are great tools and strategies for any self-storage site.
The Bare Minimum
OK, let’s talk tactics. First, put yourself into the mind of a criminal. Like most businesspeople, he’s making risk vs. reward decisions. “Which self-storage facility can I break into with the least likelihood of being caught?” So, the goal is to make our property a risky proposition!
If you don’t have much to invest in security right now, at least make sure you do the following. These low-cost solutions make your site much less attractive to would-be crooks:
- Install great night lighting. We rent light poles from the local utility or buy LED wall packs and install them right on the buildings. Many come with their own solar panel, which is perfect if you don’t have power throughout the site.
- Install cameras—even if they’re fake—and post signs all over the place to indicate the site is under video surveillance.
- If you have an onsite apartment, let a police officer use it for free. You’ll end up with a police car regularly parked at your facility, which is a major crime deterrent.
Now, let’s get into the good stuff: building defenses. It starts with a secure perimeter. We fence in every facility and have a controlled-access gate. In fact, we’ve started using two vehicle gates at every facility. The reason is that while the gate provides security, it also presents a possible point of failure. Specifically, if it becomes disabled because of a vehicle strike and the entry is blocked you end up with angry customers. Our goal is to get our incidence-of-failure rate to zero. Using multiple gates has been our best solution on that front.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. The legacy gate system works with a keypad. I don’t like keypads. A determined criminal will sit there and keep guessing at codes until he hits on one that opens the gate. When you see someone entering several random codes in a row, it’s a sign you’ve got criminal activity. So, we wrote an internal script to look for this signature and notify us of a likely break-in attempt. Many access-control and management-software companies now offer this same capability.
So, technology can alert us to an attacking criminal, but it gets better. The keypad will eventually go the way of the horse-drawn buggy. Already, better systems are being developed. For example, customers can use a mobile app or their phone’s Bluetooth to enter the gate. Plus, these tools only let in real renters! There’s no easy way for a criminal to spoof this system.
Moving inward from the perimeter, you need to secure your individual units. There are a lot of exciting technologies at this level centered around the door lock. Standard locks are on the way out. Next-generation models, whether electronic or mechanical, offer customers and operators new ways to manage unit entry.
Cameras are evolving, too. Now, rather than providing a static window into facility activity from afar, they’re starting to leverage artificial intelligence (AI), allowing you to react in real time to onsite events.
AI cameras can read license plates or recognize faces and alert you if a specific vehicle or person has arrived. They can even recognize specific actions, such as someone who has fallen or is climbing over a fence. These cameras are even starting to be married with bi-directional audio systems so you can reach out to the person you’re viewing and inform him the police are on the way. If you don’t have the time to monitor your camera activity, there are controlled-access companies who can do it for a fee.
Thus far, to create a system we can access remotely, we’ve been using a standard daisy-chain of existing technology to make it work. It involves a Microsoft Surface Pro at the facility that runs a walkie-talkie-type app called Zello. The Surface Pro outputs to a 700W Denon receiver/amplifier that can drive up to 10 speakers, which we place throughout the property. To broadcast over the intercom from our corporate office, we simply bring up a specific facility in Zello and press the “Push to Talk” button.
It works great, however, the fewer systems we can run the better. As such, we’re very excited that the camera system we use now includes bi-directional audio. The microphone and speaker will be separate from the cameras but controlled from the same system. The audio is limited to 70 decibels, so it isn’t capable of broadcasting over the entire facility yet; but we believe it’ll be effective for certain locations now.
How Security Makes Money
Of course, implementing a good security program is the right thing to do for our self-storage tenants, and it makes us more money—but perhaps not in the way you might think. I don’t believe a customer rents at one facility over another because of advertised security features. In the end, it boils down to online reviews, which are important for two key reasons.
First, reviews play an increasingly important role in the buying decision. Customers today read and rely on them. If I’m looking to buy a product on Amazon and it has bad reviews, I don’t care how good the price is, I’m not going to buy it! It works the same in self-storage: Positive reviews drive business to your facility; negative ones drive it away. Bad security will result in negative reviews. Why take a chance?
Second, thanks to algorithms on search engines like Google, good reviews earn your business a better position in online search. The engines want to provide a good user experience, which means matching customers to the best options. The better your reviews, the higher you appear in search. That means more prospects find you, and you spend less on paid advertising.
Security isn’t free, but it can help you generate more revenue. Whether you’re using an unmanned model like we are or have onsite staff, my advice is the same: Add as much of it to your self-storage facility as you can and enjoy the many benefits.
Brad Minsley is a co-founder of 10 Federal Storage LLC, where leads the operations and development teams. He’s worked in the self-storage and multi-family industries since 2000, having participated in the acquisition of more than 2 million square feet of storage and 5,000 multi-family units. 10 Federal currently operates 17 unmanned self-storage facilities in the Carolinas and Virginia. To reach Brad, call 919.977.8987, email [email protected].