Secure Your Self-Storage Investment

June 1, 2001

18 Min Read
Secure Your Self-Storage Investment

Secure Your Self-Storage Investment

Hardware, software and peace of mind

By John Fogg

Buildingthe plan for your security system at a self-storage site can be a monumentaltask. More and better technology is being developed in the security industry,and some of it will apply to our industry. Some of the choices for securing yourproperty will be easy. There are basic items that should be incorporated intothe design of the site. Other security options will require more research andplanning. Basic factors you will want to consider are:

  • How unique is the design of my project? What "special" security is required to protect the site, my customers, my personnel and the business? Most facilities are fenced around the perimeter or between buildings. Some unique buildings or building conversions require securing all entrances, including entrance doors, emergency exits and overhead access doors. The physical layout will impact your decision. Single-story, multistory, inside units, hallways and outside units all play a part in how you will configure your security system.

  • Early consideration of the security system is important for several reasons. Budgeting the proper amount of money is crucial. Trying to save money by cutting corners on security does a disservice to the marketability of the business and your tenants.

Budgeting the proper amount of time for installation of a complete system isjust as crucial. Nearly 90 percent of the security-system installation needs tobe accomplished after buildings are erected and doors are hung. Installers needaccess to storage units and common areas. While the temptation will be to startrenting units to generate revenue, the wise and patient owner will budget timeto ensure a quality installation.

Entrance, parking and controlled-access areas warrant a certain amount ofspace based on the layout and traffic flow of your site. Architects often drawup plans with little knowledge of how a gate entry should be laid out. Most ofthe plans that come across my desk show the entrance gate as a one-inch straightline, labeled "gate." This should be given greater consideration atthe outset of the project.

  • How sophisticated do you want your system to be? Many different systems are available, such as access controls, individual door alarms, cameras, perimeter beams, graphics displays, etc. Each of these has different options or features to choose from. New technologies are being incorporated all the time. A state-of-the-art facility often attracts a high dollar if sale to a major developer will be pursued down the road.

  • What your competition has to offer makes a difference on how you will want to approach security. Do they have an access gate, cameras, 24-hour access? Does the neighborhood dictate that you have individual door alarms on each unit?

  • Use your security system as a marketing tool. Let your prospects know you have a leg up on your competition because your storage units are more secure. Have you advertised your cameras in your Yellow Pages ad? Does your sign mention that you have individual door alarms?

  • The more time you spend researching and evaluating the security aspect of your project, the more informed a decision you will make. Consult the professionals who specialize in these systems exclusively for self-storage. Find out about the companies you will deal with. How long have they been providing these kinds of systems? Do they manufacture their own products? Do they have the infrastructure to support these systems? Are they equipped to keep up with new technology as it changes?

Now for the nuts and bolts. An overview of self-storage security options willhelp you focus as you do your "homework." The choices for securingyour site can be categorized into four major areas: access control, individualdoor alarms, closed-circuit television (CCTV) and additional security options.But first, I'd like to make a few comments on software.


Your software decision will have an effect on the security of your site.There are companies that supply management software for the operation of yourrental office as well as the systems for securing access and door alarms.Providers of both management and security systems should offer a completelyintegrated product. When these systems are integrated, information necessary forthe operation of and access to the site is exchanged automatically.

For example, when a move-in is entered on the management software, thecustomer's gate-access code or gate-access card number is immediately loggedinto the access system. When someone moves out, the gate code or card number isautomatically removed from the system. If a tenant is late on rent and should bedenied access to his unit, the management software again communicates this tothe access-control system. When that tenant pays up, their original access codeor card number is reactivated. This makes for a smooth operation.

Some companies provide one piece of the puzzle--either the managementsoftware or the access-control/door-alarm system. With no communication betweenthe two, transactions like move-ins, move-outs, denying access to late pays andre-enabling their code when they pay up becomes a process of making "doubleentries." This can be time-consuming and leaves more room for human error.

To eliminate the necessity for these double entries, software and securitysuppliers have written various "interfaces" to other companies'products. These interfaces work with some companies and some products only someof the time. Representatives from most of these software and security providershave met in the past to establish specifications for one "universalinterface." This universal interface would become the industry standard formaking two different suppliers' products communicate, thereby eliminating theneed for double entries and allowing for smooth facility operation. The exactrequirements for the interface were determined, outlining required features andfunctions. Any reputable supplier to the industry accepts this universalinterface. When choosing your software, be sure the brand you consider complies.

The decision on what software to use should be based on the individual needsof the business. The information the program provides should be what the owneror manager most needs. Owners should be wary of purchasing solely on managerrecommendations, however. They should be very familiar with their softwareprogram, or they put themselves at risk of employee theft or embezzlement.

Access Control

Most self-storage sites are fenced or have a combination of fence andbuildings around the perimeter. This warrants the need for an access gate.First-generation sites had a manual drive gate, which was left open during yardhours and locked after hours. This allowed free access in and out throughout theday. To secure access to the property, automatic gates are now a necessity.

There are three basic types of gates. Swing gates are seldom used for self-storage. The number of cycles for a facility gives too much wear and tear onthis style of gate. Traffic flow is also restricted because of the area neededto swing the gate back and forth.

Vertical-lift gates pivot like an elbow on a table. They are counter-balancedso they can be easily raised manually if needed. This design is used when thereare space limitations. When no area is available to roll a gate back, verticalgates are used. (Though I do know of one owner who chose a lift gate so it couldbe viewed swinging up in the air from the street to attract attention.)

The most popular gate style is the slide or roll gate. Earlier designs hadthese gates on rollers on the ground. Recommended now is the cantilever design.The cantilever gate has rollers that roll on a mid-rail attached to a fencesection. This mid-rail supports the gate and allows it to open and close withouttouching the ground.

Sometimes the layout will require more than one gate location. Keep in mindthis can drive the costs up. If a gate is only to be used for emergency, movingvan or garbage truck, it may not need to be automated.

The mechanism that automatically moves the gate is known as a gate operator.Vertical-lift-gate operators are usually purchased along with the gate itself.Slide- and swing-gate operators can be purchased separately. If you are workingwith a particular installer or gate company, they will recommend the brand ofoperator they are familiar with for this application.

Every gate layout should include a walk gate. It should be locked from theoutside and unlocked on the inside. The manager can have a key, if it isnecessary to enter. Wire mesh can be welded on to keep someone from reachingaround the gate and gaining entry.

The "access system" refers to the keypad, card reader or proximityreader for restricting entry and exit to a secured area. Generally, it includesaccess devices, stands, wire, office components and access-control software.These access devices send a signal to the gate operator or door-lock device toopen the gate or door. In the case of a gate, a detector loop is located in thedrive to detect vehicles. This acts as a safety device and as a signal to closethe gate.

Designing your entry/exit is something that should be done early in yourproject. Too often we see plans reflecting gates that don't fit, no provisionfor keypads or card readers, no conduit specified, and little consideration tothe flow of traffic and parking spaces for prospective customers. As anindustry, we spend many hours concentrating on square footage and unit mix, yetwe neglect to address where the prospect is going to park and how he will get inand out of the office and yard.

Traffic-flow considerations should include:

  • Sufficient driveway for rental trucks to pull in, out of the way of street traffic.

  • A parking area for prospective customers outside the secured storage yard.

  • Visibility of the office entrance from the parking area.

  • Visibility of the parking area and gate from the rental office.

  • Handicapped parking and office access.

  • A safe distance between the keypad or access device and the gate.

  • Left-hand flow, so the keypad is located on the driver side of the vehicle.

  • Adequate safety devices and design to ensure pedestrians or bystanders are not at risk of injury.

  • Any other local requirements.

  • An exit keypad.

An exit keypad is necessary to track how long a tenant has been on site. If asecurity situation arises, gate-activity reports will be printed from thecomputer. Anyone who has been spending long amounts of time on site should beconsidered suspicious. Without an exit keypad, you won't know how long someoneis on site.

Access-control systems are becoming more sophisticated. Different types ofaccess can be assigned to different customers. One system can limit access to acertain area within the storage property, such as hallways or RV parking areas.

Keypads are the norm for access devices. Each customer is given a unique codeto punch in when entering and exiting. Also available are touch-card readers,proximity-card readers and vehicle-tag readers. Garage-door "clickers"are also being developed for customer use. Deluxe keypads are available with apinhole camera and intercom in one housing. Keep in mind these added designs andfeatures will drive up the cost.

It is imperative you choose an access-control system designed forself-storage. Generic systems will limit your ability to assign separate codesand will not interface with management software.

Individual Door Alarms

Individual door-alarm systems are still the best way to secure yourinvestment. Increasingly more owners are utilizing door alarms on newconstruction. How do they work? The tenant enters his code at the gate. The gateopens, his unit door alarm is turned off, and he does whatever he needed to atthe unit. The door alarm is reactivated when he "codes out" of theproperty.

Most individual door-alarm systems are hardwired. Door switches are wired toa multiplexer in each building, which "polls" the status of many unitdoors. This communication is sent back and forth from the office computer via acommunication cable, which eliminates the need to run wire from each unit backto the office. Door alarms are also used for sites or parts of sites withoutgates. A central keypad is located at the entrance or on each building.

More than 60 percent of self-storage break-ins are executed by tenants. Anindividual rents a unit, probably paying cash. He spends a fair amount of timeon site, observing activity where unit doors are open so he can see what'sinside. When the opportunity presents itself, he cuts the lock and sorts throughthe contents, placing the valuable items at the front of the unit. He thencloses the door and secures it with his own lock. Once he has eight or 10 unitssecured, in comes the truck and out go the goods. The unit doors are left lockedand no one is the wiser until the original tenant returns to find his keydoesn't fit. Individual door alarms eliminate this scenario. As soon as thethief opens the first unit door not belonging to him, the alarm sounds, and theoffice or monitoring company is notified.

Sites can use door alarms to their marketing advantage by posting signage,describing and demonstrating them to every prospect, and including mention ofthem in their advertising. With any luck, this will send problem tenants downthe road. After all, why would a burglar choose a target that has individualdoor alarms when he can go down the street to a facility that doesn't?

The marketing potential for door alarms is huge. Through advertising anddemonstration, prospects learn your site is more secure than your competitors'.Sites with individual door-alarm systems are able to charge higher rents, andtend to stay full in competitive situations. The idea of adding a door alarm atthe time of move-in is not practical--hardwired or wireless. The additionalrevenue lost by not wiring every door and justifying top-dollar rents on everyunit is leaving money on the table.

Wireless door alarms should be used only as a "last resort." Thefront-end costs may be slightly less, but maintenance and battery-replacementcosts more than offset the original savings. The reliability of these systems isuncertain, and changing conditions in the surrounding area can have affect. Theymay have some usefulness, however, in some retrofit situations.

Door Switches. Several different types of door switches areused. A floor-mounted switch is one design for roll-up doors. The device isanchored to the floor on the inside of the unit. The magnet is mounted on theinside of the door with a bracket. Another type of switch, used on swing doors,is mounted to the door header and the magnet is mounted on the door. A bracketis usually not needed, unless the swing door has no header.

Some sites will use the swing-door switch on overhead doors to cut costs. Themagnet is mounted on the upper part of the door (inside) and to the side. Theswitch is positioned by using a bracket, which is mounted to the unit wall.

A new switch has been developed for roll-up doors called the quick switch.This mounts on the door track by the opening that receives the door latch. Thedoor-latch opening and closing triggers this switch, which installs in aboutone-fifth the time of other switches. It requires less wire than a floor switchand is more economical. It is important to let your door manufacturer know ifyou plan to use the quick switch so the right type of latch is specified for thedoor. These switches can be used with any reputable door-alarm provider'sproduct.

Individual door-alarm systems are reliable and can be a productive securityand marketing tool for an extended period of time. It is an active form ofsecurity. It is essential to get quality material and installation of thesystem.


Closed-circuit television systems are being used more frequently inself-storage. New technology has helped this boom. In the beginning, camerasystems ran one camera to one monitor. Then switchers were developed to allowdifferent cameras to be viewed on one monitor through different locations. Theproblem was the recorder only recorded whichever camera position was showing onthe monitor screen at any given time. I know of sites that still use switchers.One recently missed the opportunity to catch someone running into its gatebecause the switcher and recorder were set on another camera position.

Multiplexers are common now. They allow viewing and recording of up to 16cameras on one monitor and recorder. When playing back a security incident, theimage is enlarged on the full monitor screen.

Digital cameras are also available, which have improved image quality.Digital devices will record camera activity to a computer hard drive. Playbackand real-time viewing is done through a monitor. This means an owner can use hislaptop computer to view, in real time, his site in California from a hotel roomin New York. These devices can also be set to only record when there is motionat each camera location.

Cameras can be costly. Lighting changes on site can impact the choice betweenequipment that records in color or black and white. An auto iris lens adjusts tothe change, but black-and-white cameras still show better resolution in thesesituations. The decision on how many cameras to buy should be based on the sitedesign. Hallways and multiple entrances will increase the number. If door alarmsare utilized, it may decrease the number of cameras needed. Cameras at the gate,in the office, in all hallways, or just the entrances are all considerations.Keep in mind that cameras are a more passive form of security. You may not see abreak-in when it occurs. Individual door alarms are a more active form ofsecurity.

Camera systems do have marketing value when monitors are displayed in theoffice. They act as a deterrent to the potential burglar, hopefully sending himdown the street to rent elsewhere.

Additional Security Options

Site-Graphics Displays. These systems provide a full-colormap of the yard and buildings, etc. Unit colors are changed based on the statusof the unit--rented, vacant, delinquent, on-site, door open, etc. They willoften include the latest gate-activity message across the bottom of the monitorscreen.

Graphics are most effective when displayed in the office on a separate colormonitor, especially along with camera monitors. If site graphics will beincorporated into the office display, planning should be done early for thelocation of this and all other equipment. You may have monitors flush-mounted ina wall or in its own separate cabinetry. Some offices will place monitors on ashelf with brackets. There will be some components that need to be connectedbehind the scenes, such as the recorder, multiplexer, etc. The uniqueness ofeach rental office dictates the design of this security option and constructionshould be done at the site.

If a storage prospect is still uncertain about renting at your property whenhe walks in the door, one look at your security display, with graphics andcamera monitors, should tell him, "This place is safe. These people are incomplete control of this operation." Some software programs will also havethe graphics on the computer monitor as an option for the manager. This is anice glitzy feature, but probably a crutch for the manager. The true value ofsite graphics is displayed as a security/marketing tool for prospects visitingthe site.

Intercoms. Intercoms are an easy way to provide voice accessbetween the rental office and key points throughout the facility. Intercomsystems include a master station and one or more substations. Master stationsare designed to support one, two, three, five, 10 or 20 substations. Othervariations, including piped-in music, are available and priced accordingly.Substations are relatively inexpensive, generally come with a plastic or metalface, and should always include a call button to provide a way for eachsubstation location to call the office.

All primary security systems should include provisions for an intercomsystem. At a minimum, intercom substations should be associated with the keypadsor card readers supported by the primary system. The use of intercoms has beenone of convenience in the past. Today, intercom systems are viewed as securityand safety devices and are being installed throughout the site, particularly ininside corridors, multistory buildings, etc. The real decision is not whether toinstall an intercom system, but how large a master station to buy to meet yourexisting and future needs.

Perimeter Beams. Perimeter beams are a line-of-sightprojection of an infrared beam that, if interrupted, will sound an alarm. Theyare commonly used along fence lines surrounding the facility, but can beinstalled at other points if that is useful. They are referred to as PIR beams.

PIR beams were originally introduced as a single-beam system where only onebeam was transmitted to a receiver/reflector. They were only moderatelydependable, as almost anything (weeds, birds, dust, etc.) could interrupt thebeam and cause an alarm. Dual beams followed and reliability increased, sinceboth beams had to be interrupted at essentially the same time to cause an alarmcondition. Quad beams are now the most common and are much more reliable thandual- or single-beam systems.

PIR systems are priced on a distance-sensitive basis, i.e., the longer thebeam, the more it costs. Many beam systems offer control-enhancing equipment toallow the system to stand alone and operate as an independent entity. Beamsystems used in self-storage are more commonly connected to the siteaccess-control system and operate under its control. PIR systems should betreated as ancillary security, used only when a specific need is identified.They have limited value as a general security system.

Fence Sensors. Occasionally, someone will inquire aboutfence sensors for self-storage. Fence sensors employ a cable running through oralong a fence, which senses vibration or change in the line. Any vibration wouldtrigger an alarm. Sensitivity settings are adjustable. These systems arestand-alone and can be quite costly.

Lighting. It is a proven fact that a well-lit site is adeterrent to theft and vandalism at any location. There are an abundance oflighting options to choose from. Consult your electrician in the planning stagesabout adequate lighting.

In the end, successfully secured and marketed self-storage propertiesconsider, plan and budget early on. Rely on the expertise of self-storagesecurity vendors and installers to provide you with input on your project.

John Fogg is the general sales manager for Sentinel Systems Corp. ofLakewood, Colo., which has been manufacturing self-storage software and securitysystems since 1975. Though he has worked in self-storage since 1986, Mr. Fogghas been with Sentinel for the past nine years. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected];call 800.456.9955;

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