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Security and the Self-Storage EnvironmentHardware, software and other options

June 1, 2000

30 Min Read
Security and the Self-Storage EnvironmentHardware, software and other options

Security and the Self-Storage Environment

Hardware, software and other options

By David Reddick

Planning thesecurity systems for your self-storage facility has become a rather complex task. The longand short of it is that there are a lot of choices and you will have unique wants andneeds that respond to your market area and how you want to operate your business. Let'sbegin by defining the environment:

  • The self-storage software program you use directly impacts your security system. It makes little sense to operate two separate systems if they can be interfaced or integrated so that many operations are accomplished automatically.

  • There are a number of vendors who provide security systems specifically for this market. Self-storage is a unique business and vendors who specialize in this market provide features you need and that are useful in operating your business.

  • Many different systems are available. For example, access control (keypads or card readers), individual door alarms (hardwired and wireless), CCTV, perimeter beams, graphic displays, etc.

  • Systems/vendors offer unique features. Everyone tries to differentiate themselves from their competition. Providing a capability that no one else offers is one way to say, "my system is better."

  • The physical layout/structure of your site will impact your security decision. Single-story, multi-story, inside units, outside units, etc., will impact your specific security system configuration.

  • What your competition has to offer can make a difference. Do they have an automatic gate? Do they offer 24-hour access? Do they have and market a door-alarm system?

  • Your marketing plan needs to relate to your security system. Security systems can be very effective marketing tools that can increase rates and occupancy.

  • Everything has a cost. Your budget will ultimately dictate what you do. Leaving your security decision until late in the game often limits your ability to purchase the security system that will best meet your needs.

Understanding what is available will take the most time, but it is also the mostimportant activity you will undertake. You need to be an informed buyer and that mandatesthat you do your own research and make your own comparisons.

Property-Management Software

Your software decision is directly related to your ultimate security decision. In mostcases, choosing a software program will be the first thing you do. This naturally occursfor several reasons:

  • The self-storage property-management software you select will be your primary tool for operating your business. As such, it must meet all of your operational needs, i.e., automatic posting of rent and late fees, generation of customized late and lien notices, printing customer receipts, as well as providing you the financial information you and your CPA need.

  • A fair amount of customization will be required to meet your state laws and the conditions specified in your lease agreement. This customization and the fine tuning required as you implement your system will take some time.

  • Learning how to use the software will also take you and your managers some time. While it is true that the simple operations (i.e., renting a unit) can be learned quickly, the countless variations (how to take a partial payment or do a pre-lease, for example) will require more hands-on knowledge. The key point is that the time to learn must come before a customer is standing across the counter in the rental office.

Selecting your software will require you to make the fundamental decision of whichoperating system you will use. It is basically a choice between DOS and Windows. Ourindustry has grown up on DOS, and there are many vendors with lots of storage experiencewho can provide you with a reliable and stable DOS-based system. Many of these vendors areworking hard to provide Windows-based systems, and there are several who have successfullymade the transition. I'll make the following observations for your consideration:

  • It is virtually impossible to purchase a new PC that does not have Windows already installed.

  • There are inherent conflicts in running a DOS-based program on a PC with Windows. Not that these issues can't be resolved, but it often takes extraordinary knowledge and skill to smooth out all the bumps. These obstacles can be significant when running your DOS-based security system on the same PC as your Windows-based management software.

  • Development of Windows-based systems is tedious and difficult. It takes time, both in the development shop and in the field, to provide a system that is reasonably reliable. Early releases (versions) may provide you with some significant challenges. If you are not prepared to do Beta testing for your vendor, look for systems that have been in use for a period of time, and talk with people who use them.

  • Finally, why buy old technology? The reality is that all new features and capabilities will come from Windows-based systems, not DOS.

And Now, on to Security

An overview of self-storage security systems will help you focus as you prepare to doyour "homework." I think it is most easily understood by separating thesesystems into three categories: access control, individual door alarms, and ancillarysystems and devices.

Access-Control Systems

Access-control systems provide a means of selectively allowing tenants to enter yourfacility. The most common method uses an entry and exit keypad in conjunction with amotorized gate. Your customer keys in his unique passcode at the entry keypad and, ifcertain conditions are met, the system will signal the gate to open and record the dateand time this tenant has entered the site. Egress from the site is handled in the samemanner at the exit keypad, and the system records the date and time this customer has leftyour facility.

Access-control systems can also be used to control entry via a door with an electriclock, i.e., to an interior corridor where inside units are located. The more sophisticatedsystems will support both gates and doors and selectively permit access only to thosetenants having units in that particular inside corridor. Card readers are also availablewith many access-control systems. Some use proprietary cards (must be obtained from thesupplier) and others use the customer's debit/credit card. The vast majority (99 percent)of self-storage facilities use keypads.

It is important to note that access-control systems only signal the gate to open. Theyprovide a momentary closure (one to two seconds) of the circuit connected to the twonormally open contacts at the gate motor. The gate motor (often referred to as "gateoperator") controls how long the gate remains open and when the gate closes.

Holding the gate open is most often accomplished with the use of safety loops, whichare connected to a loop detector inside the gate operator. Loops are wires embedded in theground in front of and behind the gate. The loops and detector can sense a vehicle, whichis in the way of the gate, and hold the gate open until the vehicle has cleared. They actas both "safety" and a signal to close the gate. Beams are sometimes used inplace of loops. They are not as reliable and generally require more maintenance. We arebeginning to see an occasional case where local codes require both beams and loops. In myopinion, the use of beams should be as secondary safety devices and not primary safetydevices.

Your gate operator should always include a "timer to close." These timers arevariable; for example, you can adjust the amount of time before the timer to close signalsthe gate, i.e., 15 seconds, to close. This is a fail-safe device that will help ensure thegate will close if someone keys in at the entry keypad (or card reader), then changestheir mind, backing up and never crossing the loops.

The operation of an electric door strike is somewhat different in that it is alwayslocked unless the circuit is closed. This means that the device (keypad) connected to thedoor strike must have the capability of holding the circuit closed for some period of time(five to eight seconds, for example) to allow the customer to physically open the door.Remember that exit must always be allowed without restriction.

Gates. Gates are available in an infinite variety. Sliding gates andvertical-pivot gates are the most common in the self-storage business. Swing gates arealmost never used. Sliding gates are equipped with rollers that follow a track on theground to keep the gate on course, or are a "Cantilever" style. Cantilever gatesare built to support themselves, i.e., they have rails and rollers that support the gateallowing it to open and close without touching the ground. Vertical-pivot gates (somewhatnew to the industry, but catching on) also support themselves. The gate and operator arepurchased as a package. The gate opens by pivoting 90 degrees. It is counter-balanced soit can be easily raised manually if required.

The optimum size for a gate in our business is 16 feet wide by 6 feet high. This willallow any vehicle, which can legally travel our roads, easy access (room to spare) to yourfacility. The reality is that your local fire department is probably going to dictate thewidth of the opening. Don't give up the fight too easily as very large gates and openingscan complicate your operation and add unneeded cost to your project.

Entry/Exit. Designing your entry/exit is something that should be doneearly in your project. Too often we see plans reflecting gates that don't fit, noprovision for keypads or card readers, no conduit specified and little consideration tothe flow of traffic. As an industry, we seem so preoccupied with coverage and unit mixthat we don't consider how our customers are going to get in and out of our facilities. Anormal situation would specify a 16-foot opening that would be a shared entry/exit (onegate). The traffic flow would be reversed so the customer enters and exits on the leftside of the driveway respectively.

Keypads (or card readers) would be placed on the left side at a point 12 feet away fromthe gate--one for entry on the outside of the property and one for exit on the inside.Remember, it is as important to know when a customer leaves as it is to know when hearrives. Access to either keypad would be done from the window of the customer's vehicle.Ample space would be provided so the customer could easily straighten the path of theirvehicle to line up with the keypad and proceed through the gate once it opened. The gatewould be back from the main thoroughfare to allow room for three or four vehicles, andwould be easily viewed from the office. Sufficient parking would be available outside thegate for prospective tenants, delivery vehicles, etc. There are, of course, manyacceptable variations.

Your access-control system vendor should be able to provide you with scaled drawings toassist you in designing your entry/exit, placement of keypads/card readers, size andplacement of required concrete pads and placement of conduit. Today's access-controlsystems are rich with features tailored to meet the unique requirements of self-storage.Individual passcodes, multiple time zones, holiday programming, discrete access levels andmake late/pay up are just a few standard capabilities you will need to operate yourfacility. Evaluating the practical use of features available as they apply to how you wantto run your business will help you in your decision-making process.

Individual Door-Alarm Systems

Door-alarm systems, by design, have inherent access-control capability. The most commonconfigurations utilize the entry function to not only open the gate, but to also disablethe alarm on that tenant's unit door. An entry message is recorded, and the date and timethe unit door is opened is also recorded. For example, "OPEN 1124 9:374-26-2000." Thus, you not only have a record of when the tenant entered the site, youalso have a record of when they entered their unit. When the unit door is closed, thesystem will record a close message (CLOSE 1124 10:14 4-26-2000) for the unit, which willalso record the date and time. Upon keying out at the exit keypad, the system will openthe gate and record an exit message (EXIT 1124 10:17 4-26-2000) and re-enable theunit-door alarm.

At this point, you will have a permanent record of the tenant's entry, open door, closedoor and exit from the facility, a much more complete record of the tenant's onsiteactivity than simply an enter and exit message provided by an access-control system. And,most certainly, a more complete record than just an enter message captured by anaccess-control system using only an enter keypad and providing a free exit.

Individual door-alarm systems are still the best way to secure a self-storage facility.Considering that most break-ins (60 percent or more) are accomplished by tenants,electronic monitoring of unit doors makes a lot of sense. The classic break-in scenariogoes like this: An individual rents a unit, probably paying in cash. He spends a fairamount of time on site observing move-ins and other activity where unit doors are open (sohe can see what's inside). As each "good" tenant leaves and the opportunitypresents itself, the individual cuts the lock, sorts through the unit contents placing thevaluable items at the front of the unit, closes the door and secures it with his own lock.When he has eight or 10 units secured (I've seen as many as 35 or 40 at a time), in comesthe truck and out goes someone else's goods. The unit doors are left locked, and no one isthe wiser until the real tenant returns and his key doesn't fit.

I will occasionally hear opinions that since it is the door that is alarmed, burglarswill cut through unit walls and obtain goods in that manner. The reality is that whilethis may occasionally happen, the vast majority are accomplished as described above. It'sa whole lot easier. The other reality is facilities that post appropriate signage("Every Unit Alarmed"), who market this capability by describing anddemonstrating it to every prospective tenant, and who include it as part of theiradvertising, probably send problem tenants "down the street." After all, whywould a burglar select a target with an individual door-alarm system in place when theycould go down the street to a facility that doesn't have one?

The marketing capability of an individual door-alarm system is enormous. Properly andconsistently done, the sales pitch can easily increase revenues $2 to $5 per unit permonth and increase occupancy between 5 percent and 10 percent. Let's build an example:Take a facility with 50,000 rentable square feet and convert it to 500 equivalent10-by-10s. In this market, a 10-by-10 rents for $50 per month. Add $3 per unit per month(on the low end of the scale) and increase occupancy by 6 percent (also on the low end ofthe scale). The result? An increase in revenue of approximately $32,000 a year. Further,at time of sale, the value of the facility would increase about $280,000 using a 10.5 CAPrate.

How do you sell door-alarm capability? Simple. You have your manager demonstrate thecapability every time he shows a prospective tenant a unit. On the way to the unit, themanager explains that the security system provides a "secret" and uniquepasscode to each customer. Entering his passcode at the gate not only lets them in to thefacility, it also disables the alarm on his unit door. When they arrive at the unit, themanager says, "We obviously haven't entered a passcode. Let me show you what happenswhen the door opens." The manager opens the unit door and the system sirens sound,clearly audible throughout the site. The system will automatically "time out"the siren after whatever period of time you desire, such as 25 or 30 seconds.

This demonstration provides a graphic example to the prospect of the door-alarmcapability. I should add that the manager provides other descriptive information such asthe systems-records entries, opening of doors, etc., and that the door alarm is re-enabledwhen the tenant exits the facility. Most door alarm systems are "hardwired,"i.e., each unit is physically connected to the control system in the rental office. Thisconnection is shared in some fashion to avoid the need of physically running wires fromeach unit back to the office.

Wiring and switches. There are several wiring schemes in use, with themost prominent being "multiplexed." One or more multiplexers are placed on eachbuilding and are used as a central point to connect the wiring from each unit.Multiplexers are connected together using communications cable, which can be routed in avariety of ways and placed to minimize wire lengths and conduit requirements.

A reed switch is placed inside the unit and its associated magnet is placed on the unitdoor. They are positioned so that when the door is closed, the magnet and switch are"aligned" and within the operating gap of the switch, normally two to threeinches.

Several different types of reed switches are used. A floor-mounted switch is ideal forroll-up doors. This device is anchored to the floor of the unit inside the door and on thesame side as the door latch. The magnet associated with the switch is mounted on abracket, with the bracket being mounted on the inside of the door. The bracket provides aneasy way to align the magnet to the switch and position it within the operating gap. Theother type of switch is normally used with swing doors. This switch is mounted to the doorheader, and the magnet mounted on the door. A bracket is not usually provided unless theparticular swing door has no header for mounting the switch.

Many facilities will use the swing-door switch with roll-up doors. The magnet ismounted on the upper part of the door (inside) and to the side. The switch is positionedby using a bracket, which is mounted to the unit wall. The use of swing-door switches onroll-up doors is done because of cost--they are generally $5 or $6 less than floor-mountedswitches, which are more expensive and require some additional wire and connectors toinstall.

The arguments for using floor-mounted switches with roll-up doors are: 1) the point atwhich these switches and magnets are mounted is the most stable position of the door andmore likely assures that the alignment and operating gap are maintained for an extendedperiod of time; and 2) the magnet never gets "rolled up" inside the door whenthe door is opened, thereby avoiding the wear and tear that causes magnets to fall offover time.

Door-alarm systems that are hardwired operate in a "normally closed"condition. This means that the each circuit has continuity when the unit door is closed,and the magnet and switch are aligned and within the operating gap. An easy way tovisualize this state is to make a comparison to a light and light switch. When the lightswitch is turned on, the circuit is complete and "closed." When the switch isturned off, the circuit is broken or "open."

Normally, closed systems also protect against wires being cut or components beingdisconnected since either will create an "open" condition and, therefore,generate an alarm. Hardwired door-alarm systems are normally installed during constructionsince all the wiring, switches, etc., can be placed inside. They can, however, beinstalled on the outside of the buildings after the facility is leased up. Installing adoor alarm system on the outside (commonly referred to as a "retrofit") is beingdone with increasing frequency in our industry. There is no disadvantage to an outsideinstallation, but there are two considerations that impact cost.

Reed switches used with an interior installation cannot be used for an outsideinstallation since they can be easily "defeated." These switches are appropriatefor an inside application because they are located on the back side of the unit door and,therefore, are not accessible from outside the unit. Switches that are accessible from theoutside must be "high-security" or "anti-defeat" devices, and they aresimply more expensive ($10 to $12 more) than standard reed switches. In addition, sincewire for the units is run along the outside of each building, it should be concealed foraesthetic reasons as well as to protect the wire. It is important to note that protectingthe wire from the sun is every bit as important as protecting it from moisture.

Protecting and concealing wire can be accomplished by using conduit or steel molding.Conduit is not very attractive, and wire placed in conduit is sometimes difficult toservice. Molding, on the other hand, is attractive (many colors are available) andservicing wire is much easier than with conduit. Molding manufacturers have costs for eachpiece and part used, e.g., straight runs, 90s, couplings, etc. As a general rule of thumb,you can figure 85 cents to 90 cents per linear foot for molding. Assuming that youraverage unit is 10 feet across, you can estimate molding to cost about $9 per unit. Adding$12 per unit for anti-defeat switches will bring your incremental costs for a retrofitdoor alarm system to $21 per door/unit.

Wireless door-alarm systems have begun to make an appearance in the self-storageindustry. Their primary appeal is the avoidance of having to discretely wire each unit.The perception is that material and installation costs are less than those of hardwiredsystems. The only way for you to determine which method is less expensive is to requestproposals from hardwired and wireless vendors. The other claim of wireless-systems vendorsis that you can market unit-alarm security on a customer-by-customer or unit-by-unitbasis. In other words, the customer can rent unit alarm security for their unit(s) for afixed amount per month in addition to their rent, if he chooses to do so.

There is a real question as to whether or not this kind of marketing is effective. Wemost certainly know that facilities with door-alarm systems can use the alarms as amarketing tool. You will have to decide if a unit-by-unit option is viable for yourmarket. Perhaps discuss the merits with owners who use wireless systems and make your ownjudgement.

Individual door-alarm systems have many variations and features that will help youtailor them to your situation. For example, door-alarm systems are used at facilitieswithout gates. The customer is still required to key in, which disables his unit alarm,but without an exit keypad to re-enable the unit alarm, the system is programmed to rearmat close. This means that when the tenant closes his unit door, the system automaticallyresets the alarm. This is not an operational problem, it simply means that instructionsregarding the system must be slightly changed for the tenants. They need to understandthat they must key in each time they open their unit door. This feature is used at manyfacilities without difficulty.

One feature I consider imperative as well as useful is "multiple units." Yoursecurity system must have the capability of linking all units rented by the same customer.This allows him to use only one code for entry and exit, regardless of how many units herents from you. Customers with multiple units have a habit of only entering the codes forthe units they believe they will need to access. Invariably, once on site, they determinethat the things they need are in a unit for which they have not entered a code. They openthe door and the alarm sounds. The multiple-unit feature eliminates this problem.

The multiple-unit feature has another advantage to the facility, since many changes canbe accomplished through programming in place of making physical wiring changes to thedoor-alarm system. For example, if you take two 5-by-10s and combine them to make a10-by-10, you will have two doors on the 10-by-10. Without the multiple-unit feature, youwould either have to wire both doors together (in series), or put your lock on the seconddoor so the customer could not use both doors. With the multiple-unit feature, it is asimple programming change to designate the second door as a "secondary unit" andgive the customer full use of the unit.

Individual door-alarm systems are reliable and can be a productive security andmarketing tool for an extended period of time. They are, however, dependent on the qualityof the material used and require that they be properly installed. And as with any system,some preventative maintenance will assure proper operation. Your individual door-alarmsystem vendor should provide you with a specific installation overlay on your siteplan/unit mix indicating conduit requirements, multiplexer locations and how each doorswitch is to be wired. Since these systems are low-voltage DC, care should be taken toprovide separation (8 inches minimum) between conduit for the door-alarm system andconduit for AC power.

Ancillary Systems and Devices

There are an infinite number of security devices and systems available for use today.The most common ones used in our industry are perimeter beams, intercoms, closed-circuittelevision (CCTV) and site-graphic displays. Let's examine them one at a time.

Perimeter Beams

In the use of perimeter beams, a "line of sight" projection of an infaredbeam will annunciate an alarm if it is interrupted (something is in the way). They arecommonly used along fence lines surrounding the facility, but can be installed at otherpoints if useful. These are referred to as PIR beams.

PIR beams were originally introduced as a single-beam system, i.e., only one beam wastransmitted to a receiver/reflector. They were only moderately dependable as almostanything (weeds, birds, dust, etc.) could interrupt the beam and cause an alarm. Dualbeams followed and reliability increased, since both beams had to be interrupted atessentially the same time to cause an alarm condition. Quad beams (four) are now the mostcommon and are much more reliable than dual- or single-beam systems. PIR systems arepriced on a "distance sensitive" basis, i.e., the longer the beam, the more itcosts.

Many beam systems offer control and annunciating equipment that allow them to standalone and, therefore, operate as an independent entity. Beam systems used in self-storageare more commonly connected to the site access-control system and operate under itscontrol. PIR systems should be treated as ancillary security and used only when a specificneed is identified. They have limited value as a general-security system.

Intercoms

Intercoms are an easy and reliable way to provide voice access between the rentaloffice and key points throughout the facility. Intercom systems include a master stationand one or more substations. Master stations are designed to support one, two, three,five, 10 or 20 substations (there may be other variations) and are priced accordingly. Thelarger the capacity, the more they cost. Substations are relatively inexpensive, generallycome with a plastic or metal face, and should always include a "call button" toprovide a way for the substation to contact the office.

All primary self-storage security systems should include provisions for an intercomsystem. At a minimum, intercom substations should be associated with the keypads or cardreaders supported by the primary site-security system. The use of intercoms has been oneof convenience in the past. Today, intercom systems are viewed as security and safetydevices and are being installed throughout the site, particularly in inside corridors,multi-story buildings, etc. The real decision is not whether to install an intercomsystem, but how large a master station to buy that will meet your existing and futureneeds.

Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV)

CCTV is available in black and white or color and, in its most simple form, consists ofone camera displaying an image on one monitor. Few CCTV systems are limited to only onecamera and, since it doesn't make sense to add a monitor for every camera you place, theCCTV manufacturers have developed equipment to handle multiple cameras.

The early systems used a "switcher" that would allow the office to manuallyselect which camera image to display or to switch from camera to camera at a specifiedinterval. Switchers were commonly built to accommodate four or eight cameras. Next camethe quad system, which split the monitor screen into four equal parts so the images fromfour cameras could be displayed at the same time. These systems also provided the abilityto display a "full screen" for a designated camera should the office personnelwant to enlarge the image.

Today's systems utilize technology that allows the cameras to be multiplexed, allowingthe monitor to view eight, nine or 16 different images at the same time. Single, enlargedimages can still be viewed easily by office personnel. A time-lapse VCR is often includedwith CCTV systems to provide the ability to have a record on videotape of all activityviewed by the installed cameras. Videotapes are generally archived and labeled with thestart and end dates should the site need to review activity at a certain point or during aspecified period of time.

There are a number of motivations for using CCTV at a facility. They range from simplywanting to see gate activity (if not readily viewed from the rental office) and perhapshaving a video recording of all entries and exits, to having a comprehensive video recordof site activity, including what was stored and by whom. You can spend as much money asyou want on CCTV systems and should remember that they have some marketing value whenmonitors are prominently displayed in the rental office. You should also consider thatsuch systems require some human intervention to be effective; therefore, their value isoften "after the fact" as opposed to systems that are electronically based,e.g., individual door alarms.

Of particular interest is the newest remote-viewing capability now available at areasonable price. These systems use a differential transmission protocol over a dial-uptelephone line, which greatly enhances the quality of the video image and increases the"effective frames per second." This gets you much, much closer to real-timeviewing than anything previously available on a dial-up basis. Owners with remote,unattended facilities should investigate this technology. You could be in your distantoffice (or at home), dial the telephone number and view your site (from multiple cameras)using your PC monitor. It is really slick!

Site-Graphic Displays

These systems provide a full-color view of your facility indicating units, buildings,etc. Unit colors are changed as their status changes, e.g., rented/vacant, tenant on-site,tenant in unit (alarm systems) and alarms (PIR or alarm systems). They often will alsoinclude activity messages across the display as these messages are generated by theprimary system.

Most graphic displays address only the security system, including rented and vacantunits. Other displays will also provide management information, such as delinquent, lienand unrentable status. They display the site by "paging" or"scrolling," as most sites are too large to fit on a single screen. Some vendorsprovide the site with the ability to reflect changes in the unit mix as they occur andstipulating what will be displayed and in what color. This gives the facility the abilityto keep the display current (I had two 5-by-10s and now I have a 10-by-10) and to onlydisplay what they deem necessary; for example, they may not want to display delinquentunits.

Site-graphic displays are most effective when displayed on a separate, larger monitor.DOS-based systems require a dedicated processor (a low-end PC) to run the separatedisplay. Windows-based systems utilize a second video card to operate the separatemonitor. Both approaches work satisfactorily, but the Windows-based display offers morecapability and opportunity for future development.

Site-graphic display monitors are often placed in a cabinet along with CCTV monitorsand other peripheral devices. This provides the rental office with a "high-tech"control center that also gives customers and prospects some real sizzle when they visitthe office. Cabinets can be purchased from a variety of vendors or can be built at and bythe site. Building a cabinet on site is easy, and there is not much for you to know. Forexample, once you have decided what will be placed in the cabinet, you can easilydetermine the horizontal shelf space required. The depth will be determined by the size ofthe monitor you select for the graphic display, as this is almost always the"deepest" component.

Construct the cabinet and place the required shelves. Make sure that access to AC poweris provided, and allow for wire to placed through holes in the shelves or a space are therear of each shelf. Paint the inside of the cabinet black. This reduces the opportunityfor light to bounce around inside the cabinet, reducing the effectiveness of the displays.Purchase a piece of smoked Plexiglas cut to match the opening at the front of the cabinet.Obtain a hinge(s) suitable for mounting the plex on the cabinet frame. A piano hinge workswell for this purpose. Hinges are not necessary, but you will want to have access to theinside of the cabinet from time to time, so make it easy on yourself. Locate your closestinstant-sign store and arrange to have some lettering cut to label the devices inside thecabinet. You may also want to have your site name and logo prepared for placement on theplex. White letters show up very well on smoked Plexiglas. This lettering can be preparedso that words or groups of words are registered (in a straight line with appropriateseparation between letters and words), which will make it easy for you to affix them. Ifyou are not up to the task, the sign shop will place them for you for a nominal charge.

Shop around for other devices to be placed on the inside of the cabinet that willenhance the high-tech look. For example, Walgreen's sells a digital alarm clock with4-inch, red digits that shows up extremely well behind the smoked Plexiglas. You may alsowant to include a simple key lock available from almost any hardware or builders store.The real magic is provided by the site-graphics display and the CCTV monitor. Color andmovement is significantly enhanced when viewed through the smoked Plexiglas.

Compatibility With Your Property-Management Software

Self-storage property-management software systems generally have the capability ofcommunicating with self-storage access-control and individual door-alarm systems. This isan important consideration since it reduces work in the rental office and helps ensurethat the management and security systems are "in sync."

The primary protocol used is referred to as "interfacing," which essentiallymeans that the management software is downloading information to the security system andthe security system is acknowledging receipt in some manner. Information that is commonlysent to the security system includes move-ins, move-outs, change passcode, make late andpay up. Other data is becoming available that will allow assignment of time zones, accesslevels and multiple-unit designation.

There has been much discussion about establishing a "universal-interface"protocol that would allow software and security vendors to communicate between systemsusing the same standards. Several documents have been written and shared among theinvolved vendors, but a ubiquitous spirit of cooperation is not in place. From acustomer's point of view, it would be ideal to have the flexibility to select a preferredsoftware vendor and a preferred security vendor and be assured that an interface existsthat would communicate 100 percent of the required information. Today, this capabilityonly exists with vendors who provide both software and security or, in selected instances,where liaisons have been established.

The introduction of Windows-based systems further complicates the interface debate andthe decisions you will make regarding software and security. Windows-based security andsoftware systems can operate in a stand-alone mode, but they can also be"integrated" if obtained from the same vendor. Integrated systems completelyavoid the interface question since they are essentially a single program, written in thesame code and sharing the same database.

What Kind of Computer Does Your System Require?

This question is asked because a self-storage operator has a computer and wants to knowif it will run the system, or because he is planning to purchase a new PC and wants toknow what to buy. The question of using an existing PC should be easily answered by thesecurity vendor if you can specify the general configuration. Does it run DOS or Windows?What version? How much memory (RAM)? How much hard-drive space is available? What otherprograms do you run?

Purchasing a new PC requires you to consider what's available on the market as well aswhat the vendor's system requires. The probability is high that a new PC will more thanmeet the vendor's system requirements. PC technology is changing very rapidly and youshould consider your new PC as a short-term investment (two to three years.) At that pointin time you must consider the merits of obtaining new equipment and discarding oldequipment.

The other issue with buying a new PC is where to go to make your purchase. I wouldsuggest that you discuss your purchase with your self-storage vendor(s) before you buy.Certain brands have high failure rates and hardware/software packages at cheap prices arenot always the value they seem to be. Remember that you are going to depend on the PC torun your business. This may be an important--but not critical--consideration as it relatesto your management software, but it is absolutely essential when your PC is responsiblefor your security system.

Dave Reddick is president of Sentinel Systems Corp. of Lakewood, Colo., which hasbeen manufacturing self-storage software and security systems since 1975. Mr. Reddick canbe reached by calling (800) 456-9955 or (303) 242-2000; fax (303) 242-2010; e-mail [email protected]; www.sentinelsystems.com.

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