Setting the Security Level at Your Self-Storage Site: Choosing a Lock System

With the abundance of locking systems available to secure self-storage units, there’s no excuse to settle for mass-produced locks that can be cut, picked or bumped. Here’s insight to cost-effective lock systems that help facility operators protect their property and meet their business needs.

Rich Morahan

June 5, 2014

6 Min Read
Setting the Security Level at Your Self-Storage Site: Choosing a Lock System

To operate a successful self-storage facility, you need a security plan, including features to attract customers and deter criminals. A good security program broadcasts those features. Gates, fences, lights and cameras can make a facility look secure to a renter or crook.

But none of those features will keep out the thief who rents a unit to gain access to your site. To stop that bandit, you need a lock—and not just any lock, a security lock.

It’s time to face up to the real world of self-storage—no more “your lock, your key.” Your tenant is a transient. He has no long-term interest in your business and its security. He doesn’t even know much, if anything, about security. He shouldn’t be choosing a lock. Do you put your own lock on your car or hotel room? If you let your renters set the level of security at your site, you can be sure of one thing: There won’t be any security.

You’ve made all the other decisions about your business. Now, at the most vulnerable spot, don’t turn over the reins to a casual person off the street. It’s his property, you say, but it’s your business. If you require renters to have tenant insurance, as you should, your renter can recoup his loss if his unit is robbed. You are the one who will lose … your reputation, sales and investment. Bad security will cost you, so act accordingly. Require an appropriate level of security for your market.

The Padlock: An Invitation to Steal?

The most basic self-storage lock is the padlock. It has pin tumblers, 500 to 1,000 key combinations, and a hardened steel shackle. This lock is easily broken with a bolt-cutter. It’s also relatively easy to pick. If you Google the phrase “bump key,” you’ll see how even an amateur can open this lock and remain undetected until the renter returns—and blames you. You see these locks at self-storage facilities, but this type belongs on a yard shed, not a storage unit.

The Disk Lock: Moving Up, But Don’t Ignore the Keyway

A disk lock with a dimple-type keyway.The disk lock is a significant upgrade over the padlock. The shackle is “hidden” inside the round shape, making the lock virtually invulnerable to a bolt-cutter. It takes some time and noise to break a disk lock. But if it’s built around the same pin-tumbler mechanism as the standard padlock, it’s just a “round” padlock. It can’t be cut, but it can be picked or “bumped.” Picking takes time and some skill. Bumping can make anyone an expert. Don’t know what “lock bumping” is? Just Google the phrase and get alarmed.

Fortunately, a number of disk locks on the market feature dimple-type keyways, with dimples and grooves cut into the side of the key. They can also be bumped, but with much more difficulty.

Even with a secure pick-resistant keyway, the disk lock still hangs on a latch, and some clever thieves have discovered you can cut the slide bolt around the latch about as easily as you can cut the shackle of a padlock.

The Cylinder Lock: Are We at Last in the 21st Century?

The cylinder lock solves that problem. It inserts right into the door. The cylinder-lock system has been around for nearly 30 years, but at last it appears to making its mark. One version is built around a push-in cylinder, which provides convenience as well as security. We all know tenants might ask about security, but what they really want is convenience.

A second kind of cylinder system provides an additional hasp for a tenant padlock. In this version, the cylinder provides security, but the tenant can still attach his padlock as a seal to protect against undetected intrusion.

Mounted inside the door with no shackle or latch to cut, the cylinder-latch system can be paired with a lock-out option that allows the operator to lock the unit without needing another lock. The tubular key version usually has more than 20,000 usable key codes and is pickable by only a skilled criminal, the kind who usually goes after vending machines and other more valuable targets.

The high-security cylinder lock is virtually pick- and drill-proof, and a powerful marketing tool for any facility, particularly one in a high-crime area. Now the double-hasp option allows an operator to provide renters peace of mind along with a master-key system.

The cylinder lock is mounted inside the door, with no shackle or latch to cut. The cylinder system adds to its security features by ensuring every unit on a site looks the same. A thief is faced with 200 to 400 or more possible targets, not just some vulnerable ones with inviting locks.

Electronic Locks: Part of an Automated Facility

I called the cylinder-latch system a 21st-century device, but it’s still mechanical. Self-storage is now also seeing the rollout of electronic locks, often tied to 24-hour kiosks that dispense rental agreements along with door codes that can move a new tenant in without human intervention.

This wireless system is battery-powered and provides individual unit security and access control. It typically integrates with a facility's access-control system, allowing locks to automatically engage and disengage when a tenant gains access at the gate keypad. In addition, the locks can be secured by the operator via the software, automating the overlock process if a tenant is in default.

Make the Investment

All these products can be explored and evaluated online. Google a few key words like “self-storage cylinder locks,” “self-storage electronic locks,” and “self-storage security,” and you’ll be driven to stories, specs and testimonials. There’s no excuse to settle for mass-produced locks that a teenager can cut, pick or bump.

You’re responsible for the security of your business, which is much more valuable than any tenant’s property. Protect your investment by using a cost-effective lock system that meets your business needs.

You need a security plan, and your local market impacts your security choices. You may be compelled to meet your competition with all the bells and whistles of gate pads, cameras and door alarms, but consider the cost per unit of these features, and then balance that cost per door with your locks. You’d probably prefer to rent units based on features, not price. Why not offer tenants a free lock that sets every unit at your facility to the security level you require? You’ll set yourself above your competition and protect your investment at the same time.

Rich Morahan of Richard Morahan Associates writes frequently on security and marketing for the self-storage, information-destruction and restaurant industries. To reach him, call 617.240.0372, e-mail [email protected]; visit

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