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Buying a Safe for Real Valuables
A Guide to Buying an Actually “Safe” Safe - "Storing with Confidence"
**Part of Larry’s obsession with physical metals was a love for safes! He worked as a locksmith’s apprentice as a teenager and fell in love with all things mechanical in the safe world. I was probably one of the only 13-year-olds whose father gave him lock picks and taught him the basics of the trade. We wrote this article together in 2012 and had the opportunity to dive deeper into a mutual love of mechanical things. I hope you enjoy the article and some of its imagery around the professional safe destroyers that work for UL, and as always, we thank Silver Trading Company for making our writing possible. www.SilverTrading.Net
Recently at a local social event, I met a locksmith, and we started talking shop on the topic of securing assets with locks and the what’s what in the safe world. After a brief but very interesting conversation, I felt inspired to do a little research about the wide world of safes. What was learned was both fascinating and insightful.
The Two Ways Safes Are Rated
The ratings for safes are separated into two categories, performance ratings and general construction ratings, which were both established decades ago. Construction ratings, while still useful, reflect widely accepted manufacturing standards and are less popular since there is only an implied level of security versus a tested level of security that is indicated in performance ratings.
General Construction Ratings
Construction ratings stem from simple assessments of a safe’s physical build characteristics.
Any locked box. The assumption is that these boxes are better than a locked drawer but not all that secure from a determined individual with a large flathead screw driver and a hammer.
A general rating for safe with a 1/4” of metal in the walls of the cabinet and 1/2” of metal in the door.
This is defined as a cabinet’s having a minimum thickness of 1/2” of steel in the walls, a minimum thickness of 1” of steel in the door and “a lock.”
Underwriter’s Laboratory, a global leader in certifying, testing and inspecting products, gets to have far too much fun with the testing and rating of safes, utilizing teams with skill sets ranging from brute strength to mechanical genius.
UL equips these characters with the blueprints of the safe, a supply of high-end portable tools, torches, explosives, a stopwatch and a desire to get into the tested safe as fast as possible, all as part of the process of certifying safes. Only safes that meet UL’s minimum build specifications qualify for testing by the organization.
The first take away revelation was that most safes are opened in less than fifteen minutes. Very few safes survive the testing process to the thirty-minute mark, and even less survive to the one hour mark. This doesn’t mean that an average person can get a safe open that quickly; it simply serves as a benchmark for the fastest time professionals can open it. Most of UL’s testing stops after 30 minutes, and no testing goes beyond 60 minutes. At that time, a safe receives a Tools-60 rating, a Torch-60 rating or an Explosives-60 rating. Ratings are a Tool based (TL) rating over a period of time, with the addition of a Torch (R) or Explosives (X) rating. If you mind is starting to picture a Warner Brothers Coyote, you’re in the right headspace for how these test take place.
The second lesson relevant to performance testing was that the backbone of all security assumptions for safes is that when a professional starts the process of getting into a safe, there is no such thing as a fully secure safe, there are only safes that take more time or more sophisticated tools than others to open.
Decoding UL Performance Ratings
Prefixes indicate what attack method UL used:
• TL means that the attack used tools
• TR means that the attack used a torch
• TX means that the attack used explosives
Suffixes indicate how long the safe survived during attack testing:
• - 15 means that the safe survived up to the 15 minute mark while under attack
• - 30 means that the safe survived up to the 30 minute mark while under attack
• - 60 means that the safe survived up to the 60 minute mark, at which point the testing process was stopped
Examples of UL ratings include:
Two members of the UL team could not get into the safe in under fifteen minutes of continuous work time using their prescribed list of high-power portable tools.
Two members of the UL team could not get into the safe in under thirty minutes of continuous work time using their tools or a prescribed portable torch.
Two members of the UL team could not get into the safe in under an hour using tools and explosives.
These ratings give the consumer an understanding of what it takes to get into big steel and concrete boxes. These numbers are extremely useful to consumers because many safe manufacturers do a fantastic job of looking and feeling secure, heavy and sturdy while doing a horrible job of actually being “safe.” Many gun safes, for example, are notoriously bad in this regard. The manufacturer builds a beautiful stout looking box, fills the doors and walls full of low-grade plaster or concrete and turns these products loose on the consumer market, touting them as high-quality products. Unfortunately, the reality of these safes is that the average highly motivated 17-year-old male with tools from somewhere in the neighborhood can probably get into most of these “safes.” Many can be breached with a crow-bar, some leverage, a sledge hammer and a grinder with a cutting wheel. A quick scroll through youtube can probably leave you a little shocked at how un-secure many of these “safe” are.
A Special U.L. Rating: - Residential Security Containers -
The minimum performance rating of U.L. rated safes is the “U.L. Residential Security Container rating.” This rating means that it took the UL testers at least five minutes to get into the container using a large screwdriver and a hammer. Unfortunately you will find that many items sold as “safe” barely meet this criteria.
UL’s Build Specifications
Here is a description of the basic minimum build specifications for all UL ratings (with the exception of the residential security container):
The safe must have a UL Group II, Group IIM, Group I or Group IR combination lock (described below).
To ensure that the safe be difficult to move, it must be either heavy or immobile. UL requires that it either weigh 750 pounds (or more), or have the ability to anchor to the floor and a set of instructions on how to secure it there.
The body walls of the safe’s cabinet and door must be made of a material equivalent to at least 1” open hearth-steel with a minimum tensile strength of 50,000 psi.
Walls must be fastened in a manner equivalent to a continuous 1/4” penetrating weld with a minimum tensile strength of 50,000 psi.
A Word about Locking Mechanisms
Whether on a high quality safe with a high UL rating or on a low-cost, low-quality safe, the locking mechanisms you will find fall into one of three categories: electronic, mechanical or hybrid. Just as with the safes themselves, there is no such thing as an impenetrable lock; some just take more time than others to open.
UL Ratings for Mechanical Dial Locks
As with other characteristics of safes, Underwriters Laboratory has standardized the certification system for different locks. There are four UL categories for mechanical dial locks; Group IR, Group I, Group 2M and Group II. The vast majority of the safes have a group II locking mechanism.
The ratings take into account the fact that safecrackers or burglars can X-ray simple mechanical locks to get a view of their inner workings, making the locks easier to open. Some newer locks use materials that do not show up on X-rays, making those locks harder to crack.
Here are descriptions of UL safe locking mechanism ratings in ascending order:
Group II: This mechanism can, in the hands of a skilled professional, be opened in less than twenty minutes.
Group 2M: These locks provide a moderate degree of difficulty and have passed the two man-hour manipulation test.
Group I: These mechanisms take at least 20 man-hours to open but, if X-rayed, can be opened in a shorter period of time.
Group IR: These locks have the same requirements as Group I locks and also can fend off being X-rayed or other radiological attacks within reason.
UL Ratings for Electronic Keypad Locks
In recent years, electronic locks have become extremely popular versus their mechanical counter parts in the domestic safe market and have some definite advantages. To start with, it takes a fraction of the time to open the lock and get into the safe, which promotes daily use of the safe. It also takes more sophisticated tooling to manipulate a basic electronic lock. Most have a lockout time period of five to fifteen minutes each time three to five wrong combinations are tried. In addition, some locks can handle multiple combinations and maintain a log of when the safe was opened and which combination was used to open it.
For the most part, Type I electronic safe locks are superior to mechanical locks with one important exception: When electronic locks do fail, they fail without warning and you have to get into the safe manually (that is, you will have to hire a professional to break into your safe). Old mechanical locks, in contrast, usually give the user a little warning before they fail in the form of a rough feeling dial. That said, many electronic locks last twenty years or more without failure.
TIP: It’s best to contact the locksmith company that you would most likely hire to help you get back into the safe if there was an electronic lock failure and ask it’s experts for their opinions about which brands of electronic locks they recommend and which ones to stay away from.
TIP II: Many electronic locks require very specific battery brands and types. Often the lock is fine but will not operate with a regular brand new battery of the wrong make and model
(One locksmith we talked with said that half of his digital lock call-outs were fixed because a very popular digital lock will only function with a Duracell Procell 9 volt).
UL specifies only one rating, Type I, for electronic locks. To get this rating, the lock must have specific build specifications:
The combination is kept in the part of the lock inside the safe to prevent a thief’s changing the external parts of the safe, replacing them with a known combination unit.
The lock combination is stored electronically in some form of Non-Volatile Random Access Memory (NVRAM), so that if the battery dies or is removed, the locking mechanism won’t erase the memory and the code, locking out the rightful owner of the safe.
The lock itself---not the keypad---has to initiate the drawback bolt. Again, this is so that the keypad can’t be replaced or the wire cut and random voltage input signals delivered to the wires to compromise and open the lock.
The batteries must be located outside the safe to prevent the rightful owner of the safe from being locked out through power supply failure. (Again, see Tip II)
(One of the most common makes of this type of lock is the Le Gard LG Basic, it serves as an example of what we are referring to)
In addition to the burglar container safes that described above, another safe option is safes that are built into structures such as homes or offices. If you would like to have a safe built in, a little forward planning with a contractor can go a long way. Wall safes, floor safes and entire safe rooms can all be easily constructed during the initial construction phase of the house. A pre-manufactured door can be added afterwards, and the performance and construction ratings would apply to the door alone.
TIP: Pick your safe door for a built-in safe before constructing your built-in safe. Door manufacturers will specify the specifics on geometry for the built-in or provide the door frame that the built-in needs to tie into for the door to function properly.
It might also be worth looking into the fire rating of the safe. Many fire safes have minimal burglar resistance, and many burglar safes have minimal fire resistance, but there are a couple of models that offer both.
UL offers a two-part performance rating for fire resistance. The first part gives the temperature, and the second part gives the time exposure that standardized contents were able to survive. For example, if a safe is rated a UL Class 350 One-hour safe, it withstood 350 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour before breaking down.
Six Questions You Need to Answer Before Buying a Safe
What will be stored in this container?
What are the size requirements for the inside of the safe?
Will you need shelving, will the shelving need to be reinforced, how much space will reinforced shelving possibly add to my space requirements?
What is the market and personal value of the materials I want to keep in the safe? (Does it make sense to keep $10M in cash a $300 gun safe? Does it make sense to keep $10K in cash a $20K TL-60 safe?)
Where will the safe be kept?
What size safe is required for your storage needs?
How much can it weigh and still safely be moved into place?
Can the floor or foundation of the structure underneath the safe hold the weight of the safe and whatever contents you would like to store in it?
*Will the geometry of the safe in its desired location be able to be kept hidden from anyone that may pass by it? (Think about anyone that may be brought in to fix or repair an issue with the house or apartment)
How many people will be using it?
Does it need to have multiple combinations and an electronic tracking system to know who has opened it?
How frequently will the door need to be opened?
Will it need to be opened 6 times a day (in which case an electronic lock might be preferable) or every 6 months (in which case a simple dial might work fine)?
If it is a jewelry safe and it takes more than 10 seconds to open it, will the jewelry be kept out of it when in a rush, or worse, will be left with the door shut but not locked?
Are there any insurance benefits with your carrier or a competitor if you upgrade to a safe with a higher security rating?
In some cases, significant insurance breaks can be realized, or coverage can be increased based on UL performance ratings
How far away is the nearest response to an alarm signal?
If the police response time takes more than 45 minutes, you probably need to go with a higher rather than lower rating, as many safes are only as effective as the call-out times for the police in the area.
Finally, please remember that the most secure safe is the one that absolutely no one else knows about!
We hope you have learned something about safes that you had not known or though about in this guide to finding your next safe, and please let us know if we can help you fill it.
Larry & Christopher LaBorde +1 318-470-7291
Thank you to Silver Trading Company www.SilverTrading.net for supporting our writing habit and allowing us to take a deeper dive into these matters!