A Guide to Buying a Safe for Your Silver and Gold
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 I learned was both fun and fascinating.
Two Ways Safes Are Rated
The ratings for safes are separated into two categories, performance ratings and general construction ratings, which were established decades ago and reflect widely accepted manufacturing standards. Construction ratings, while still useful, are less popular since there is only an implied level of security versus a tested level of security.
General Construction Ratings
Construction ratings stem from simple assessments of a safe’s physical build characteristics.
B rating - 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.
B/C rating - 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.
C rating - 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 top 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. Most rating are Tool rating with the addition of a torch or explosives rating.
The second lesson relevant to performance testing was that the backbone of all security assumptions for safes is that when someone starts the process of getting into a safe, he/she has only a limited amount of time to complete the task before getting caught.
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:
Examples of UL ratings include:
TL-15 - 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.
TRTL-30 - 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
TXTL-60 - Two members of the UL team could not get into the safe in under an hour using tools and dynamite.
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.”
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 screw driver and a hammer.
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):
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 spring.
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:
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 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. It’s best to contact the locksmith company that would most likely help you get back into the safe if there is a failure and ask its experts for their opinions about which brands of electronic locks they recommend.
UL specifies only one rating, Type I, for electronic locks.
To get this rating, the lock must have specific build specifications:
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.
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 Must Answer Before Buying a Safe
Finally, remember that the most secure safe is the one no one knows exists.
Larry lives in Shreveport, LA with his wife Puddy, and sells precious metals at the Silver Trading Company.
Send questions, comments or corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Larry sells precious metals at the Silver Trading Company, LLC. Visit us at www.silvertrading.net . Worried about storage issues? Ask us and maybe we can help.