The Evolution Of Access Control

July 2, 2009
Institutional locksmiths share their views on standalone locks, electronic access control and wireless systems.

Being responsible for multiple function buildings, some active 24/7, the reasons for using mechanical or electronic numeric code locks vary with the application.

We started using an electronic numeric code lock shortly after their release. The first electronic locks were not much more sophisticated than the mechanical predecessors. With the early mechanical push button locks, you might be able to program two codes, but for the most part you were limited to one code. Where the electronic models had greater user capability, however, each code had a limit of five digits (as does many of the mechanicals).

The concept of the electronic lock filled a need: “giving access to rooms for multiple departments.” As those allowed to make use of the space changed, we could provide a new code for those moving in and remove old codes for those moving out without having to collect keys or inconvenience anyone (change anyone else’s code).

This proved much more cost-effective than supplying keys to all staff who would need access, or providing loaner keys to departments. In a hospital setting, we expanded their use to sleeping rooms for on-call staff and residents. It provided privacy, so patients and family members wouldn’t have access to the rooms, yet staff didn’t need keys. Over time an improved version was released that was more durable and increased user capability.

Two of the governing bodies that inspect hospitals for code compliance came out with a new requirement that if a room had a trash or soiled linen chute in it, as well as soiled utility rooms on or near Pediatric units must be locked at all times. This drove a major expansion of the use of electronic stand alone locks. We went from 35 or so electronic locks to over 200 in a short period of time. With more and more of the personnel becoming familiar with electronic locks, our staff started requesting these locks on other locations, such as staff lounges and other locations where staff needed access but the general public did not.


The next generation electronic lock had a capacity of about 2,000 users, and many of the options available with a standard wired access control system (i.e. time zones, audit trails, access levels, etc.). We had labs and office suites who wanted them so they could eliminate issuing keys to students and staff who only needed general access. The audit trail capability helped so managers could get a better idea of who was coming into the space and when.

Unfortunately, some staff decided that passing on their unique code was acceptable, and so the audit trails were ineffective. With the introduction proximity card technology as an option for these locks, along with the keypad, we had the option to go with dual credentials if needed, but primarily use the proximity cards. This coincided with the upgrading of our traditional access control system.

The upgrade consisted of moving to HID proximity badge technology, which allows the use of the same ID badge for both traditional and standalone badge reader access control, even though they were not on the same management software. If you include numeric code locks, with the Proximity locks, our count grew to between 550 and 600 locks.

This surge brought its own headache, as it now required the full time attention of one locksmith to maintain them. We realized this was going to soon outgrow our capacity to keep up with it. So we started talking with manufacturers and reading articles in trade magazines - not just for locksmiths, but also in those for access control - to find out what was available, as well as if they were working on any wireless systems and when they might be available.

We found one was out on the street with their product, and three other companies working seriously on producing a quality alternative to the first.

We have received a major education along the way, learning new terms (to us) and how the development of a new product works its way through R & D and onto production.

Wireless allows us to retrofit existing buildings with badge readers, buildings that don’t have wiring in place for the traditional access control system without the expense and time to run the wiring to each door. Another benefit is we will be able to provide or delete badge access at outlying facilities, without having to go to them. With some of these locations an hour’s drive or more away, this is a major labor savings.

All the systems we looked at have a power level report, which gives us the ability to schedule our service trips and maximize the efficiency of each trip. On any of these doors, you have the choice to tie into building power, giving you the option to have practically real-time connectivity to lock down a facility in an emergency.

An important consideration for choosing an electronic lock was if for some reason the network were to go down, these locks will function normally. All programming, schedules, and audits are in the hardware at the door, so when the network comes back up and ask for a report, nothing is lost.

We have been working closely with our Information Services department, our Network Communications department, and the manufacturer’s local representatives and their factory counterparts, to make sure our staff (I.S., CNS, and the locksmiths) have full understanding of the process and systems, and identify if there might be a software or wireless conflict, and resolve them.

Admittedly, because of the volume of locks we have in service already and the size of our facility, it is easier for us to get the attention of the manufacturer’s representatives. For a small facility or the typical commercial locksmith, I would recommend working through your wholesale hardware supplier’s representative to secure as much information on the systems as you can. They often can set up a meeting with you and one of the manufacturer’s representatives.

Another source is to go to the company web site, and if you don’t feel they have enough information, utilize their “contact us” field and ask to see a representative, or ask your questions directly.

Take advantage of your wholesaler’s trade shows, as well as state and national locksmith association exhibitions, to make contact with manufacturers. This will be very helpful if problems crop up later with any of their products.


Before choosing a system, we evaluated four manufacturers of wireless (WiFi) locksets. Each has a long history of either electronic numeric locks, or regular mechanical locking hardware. They also have a history of good to excellent end user support, which considered vital in making a commitment like this. Other items we included in our evaluation process were (in no particular order):

User capacity: How many badges is the lock capable of holding?

Software functionality: How friendly is it to use?

Signal frequency: Where does it fall in the wireless band, or is it a specialized frequency such as 900 MHz?

Signal range: Depending on building structure, how far will it reach?

Would the signal interfere with other wireless devices, that might be involved with direct patient care?

Battery issues: What type of batteries are required – standard. alkaline, or something specific and unique to this lock – and how long will they last? How difficult it is to replace batteries

Can the device be connected to building power? This would allow for more frequent communication with the lock for practically instantaneous change in programming.

Durability of the mechanical portion of the lock

Software: What is the flexibility of the software? Can it be integrated to work with an existing traditional access control system?

We found that three had their own operating software, which is proprietary to their hardware. There is nothing wrong with this approach, though you should be aware of it before committing, and consider if that is the route you want to go.

The fourth, chose to provide software limited to 25 doors. Any larger quantity would require you to find a software company that specialized in access control systems, as well as integration with existing traditional access control systems. Currently three vendors have software available for this product, and more are in the development process. This approach has many positives, yet ties you to these companies and their business plans.

Of the three that are currently available, one requires a long term contract, with a minimum purchase of hardware per year, including a nominal licensing fee per lock. The second requires purchase of the basic software, and a larger licensing fee if you choose not to purchase the hardware through them. The third had no up-front fee, but required a monthly fee per lock, based on volume of communication traffic between the lock, their servers, and your control stations.

This is a whole new world of business for the typical locksmith, as it was for us or any facility that has not been involved in access control, video surveillance and other aspects of an integrated security program before.

All the software we looked at provides much the same capabilities. These include, but are not limited to: time zones, auto unlocking, audit trail capabilities, and power level reports. Some have alarm reports for when a door is held open too long, excessive activity with one card or code, or if a non-authorized card is used to attempt entry.

The power level alarm or report is handled somewhat differently by each manufacturer. One shows a colored graph, to indicate the power level at that time it is queried, another only will show when the power drops below the level you select for the alarm to be tripped. No matter which is used, the report is valuable in that you should be able to schedule battery replacement without having to resort to an emergency response.

All four are tied into the internet/intranet system via a hardwired transceiver. It can be called a portal or gateway, and you will probably find other terms used for the same item. This is where the connection from hardwired to wireless occurs.

Three have their own dedicated portal/gateways that would require running lines back to the telecom/internet closet for communication and power source. In at least one case, there is a option to connect via a Power Over Ethernet (POE) line, which only requires one line be pulled instead of a cat5 or cat6 bundle (cat or category, 5 and 6 is a term used for a bundle of fiber optic, and other lines that are dedicated for use with high quality communication equipment, and is stipulated for use by these systems). The fourth uses the standard wireless Portals/gateways, used for laptop computers and other standard WiFi technology.

Having your Information Services technician involved from the beginning is vital to the success of implementing this system. First you will want their advice on a server, or web server, it is a computer dedicated to hosting and controlling the software and wireless locks. All your communication will run through it, so it will typically be supported and backed up by the I.S. department. They will also be the ones to make sure the control stations [the computers where you or whoever is put in charge of entering the information that gives the lock the authorization to allow a card to enter or not] are connected to the server. They will also come in handy in placing the gateways for maximum efficiency and reliability.

While the system is reliable, things can happen, and having them on board from the beginning allows them to better understand how the system works, and where they can start to look to resolve the problem in the shortest amount of time.

Each locksmith needs to research each available product to determine the best needs of the facility. If you already have standalone numeric or badge reader locks in use, are you happy with them?

Does that manufacturer offer a wireless version? Can you use the same software to program both the wireless and the standalone versions? From our experience one does, the other three don’t. Is it important that these locks have the capability to operate if the wireless system goes down (three do, the other doesn’t).

Is your facility or customer considering a move to an electronic access control system? It is worth your time to compare a traditional hardwired access system, with wireless, battery powered locks. Depending on needs, traffic flow, codes, and building construction, the wireless system may be the least expensive and the most practical option.

You may choose to have an integrated system, or a traditional hardwired system, based on your needs and preferences. No matter what you might choose, wireless is an option worth a good long look.


Here is a partial list of manufacturers offering WiFi locks.

Alarm Lock Systems, Inc., 345 Bayview Avenue, Amityville, NY 11701. Telephone: 800-252-5625 Web Site:

OSI Security Devices, Inc., 1580 Jayken Way, Chula Vista, CA 91911-4644. Telephone: 619-628-1000. Web Site:

SARGENT Manufacturing Company, 100 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT 06511. Telephone 203-821-5769. Web Site:

Schlage Electronic Security, Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, 245 W. Roosevelt Road, Building 7, Suite 48, West Chicago, IL 60185. Telephone 800-313-2962.