Learn and Leverage Wireless Access Control

Aug. 2, 2017
If wireless solutions are not on your radar for access control installations, it's time to take notice of this accepted trend.

Wireless technology continues to experience both falling prices and increasing acceptance in many areas ‑ from consumer products to smart home devices to security products. The access control space has seen a surge in recent years of products designed to install or operate wirelessly. Yet, many locksmiths are still reluctant to use them except when there is no choice. Manufacturers of wireless locks, access control panels and software that integrate with them and other types of wireless access control all agree that to ignore this trend is to risk falling behind.

Wireless locking solutions provide the same online, real-time capabilities as wired systems. Access privilege changes and audit records are available at the central control terminal, all from a common database, which simplifies data entry and management. Wireless also eliminates the need to go door to door to upload changes and download records making wireless systems a good alternative to off-line, standalone locking systems. In addition, all wireless transmissions are typically encoded and may use AES128-bit private keys for heightened security. This is the same encryption technology as used by the federal government.

For locksmiths, wireless locking systems offer an opportunity to solve problems that might once have been impossible or impractical. It may be counterintuitive, but you don't need line of sight. Wireless RF signals are able to penetrate cinder block walls, plasterboard walls, brick walls and many other non-metallic materials for simplified system designs and implementations.

Once you become experienced in installing wireless, it typically takes less time than the wired alternative. While wireless locksets work equally well on wood and metal doors, both interior and exterior, there are several other wireless applications to consider as well. These include glass, monitored and scheduled doors, gates and portable solutions.

Plus, wireless locks are especially good candidates for doors and openings for the following situations:

  • Adding security to non-critical areas, such as cabinets, utility closets, elevators and conference rooms;
  • Installing in structures with poor cabling, including buildings with asbestos and other issues affecting wiring, as well as for non-critical doors in very old buildings with concrete or cinderblock walls that could make it difficult to run cables to interior doors; 
  • Deploying in small businesses with simple, key-based security that are seeking greater convenience (over mechanical keys) with basic security functionality;
  • When interior doors are pre-ordered/prepped for wireless locks as part of a new install. However, in such instances, running wire may still be more cost-effective, depending on whether the building is pre-wired for Wi-Fi, if the doors are located in high-traffic areas, or some other specific reason;
  • Extending security to remote locations and gates where conduit and wiring may be difficult in order to reach the area.

In addition, here are some other applications that lend themselves particularly well to wireless. Older buildings that would be difficult or impossible to hardwire come to mind. Whether they are installed in new modern buildings or historical landmarks, wireless locking systems preserve the integrity of the architectural design. Another plus - potential asbestos issues are avoided entirely. 

For outdoor applications, like vehicle and pedestrian gate access, wireless links can often bridge up to 285 feet, eliminating costly trenching. Wireless systems are ideal for garages, harbors, parking lots, airports, utility companies and military bases. They are especially cost effective for controlling gates around a facility. Even more impressive - optional directional or gain antennae are available for still longer distances, such as an installation where gates may be controlled from thousands of feet away. With wireless access control, people can enter the parking lot just like they enter the front door – with the same credential.

In an era of tight budgets, wireless access control is coming to the aid of many facility managers, letting them efficiently extend access control to more doors in more areas. You will learn that 900 MHz wireless and Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz) are sometimes used interchangeably in the access control world to describe solutions that do not require running wires all the way to the opening. It’s true that, as wireless options, both technologies offer some general advantages over traditional hardwired solutions.

When 900 MHz is Best 

Locksmiths find that 900 MHz is the ideal solution when real-time operation is essential. This is especially important in applications where lockdowns are important, such at a school. If there is a crisis, you cannot wait for the system to catch up. You need to lock doors now. This difference between the two technologies can be critical. The 900 MHz is consistently searching for messages whereas the 2.4 GHz solution tends to check only every five to six minutes.

Locksmiths also use 900 MHz when signal range may be problematic. A 900 MHz wireless connection typically has a larger range than a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi connection. The more complex the infrastructure, the more that 900 MHz typically provides the best solution. Also, 900 MHz operates on a lower frequency range that allows it to penetrate through buildings easier and be more resistant to interference.

When To Consider 2.4GHz Wi-Fi 

Wi-Fi is used everywhere. And, that's its big benefit. In the great majority of buildings built in the last 30 years (or more), the copper cabling or optical glass fibers used to operate Wi-Fi network systems have been installed. In most cases, their capacity is a long way from being reached. Since the TCP/IP networks are already everywhere, running every imaginable software application, it often makes sense to leverage these networks in access control. Because Ethernet systems are so widespread, most large organizations already have IT people on site that understand them. The same goes for the leading security integrators.

Thus, Wi-Fi becomes the option when the use of the existing IP infrastructure is preferred. If your client wants to use the same network architecture for locks as they do for managing other communication to printers, work stations and other devices, then 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi may be considered.

Typically, when creating an access control system, we're covering a large area, from exterior door to exterior door and much of what is in between. Since Ethernet networks are highly scalable, they let security professionals expand the size of their coverage easily at an extremely reasonable cost.

Locksmiths find 2.4GHz Wi-Fi becomes a worthwhile consideration when real-time access control is not required. Wi-Fi is often used in applications where access rights seldom change. If the application has low turnover or very infrequent changes in access privileges, then updating credential information with a time delay only once or twice a day may be adequate.

"The increasing number of competing radio technologies has been a boon to the industry, providing improved reliability," says Scott Lindley, president, Farpointe Data, an OEM manufacturer of readers and credentials. “Today, if you take a look at different technologies such as frequency hopping, spread spectrum, data protocols and heightened data rates, [wireless] communications are much more reliable than in the past. That is in part due to the advent of different radio technologies. A locksmith can now install them with real assurance that they will actually work on their site.”

Key Advice

For most locksmiths, wireless systems require a different skill set and knowledge base than hardwired access control. From learning to drill a door to the “handing” of the lever to checking wireless signal strength to undertaking a site survey, there is a lot to learn. Manufacturers of these products and the systems that support them offer training courses and other helpful tips and tricks.

Unless you are using Wi-Fi, which uses the wireless network already in place in the building, you will be creating your own network, meaning that a site survey is critical. You have to determine the door type and plan for the installation of wireless transceivers. Many manufacturers offer special tools to help with this and some locksmiths develop their own.

Also, site surveys are not something you can do from a desk. With wireless, you have to be onsite. A lot of times, there may be 15 doors in a hallway but they are all recessed and, sometimes, even the paint on the wall will bounce back the signal.

There is one final caveat. Beware, not all wireless access control today consists of a wirelessly connected reader on a door. Mobile credentials, mobile readers and even long-range RFID can also be described as “wireless access control.”

Farpointe’s Lindley reports having frequent conversations with customers about wireless when they are actually talking about things like using a handset with NFC or Bluetooth or mobile readers. “Some users want hand-held readers and yet others want a long range reading solution. These are other types of wireless technologies, not 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz.  If someone calls and says, ‘I want wireless,’ you had better qualify it. You and they may not be on the same page.”

A New Source of Revenue

The value proposition for implementing wireless systems in a wide variety of networked openings is compelling. Real-life installations prove that a reliable wireless solution can have a substantially lower installed cost than its wired alternative. What's more, wireless systems use less hardware and install between five to ten times faster. Even in situations that might once have seemed impossible, retrofitting electronic access control systems is now made easy and affordable with wireless access control.

The wireless suppliers are eager to help you understand how to deploy wireless. Take advantage of their training sessions, tutorials and in-the-field help to get you going.