Mechanical to Electronic Upgrade Options

March 2, 2020
Consider the customer, the existing hardware and the cost before you make the move.

As electronic upgrade options continue to evolve, you’ll want a good strategy to guide your customer to an effective solution. This article will explore where to start and how to help the customer reach a practical and cost-effective conclusion — and will help you to become your customer’s trusted partner.

Why Consider Upgrading?

A customer’s potential liability is increased significantly by failing to defend against foreseeable events. Regulations, improved security, key or credential management, convenience and status are other common issues that motivate customers to consider electronic upgrades.

A security breach is often a strong upgrade motivator. (We sometimes smile when we hear hollow statements, such as “so this will never happen again.”) As security professionals, our job is to help reduce the target’s vulnerability. Controlling access to valid users and times, creating audit trails and adding alarm enhancements can give your customers a much higher level of confidence that their assets are well-protected.

Key control is a high priority in medical, research, information technology and defense contracting facilities. Government regulations, such as the law restricting release of medical information, or industry standards often require effective key control. Upgrading to electronics through the use of cards, fobs, biometrics or mobile credentials allows the user to control who has access in a much more precise and timely manner.

Peer recognition or status is often a major factor in upgrading to electronics. Most customers want to be viewed as “technically savvy,” so even just the appearance of electronic security can be an important issue as well as being a real deterrent. Managers and employees often take pride in the organization’s technical competence.

Making the Upgrade

Two considerations will drive the type of upgrade the customer has to have or really wants: the level of security that’s required and the equipment that’s required to make the system work.

Depending on the level of security that’s required, entry-level key control might be enough. This would be accomplished through the use of a mechanical or electronic keypad, card, fob or mobile credential that operates the lock, strike or exit device. The next level would be to include an audit trail of who came in and when.

Many applications would require detection and immediate notification of requests to exit (REX), doors held open, latch or deadbolt engagement and access requests. These would require hard-wired or Wi-Fi communication with a central controller.

Some applications require two-factor authentication or biometric validation of the user. This often is achieved through a hard-wired or Wi-Fi system but is increasingly available in battery-operated stand-alone devices.

When you try to determine what equipment is required, several questions must be answered:

  • Can existing hardware be upgraded, or do I have to replace locking devices? Retrofit kits are available for existing mortise and cylindrical locks and exit devices. BEST, Corbin Russwin, SARGENT and Schlage have extensive electrical upgrade kits for commercial hardware as well as exit devices. Command Access and SDC have extensive lock and exit-device electronic upgrade kits. Of course, a magnetic lock or electric strike might be a simpler (but less aesthetically pleasing) option. Locking devices can have the access control integrated or be a component, and the access portal can stand alone or be networked to a controller.
  • What type of interface will control the lock, how will it be connected, and how will it be powered? Keypad, card, fob, mobile credential or biometric? What credentials does the customer use? Keypad locks are available from many companies, including Adams Rite, Alarm Lock, BEST, Codelocks, Corbin Russwin, Hager, Kaba, LockeyUSA, SARGENT, Schlage and Yale.
  • Can an electronic core, such as the BEST Switch Core, CyberLock or Medeco XT, be installed in the existing mechanical locks or cylinders? A plug-in electronic core is incredibly simple and easily switched from one location to another.
  • What solution is appropriate for each opening?
  • Is the opening functional, or are door, closer or hinge upgrades required, too? Here, your door-hardware experience gives you a major technical advantage.

Technology Options Abound

With respect to communications between the lock and credential, several options are available.

  • Stand-alone locks that have self-contained access control continue to be a popular application, particularly when minimal code or credential changes are required. Witness the long-term success of Alarm Lock’s expanding Trilogy series. The STRATTEC Advanced Logic RTS is a fairly new entry into the stand-alone market.
  • Communication with a head-end traditionally has been through a hard-wired or Wi-Fi-networked system. An interesting development in recent years has been Power over Internet (PoE), because it allows power to be transferred over the same connection as data. Up to 30 watts of power generally is available through PoE. The Corbin Russwin Access 800 IP1 and SARGENT V S1 locksets, and the SDC IP-100 are good examples of PoE solutions that integrate all standard access-control components.
  • A so-called shoe-leather network would be a third option. RFID cards, fobs, keys or chips can carry data back to hubs as the user enters or departs the zone or site. The Medeco CLIQ, the Medeco XT and the CyberKey are good examples of this communication method. Wi-Fi versions of these smart keys also now are available for faster updates.
  • The Bluetooth Low Energy standard and smartphones recently created a dramatic enhancement for secure credential and lock communication. These allow extremely rapid data transfer when the lock is activated. The mobile credential (an app) can be in constant communication with the central controller via the site’s Wi-Fi network or the local cellphone network. About 3.5 billion cellphones reportedly are in use worldwide.

Flexible technologies, such as the BEST Switch Core, CyberKey or Medeco XT allow the access-control system to be moved from one door to another in just a few seconds. Smart I-cores can move quickly with an employee to a new office, building or site.

Hard Choices Ahead

Be sure to budget for all hardware, power and communication issues before you make a recommendation. The level of security, aesthetics and existing hardware will drive the answers to the following questions:

  • Can the existing lock or exit device be upgraded cost-effectively?
  • Is a magnetic lock or an electric strike a better option for a particular opening?
  • Do power and data have to be transferred from frame to door?
  • Will a fire rating be compromised?
  • Is external power required?

(SDC provides a handy door checklist at

Electrifying and connecting an existing lock or exit device with an external read head and controller will require power and possibly data transfer to the frame. A number of power-transfer options are available, including retrofit kits for increasingly popular continuous hinges.

Two recent developments provide some interesting power-transfer options. Securitron’s PowerJump inductive current power transfer produces 6 watts across a door gap of three-sixteenths of an inch.

SDC recently introduced the WPT, which uses RF electromagnetic waves to produce 7.2 watts across a door gap of one-fourth of an inch for up to 90 seconds and allows for two dry output connections for REX, latchbolt monitor or data signals.

Further, SDC also offers a series of IP-based access-control modules that provide power and data over existing internet connections. You should be sure to budget the total system cost, because there can be some rather pricey items on the back end. 

Of course, most of us aren’t in the server and cabling business. However, electrical contractors and systems integrators don’t have lock-installation skills. This is an area where many lockshops can build profitable relationships as they work with other contractors.

You now have a wide selection of mechanical to electronic upgrade options plus one incredible advantage: You understand doors, closers, hinges and fire codes.

My personal experience is that we often could put a lot of distance between us and competitors when we showed the client attractive and functional door hardware options that our competitors just didn’t understand.

Cameron Sharpe, CPP, worked 30 years in the commercial lock and electronic-access industry. He advised many institutional, military, industrial and utility organizations on key control and electronic access control processes. [email protected]  

About the Author

Cameron Sharpe

Cameron Sharpe, CPP, worked 30 years in the commercial lock and electronic access industry. Contact him at [email protected].