For locksmiths who have traditionally just focused on the mechanical side of the business, these are exciting and challenging times as electronic access control is expanding both residential and commercial customers’ expectations for what is possible.
“It's not if, it’s when will you make a move to more electronic stuff and to mobile credentials,” says Glenn Younger, owner, Grah Safe and Lock, based in San Diego, Calif. “Or are you just going to slowly see your business get smaller every year?”
Younger says his business has gone from no electronic work when he first started out to it now making up approximately 40 percent of overall revenue, with mechanical still representing 60 percent. “When I consider the number of doors, we still do more mechanical doors than we do electronic, but the electronic doors are at a much higher cost.”
He continued, “I have a couple of guys, and that's all they do is electronic stuff, so I think that it's going to [grow] in the future.”
As alarm companies, low-voltage installers, and IT installation companies continue to move into the security door hardware field, “they bring with them a RMR mindset, which is changing the locksmith and professional door hardware installation industry,” says Younger. “With all of the electronic business that we are doing now, I need to do a better job of bringing more recurring revenue into the mix.”
John Nolan, owner of Reliant Security, based in Grand Junction, Colo., agrees that locksmiths are at a critical point in the electronic access movement.
“If the locksmith doesn't come out of just doing mechanical work and go into electronic access within the next 10 years, their business is going to be really affected in a negative way because keys are important, but a lot of people are turning away from keys,” says Nolan. “The mechanical locksmith is always going to be there, but ultimately when we talk about electronic access, it's anywhere from someone putting a real simple electronic deadbolt on their house to putting electronics on access to every single door inside of a building.”
While mechanical is an important part of his business, the electronic side is what is helping Nolan differentiate himself from other locksmiths in the area, creating a strong and growing annual revenue stream. “Last year, I did more than $450,000 [in electronic work alone] and I'm a one-man shop,” says Nolan. “And I hired a technician here about six or seven months ago.”
Nolan asserts that is important for locksmiths to look at themselves as security professionals first and not just a locksmith. “Most of my work is in commercial, so we do electronic access, we do door operators, Wi-Fi stuff, cameras, alarm systems – I think you have to push yourself to become a well-rounded security professional.”
Mobile Credentials and the Cloud
Both Nolan and Younger are seeing the rise in demand for mobile credentials within many verticals, including residential, multifamily/multi-tenant, colleges and universities, and in certain commercial settings as well.
“Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Near Field Communications (NFC) are making using mobile phones as a credential far easier, and less costly. Some manufacturers are making this a no-cost add-on, while others are trying to charge a license fee per each mobile credential,” Younger explains. “Either way, this is something I have been saying was coming since the start of smart cards, and data on card systems. It has taken 15 years, but I believe that 2023-2024 will continue to see more widespread adoption of mobile devices as credentials.”
One of the key indicators of how far mobile credentials have come is how ubiquitously they are being used on college and university campuses.
“At Arizona State University, for example, which has approximately 80,000 students on campus, they use the phone exclusively as a credential. And I know many other schools that are doing the same thing,” Younger says, noting that students will lose their cards all the time but not their phones. “It's the most protected credential that you can get, especially when compared to a card, for example, which can also be compromised. It's got so many things going for it.”
“Who wants to pull a key out of their pocket anymore and stick it into a lock to find out that it doesn't turn very well, or whatever?” adds Nolan, noting that the phone not only provides convenience but even automation in the home and at the office. “When I pull up to my house or our shop, my phone is set up so that it disarms the panel for me and then I can also set it up to control some other things. Now we're stepping into the realm of potential automation, so imagine as you pull into your business the lights come on, the door unlocks; that’s where it’s going.”
The cloud, which has taken some time for widespread adoption within security, is now certainly a mega trend, as it allows for easy and secure management of electronic access control systems.
“It's not going to be happening locally – they're going to be accessing some stuff in the cloud, which means they can access it from their phone, from home, from wherever they can get access to the cloud,” says Younger, who adds that many of the locks sold throughout the locksmith channel have a software component to them. “It's just that's a little shift that instead of going to my laptop, my desktop, or the customer's desktop to make changes now, I'm going to the cloud.”
Younger realizes that the cloud is not the whole answer, but explains, “Cloud-based computing is one of the steps, and then the phone as a credential is one of the steps, and then the phone being able to upload and download from the cloud is another. It's an easier thing to upload and download to your phone than it is to upload and download to a card because if you want to do that with a card – like a data on card system – now you must have a card reader and encoder.”
Locksmiths will continue to see more and more wireless connectivity networks to door control hardware, says Younger, noting that the cost of running wiring to doors has been the “major cost driver” for access control systems for years. “Being able to wirelessly connect new doors to existing systems through some sort of wireless means has been a game changer in the last 5 years,” he says. “It is a double-edged sword, though; this makes it easier for former alarm and IT network installers to avoid sub-contracting to locksmiths and professional door hardware installers. So, there are positives and potential negatives with this trend.”
Younger adds that wireless buttons and readers to control door hardware is another growth area. “With the rise of Auto Door Operators (ADO’s) and the need to have buttons inside and out, a wireless button or remote will become the standard,” he explains. “Again, this is a double-edged sword. It also makes it easier for non-door hardware installation professionals to install things such as ADO’s. More effective and dependable remote buttons are helping this trend along.”
With wireless growing in popularity, batteries are starting to replace hard-wired options for power. “Battery powered locks and door control devices will continue to be more widely used,” Younger points out. “The one fly-in-the-ointment is that using these types of locks on fire doors has generally not been addressed in codes. Mechanical doors and hardware sets are tested by UL and other agencies for fire rating. Most battery powered locks and trim have not been. This is widely known, but little talked about. Right now, battery- powered locks should not be on fire doors, but we see this all the time. My guess is that there will be more focus on this in upcoming NFPA and ICC code reviews.”
While wireless is growing in popularity, Nolan does not see wires going away anytime soon, as wireless is not always an option.
“Most of the time I run into a wiring problem, so 100% of the time I start with the wiring,” explains Nolan, who says electricity is probably the top hurdle for many locksmiths. “Honestly, though, I think that having a healthy fear of wires is very good. I would rather see a locksmith terrified to touch wires and not touch them than for him to cause $12,000 worth of damage.”
Nolan recommends a combination of both classroom and field training for new locksmiths looking to improve their knowledge in this area. “Classroom training is good to get certain principles down, but field training is always the best. Honestly, I found when I went to school, they taught us about running wires, but until you run into a situation where you have to drill through a foot-and-a-half of thick concrete reinforced steel wall, then what do you do?”
DIY: Threat or Driver?
While do-it-yourself (DIY) has emerged as a category unto itself within security, the truth is many times these DIY’ers end up turning to a professional security professional, like a locksmith, for help.
“They just don't know how it works on the mechanical side of things, that's where the mechanical locksmith has the advantage because the average homeowner and the average millennial right now does not know how the lock works,” Nolan explains. “When we talk about the electronic side of things, I think that some of it has to do with that fear of, ‘well, it could be done cheaper and by the homeowner or the business owner.’ I say let them do it.”
He continues, “So on the products, when they put it in and it doesn't work because they watched all the videos, but they just didn't know this extra little thing that you have to do, or they hooked the wires up backwards, or did something wrong because they're not experienced and don’t have the training. That's where your advantage comes in. Now you can come in and do repairs.”
Nolan provides as much guidance as he can for customers who need troubleshooting but points out that he inevitably will get that follow up call a few weeks later asking for additional help.
“Honestly, the troubleshooting and repair stuff is often more lucrative because now we're just down to time. I'm not down to time, materials, and planning and all this other stuff. They already tried, so they had a design in mind and now just making their design work or redesigning it if necessary, and it may cost them a little bit more.”