Institutional Application of Key Cabinets

Feb. 4, 2019
More than ever, key and credential cabinets are a critical component of the overall key control process. And, they can be a business opportunity.

Do key cabinets still have a role in the digital world ?  Indeed, these products provide a zero-cost business opportunity for the alert lock shop.  Key cabinets can now be part of the Internet of Things (IOT), providing a bridge for the technological time warp from the 19th through the 21st century.  In addition, cabinets can store electronic credentials, parts, tools, guns, or anything of value. 

Educational, healthcare and housing institutions, government and military agencies, plus commercial and manufacturing facilities all need to manage large quantities of keys or electronic credentials.  Car dealerships, with their fast turnover and high-value products, have especially critical key management needs.  Many times we have seen drawers full of unknown keys, but have actually been able to recover and build a solid program with a good internal key control process.

In new construction, we typically see a “key cabinet” specified by the AHC with the lock system, with little or no input from future security management.  A quick review of this process may allow you to find a profitable niche market.  Here’s how it works.

Commercial architects have favorite AHC’s (Architectural Hardware Consultants) who write Section 8700 hardware specs for each new building, and then bid the project.  The AHC has a major influence on the key cabinet sale and may want to keep it in his hardware package. Lead times are long, but often worthwhile if you can build a relationship with the AHC. Architects or their secretaries will generally tell you who writes their hardware specs.

During the move-in process, the physical plant director or security manager will be swamped with the key, card and credential issuing process.  This is likely a crisis time for him or her, and a knowledgeable lock and key control professional is most welcome.  An existing key cabinet may be installed, but he may wish to upgrade, install a new cylinder or core, or connect it to his Electronic Access Control system.  He may also welcome help replacing construction cores.  Documenting who gets keys, cards or credentials is a most critical part of the start-up process.  This is the time when you can become the go-to lock professional for this client.

Whenever you visit the lock shop, security or physical plant office, you might ask how the key storage process is working. Sometimes you will get a shocking answer - and business opportunity.

It doesn’t matter if the key storage, issuing, return and control process is mechanical or electronic.  The procedures are the same and critical to system maintenance. If it doesn’t get done right the first time, you may see a new face in the office the next time you visit.

The Technology

Key storage and security has three basic levels.

  1. Large facilities may have cabinets with many hundreds of keys stored in hanging files, drawers or cabinets.  Some brands have portable cabinets or key cases for special or remote events. These portable cabinets are popular at special events and at large auto dealerships for back-lot operations.
  2. Keys to more sensitive areas often require exchanging a dedicated peg, key, fob, or credential in order to remove the required key. Personal vehicle keys are sometimes attached, to ensure accountability. Audit trails are manual.
  3. Electronic systems require a code, credential, or biometric authorization to access the cabinet, to remove a specific key, and provide an audit trail. In some cases, electronic key release and recording can be integrated into the building control systems. Vancouver, BC based Keytracer is actually developing iOT and Ai key control applications.

An important issue is cost per stored key.  Very large key storage capacity is not expensive.  Retained keys will be more expensive at $10 to $20 per key, and electronic systems tend to run more than $100 per key. Electronics do provide an audit trail and can often integrate into the facility’s electronic access control system.  It’s always wise to verify costs before making any promises.

In the past, an original pattern key and some number of copies were stored, ready for distribution.  The fatal mistake would be to issue the pattern key.  The widespread use of Interchangeable cores and dramatic key cutter improvements now allow original code-cut factory-quality keys to be produced as needed.  Ongoing key storage can be dramatically reduced.

Colleges and Universities have a unique key or credential issuing challenge.  Thousands of resident students arrive within a very short period, with keys and/or electronic credentials being issued as they check in.  Keys and credentials need to be ready to go, available, and secure. This cycle is repeated every semester or quarter.  At the same time, department heads, professors, teaching assistants and staff are in constant flux and want access to their offices, rooms, and storage.  Primary and secondary school districts don’t have as much turnover, but do have remote campuses throughout the district.

Healthcare facilities have their own sets of special key control needs.  Perimeter defense has become increasingly critical as deranged people learn they can get incredible publicity with violent attacks.  Controlling access to healthcare equipment and supplies is also critical to cost management.  You won’t believe how much toilet paper can walk out the doors of a hospital.  Of course, access to drug storage is a sensitive and highly regulated area as well.

Government agencies really get serious about protecting their keys when someone threatens a lawsuit or brings accusations of wrongdoing.  Security and physical plant management are generally somewhat serious about their key control process, but their survival doesn’t depend on controlling costs.  Military sites of course, have special requirements, the bidding process requires a learning curve, and weapons and munitions are quite regulation-driven.  

Ultimately, a large facility may need several levels of key or credential storage, depending on the volume of activity and sensitivity of the areas being secured.  A persistent key control problem is the lost, stolen, or misplaced ring of master keys.  Any building master carried by a security or maintenance staff member presents an enormous risk.  A large institution recently had a correctly checked-out master key lost. This required a relock costing more than $25,000.   Seattle based Tether Technologies™ has refined its Gravity® system that electronically tethers the key ring to the employee’s holster.  The system makes it extremely difficult to misplace a high-value key ring.

Cabinets, drawers, or large file cabinets in secured rooms can hold literally thousands of keys as they are issued and returned.  These will typically be held on sequential hooks with tags.  The process does take constant maintenance, but the lack thereof is guaranteed failure. Cobra Key Systems, HPC, Lund Equipment Co., Keytracker, Matrix, and MMF build large storage capacity housings.

Mechanical key retainer cabinets are popular for securing master keys or credentials used for higher value assets.  These mechanical devices have individual latching pegs, fobs, or tethers with the key firmly attached. When the employee tag, peg or credential is inserted, the key is released and the employee key or credential secured.  Keys are returned in a similar manner.  These are often accompanied with manual documentation and with CCTV recording the activity.

Basic key storage or mechanical retainer key cabinets are generally offered with a variety of mechanical or electronic access control devices. These range from basic locks, to PIN numbers, cards, or biometrics. 

A frequent variation of the mechanical device is the key exchange process.  An employee key is inserted into one cylinder.  Rotating 180 degrees releases the connected trapped key.  This two-key process has often been used with Interchangeable cores since the cores can be quickly updated as necessary.

Electronic key retainers are generally applied to high-value credentials, keys, or other small assets like tools, weapons, etc.  These electronic containers provide accountability for each access event as well as releasing only the authorized key, credential, or stored object.  Contact or RFID pegs or fobs communicate with the key cabinet software.  Audit trails are available locally, and often at remote terminals as well.  These containers are available as drawers, wall mounts, free standing boards, and in some cases, weapons or evidence lockers.  Higher cost tends to limit electronic cabinets to higher-value assets. 

One newcomer appears to target the automobile dealer industry with a large chest of drawers.  A valid access request opens a drawer and pops open a small key box.  The Matrix company may be located in the UK, but we have not been able to confirm.

CyberLock® and Medeco® provide electronic cabinets that simultaneously secure and charge electronic keys.  We’ve currently identified 18 key cabinet manufacturers, from the small Knox Box entry system to the largest storage systems.  These are listed below for your reference.

Remember, there are three price structures from basic key storage to mechanical trap boards or drawers, and on to electronically controlled cabinets with audit trail and various processes to grant access.  A very rough rule of thumb is that mechanical trap systems are likely to be in the $10 to $20 per key range, while electronic systems can run more than $100 per key.  Several suppliers are offering hybrid systems with electronic access control to mechanically retained keys. This is often backed up with CCTV surveillance.

Key control is a complete process that begins with the key blank, goes through storage, distribution, documentation, key recovery, and finally by complete rekeying of compromised doors.  You will serve your customers best when you stay focused on the big picture.

About the Author

Cameron Sharpe

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