Submitted by Indentured Servant:
PURCHASING A HIGH SECURITY HOME SAFE
A person could be forgiven for thinking that the purchase of a high security home safe is simple and straightforward. As with many things in life, such a purchase requires a little more than listening to the sales pitch and selecting a color and size.
I don’t yet own a safe myself but earlier this year I completed my due diligence in anticipation of purchasing one. Actually I do own a safe but it’s a decoy or sacrificial safe that I hope satisfies any thieves who will clearly be desperate breaking into my humble home. What prompted this article was a comment posted by a more recent regular here on TBP and my own knowledge of the misconceptions people have about safes.
Despite the advances in technology, safes have not changed much at all in the last 150 years or so. They are basically a metal box with a lock. Mechanical dial combination locks were so well designed 100 years ago that they remain virtually unchanged. Digital locks are a new twist that add convenience for simple minded folks but are not as reliable as the old mechanical dial lock unless you upgrade to a professional model. The 3 or 4 digit mechanical dial lock is still the standard safe lock but a Group 2M lock adds a layer of manipulation protection. Some thieves are so good they can literally “feel” the gate locations on each internal wheel and be in and out of your safe without a trace. Luckily these are rare talents and anyone possessing such talents is unlikely to be prowling your neighborhood.
Safes of old were constructed with thick heavy pieces of steel. That holds true today to an extent but significant advances in composite concrete like materials have virtually eliminated thick, heavy, all steel construction in modern safes and vaults. In many cases, these concrete like substances are insanely strong, being stronger than solid steel of similar thickness and able to withstand pressures of 80,000 PSI or higher. Instead of stone aggregate, they are made up of chunks of hardened steel, ball bearings, manganese scraps and magnesium filler along with other things designed to destroy tooling of all types. They even add layers of copper plating and asphalt to foil torch and thermal lance attacks.
At the end of the day though, any honest manufacturer or salesman will tell you that even the most well designed safe or vault is only capable of slowing down a determined thief. Want proof? Look into SAVTA, the Safe and Vault Technicians Association. These are the people you’ll call to gain entry to your safe or vault if you ever lose the combination or suffer a mechanical malfunction that locks you out. They can get into any safe or vault in a couple of hours or up to a few days without destroying it. They use a combination of very sophisticated tools, years of training, personal experience and access to technical data provided by the manufacturer. Pray you never have to call one and get out your big checkbook if you do. The higher the UL rating, the longer it will take and more it will cost to gain entry but a SAVTA tech won’t destroy your safe or its contents in doing so.
SAFE AND VAULT TECHNICIANS ASSOCIATION (SAVTA)
Use any search engine to find the SAVTA website and look up the SAVTA tech nearest you. Even if the nearest one is a couple hundred miles away, they can be an invaluable source of information on what and where to buy, finding an installer and evaluating/tuning up any used safe you may buy. If your safe has a mechanical lock, they will need to be cleaned and checked every few years and you’ll need a good Safe Tech to do the job correctly. These guys go through significant schooling and testing that most local locksmiths do not.
Like many modern appliances, safes are rated by Underwriters Laboratories. Their ratings enable insurance companies to insure certain contents that businesses want to store in a safe. Every insurer is different but most will insure jewelry and varying amounts of collectible coins, bullion and some cash up to limits based on local crime statistics, the presence of a monitored alarm system and the nature of the business. Many of these things go out the window in a residential setting. For instance, my insurance company would not insure bullion of any kind unless it is in the form of numbered/traceable bars and they would only insure precious metal coins up to varying limits based on how much I want to pay in annual premiums. They will not insure any amount of cash because they reason that cash can be conveniently kept in a bank.
UL ratings vary in general from a TL-5 Residential Security Container (RSC’s) up to custom designed and installed vaults and everything in between. For the purposes of this article I’ll only talk about ratings from RSC TL-5 to TL-30×6 because once you get above TL-30×6 you’re in the range of securing millions of dollars in value and probably need better advice than I can provide. I won’t go into torch or thermal lance resistant safes because in residential sizes, such tools will likely destroy the contents of the safe and probably burn down your house in the process.
Underwriters Laboratories has a team of safecracking experts they employ to test safes to destruction. Manufacturers have to submit a production safe to UL for testing and pay a fee as well as submit blue prints, tech specs on proprietary components and any other data requested. These safecrackers are allowed to inspect and even disassemble the safe prior to testing which gives them enormous advantages over run of the mill thieves.
Safes are rated with letters and/or numbers such as RSC or TL-15. RSC’s or Residential Security Containers are the same as a TL-5 and are the least secure and least rigorously tested. The TL stands for Tool and the number represents the minutes that a safe can withstand attack by a set number of attackers and a defined set of tools and still remain secure. A safe with a rating appended with “x6” such as TL-30×6 means that all six sides of the safe must withstand the same 30 minute attack. That’s right…….most safes are only tested on the door and door frame.
Every step up in UL rating comes with an increase in the number and types of tools allowed to be used in attacking a safe. An RSC test does not allow power tools because a RSC would never survive five minutes of attack with power tools. A TL-15 safe on the other hand will never be opened with the tools allowed to attack an RSC rated safe so power tools are allowed in those tests. Higher ratings also employ more attackers as well. The number specified in a rating is the number of minutes the safe can repel an attack and only includes the time that a tool or tools are in physical contact with the safe. If the attacker removes a tool to reposition it the clock is stopped until the tool contacts the safe again. A safe that earns a rating of TL-15 could fail at 15:01 or 29:59 (the next step up is TL-30) so the rating only ensures that the attack is not successful in the time allotted.
The way a “fire safe” protects contents from damage is by use of intumescent gaskets around all openings and with moisture emitting materials inside the safe. These gaskets feel and look like a heavy, smooth felt but they expand up to 10 times their original size when exposed to heat. Fire safes, including gun safes with a drywall lining take advantage of the fact that their concrete like materials and drywall sheets contain a certain amount of moisture. During a fire, this moisture causes high humidity conditions up to and including steam. It is this water vapor that protects the contents from fire damage by raising the flash point. In short, wet paper is harder to burn than dry paper.
Fire ratings are a bit more complicated but safes are available to protect everything from paper to modern digital forms of media and more. The safe I intend to buy has a Class 350-2 Hour rating which means it will protect paper from burning for two hours with exterior temps at 2000 degrees F.
If you want to protect CD’s, hard drives, thumb drives, film negatives, photos etc., you will need to investigate a better fire rating such as Class 125-2 Hour. Most house fires rarely get above 2000F and rarely burn for longer than 2 hours but situations vary. If you live in CA where firestorms can burn at 3000F+ you might need better protection. If you live in a high rise or multi story home and the safe is in a basement you may need even better protection.
Another torture test UL performs on a safe is to heat it to 2000F in a furnace then drop the safe 30 feet onto a pile of bricks on a concrete floor. This is designed to simulate a high rise fire situation.
For those looking to protect guns, a Class 350-2 Hour rating will protect the guns themselves but any plastic/nylon parts with lower melting points could be damaged. Many wood finishes could be damaged at lower temps as well.
Evaluate your own fire protection needs and educate yourself. Grill your salesman and ask for documentation on fire ratings from the manufacturer before making a final choice.
WHAT TO AVOID
I can’t advise you to avoid safes marketed as “gun safes” because I don’t know what you intend to secure inside them. Perhaps you live in a jurisdiction where firearms must be stored in a locked container? An RSC might meet your needs perfectly. However, most people I know in real life as well as from comments I see posted online indicate that many people are storing guns, precious metals, jewelry and cash in the “gun safes”. Some are even storing digital media in them expecting the contents to survive burglary attempts, fire, flood and other calamities. Good luck with that!
A UL RSC rating basically means that the container can withstand attack by a single attacker equipped with a screwdriver, 3lb or smaller hammer, pry bars, wrenches, pliers, chisels and punches for five (5) minutes. That’s it. The really scary thing is that regardless of the manufacturer or price paid, 99% of all safes marketed as “gun safes” only attain an UL RSC rating and I’m not talking about “gun cabinets”.
I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t spend $700-$4500 dollars on a fancy container that provides five minutes of protection to store anything with monetary or sentimental value. If you dig around online you can find numerous videos, photos and stories regarding the utter lack of real security these gun safes provide. In some cases the welds are so shitty that simply hitting them with a hammer cracks the weld and allows a screwdriver to be inserted and the top pried off like a sardine can. In other cases a battery operated Sawzall was used to cut holes in a 7 gauge (3/16th inch) gun safe and the contents were removed through the hole. In some cases simply pushing the gun safe over onto its back and using a pry bar allows entry through the door in well under five minutes. One guy even shows how you can drill one hole in the side of the safe, insert a punch, hit the punch with a hammer and the door opens right up.
Don’t even get me started on the so called “fire ratings” for these gun safes. Most rely on standard drywall or fireboard as a fire proof lining but expect you to ignore all the gaps or entire areas where there is none. They are essentially ovens and the only way the contents survive is in a very fast burning fire or in a situation where the heat is kept at minimal levels for a very short time.
WHAT TO CONSIDER
The minimum security rating I would accept for a home safe is a TL-15 and stepping up to a TL-30 or TL-30×6 is not that much more expensive. I intend to buy a TL-30×6 that has roughly 12.5 cubic feet of interior space with exterior dimensions of 51”Tx30”Wx30”D. It weighs 2800 lbs. and has a Class 350-2 Hour fire rating. I can buy that safe including tax and delivery for less than the price of a top of the line Liberty gun safe. Most people could probably get by with a much smaller safe with equal protection for about half that price.
If you dig around online you can find a number of dealers that sell used safes. It is illegal to sell a used safe as new so substantial discounts can be had buying used. Safes are extremely robust and apart from some exterior scratches, you can’t do much to damage one. Used safe dealers can usually suggest local installers to accept delivery and then bring them out to your location for final delivery. They will also be able to secure any relockers prior to shipment to prevent damage in transit. Your local installer will be able to set new combinations for you, install new or different locks and enable the relockers once installed. In this economy, you may find a local safe dealer selling used safes in your area.
As far as installers go, some places use local moving companies but they are not usually equipped for anything more than dropping one off in your garage. Many moving companies hire undesirable, minimum wage type people which is fine for delivering a mattress or hot tub but not desirable for something like a security safe. I prefer an expert to do the work as quietly and discreetly as possible. Experts will also have all the equipment needed to go up or down stairs and can protect wood or tile floors from damage. Installers will likely have an extensive questionnaire for you and may want to do a pre-delivery inspection.
In any situation that entails security at any level, your first line of defense is to keep quiet about it. The only people on Earth that need to know about your safe are your immediate family and a trusted friend or extended family member who might serve as an executor for your estate. That’s it! No friends, neighbors or co-workers have any need to know. Teach your immediate family about the importance of keeping quiet about it. You might trust your friends and family but you have no way of knowing who they might talk to.
You should also consider hiding, disguising or building the safe into a part of your home. A thief could easily threaten to harm you or a family member and force you to open your own safe but if he never finds your safe, that is unlikely. This is also why I mentioned having a sacrificial or dummy safe. Go to Goodwill or Wally World and buy a cheap Sentry fire safe. Put some important looking papers inside along with a dummy Last Will or two plus some rolled coins, $50-$100 in cash and some cheap but realistic looking costume jewelry in it and don’t even lock the door. Place this sacrificial safe in prominent view in your master bedroom or the closet right where the thieves expect to find it. They’ll think they’ve scored and beat feet out of there.
Unless you buy a 3000 lb safe, make sure your bolt it down. If a safe is small enough, a thief has a better chance of opening a safe if he can move it to a safe location. If the safe you buy only weighs a few hundred pounds, a couple of guys can easily muscle the thing out your front door and into a pickup in minutes. Bolting it down is essential and your installer should be able to do this for you. Another option for a lighter safe is to use a mason’s mud mixing pan or trough and pour it full of concrete, finish the top then bolt the safe to that. You can turn a 300lb safe into a 1000lb safe pretty quick that way.
Be sure to choose a safe that has more interior space than you need. Maybe the best way to determine how big a safe you need is to gather up everything you intend to put inside it and measure how many cubic feet it takes up then, double it. Bigger is better than smaller when you’re trying to stuff that last bag of gold coins in there. You can very easily buy a high security safe tall enough to store your long guns and then, using the supplied shelves as a guide, lay out where/how the shelves need to be modified to accommodate your long guns on one side of the safe. You can then modify the existing shelves or have a local sheet metal shop make you some new ones to accommodate your long gun collection.
Invest in a good safe dryer. There are several types but the heated rod type is best. Moisture can build up in a safe causing rust and moisture damage to the contents. Be sure to buy the correct size for your safe. Today you can also buy inexpensive, adhesive backed LED tape to illuminate the interior. If you’re really handy you can install a plunger type switch that turns the light off when the door is closed and a install a regular 110v outlet inside to plug your accessories in. Believe it or not, there are companies that will trick out your safe out for you.
Finally, if you do experience a fire and you are storing moisture sensitive items inside, it will be essential to get the safe open ASAP afterwards. A fire safe will become a steam bath and when it cools off the interior will resemble a tropical rain forest.
I hope this helps you select a home safe that meets your needs.