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Keys, Key Fobs, and Door Codes Controlling Access to Your Building

It’s been a long time since most people have felt comfortable just leaving their front doors unlocked. For better or worse, security has become the order of the day – and technology follows security needs. 

Today, that path leads to electronic access. And according to Bob Maunsell, the CEO of Electronic Security Group in West Boylston, Massachusetts,  when it comes apartment living, that usually means key fobs. 

“Anyone who is in the process of refinancing or doing any major capital improvements are installing keyless entry systems,” says Maunsell. “Everyone is moving toward key fobs. They’re also doing intercom upgrading and video surveillance and getting rid of old-fashioned mechanical keys, since there is no way to keep track of them.” 

That lack of security tracking is a major factor in replacing old metal key systems with electronic fob systems. “With keyless entry,” Maunsell says, “you know who has entered the building and at what time.  You can disable a fob when it’s lost, or when a tenant moves out.  It’s easier than having a locksmith come and change the lock.”  Changing a lock on an entry door also requires replacing what could be dozens or even hundreds of keys.  Electronic technology simply eliminates that problem.

Tony Dahlin, a security expert and owner of Bullis Lock Co., in Chicago, says: “Fob popularity has become prolific as the price has dropped.  [They’ve] long been popular in the commercial sector, but with the price dropping, condos and apartment buildings are increasingly using the technology.  Basically, fobs eliminate the need for a physical key.  If you hand somebody a key and they don’t return it, you have to change the locks.  They can make duplicates of the missing key, and you don’t know who has access to your building.  With fobs, that can’t happen –  they give you control over who enters, and when.  If a fob is lost, you just go into the software and eliminate it without affecting anyone else’s usage.”

How We Got Here

The first big move away from physical keys was in the early 1990s, with the introduction of  Dallas chip keys, also known as ‘transponder keys.’  They were originally used as a car-key technology and contain a very small computer chip inside that sends an identifying message to authenticate the key for the lock.  As it happens, these old-model chip keys are usually compatible with today’s fob systems – though they may require a technology update.

“If it’s new construction, say, within the last five years,” says Maunsell, “buildings have been designed with keyless entry in mind, in conjunction with entry video security and intercom systems.  At existing older sites, they may have dated keyless entry systems.  We run into this a lot.  We simply do an update of their system.”

In New York City, where there are literally thousands of older residential buildings with only key-and-cylinder locking systems, retrofitting is handled a little differently. “We’re not replacing the key system,” says Barak Ron, CEO of Vertex Security in New York.  “We’re adding an additional layer of security with the fob system.  The owner replaces the cylinder of the existing lock and keeps the corresponding keys.  He issues a new fob to each resident.  They begin using the fob system, which can be paired with various phone-based apps for further identification of visitors, delivery men and so forth, if desired.  Fobs are very flexible. Say you have a roof deck, and you want to limit access after 11:00 in the evening.  You can program the fobs for that.”

Benefits and Drawbacks

“Fobs can be replaced virtually immediately,” says Dahlin.  “It’s done with a keystroke in system software and a replacement fob.”  And the replacement process is not reliant on locksmiths and schedules but can be done from almost anywhere where there’s access to the internet. 

Maunsell points out that many traditional locksmiths are now getting training in fob technology.  Each fob is unique to the individual.  Usually two fobs are issued to each apartment, but if more are needed they can be created.  Each is individually coded and recognizable, so if your teenager swears he was at school but was actually at home gaming, you can check the key fob log and confront him or her with the receipts! 

Fobs can also be used to solve crimes far more serious than a kid staying home unauthorized. They leave a digital ‘fingerprint,’ which can be extremely useful to law enforcement in some situations. Maunsell relates an incident that occurred in Massachusetts where a fob was critical in solving a murder: A couple involved in a messy separation lived in a building with a fob entry system.  The husband had been kicked out of the apartment, and there was a restraining order forbidding him from coming within 300 feet of his estranged wife. Tragically, the wife was found dead in their formerly-shared home. As it turns out, the husband had slipped back into the building using his fob and killed his wife.  Horrible as it was, the case was closed quickly; the husband’s fob left a fingerprint that included not only his identification, but the time of his entry. He was apprehended and the case solved.

Fob systems are also easily integrated with other forms of technology, and can be incorporated with a wide array of surveillance systems and phone apps.  Dahlin explains that if you have a Wi-Fi connection, you can control access even better and integrate heating and lighting controls in one holistic system.  Fob systems also provide the user with one item that will open all the doors in one building (instead of needing a heavy ring with multiple metal keys), including garages and buildings with adjacent parking facilities. 

Fob systems also provide for the programming of temporary access, which can come in very handy for contractors and work crews doing short-term or even extended projects on-site.  The fob can also contain an ‘alert’ that will send a notification when it’s being used.  That also lets property staff, administrators, or managers know when someone who had the fob may be trying to gain entrance without permission.  Fobs are flexible and can be programmed down to hours.  Old fobs can be easily reassigned to new owners or different points of access. 

Useful as they are however, key fobs do have their drawbacks. According to Ron, fobs will not work during a power outage.  No electricity means no keyless entry.  So co-op and condo boards need to have a backup plan, says Stuart Halper of Impact Management, which has offices in New York.   “There aren’t a lot of options though.  Basically, you need the super to man the front door to keep it open and under surveillance.”  In extreme cases like Superstorm Sandy in which electrical power was out for days, “a backup battery-powered generator wouldn’t work either,” Halper says.  “The battery wouldn’t last that long. So you still need the super.”

While not as acute, the other major drawback could still be critical. In conjunction with apps on your smartphone, fob systems can be synchronized to provide remote access from almost anywhere.  You could be in the Caribbean on vacation, and if someone wants to be buzzed in to your building, you can buzz them in through a phone call. That may sound great – and in many ways, it is – but these apps don’t necessarily come with video capability, and that’s the big drawback.  You might buzz in someone you didn’t want there.  “Old-fashioned buzzer systems are secure,” says Maunsell, “in the respect that you only buzz someone in if you’re in your apartment.  With phone entry, you could be anywhere – and that’s less secure.”

“Technology isn’t foolproof, but a key is,” says a representative of Brothers Lock & Safe, located in Edison, New Jersey. “Have you ever been in a parking lot when you hit the fob for your car and someone else’s lights go on? Or clicked your garage door opener and your neighbor’s garage door opens?” Similar things can happen with any fob system. You never know when someone else’s fob may open your door. It’s rare, but it could happen.

A Word on Price

Dahlin says the cost of fob systems is dropping due to the proliferation of  technology and increasing demand on the part of residents and building and community managers. “People want this,” he says.  A very simple system can cost under $700 to install and get up and running.  The cost of entry is lowest for new construction, where a fob system and any other complementary technology system are installed during the build-out of the property.  Retrofits of older buildings without any existing technology are more expensive, as retrofits are more labor intensive. Such projects may also involve extensive physical changes required to run wires and other equipment and components throughout the property.

For buildings and associations looking to retrofit their properties with key fob systems, Maunsell recommends installing a fob system with a unified platform, which is the most complete iteration of the technology. That platform generally includes keyless entry, surveillance and intercom –  one program on one server on one platform.

So while we may mourn the days when everyone just left their doors open, we can also rest easier now, knowing that at least some forms of technology may have made us a little safer.

A J Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter for The New Jersey Cooperator, and a published novelist.

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