More in Home Technology

Keys? Who Needs 'Em!

High-tech locks open with the touch of a button

Keys tout
Illustration by Marc Rosenthal
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For as long as there have been door locks, people have been losing keys. Which is why combination locks have been around for almost as long. But it took the arrival of digital technology for manufacturers to come up with keyless systems that are truly simple and convenient to use. First adopted in the 1980s by hotels and other security-minded businesses, keyless locks — such as digital keypads, magnetic cards, and remote-controlled deadbolts — have lately exploded onto the home market.

Plummeting prices are a big factor behind the growing demand. "Twenty years ago, a commercial system could cost $20,000," says Allan Rich, president of Nokey.com, an Internet retailer of keyless systems. "Now you can get good residential models for $400." And as the technology becomes more affordable, the shortcomings of conventional keyed locks become more apparent. For instance, most keyless systems allow you to program in different codes for different users, so when the housekeeper quits, you just delete her code. Some let you define time periods for each code. That way, the furnace repairman can get in at noon, but not midnight. Still others can be linked to your computer, which can keep track of who's coming and going, or allow you to add and delete codes remotely. "We're seeing the whole home automation market expanding, and locks are part of it," says Jimmy Pendley, director of product management at Black & Decker's Kwikset division. "It's all about convenience now."

For as long as there have been door locks, people have been losing keys. Which is why combination locks have been around for almost as long. But it took the arrival of digital technology for manufacturers to come up with keyless systems that are truly simple and convenient to use. First adopted in the 1980s by hotels and other security-minded businesses, keyless locks — such as digital keypads, magnetic cards, and remote-controlled deadbolts — have lately exploded onto the home market.

Plummeting prices are a big factor behind the growing demand. "Twenty years ago, a commercial system could cost $20,000," says Allan Rich, president of Nokey.com, an Internet retailer of keyless systems. "Now you can get good residential models for $400." And as the technology becomes more affordable, the shortcomings of conventional keyed locks become more apparent. For instance, most keyless systems allow you to program in different codes for different users, so when the housekeeper quits, you just delete her code. Some let you define time periods for each code. That way, the furnace repairman can get in at noon, but not midnight. Still others can be linked to your computer, which can keep track of who's coming and going, or allow you to add and delete codes remotely. "We're seeing the whole home automation market expanding, and locks are part of it," says Jimmy Pendley, director of product management at Black & Decker's Kwikset division. "It's all about convenience now."

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Push-button Handlesets

 

Push-button Handlesets

Securitron Digital Keypad
Securitron Digital Keypad
Pros: can be used with any latchset; allow remote and timed control; can integrate with computer or security system
Cons: may require professional installation
Price: $200 to $1,000
Shown: Securitron Digital Keypad (Image #2, at left), which features an extra button that can function as a doorbell or be programmed to turn on a light.

For homeowners who want keyless convenience that's unobtrusive, a hardwired keypad is a good choice. The keypad is positioned on a wall or trim strip off to the side of the door and connected by wires to an electric strike mortised into the doorjamb or a magnetic lock mounted on the door frame. The door can have any style of handleset. From the inside, electric strikes open with a handle; magnetic locks use some form of "egress button" or touch plate. Power typically comes from a small DC transformer plugged into a wall socket inside the house.

If someone enters several incorrect codes, most units will sound an alarm or shut down temporarily. And many models can be linked to an alarm system, a garage door opener, or a computer that keeps track of door use. Simpler models can be installed by homeowners; units that are connected to a computer or to a whole-house security system are best left to a locksmith or an alarm specialist.
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Hardwired Keypads

 

Hardwired Keypads

Trilogy Alarm Lock
Trilogy Alarm Lock
Pros: simple to install and program
Cons: institutional appearance
Price: $100 to $900
Shown: Trilogy Alarm Lock (Image #3). Includes an "ambush" feature: If an intruder forces you to open the door, punching in the regular code plus two extra digits notifies a security service.

These battery-operated, stand-alone devices are the most popular and secure of the keyless locks. They don't require any wiring or complicated installation; the keypad on the outside of a door is part of the handleset. To unlock the door, you punch in a code number (typically four to six digits), which releases the lever or knob. Most models have dozens of separate user codes, and some high-end models have timers so you can control the hours during which a code will work.

In general, push-button handlesets are always locked on the outside and always unlocked on the inside. (Models that lock automatically on the inside are unsuitable for homes.) Most give an illuminated warning when the batteries are getting low, usually after about two years. The battery-free Powerlever 1550 from Kaba ($625) is the exception to this rule: Pumping its handle generates enough power to fire the relay that frees the latch.

The big drawback of push-button handlesets is their institutional appearance; they look glaringly out of place on the front doors of most homes. Still, you might not mind one on a back door or mudroom entry.

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Wireless Remote Dead Bolts

 

Wireless Remote Dead Bolts

Kwikset's Maximum Security Keyless Entry System
Photo by Michael Heiko
Kwikset's Maximum Security Keyless Entry System
Pros: can be used with any latchset; easy for homeowner to install; open with keypad if fob is misplaced
Cons: plastic housing covers interior components; fob can be lost
Price: $100 to $140
Shown: Kwikset's Maximum Security Keyless Entry System (Image #4), which opens the deadbolt, as well as some newer cars and garage doors

Wireless systems are triggered by pressing a button on a remote fob much like those used for car alarms. The Keyless Entry System made by Kwikset can be installed on an existing door by any homeowner with a cordless drill and a screwdriver. Its battery-powered deadbolt can be used in conjunction with any type of latchset and will pick up the fob's radio transmission from up to 30 feet away. (Less expensive infrared systems are good for only a few feet.) To thwart wireless-code thieves, the fob uses the same technology found in most garage-door openers; the code changes automatically with each use. Some fobs can be programmed to open certain garage doors, as well as turn on an entryway light or even arm the alarm on some newer cars. The system comes with a wireless keypad that gets installed near the door, in case a fobless person needs to gain entry.

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Proximity Card Readers

 

Proximity Card Readers

Radio Key RK600
Radio Key RK600
Pros: no combination to remember; models without keypads can be completely hidden from view and can't be vandalized; can be integrated with computer or security system
Cons: card can be misplaced; pro-fessional installation is required
Price: $250 to $1,000
Shown: Radio Key RK600 (Image #5). When connected to a computer, it can record the time and the person using the lock, and be reprogrammed remotely

A familiar sight in office buildings, these locks work when you wave a special card in front of a reader. The reader, which sends out a low-level radio signal, energizes a microchip embedded in the card. The card then transmits its unique code to the reader. If the reader recognizes that signal, it automatically releases the electronic strike or magnetic lock holding the door shut.

The great advantage is that the reader can be concealed behind a wall (though not behind metal), making it virtually invisible. And for anyone who is visually or physically handicapped, cards are easier to use than a key. The downside? A card is a key by another name, and just as easy to lose. If that happens, you'll have to break out a spare (which has a different code) and reprogram the reader to prevent the old card's use.

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Biometric Readers

 

Biometric Readers

Star 2000-FP Biometric Reader
Star 2000-FP Biometric Reader
Pros: no combination to remember; nothing to misplace; can be integrated with a computer or security system
Cons: expensive, delicate; should be installed indoors
Price: $1,300 to $2,800
Shown: Star 2000-FP (Image #6), which can store up to 640 different fingerprints

For the ultimate in gee-whiz technology, there are biometric readers that can recognize a hand shape or fingerprint. These devices — the most costly keyless locks on the market — typically store 100 individual prints and can be connected to a computer so you can keep a history of comings and goings. Like proximity-card readers or hardwired keypads, biometric readers are designed to operate either magnetic locks or electric strikes.

The problem is these readers are so sensitive that they must be protected from the elements, extreme temperatures, and vandalism. As a consequence, manufacturers recommend that they be used indoors to control access to certain rooms or areas of the house.
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Where to Find It

Hardwired push-button lock:
DK-26SSXB by Securitron Magnalock Corp.
Sparks, NV
775-355-5625
www.securitron.com

Push-button alarm lock:
Trilogy Alarm lock by Napco Security Systems, Inc.
Amityville, NY
631-842-9400
www.napcosecurity.com

Key fob:
AccessOne by Kwikset
Lake Forest, CA
800-327-5625
www.kwikset.com

Proximity reader
RadioKey RK600 by SecuraKey
Chatsworth, CA
800-891-0020
www.kwikset.com

Biometric thumbprint reader
STAR 2000 FP by Print Electronics
New York, NY
212-268-5020
 
 

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