Access control systems introduction
Access control systems let authorized employees get in and out of various parts of your business while keeping other people out. They can range from simple electronic keypads that secure a single door to large networked security systems for multiple buildings that can include parking lot gates, integration with time and attendance systems, and multiple levels of security.
The increased security provided by a modern access control system is important to many types of businesses - and for businesses working with government contracts, it's often a requirement. However, they also greatly simplify management of your facility: no need to replace lost keys, hunt down old keys from terminated employees, or wonder who has access to which areas.
This BuyerZone Access Control Buyer's Guide will help explain the basics of an access control system, the types of identification available, how to choose a system, and what you can expect to pay.
Preparing for an access control purchase
Before you start investigating access control systems, sit down and determine the purpose the system will serve. The most basic role of an access control system is to keep out anyone who's not supposed to enter an area. This can be the front door, a parking garage, a server room, a personnel records room, or any other sensitive area.
All computerized access control systems keep records of when doors where opened and by whom. However, you may want one that functions as part of a time tracking system, to automatically punch workers in and out for payroll purposes. The system will still only grant access to authorized users, but the focus is more on time tracking than on having airtight security. For this application, you'll need an access control system that is compatible with your time and attendance software. If your staff is mostly salaried, this component won't be nearly as important.
Another point to consider: how secure do you need the system to be? A basic system usually features a keypad or swipe card. Higher security applications may require multiple means of authentication (a card and thumbprint, for example) and include more redundancy. They're also more expensive.
Finally, consider what other systems need to connect to your access control system. Monitored alarm systems and video surveillance systems are two good examples. Make sure you include any connectivity requirements in your initial conversations with access control dealers.
Sizing your system
Once you understand the basic role the access control system will serve, think about the number of doors you need to secure. Smaller installations may include just one: a server room with an electronic keypad lock is a common example of a very small access control system. Remember that not every door has to have access control — you can simply leave some locked and only give keys to appropriate personnel.
If you plan ahead a little when purchasing your system, you'll find it fairly easy to expand later. The smallest systems, designed for one or two doors, are not very expandable, but many four and eight door systems can be linked together when you need to expand. Once you know the number of doors you'll be securing, gather information on each one: the physical makeup and use of your doors will impact the type of locks and entry systems you need. Are some doors for customers, and some only for employees? Are the doors wood, steel, or aluminum and glass? Are any designated as fire doors? Do you have any garage doors or parking lot gates to control?
Networked and standalone systems
For larger installations, especially those that include more than one site, you'll probably want a system that can be operated over a network, so you can manage security at all of your locations from a central point. The alternative is standalone systems, which operate only on single doors.
- Within a networked system, all secured doors communicate with a central computer. Every door will be controlled from a single location and can be quickly locked in the case of an emergency. Networked systems can also be used to control offices in remote locations.
- Standalone systems must be programmed on a door by door basis, which can get to be a hassle as you secure more doors. The primary advantage of standalone systems is that they're much less expensive than networked systems. See access control system pricing for more.
Free exit and controlled exit systems
Another key distinction in access control systems is the difference between free exit and controlled exit systems. In a free exit system, there is no requirement for leaving a secure area. The system either detects someone approaching an exit (usually with motion sensors) and unlocks the door, or has a release button or bar that allows people to leave.
Controlled exit systems use the same security for travel in both directions: employees have to enter the code or wave their card to get in or out of the secure area. By law, access control systems have to be set up to allow people to exit if the system fails or power goes out. Controlled exit systems increase both security and your overall costs.
Access control credentials and locks
There are two primary components to a security access control system: the locks, and the credentials used as a key to grant access.
First you need a way for authorized users to identify themselves and/or unlock the door: the credentials.
- Keypads are common for single door security access and less expensive security systems. They're easy to use but less secure, since users have a tendency to write down the entry code or to "lend" it to others. They also don't provide detailed audit trails unless you provide each employee with an individual code.
Card readers are the most popular option in
commercial access control. They're easy to use, and when cards are lost, it's a simple matter to deactivate them and issue new ones. They can also be combined with photo IDs for additional security.
Proximity cards, which use RFID technology and can work from one inch to three feet from a sensor, are the most common. Because there's no contact between the card and reader, they're very reliable and suffer little wear and tear -- and often, they don't need to be removed from a purse or pocket to work. They're also inexpensive.
A specialized type of proximity card is the automobile tag, which allows access to a parking facility without requiring the driver to open their window or get out of the car. Automobile tags can work at hundreds of feet away from a sensor.
Security access systems can use magnetic stripe or barcode cards, as well, and these can be a money-saving option if you already use one of these technologies for employee ID cards.
- Biometric systems rely on physical characteristics of the users for identification such as fingerprints, handprints, or even retinal scans. They are by far the most secure methods of access control. However, they are also considerably more expensive and can seem invasive to employees forced to use them constantly. They're also very unreliable outdoors, so they're not good for exterior security access.
- Smartcards carry larger amounts information on the card itself, such as employee records or spending account balances, instead of just an ID number that references a database. They get some good press but haven't made much progress into access control -- yet. In the future, as costs decrease and interoperability between different types of systems increases, their popularity may rise, but for now they remain a niche solution.
Other types of sensors can be used in free exit systems: loop detectors, photo cells or beams, and motion detectors all function by detecting a vehicle or person approaching an exit and unlocking a door.
Locks and gates
You'll also need locks that the security system can control electronically. The two main options for locking standard doors are electric strikes and magnetic locks. Electric strikes are generally cheaper and are better for free exit doors. They're also more appropriate for standard wooden or steel doors. Magnetic locks are better for aluminum and glass storefront doors, as well as for controlled exit situations and emergency exits.
Often, door hardware will include sensors that know when a door is open and can send an alarm signal if the door is opened without clearance. Systems can also sound an alarm if a security access door is propped open for a specified amount of time.
For restricting vehicle access, there are several options. The most secure are full garage-door openers. Almost as secure are various types of gates: sliding or swinging gates, depending on available space, move aside to let a vehicle into a parking lot. More common and much less expensive are barrier arms of wood, plastic, or metal that simply control the flow of traffic into a parking facility.
Access control gates can be broken up into two subcategories: residential or commercial. Residential gates offer:
- Improved security
- Keypad and/or telephone access entry
- Sensors and locks
Commercial gates offer:
- Higher-level security
- Automatic vehicle tag and card readers
- One-way spikes
- Battery backup systems
Some companies rent security fences for special events and construction sites. Temporary access control equipped fences can prevent theft, manage liability, ensure security and privacy, and aid in crowd control -- without requiring the investment in a permanent solution.
Access control software and features
One of the biggest differences between competing access control systems is the software used to run them. The software lets you set access levels for each ID and door, view reports, and conduct audits to see who used a door at a certain time. Make sure it's easy to understand and use: access control systems should decrease administrative headaches, not introduce new ones. Ask for a demonstration of the software and see how easy it is to add new employees, change access levels, create groups, and find detailed reports.
Match the software with your computers' operating system carefully: some access control systems only work with specific versions of Windows or other operating systems, so know exactly what OS you're running before finalizing your decision.
Most access control system software is powerful enough to handle the needs of companies up to at least a thousand users. When you start needing to manage multiple shifts, several thousand employees, and hundreds of doors, you drastically increase the overall complexity. At that level, you'll likely want ODBC-compliant (Open DataBase Connectivity) software that can connect to your existing payroll, time and attendance, and other HR and security systems.
Consider the ASP option
You may want to consider using an application service provider (ASP) to run your access control software. Instead of running the software on your own computers, the ASP or hosting company runs it in their data center, and you access it through a web browser. There are significant tradeoffs involved: top-quality data and power backup systems at ASP data centers mean your system will almost always be up and running, and your staff doesn't have to maintain the servers that run the access control application. However, if your Internet connection fails, you won't be able to make changes to your setup. (Note that your system will still work normally in the event of Internet failure — you just won't be able to add or remove users.)
Neither method is best in all circumstances. If you don't have much technical expertise on-staff, an ASP can be a great choice, but you might prefer to have complete control over the setup and maintenance of your access control software.
Additional features to consider
- Timing - lets you set specified times when a door should lock and unlock. Particularly useful for doors that are open to the public at some times but only to employees at others.
- Tracking - Any computerized access control system will do some basic tracking of usage. Check out the available reports and see if they provide the level of detail you need.
- Battery backup - keeps your premises secure for hours, even during a power failure.
- Template layouts - lets you create a graphic blueprint of your building and point and click your way around to change permissions for different doors.
- Badge printing - The dealer may be able to supply a specialized printer so you can create new cards as needed, with or without photos.
- Audit trail - A time-stamped record of every attempted and successful opening of a lock. Audit trails are most often used in server rooms, where access records may be mandatory. They can also be used in supply closets to track when the room was last opened if supplies go missing, or to back up a time and attendance system to prevent fraudulent employee time punches.
- Mobile security - provides electronic access control at remote locations, sometimes including a touch screen device to allow users to enter the number of persons entering a facility. Some dealers may also offer mobile terminals and turnstiles.
For some types of access control systems, you may also want voice communication capabilities, such as an intercom or a telephone-entry system. A simple intercom allows visitors to talk to a central control booth. Telephone-entry systems, common in large apartment buildings, allow visitors to dial a specific unit to request entry and let residents unlock the door using their phone.
Choosing a dealer
As with any major business purchase, it’s worth taking the time to ask a lot of questions when choosing an access control dealer. You want a dealer who is large enough to be stable and provide timely customer support when you need it, yet small enough to be responsive to your needs. Flexibility is also important: the dealer should be able to adjust to your specific requirements.
The best dealers will ask you questions as well. They’ll walk you through the specification process and help you find the solution that best fits your needs. They don’t always need to see your facility, but they may do a site visit or ask you to send digital pictures of specific entry points. Avoid sellers who have the “perfect system for you” after five minutes of conversation – and by the way, it’s on sale this week only!
Most access control dealers work with a wide range of customers, but you should look for one that has experience in your industry. In particular, don’t work with a company that handles mostly residential systems: for your business, you need commercial-grade access control. Many manufacturers produce residential versions that are considerably cheaper – but they are not as reliable and not built for the same amount of use as commercial systems.
Also, look for a dealer who supports multiple brands of hardware and software. Access control hardware is fairly standardized and will work with most controllers. Controllers and software are more specialized, so make sure the dealer you choose has significant experience installing and supporting the brands you decide on. Factory certification from manufacturers indicates a greater level of training and support, but it’s not essential – some dealers don’t bother with it.
Integration and installation
In addition to providing you with the right products and appropriate support, the dealer you choose will also be responsible for installing your access control system and integrating it with any other related systems you have. There is no real standard for connectivity between access control and alarms, time and attendance, video surveillance, and HR software, so there will always be some custom work involved in creating links between these systems. However, an access control dealer should be prepared for this and have experience with the type of systems you want to connect.
There are local and national codes governing the types of locks and hardware that can be used on fire and exit doors, so make sure your dealer is familiar with the ordinances in your area.
Installation can take anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks, depending on the total number of gates and doors being controlled by your system. The dealer will install the software on your computers (or show you how to connect to the ASP), set up your first users, and install the locking and detection hardware. They’ll include some type of training on how to manage the software, but this can vary quite a bit from one dealer to another. For a basic system, an informal demonstration of how to create cards and reports should be enough, while on larger systems, you may need a more comprehensive training session.
Access control system pricing
Arriving at good estimates of access control system pricing is difficult: most access control vendors will want to discuss your needs in detail before providing you with estimates. That said, there are some general costs you can keep in mind. These prices include everything - the hardware, software, and installation. The only exception is the cards themselves, which are usually priced separately.
A complete keypad or card-based access control system for a single door is typically $1,500 to $2,500 installed, or $6,00o to $2,000 if you install it yourself. The more doors you add, the lower the per-door pricing is: prices per door are often $1,200 to $1,500 in a typical system. In fact, according industry statistics, the average access control purchase today covers 7 doorways at a cost of $9,618.
The full range of options is much larger. Integrated locks with keypads, designed as standalone access control points, can be purchased for as little as $400. On the other end of the spectrum, a fully newtorked biometric system can easily reach $10,000 or more for a single access point.
See prices for access control systems reported by other BuyerZone users.
What goes into the access control pricing?
Access control system pricing increases when you start including additional components such as photo ID printers, door prop alarms, and higher-security locks. While the prices listed here can help you get an idea of your budget, your total costs will change throughout the project as you add and remove components.
Budget-minded companies can buy the components and do their own installation, but you'll often need to hire a general contractor to do the hardware installation anyway, so the total savings aren't likely to be that much. In addition, professional installation helps guarantee that the security system provides the security your business requires. Do remember to buy only commercial-grade equipment, not residential equipment: you'll get better reliability and more features.
Your access control system pricing should include basic email and telephone support, at least for the first year. Some vendors provide lifetime support for products they install. Most dealers will also offer extended warranties or maintenance contracts, but the basic manufacturers' warranty is often sufficient for access control hardware. The components are relatively simple and don't have many moving parts, so they don't tend to break down easily.
Security is an investment, not just an expense
One of the biggest mistakes that buyers make today is buying a cheap system based on price alone -- then finding out later that the system they chose doesn't have the technology or support to provide adequate security protection. While it's important to shop competitively based on price, make sure that the system you choose is reliable and worth the monetary investment.
Card access system buying tips
There are three basic criteria you can use to make the best selection in your access control system search:
- Authorization: Choose a system that will effectively grant secure authorization to necessary users at single or multiple entry points.
- Accountability: Choose a system that can record and log employee and visitor actions at specific entry points in the building.
- Identification: Choose a system that will effectively verify identity and permit access based on levels of security clearance.
Stay in touch. Keep your building management in the loop as you select and install a security access control system — you may need permission to do certain types of installation.
Safe or secure? Different types of locking hardware can be "fail secure", meaning if the power goes out, the door remains locked from the outside, or "fail safe," meaning the door will unlock completely in a power failure. Both safety regulations and your own security requirements can have an impact on which type is right for your situation. (Remember that in a power failure, security doors must allow anyone inside to exit.)
Reuse equipment. Hardware — locks, sensors, and card readers or keypads — is fairly interchangeable between different security access control systems, so upgrades and add-ons can incorporate existing materials.
Don't overbuy. Securing door after door inside your facility is likely to frustrate employees more than increase security. Don't feel like you have to include every door in a security access control system: a mix of card access and plain old keys is often the best combination. Focus your access control points on the perimeter of your building.
Don't buy too small. While you don't want to overbuy, it's also important to buy a standard system that you can grow with as the security needs of your company expand over time.