Is your basement door safe?

When considering the security of a building I think it is important to consider what entrances a criminal would attempt to use first. The criminal wants low visibility and the path of least resistance.

This usually means the front door will be left alone because it is usually visible from other peoples’ houses and the street. A far more attractive entrance is to the side or rear of the building. Why is this?

The petty criminal wants to avoid any interaction with the occupants of the building. They would like to enter without alerting anybody inside or outside. The basement is the ideal entry point for most criminals because people are usually in the upper floors of a building. In a house, the basement is usually stocked with goodies that can be pawned for quick drug money. Power tools, sports equipment, audio and visual equipment are all typical in people’s basements.

Despite being the most likely entry point for criminals, basement doors are frequently the least secure. Let’s consider why:

  • /The basement door is less visible and used less often so people are less concerned with replacing it
  • Since many haven’t been replaced for decades they are frequently an older style of door featuring thin panels in the middle
  • If they have glass it is often single pane glass, Modern doors generally have double pane glass. It is harder to break through and also insulates the building better. Thieves would rather break single pane glass because it takes only one hit so it is quieter.
  • Old doors are often thin 2 and 3/8″ doors. It is harder to kick down modern exterior doors that are solid wood or hollow steel and 2 and 3/4″ thick. Not all doors are created equally, many 2,3/4″ doors are plywood.
  • Basement doors are often framed into the foundation and door installers are typically too lazy to install the strike plates into the concrete behind the door frame. It is a lot of work to drill through concrete even with a hammer drill and a concrete bit, especially if there is a big rock where you are attempting to drill a hole!

You may be wondering, “Maple Leaf Locksmith, what can I do to make my cheap old basement door more secure?”

Glad you asked! The rich man’s solution is to call somebody who installs doors and ask for a solid wood exterior door, a hollow metal door, or a fiberglass door and fiberglass frame. Ask that the frame be attached to the concrete in multiple places with concrete fasteners or glue.

At the time of this writing (2020 Coronavirus outbreak) many people find themselves without cash lying around. This is all the more reason to secure your basement door: desperation is going up as the economy goes down. What are the inexpensive but effective ways to secure such a door?

The number one thing to do is to attach a piece of 3/4″ plywood to the door. You would attach the plywood to the inside if the door swings in or the outside if it swings out. You would want CDX and you would want to seal it with paint.

To attach the plywood to the door you would get screws that are slightly shorter than the thickness of the plywood and the door combined. The typical situation would be a 2,3/8″ door and 3/4″ plywood bringing us to 3 and 1/8″. 3″ long screws would not poke through if they aren’t countersunk but just screwed flush. You would drill pilot holes and screw the wood in from the inside of the door so somebody can’t simply unscrew the plywood. To ensure you don’t drill the pilot hole all the way through, wrap a piece of tape around the drill bit at 2 and 7/8″ and don’t drill past the tape.

For an even more secure solution but not as attractive, you can through bolt the plywood using carriage bolts and nuts. The head of the carriage bolt would be on the outside of the door. I’d do one every ten inches all the way around the door.

Either solution would probably cost you $75 in parts including plywood and fasteners.

Another solution if you just want to rectify the single pane glass would be attaching a piece of polycarbonate over the glass. I’d use carriage bolts for this. You have to get a piece of polycarbonate that is larger than the glass because when you drill through the door you don’t want to hit the glass. Bank on at least an inch away from the glass on all sides, or 2″ wider and 2″ taller than the glass itself.

Once the door is worthwhile it is time to address the strike plate. To determine if your strike needs attention, unscrew the strike plate from the door frame. The strike plate is the metal object that the deadbolt’s bolt goes into when the door is closed and the bolt is locked into place. If you don’t have one you’re a sitting duck!

If the screws are half an inch long the strike is mostly decorative. The screws should be two or three inches. They should go into the stud behind the doorframe or if there is concrete they should go into that.

To screw into concrete you need special screws and you need a hole longer than the screw and a very specific diameter. The head of the screw must be the same size as the screws that came with your strike.

How do you know if your doors are secure?

I offer people the option of taking the locks off their doors to bring to me so they can save money on rekeying them but then they miss out on potential problems I would notice and bring to their attention.

This made me think it would be helpful for people to know what to look for when addressing how safe their house or condo is.

  • Do the locks actually lock
  • If the locks lock, do they lock correctly
  • If the locks work correctly is the strike securely installed
  • Is the door and frame high enough quality to withstand kicking

The first thing to address is whether your locks actually lock or not. With the door open try locking and unlocking the door. Note how far you can turn your key or thumbturn. Now try it with the door shut. Does your key or thumbturn move the same distance and with the same amount of ease?

A large percentage of houses I go to don’t have the locks installed correctly and to lock the door one has to push or pull on the door and even if you position the door just right the deadbolt still won’t work smoothly. It might not extend all the way. If it doesn’t extend all the way the strike might not be in the correct spot or the strike may not have been drilled deep enough.

a deadbolt strike with a nail blocking it
This strike might work better if there wasn’t a nail going through the middle of it! The bolt has never extended all the way into this doorframe and since the door opens out someone could unlock the door with a butterknife or screwdriver since the bolt can be physically manipulated directly from the outside.

It is somewhat obvious if the strike has a nail or something in it keeping you from extending the bolt all the way. A more insidious problem is when the strike box isn’t installed before the strike plate. That makes it more likely that the door will be easily kicked in.

How to secure a lift-up door?

Sometimes lift up doors need to be secured but there is no place to attach a lock. I get requests from time to time to install locks on lift up garage doors and if there is not a place to attach a padlock on the inside of the door or there is no secondary entrance one must get creative.

The first thing to consider is if there is already a key override built in to the garage door. This can be determined by simply looking at the outside of the garage door for a keyhole, usually at about the six foot level. If you see one, check if it is attached on the inside by a steel cable to the garage door opener. If it is, I can come out and make a key for it and you can unplug your garage door opener until you can replace it or secure it in some other fashion.

Second option is to install a padlock on the inside of the lift up door if the door is accessible from the inside when locked. There are sometimes slots in garage door tracks for this. If not a hole can be made in the track to prevent the garage door from being lifted.

Some commercial garage doors can actually be lifted up even after they are closed and supposedly secure. Such was the case in the following picture. The best solution I could come up with was to put a bicycle lock through the lift up door and the frame on the side. This prevents the door from being lifted up more than about five inches.

The nice thing about this solution is modifications to the door are minimal, I only had to drill one 1/2″ hole through the hard steel.

A lift up garage door secured with a bicycle lock. Not ideal but a workable solution if the opener is broken or the garage door doesn’t need to be used for awhile.

The next type of solution is a hasp and padlock. I’ve installed these on garage doors that people didn’t want to fix or didn’t want to replace the electric garage door motor because of great expense. Garage doors are often thin and even hollow core so when you install a hasp on these doors you must take care to through bolt the hasp, meaning you must use some kind of fastener that goes through the door. This is already kind of a hack so perhaps one could be forgiven for screwing into a 2×4 chunk on the other side of the door, but a more elegant solution is to use machine screws and tee nuts. Everything will be flush, secure and looking more proper than a random 2×4 screwed ino your garage door. Abus and American Lock have nice hasps that cover the screws when locked.

Sometimes lift up doors are constructed of very thin metal, like this car wash I was called out to secure last night. This is an interesting problem because a hasp wouldn’t do, it could be torn out of the door. No sensible place for a padlock on the inside of the door either because the space isn’t accessible from the inside by a separate entrance, the doors have to be locked and unlocked from the outside.

The only solution I could come up with to secure these doors was to put concrete anchors in the concrete and put a padlock through the eyehook on the garage door and through one installed into the concrete. There may have been another solution but this was what my Friday night brain seized upon through the mists of fatigue and beer.

First you have to put some kind of concrete anchor in the concrete. Put it in front of the eye hook you will be attaching a padlock to. This requires a special drill with a hammer setting.
Stuff needed to anchor a garage door in concrete, including from left to right a tool for setting the threaded concrete anchor, a concrete hammer drill bit, a threaded eye hook compatible with the anchor, and finally the concrete anchor. I used 3/4″ drill bit and 3/4″ anchor which is compatible with 1/2″ threaded eye hook. Then I put weatherproof masterlocks through both eyehooks.
Here is a padlock anchored in concrete!

In the pictures above you can see some items necessary for this project. First thing needed (not pictured) is a hammer drill. My DeWalt drill/driver has a hammer drill setting which comes in really handy for drilling through concrete and masonry, and not much else. This feature adds $50 onto a drill.

Next you need a concrete bit. I got a long one which was overkill because most concrete is not poured very deeply, so a bit longer than 6″ isn’t necessary. The concrete anchor we will install is only a few inches long, I tried to anchor them as deeply as possible but discovered that the concrete was only four inches thick.

Once you drill the hole in the appropriate spot so that the eye hook you are installing lines up with the eye hook already present on the garage door, you take a special tool for these concrete anchors which is really just a punch but with a shoulder on it and hammer it into the anchor. This expands the bottom of the anchor against the concrete around it.

Now you can screw the eye hook in. If it doesn’t go down far enough, you can cut off some of the threaded part of the eye hook to make it shorter. When a padlock is installed in the eye hook one couldn’t unscrew it, only when you take the padlock out could you remove the eyehook. This is nice because the owner can take the eyehook out when repairs are completed on the garage door, it is not permanent. If we wanted permanence we could dispense with the concrete anchors and dump epoxy resin in the hole and shove the eye hooks into it.

If you did everything correctly, the garage door can’t easily be lifted up. I tried lifting the door I installed two of these eyehooks on and was unable to lift it, but the willpower of a meth addict or a lift up door enthusiast enjoying a Friday night dose of angel dust may be more effective than my efforts. I don’t know the rating of these concrete anchors but I believe they will deter the vagrants who were breaking in to this space.

Manipulating Safes

I’m learning how to manipulate safes. It’s maddening work, it depends on methodical work with little room for mistakes over the course of an hour or more. It is a real thrill when you hear the click that signifies you dialed the safe open though!

Paint is the enemy of locks

Painters are constantly ruining locks. They do this by

  • Ruining the lock when trying to remove it from the door without knowing how
  • Not reinstalling the lock correctly
  • Painting the lock and getting paint inside the lock
  • Shutting the door when the paint is still wet, thus effectively gluing the door shut
  • Putting thick layers of paint on a door and doorframe making door no longer open and shut easily.
  • Not removing locks to paint door so when the lock is replaced or taken off to rekey, the latex paint is ripped from the door or there are areas of the door exposed without paint when the lock is replaced.
  • Reinstalling locks in wet paint leaving unsightly marks visible when locks get replaced.

If you are going to paint your door take the locks off first and wait for the paint to dry before reinstalling. You’ll probably be happy you did later on.

Today a customer paid me to come out and fix a lock that would not open from the inside or out. It turned out that the door was sealed shut when the door was closed with wet paint.

This door is missing something…

There are two exit devices on this door, making it illegal if it is a fire exit.

This door on Capitol Hill in Seattle is bananas! Two exit devices on one door requires some coordination if you’re trying to get out. Hopefully you’re not in a hurry. Imagine if there was a fire and there was a lot of smoke. You’re coughing, you can’t see, and the door won’t open when you push the bar. That’s why this is actually illegal for designated fire exits. The lower device should be deactivated.

That isn’t a strike plate!

The DIY crowd too busy to read the instructions sometimes does things that are just bananas, like installing this deadbolt faceplate in place of a strike plate. The hole in this faceplate is just barely larger than the bolt intended to sit inside it, so it would be nearly impossible to lock this door. Strangely enough, the deadbolt actually worked. Whoever installed this deadbolt measured very carefully!

This is a deadbolt face plate installed as a strike plate. The hole is the same size as the bolt so it is very hard to use this deadbolt.

Bicycle Locks and Angle Grinders

A few years ago there was a spate of failed bicycle U locks after Kryptonite switched to a disc detainer style lock but had quality control problems. People were calling me every day to remove these busted locks from their bicycles. I could do so in a few minutes using a tool called a battery powered cutoff wheel or angle grinder.

How do bicycle locks actually stand up to common attacks?

Using an angle grinder one can cut through all but the hardest alloys of metal very quickly. Once lithium ion batteries came out it gave enough power to do this quickly and easily and the angle grinder became the tool of choice for cutting off these locks which in turn became popular due to the prevalence of bolt cutters and special techniques for overcoming cable locks.

Enter the Altor Saf U-lock. The manufacturer claims that this lock can withstand an angle grinder for 30 minutes! I am interested to know if this test includes diamond grit or not. The lock is $300 and weighs 13 pounds (approaching the cost and weight of a decent bicycle when I was a teen).

Note that an angle grinder can still cut through this lock. Angle grinders are really loud and make lots of sparks so you would hope that this would attract attention, maybe people would call the police, etc but unfortunately Seattle is now big and impersonal enough that people now walk past somebody cutting a lock with an angle grinder.

I have personally cut probably close to 100 bicycle locks off using an angle grinder and not once did somebody call the cops or ask what I was doing. In their defense I wouldn’t approach a stranger using a dangerous loud power tool with sparks flying around either. You’d think that at least once somebody would at least call the police or ask why I was cutting a bicycle lock off though.

TSA Locks aren’t very secure

I’ve never done it before but recently some people came to me with locked luggage with a TSA lock. Their combination wasn’t working, but nowadays most luggage has a key override for the TSA to unlock it. This lock takes a dimple key but it is insecure enough that I was able to unlock it with regular lockpicks. Don’t trust locks with TSA key overrides on them, if I can pick them I’m sure that plenty of other people can.