Keyless lock lockouts: how to prevent and get back inside

There are lots of ways to get locked out with an electronic lock. The most common reasons are that there is a keyed lock elsewhere on the door that is locked, or the electronic lock’s battery died. If you are having this problem figure out which lock isn’t working by sliding a card between the door and frame next to the locks. If the card won’t slide past one chances are it is your problem lock. Read on for some ways to get around these malfunctioning locks.

Not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t call me because they are locked out for one of these reasons. I show up and there is an electronic deadbolt on the door and a door knob below it. The hapless customer explains that their friend or relative locked the doorknob when they left. You can’t blame the friend in this circumstance. Maybe they have the same doorknob at home and are used to locking the door this way. Maybe an older family member doesn’t understand or trust electronic locks. In both cases the person is trying to help you by locking the door. They don’t want you to get burgled!

This situation comes down to being the homeowner’s fault. If you don’t want people to lock the doorknob, you shouldn’t have a locking doorknob. This is one of those Murphy’s Law situations: if something bad can happen, it will happen.

If I see a door with this problematic configuration I always warn the occupant of the dangers. Often it simply hasn’t occurred to them that a keyless lock on the same door as a keyed lock inevitably means the keyed lock will be used some day. Sometimes the person insists that it’s fine because they put tape on the thumbturn or they told everybody not to lock the knob. They like having a second lock on the door despite it not offering much security against people kicking or prying the door open, also known as false security.

This was the case today, my customer had me replace a lock that some idiot had drilled out. The lock could have been bypassed with any type of card and any decent locksmith would have picked the lock or at least used a bumpkey. Instead of replacing the drilled out lock with a passage lock, they asked for the exact same lock. Thus setting themselves up for another costly mistake in the future.

Solutions to this problem are simple. The easiest thing to do is often replacing the locking lockset with a nonlocking or passage lockset. A passage knob or lever will only cost $10-50 at a big box store although a passage mortise lock might cost hundreds more. The cheapest solution aside from hiding a spare key nearby is to modify the lockset to no longer lock. For Kwikset knobs and levers one can simply remove the spindle. This is a nice solution because it is reversible. You can put the spindle back in and it will lock again. Schlage residential locks and the inexpensive locks found at big box stores can usually have the spindle clipped off with a hacksaw or other metal cutting instruments. Then if somebody attempts to lock the knob the thumbturn will spin around without doing anything at all. This is not reversible but at least you don’t have to buy a new lock and from the street the door will appear to have two locks on it still. Make sure to break a key off in the keyhole, otherwise somebody can accidentally lock the knob with a key and you’ll get locked out the next time you use the door. If you have an antique mortise lock on the same door ask me about converting it to passage only.

The third solution is to remove the latch and install a ball catch in its place. This is nice because it’s cheaper than a knob, makes getting locked out (nearly) impossible, and the knob will feel locked if a burglar tries it.

You can also hide a key to the lower lock somewhere, though I urge you not to do so in your own yard as drug addicts and others drowning in desperation have been known to search people’s yards for keys and they know all the best spots including under the flower pot, over the door frame, and the fake rock or sprinkler head. Even key safes aren’t safe. Criminals have made an art of breaking into Masterlock keysafes in particular. Better to hide the key at least 500 yards away in a few different directions. This minimizes the chances that if somebody finds the key they will discover where it goes and you have backups if they do find a key.

Hiding a key is a bit silly though if you have a keyless lock. The convenience of not needing keys is why you got one in the first place. You are better off making sure that the only lock on the door is the electronic one and making it impossible for well-intentioned people to lock you out.

If you are in any of these situations try using a card to unlock the lower lock before calling me. Deadlatches and springlatches when installed on doors with foam weatherstripping are often easy to bypass with a gift card or a piece of celluloid. It could save you $80-150.00! Probably 1/3 of the people I suggest this to are able to get in on their own.

Maybe there is a different problem causing the lockout. People will swear up and down that their keyless lock isn’t working but a passage handleset can sometimes malfunction and not work even when you turn the handle or push the thumblatch down. The card trick can often work in this instance as well but sometimes malfunctioning locks need to be drilled out. The card can be used to determine which lock is malfunctioning by trying to unlock the deadbolt first and then turn the knob all the way in one direction. Then slide your card past both and see at which one it stops. That is your problem lock.

If the electronic lock itself is malfunctioning or the batteries are dead it may be possible to open it with a key override. Many of these locks come with a key. Hope you entrusted a copy to somebody who lives in town. Some of these locks have a battery override on the outside of the lock. This is for a 9 volt battery. If you left one somewhere outside the house or can get one from a neighbor then you’re golden. Get one out of a smoke detector.

When keyless locks aren’t lined up correctly with the strike plate on the door frame they can malfunction. This is often due to excessive friction between the bolt or latch and the strike plate. This can sometimes be alleviated by pushing, pulling, lifting or otherwise manipulating the door into a more optimum position for the lock to work. This has worked for me many times to resolve lockout situations. The culprit is often a sagging or swelling or warping door but can sometimes be the result of the house settling. Whenever there is a minor earthquake you can be sure that the next day people will call to report that their door is stuck or their lock is broken. The lock is fine, it’s no longer working because it’s jammed against wood and metal with great force.

The cheap fix for a lock out of alignment is to adjust the strike plate by either moving it or grinding it. There are benefits to both. If the door has swelled or isn’t hanging correctly you have bigger problems though you might solve them with a plane or a belt sander. Be careful, it’s a game of 1/16″ at a time. If you do it wrong you will be looking at sunlight coming in around your door.

I have had one customer in eight years who forgot her lock’s code. She gave me what she thought was her working code but the lock told me that it was not. After proving to me it was her house I unlocked the door. A few minutes and $120 later she slapped her forehead and revealed that she forgot she changed the code. When we tried the code she had just remembered it worked. She had been very certain that the lock just stopped taking her code and vowed to raise holy hell with the manufacturer right up until her mouth opened and forehead wrinkled with the painful realization of her mistake.

This is becoming a book, thank you for letting me share my musings with you. I must condense this in the future, this is probably too much to ask someone who is locked out to absorb. I hope that it helps somebody out there.

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Bjørn Madsen

I am the Seattle locksmith you've been looking for. High Quality work at a reasonable price delivered in a timely fashion.