When A Cheap Lock Breaks

Update: I edited this page to remove specific brand names because the CEO of one of the manufacturers mentioned as being cheap called me and informed me that his locks are in fact manufactured in the USA and that his company’s lock probably broke because it was installed wrong.  I have reservations about why his lock broke but am giving him the benefit of a doubt.

Lots of my customers balk at the cost of a commercial leverset because they see doorknobs at the hardware store for under $50.  The least expensive commercial passage leverset I feel comfortable guaranteeing is $82 retail.  My Marks Survival Series leversets retail for over $500 (though I don’t think anyone actually pays that much in practice).  Some leversets I don’t want to deal with can be had for much less, and the reason I don’t sell them is that they have a tendency to fail.  If people don’t notice that the lock has failed and shut the door, they will either be locked out or even worse locked in as was the case for my unfortunate client today.

The reason they got locked in their office was because the builder installed leversets that were bottom dollar and one of them failed.  Import Chinese locks have a tendency to fail prematurely and for no good reason.  The  leverset failed because it is made of cheap metal that snapped at the junction between the lockset and the latch, a part called a retractor.  Usually the latch fails in cheap locks, but this lock is cheaper than usual apparently.

If a lock isn’t installed properly even a well-constructed lock will probably fail over time, so make sure to read the installation instructions or hire somebody who knows what they are doing.

So take advantage of the lesson these poor folks learned the hard way: get reasonable hardware in the first place or you may end up paying me to come out and open your door and then replace it with a decent lock you should have had on the door in the first place.  A good way to find a decent lock is to see if the lock advertises a guarantee.

On the top is a good lock.  On the bottom is a PDQ lock where the part that grabs the latch has snapped on both sides (circled).
On the top is a good lock. On the bottom is a poorly made lock where the part that grabs the latch has snapped on both sides (circled).

Is Your Patio Door Secure?

Patio doors are sometimes the easiest entry point for criminals.  People leave them slightly open and think because it is not on the ground floor it is out of reach of criminals or putting a dowel in the track will deter criminals from entry.  Unfortunately I have news for you: craftier criminals know how to get the dowel out of the way, and they can procure ladders.  I was surprised to learn that Seattle’s own police department is recommending people put dowels in their patio door tracks to keep criminals from prying doors open.  Of course this solution offers more security than not having a dowel, but I would hope that the police suggest that those who are concerned get a Charlie Bar or a patio lock with a spring-loaded bolt because it is a much better solution to the problem.

There are many ways to get in through a patio door for the criminal.  Don’t worry, I am not divulging anything to criminals that they haven’t learned about in “Con College” here:

The round perforation can be knocked out, giving access to the lock mechanism.

1.  They can knock out the perforation in your patio door handle and unlock the door with a screwdriver.  If there is a perforated round bit of metal in the center of your sliding patio door, that is to put a lock cylinder in.  If you or somebody else knocks that perforation out of the patio door, the lock becomes accessible and anybody can then unlock the door with a flathead screwdriver.  To prevent this, consider getting a patio door handle without a perforation or get a lock cylinder to put in the hole that results when the perforation is knocked out.  This cylinder can be keyed to match your front door and they are available in a wide number of keyways.  For whatever reason these are not standard key-in-knob cylinders.  They are often cheap and of non-standard dimensions.  My search continues for high quality patio door cylinders of the correct form factor, but until then we must make due with these which solve a big vulnerability.

2.  If the homeowner wants to keep their sliding patio door slightly open for ventilation, they will often employ a dowel to keep somebody from opening the door further than a few inches.  This is a bad idea.  The reason it is a bad idea is that the criminal can stick a coat hanger or other thin device between the two sliding glass panels and flip the dowel out of the way.  Now the door slides all the way open.  I did this once when somebody’s deadbolt malfunctioned, locking them out, and the patio door was the only other door into the condo.  It worked like a charm.  Worse yet, there is no sign of forced entry and your insurance company may drag its feet paying out if you have insurance for burglary.  I found out that criminals actually figured out this technique for themselves.  To prevent this happening, you should consider installing a patio lock or calling me to install a patio door lock.

These patio locks are great because you can drill holes for every width you want the door to be open at, and a spring-loaded bolt attached to the sliding door will drop into these holes when you allow it to.  If correctly installed our burglar will not be able to pry his way in unless he uses some really big tools and not without making some noise, so you can safely leave these doors slightly open.

3. The other method criminals use to get through a patio door is by trying to get them to fall off their tracks and pushing them out of the way.  This happens when the installer does a sloppy job and doesn’t make sure the door is framed in tightly.  The best way to prevent this happening is also an easy and cheap fix: you run some screws in the track so that the heads of the screws sit just above the sliding door. Three or four screws spaced evenly ensure that there is no way to lift the sliding glass door out of its track.  If your sliding door is really flexible and thin or maybe not installed properly, you need to get that fixed by a professional door installer (not me).

Much of the same information here is applicable to windows.  Windows are usually smaller than doors so they flex less.  It may therefore be okay to use a dowel in some windows.  That said, there are some very cheap ways to make sure that somebody can’t open your window past a certain point without a great deal of force.  I like that first link and have it on my own window.  For a few dollars, I can leave my window open and know that unless somebody has a bottle jack or something they aren’t going to open the window.  You can drill holes in the frame for the wingnuts to go into to make it a little harder for somebody with a jack to open your window.  If somebody is willing to go to such lengths to break in to your house you must have something very valuable and it may be worth your while to invest in some bars, a security system, etc.  You will probably have the money to do so if thieves are using more sophisticated methods to get into your house like glasscutters or whatever other techniques might carry over from the movies into real life crime scenarios.

If you have window sash locks you ought to consider secondary methods of locking your window, because a lot of the houses I work on have really old windows with wood that is deteriorating and the small wood screws that hold these window sash locks on are often barely grabbing onto anything.  When I point this out, some people propose simply screwing the window shut.  That’s fine, it will secure the window, but it is a real shame  not to get a breeze.  I know my plants enjoy a little breeze in the height of summer.

All of the locks I have linked to except the spring-loaded patio lock bolts and the Charlie Bar are under $4 retail and most of them install with just a Phillips screwdriver.  Some install with no tools but opposable digits!  There is no excuse for not ordering a few of them and improving your security because the budget for doing so is less than an hour and under $20.  The sliding door is perhaps the most vulnerable entry point to your home, but it is also one of the easiest and cheapest doors to secure. The more expensive spring-loaded bolts are only about $30 retail themselves and well worth the cost if you have a patio door.  So do it yourself or call me, but for goodness’ sake install a sliding door lock!

Key Control: Practical Ideas for Your Property

If you own or manage a property that you must let people use, you are probably familiar with the idea of key control.  You must give people keys that they can use but perhaps that they hopefully cannot duplicate.  Ideally perhaps these people can only go into the property at certain times.
Some people in your situation as a property manager think it is suitable to simply have the locksmith who copies their keys stamp “Do Not Duplicate” on the head of the key for free, so as to save $.75 per key.  I assure you, that is not sufficient.  All the key holder needs to do is cover the stamped portion of the key head with any of a myriad of different colorful key identifiers.  Then anybody will copy the key, or it can be copied in a key kiosk.
Similarly to the last problem, one can also distribute keys with neuter heads that say Do Not Duplicate in large letters.  Even if those letters are ground off, the shape of the head tips off our locksmith that the key is not meant to be copied.  This is a suitable key for low security situations.  It is only good enough for low security because if the head is broken off the key and the cut portion taken to any locksmith he will duplicate that key onto a regular key blank which can be copied anywhere.
The other problem with a key that says “Do Not Duplicate” somewhere on it is that the cuts of the key can be easily measured using common calipers and then the original code cuts can be determined in minutes.  Once this is done, any locksmith in the land will cut the key with the depths told to him over the phone.
The solution to controlling who has keys and preventing them from copying those keys is to use restricted keyways.  When one locksmith controls your keyway and is legally bound to audit those he sells the keys to, you have a much better guarantee of security.  The only way to copy a mechanical key with a restricted keyway is to spend a lot of time with a 3d copier or a milling machine and lots of time measuring.  The bar is set much higher for obtaining unauthorized access to the properties you manage.
Of course, if one person is the salesman of your restricted keyway that is unobtainable anywhere else, you may expect the cost of the key to be a great deal more than a regular key.  That is generally the case.  Many locksmiths charge $10-20 for a high security restricted key.  Of course, these keys also have higher costs for the locksmith who passes these costs on to you.
If you are interested in getting high security restricted keys I am a dealer of the CX-5 restricted keyway lock cylinders, and I can supply you with keys at the bargain basement price of $5 each.  That is a screaming deal for a restricted key to a high security cylinder with a sidebar.  If you do the math, it would probably cost less to replace the Medeco cylinders and keys in your building with my CX-5 cylinders and keys than it would be to rekey the Medeco cylinders and buy all new keys.  Each person you need to get a key for represents at least $7 savings in typical situations if you make the switch.   Bottom line is that you will save a lot of money if you go with Maple Leaf Locksmith LLC.