Electronic Locks

I don’t like locks.

I’d much rather live in a world or at least a place in the world where (to reference the old cliché) you don’t have to lock your doors. Partly because I would like to be that comfortable. But partly because I really hate carrying all those keys! (between work, home, family, friends, and other things I do, I have about 15 keys I carry around all the time. That’s too many.)

On the back door of my house I have installed an electronic knob-and-deadbolt set. It has saved my butt a couple of times when I forgot/misplaced my keys and when I needed to let someone into my house when neither of us was starting in the same place: giving someone access to your house by telephone can be a great boon. The lock is very well designed. I’ve never seen another one like it. It’s not made any more. It’s 20 years old and not going to last forever. And technology has moved on since then. So I’ll have to replace it. Soon.

On the front door of my house I have a Medeco lock. Medeco locks are very very secure. They’re almost pick-proof, more bump-resistant than average (bumping is a relatively new technique that no one had thought of when Medeco devised their locks (pin tumbler locks are about 170 years old. The technique of bumping to open them quickly without the proper key is about 10 years old); I’m sure they (like most other lock producers) are working feverishly to develop locks that are more resistant to it), very drill-resistant, and you can only get new keys by going to the locksmith where you bought it and signing for them. But none of that is why I have it. I have it because the inside cylinder has a thumbturn that is really a captive key. When we bought the house, the front door was made of a dozen little panes of glass. The idea was that when we went away for overnight or more, we could release and remove the thumbturn and thus keep someone from breaking the little pane next to the lock and just unlocking the door.

As far as I can recall, that feature has never been used.

(Given what I have since learned about security and the actual practices of burglars, no one was going to do that anyway: They’d just kick the door in. Or go through one of the windows next to the door that are at convenient hip-height off the front porch.)

But the fact that you can only get more keys by signing for them? That I have used a couple of times that I know of and at least one more that I suspect. I know for sure how many keys there are to my house (or I can go to the locksmith and ask, anyway. He has a card with when and how many were made and my signature for each time). I can go over who has them in my head and assure myself they are all accounted for. No former room mate made one for their sketchy boyfriend and then forgot to get/give it back. Nothing like that. And one sketchy former room mate I suspect did try to keep a key:

The signing for keys thing is good. But in my case it works even better. Because the staff where I get my locks and keys all know me. So if someone came to try and get a key made—even if they had a fake ID—they would just look at him and say “No…you’re not Erik. We know him, and you’re not him.” And one day a few years ago I was in the store and the guy in charge of locks pulled me aside and told me that in fact a couple months earlier a guy had come in with one of my keys claiming to be me and asked to have it duplicated. (The store’s name is cast into the key. Because that’s the only place you can get duplicates: each Medeco-authorized locksmith in an area has their own licensed keyway shape. Medeco keys from a different locksmith probably won’t even fit into the lock.) He didn’t show them a fake ID: it didn’t get that far. He said “I’m Erik and I’d like you to make a copy of this key.” They said “No you’re not Erik. Get out of here before we call the cops.” And he did.

(You can’t actually “copy” the key to my house. You can make a new key, but you don’t use the existing key to do that: they cut it fresh based on the tumbler codes. Each one is as precise as the original. So bringing in a key to “make a copy” of it was probably the first red flag….)

By the time I was in the store to be told the story, I’d already gotten rid of that room mate. I was in the process of getting rid of him (because he wasn’t paying his rent) when the incident occurred.

But I digress.

In the 20 years since my wondrous electronic back door lock was made, there have been a few advances in electronics, etc. When I replace the back door lock (hopefully because I’ve made a decision and bought something better and not because it suddenly breaks) and possibly the front door lock to match, I will have to choose between several options:

It’s very clean-looking. It unlocks when it sees you coming. It actually installs as—rather than over—the existing thumbturn. It’s not made of plastic. But it requires Bluetooth LE to function, and doesn’t have any remote reporting or operation. Which means that if I’m feeling insecure and want to do so there’s no way to check and lock the door, and if I want to send a friend a key they need to a: download the app and then get authorized by me, and b: have a phone with BLE. Which I don’t have yet, and I’m a gadget geek.

It’s big and plastic and it mounts over the existing thumbturn (Which makes it an attractive option for renters). But it has wifi as well as BLE, and you can interact with it over the web. Or even via text messages. So I can send you a key. Or you can call me from in front of my house and I can unlock it for you.

Kwikset Kevo:
It completely replaces the lock cylinders, inside and outside; the outside side has a cool-looking glowy ring around the cylinder. But Kwikset cylinders are not particularly known for their actual security. The inside side is ugly metalized plastic and black plastic and very big. It uses wifi but needs BLE to do the magic, although it also works with a fob you can buy from them which I would still have to carry but at least not have to take out of my pocket: it unlocks when it sees you nearby and you touch the lock. And they seem to have a feature that with a little training can tell if you’re inside or outside, so it won’t unlock when you’re inside asking the sketchy character outside what his business is. Probably not going with this one anyway, because it looks like you have to pay them to get more than two virtual keys, which is pure money-gouging as far as I can tell.

Schlage Nexia Deadbolt:
All the disadvantages of the Kwikset, only instead of having to pay for extra virtual keys you have to pay a $10/month service fee to use it over the Internet at all. And you need an extra piece of hardware on the network to get out to the Internet (which is not actually a problem per se: it uses Z-Wave, which is a mesh network standard that seems to be the go-to for home automation that isn’t thermostats (they mostly use ZigBee, a competing standard. I’ll post soon about the tower of wireless babel your house is about to become. Or anyway that my house is about to become), which is at least an open standard. But it looks like you need their Z-wave gateway, which is not a very open-standards-ish way to do things) And it’s ugly on both the inside and outside of the door. Where do I sign?!

(both the Kwikset and the Schlage seem to me to be traditional lock companies trying to jump on the bandwagon while maintaining status quo, rather than trying to explore the possibilities of using new technologies. They both seem to be the result of “graft on a new bell/whistle so people will buy our same old stuff” rather than “make something cool and new and innovative”. And charging for things that don’t cost you money to make or sell—like more virtual keys—is part of that old-school business model. I found several more in that mode that I’m not even going to mention; Schlage and Kwikset at least have the advantage of being the two most commonly-used lock brands in the US; some of the others selling the same stuff (traditional-looking locks that have electronics bolted on) are companies I’ve never heard of)

Slightly larger than August. Aluminum ring with a black plastic face. Mounts like August, replacing the inside cylinder; I can use whatever cylinder I like on the outside. Available in BLE or Z-wave or both.  The Z-Wave ones will do Internet connectivity: you need a Z-Wave gateway to do it (but you don’t need their Z-gate, just a Z-gate), but no monthly fees unless your Z-Wave gateway charges them. The BLE functions use an app; the Z-wave mode uses whatever the Z-gate manufacturer requires: All can use a browser and some also have an app. And it’s less expensive than most of the rest of these. So I could get the BLE/Z-Wave type and get a Z-gate later (which I probably will need anyway at some point. A lot of the home automation things I want to do use Zigbee or Z-wave to do it.) if I had a BLE-capable phone. Or pay only slightly more than most of the rest cost alone and get both a lock and a Z-Wave gateway.

It’s a complete replacement; the outside side is a puck that looks overly-big to me (it has a big OLED display and a camera in it, all of which flips down to reveal a traditional mechanical lock as a backup), and the inside is an even bigger black plastic box. It’s got a lot of features; or at least the web page makes a lot of claims. But there’s a distinct lack of detail. For instance it’s not clear from the website how to get more keys; it says it comes with “4 life time electronic keys”, but no indication of how to get more or even if those are physical objects or what. But the video talks about sending everyone and her sister temporary keys, so I just don’t know. (A little peevish thing: their indiegogo campaign promised every contributor down to $1 level would be thanked on the web page, and I don’t see that.)

Those are all the major players I have found so far that are actually shipping product. Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments!

Right now I’m waffling between the Danalock and the Goji. Goji’s web page makes a lot of high-flying claims, but there seems to be not much detail to back them up. Danalock is very straightforward in their description of what the thing does, what I need to do to use it, and so on. And it is more like what I was thinking of: a small device that goes on the inside of the door and leaves the outside cylinder unchanged. But the Goji is way more sexier. And twice the price.


A guy in his early 50s, living more or less alone in a 90-year-old house, trying to keep it all together.

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Posted in Cutting edge
3 comments on “Electronic Locks
  1. I have no opinions on this subject but find your musings upon it fascinating. Commenting to subscribe to the comments. :->

  2. Tracy says:

    I suppose it’s just a function of being old and un-hip and stodgy, but I find this whole trend toward “services” really offensive. The notion of paying a monthly fee for the friggin’ lock on my house is just nauseating.

    I have been sad ever since the old lock stopped being available. Best lock EVER in both function and aesthetics. I can only think people didn’t buy them because they didn’t know about them — had the world been more aware of their existence, I have to think they’d have sold like hotcakes.

    • Erik says:

      I suspect it was partly poor marketing and partly the unexpected (although completely intuitive once you understand what’s going on) user interface that did them in.

      And yeah: not going to be paying anyone a monthly fee to use stuff in my own house. In a couple of weeks is a post all about home automation where I address that aspect in a more general way.

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