How To Buy A Safe

Ken Dunckel
Owner, Safecracker
Safe and Vault Opening, SF Bay Area and Northern California

Here are a few things to consider if you're in the market for a safe. What follows here isn't a complete and comprehensive list of considerations. That will vary from buyer to buyer. Think of this as a starting point.

You should get the best safe you can afford, and you should buy it from a company that services what they sell. (Hint: Try calling Costco, WalMart, Sam's Club, or Office Depot and ask to be connected to the Service Department.)

Type of Protection:

Think . . . What am I protecting?

Documents, cash, valuables, or all three?

What is the biggest concern? Fire, theft, or both?

There are fire-rated safes, burglary-rated safes, and safes with dual ratings (fire and burglary). Your best bet is to get a safe that has a UL Rating for fire, burglary, or, better still, both. Any such safe will bear a UL label attesting to the rating of the unit. The UL rating appears on a small rectangular metal tag that is affixed to either the front or back side of the door.

As for burglars, ask yourself: Who are we expecting?

Basic break-in people? These opportunistic types don't come visiting with tools or knowledge of how to open a decent safe. In fact, most would fail even if given the right tools. They look for items that are exposed and portable, and they (generally) get in and out of the premises quickly.

Semi-skilled? These might come equipped with some basic tools and a general plan of attack. They have some successes, but their skill levels are usually no match for a well-chosen safe.

Skilled/professional: This type doesn't go around hoping to hit a jackpot; these types have a very good idea of what they will be trying to steal. For instance, they know they'll find jewelry in a jewelry store, and probably cash in a bank or a commercial establishment. Unless they have before-the-fact knowledge, they don't know for sure what a homeowner has to steal. High-end pros, at least, the kind who plan their work and know how to defeat higher level security don't work like that.

So don't stress out over James Bond type cracksmen unless you have very high value to protect.

There are basically two types of safes:
Fire safes are designed to protect paper (business and personal documents) from damage or destruction by fire.

The best fire safes are UL rated. They bear various labels according to the level of protection the safe has been designed to provide. There are several different UL labels and tests.

The most commonly-seen UL label for a safe in a home is the one-hour label. This refers to the fact that the safe will protect paper contents from burning or scorching for up to an hour.

Current one hour labels say "350-1." Earlier UL one hour labels designated as a "C" rating. The labels are as follows (this is a just partial listing of UL labels):
350-1 (formerly "C")  = 1 hour of protection.
350-2 (formerly "B"): = 2 hours of protection
350-4 (formerly:"A"): = 4 hours of protection

Note: Fire safes provide some protection from forcible opening attempts, but this is not the primary design intention of these units.


Burglary safes are designed to protect valuable items like cash, jewelry, etcetera from forcible opening by burglars.

Again, the best burglary safes have UL ratings that signify the level of protection they provide against forcible opening attempts. These safes are tested and labeled according to their resistance to attacks by prying, wedging, drilling, and torching.

The most basic UL burglary label is the 15-minute label, and is called a TL-15 rating. "TL-15" means a safe of identical design and construction was tested and resisted opening by tool attack for 15 minutes of test time. Though 15 minutes might not sound very substantial, the 15 minutes in such a test actually works out to a good deal more time for a burglar. UL testers have the advantage of access to the safe design, and are working under laboratory conditions. Nor are they hampered by the need for stealth or quiet, as a burglar typically is.

Following are some UL label designations:
TL-15 x 6
TL-30 x 6
TRTL-30 x 6
"TL" means tool attack, and "TRTL" means torch and tool attack.

Insurers will recommend the UL safe rating that is most appropriate for the protection of specified valuables.


Interiors: How Much Room Will I Need?

How much space will my belongings require? This is important.

In other words, the physical space your things will occupy. It's a good idea to gather the items you want to protect in one place to get an idea of how much total space they occupy.

Safe makers offer units that have one or more shelves inside. It's important to remember that if your safe interior is so cramped you must stack (or stuff) items into it, it will be an ongoing annoyance when you have to unload several other items just to get one item from the safe. When this is the case, users develop the tendency to not put valuables into the safe where they belong and just leave them out and exposed to fire or theft.

Room To Expand
We all tend to accumulate "stuff." When considering interior space needs, you should also remember to get a safe that not only allows easy access to contents, but one that has enough extra space to permit storing more items later. Papers and valuables that need to be protected accumulate over time. Getting a safe that doesn't have enough interior space is among the most common mistakes safe buyers make.

There's an even more practical reason for allowing yourself plenty of room inside. One very common problem I hear is to the effect, "I have the right combination, but my safe still won't open." All too often it's because the user has so much stuff packed inside that something blocks full door closure or gets in the way of the bolts that hold the door closed. The bind this creates transfers from the door bolts to the lock bolt and prevents the lock from operating correctly.


Any safe you get should be heavy enough that it can't easily be carried out of your residence by a thief. If it weighs less than 500 pounds you should consider having it bolted to the floor.


Last, consider what type of combination lock to get for your safe. Safe makers offer traditional mechanical dial type locks or electronic locks that operate by push-buttons. If you're shopping for a safe it pays to try both types of locks before deciding which one will be on your safe. Safe locks should also be UL-rated.

You should get the safe that is most appropriate for your situation and comfort level. In other words, the average homeowner doesn't need to match the protection level of a bank or a jewelry store (unless he or she keeps a significant amount of high-value items at home).

Alarms and safes:
Many people seem to give their alarm systems more credence than they give the safe, and rationalize their choice of an inappropriate safe with, "but we have a really good alarm system." This might be true, but an alarm system relies on several technologies that are not always in the control of the user or the alarm company, not to mention timely responses from monitors. The safe is the last bastion of protection, and relies on nothing but its intrinsic design and construction. It will be sitting there locked long after that "really good" alarm system goes out of service for whatever reason.

Having a safe is better than not having a safe, but having a well-chosen safe is far better than having one that's not up to the intended job.

Note to readers: Please feel free to comment and post your thoughts about this and any of my posts. Don't worry, I'm pretty thick-skinned. Thanks.

Ken Dunckel
Owner, Safecracker
Safe and Vault Opening, SF Bay Area and Northern California


Unknown said…
A wall safe is an excellent way to discretely hide your valuables like guns, jewelry , and even cash and by equipping your home with security gadgets like wall safes, you can eliminate the worries that fill your mind.
Safes in NYC

Popular posts from this blog

Antique Safe Prices & Values: "How Much Is It Worth?"

Safe Boobytraps: Tear Gas and Unknown Contents

Safe Combinations On File