Safes are one of the most aptly named items on the planet. Used in banks and businesses, by the government, and in many people’s homes, they are what we put our most valuable items in to, literally, keep them safe from theft, damage from fire and the elements, and in some cases deterioration.
Safes come in all shapes and sizes to accommodate all sorts of valuables. Small, personal safes that many people use to store important documents such as passports, birth certificates, and deeds can weigh as little five pounds, while those used by banks and government agencies to keep currency, precious metals and super-sensitive materials safe can weigh tens of thousands of pounds.
What we commonly refer to as a safe today is actually a fairly new innovation in mankind’s history and, at its most basic, can be defined as a box or other configuration of the container with a locking mechanism incorporated into it.
The direct descendant of the strongbox, the first safe was patented in England in the mid-1830s and was basically a large, heavy metal box which could be locked with a key to keeping out thieves. The first fireproof safe came out about fifty years later and was quickly followed by safes featuring a combination locking mechanism.
Almost always made of steel these days, safes can be small lightweight boxes; heavy free-standing containers; embedded in walls, counters, and concrete; designed to look like household items, or natural things found outdoors. Most safes manufactured today will feature one or more of several different kinds of bolt mechanisms including key, combination, digital or fingerprint (biometric) locking systems.
The majority of safes sold in the United States today will have an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) rating or certification for their locking mechanisms, impact resistance, as well as their fire and waterproofing abilities. It should be noted that gun safes (discussed below) have a separate UL certification system. The California Department of Justice (DOJ) rating is also a widely respected safe rating touchstone.
So, what are the different types of safes available today, and for what are the most commonly used?
Once exclusively the province of the wealthy and elite, home safes have been a popular and fairly common household product for the last 70 years or so and really came into their own in the 1950s and 60s.
While used to protect the currency and other small, valuable items from theft, home safes are also used to protect important documents such as deeds, passports, car titles, and marriage and birth certificates that are difficult to replace from fire and other damage. Around 90% of the home safes manufactured today are fireproof, and many models are also waterproof.
Prices for home safes are dependent upon a number of factors including the size and design, the materials used in its construction, installation costs (if any), and the sophistication of the locking mechanism. Generally speaking, most home safes manufactured today utilize digital, combination, or key-lock bolt mechanisms.
Small Basic Home Safe
Small basic (also sometimes called portable or personal security) home safes are, essentially, general purpose locking boxes. Weighing anywhere from five to 25 pounds depending on the size, these are the most common safes for home use. The smallest versions are usually small enough to fit into cupboards or drawers, behind or underneath furniture, or be packed in luggage.
Not particularly effective at thwarting theft by burglars or other criminals (the villain can easily take the whole safe and figure out a way to get it open later), these safes are usually used to keep personal and family documents safe from fire, or accidental damage. They are also often used to keep documents, cash, computer discs and other small items safe from theft and accidental damage while traveling.
A very cost effective means of providing limited protection for a variety of valuables, these safes usually feature a key or electronic digital one or two-bolt locking system, although some are manufactured using combination locks. Some digital and combination versions will often feature a key-lock backup.
Usually made of steel, small basic safes will typically have between 0.15 and 0.3 cubic feet of storage space, and so are not useful for larger valuables. Some newer models are designed to accommodate laptop computers.
Basic safes are one of the most affordable of any safe type. They will usually start at about $25, and go up to $80 or higher, depending on style, design and storage space.
Large Basic Home Safe
Large basic home safes are a bigger type of basic variety. Usually, they have anywhere from 0.7 to 2 cubic feet of storage space and offer added protection against theft due to their weight which will usually range between 80 and 250 pounds depending on the size. Most on the market today are made of steel.
Along with increased storage capacity, large home safes will often offer built-in or removable shelves, segmented compartments for easier storage, and an interior light. Many will also feature more sophisticated and stronger locking mechanisms, often incorporating three to six bolts.
Some of the larger models can also be bolted to the floor or walls, providing added theft protection. Although this installation can be done by dedicated do-it-yourselfers, in most cases these safes will need to be installed by professionals. Most models will be fireproof, and water and impact resistant.
Large basic home safes will usually start at about $200 and can cost as much as $700, depending on the size and features chosen. Depending on the area, installation costs should run between $100 and $200.
Not to be confused with a locking jewelry box or armoire, a home jewelry safe is usually a type of small or large basic safe that is specifically designed to hold jewelry. Many manufacturers of higher -nd jewelry safes will customize their product, depending on the types of jewelry the buyer wants to store and the type of interior and exterior design they desire.
The interior of most jewelry safes contains a number of small drawers for sorting and separating jewelry types (rings, bracelets, earrings, broaches, etc). In many cases, these drawers will be in the wood (oak, teak) of the buyer’s choice and lined with felt or some other soft material to help eliminating jewelry scratching and other damage. Some will also feature hooks (often on the inside of the safe door or on the sides) for hanging longer necklaces.
Jewelry safes typically come in two basic styles: tall (up to about 3 feet) and thin (usually 3 or 4 inches deep), or square. Most safes in either design will have between .8 and 1.25 cubic feet of interior space – although it should be remembered that some of this space will be taken up by the drawer materials inside.
Most jewelry safes will weigh between 100 and 150 pounds, and have a digital or combination locking system; many will have a key-lock backup. Most will feature interior lights, often motion-activated.
Depending on the size and the interior features that are chosen, a good quality jewelry safe will cost anywhere from $800 to $1,500 and up. Some specialty jewelry safe manufacturers that offer greater customization options will have products that start at $3,500 and can run up to $8,000 and more.
Gun safes are a specific type of safe designed to store firearms of various types, and ammunition. Some countries require gun owners to store their weapons in gun safes when they are not in use. In Ireland, for example, anyone applying for a gun license must show proof that they have a gun safe installed in their home before the license will be issued.
As gun safety concerns have increased in the last couple of decades, so has the popularity of gun safes. Often replacing older wood or glass-faced gun display cabinets, gun safes come in a large range of sizes and configurations, ranging from single handgun models to large, cabinet-style models suitable for storing multiple long rifles, shotguns, and even crossbows. Most of the larger gun safes will feature smaller storage areas for ammunition and gun-related accessories.
While mechanical combination locks are still popular on gun safes, many homeowners are increasingly opting for electronic digital locks, due to the quick access they provide in emergency situations. Some higher end gun safes will also offer biometric fingerprint-activated locking systems or double locks in which a key must be inserted before the combination or digital lock can be engaged. Larger gun safes will often utilize 10 or more bolts in the locking system and are usually attached to the floor and/or wall.
Almost universally fire- and waterproof (UL gun safe ratings will vary) some high-end gun safes will feature a built-in dehumidifier to help prevent rust and ammunition deterioration.
Gun safes are available in a wide range of sizes (from about 0.5 to over 15 cubic feet), and consequently a wide range of price points. A no-frills dedicated handgun safe can cost as little as $100, while rifle-size gun safes will usually start at around $500 and can run $10,000 and higher for the top of the line models with all the bells and whistles.
Wall (also often called hidden or concealed) safes have been quite popular for decades. They are designed to fit inside the cavity that exists between two walls (usually, but not always, an interior and exterior wall, where the depth is usually greater to accommodate insulation). Wall safes are usually installed by connecting them to the beams and joists inside the wall; some heavier models will sometimes require the installation of a separate beam directly beneath the safe to accommodate the extra weight.
Wall safes are typically designed with the doors and locking mechanisms recessed into the safe itself so that the unit ends up being flush with the wall. This allows them to be easily covered by pictures, mirrors, or furniture.
Wall safes are, in large part, defined by their depth which in turn is defined by the depth of the cavity in the wall where it is installed. Most wall safes will be between 6 and 10 inches deep, with some larger models going up to 15 inches deep. Wall safes will usually have between .5 and 1.25 cubic feet of interior space, and will usually weigh 50 to 175 pounds.
Taller, shallower wall safes (sometimes called closet vaults) are designed to fit in the cavity of interior walls. Often (as their nickname suggests) installed in walk-in closets, many will come with a hidden hinge full-length mirror facade which can be opened to allow access to the safe. These safes will usually only be two or three inches deep.
When it comes to cost, you will need to consider the price of the safe, the cost of installation (and any extra support required) and the cost to repair the wall surrounding the area where the safe is installed.
Diversion safes operate on the principle of hiding valuables in plain sight. Effectively, the safe is designed to look like an everyday object to fool thieves into not bothering with them.
Small diversion safes are often designed to look like large hardcover books, paint cans, and even candle holders. Outdoor varieties are usually designed to look like rocks. Larger capacity diversion safes will often look like pieces of furniture such as wood end tables, hope chests, and even armoires. One particularly clever model is actually designed to look like a safe; the idea is to leave it open and empty so thieves will bypass it, while the valuables are concealed in locking compartments in the door, false floor, or sides.
Smaller diversion safes will usually have a simple key lock, while larger varieties can have any configuration of standard locking mechanisms. Smaller versions are usually quite inexpensive, starting at around $10.
Safe rooms (also called panic rooms) are, in effect, a safe for people, families, and pets. Normally only used in extreme emergency situations (home invasions, terrorist attacks, etc.) safe rooms can be included in the initial construction of a house or installed in an existing home.
Safe rooms are usually small, interior rooms with reinforced steel walls and doors; the entrance is usually hidden behind a façade such as a false bookcase or portion of the wall. Safe room doors will usually feature one or more strong deadbolt or mechanical locks on the inside, preventing access from the outside. Some will include a dedicated phone line to call for help, generator, food and water storage areas, and first aid supplies.
Normally quite small, professionally installed safe rooms can be very expensive and usually start at around $50,000. High-end versions with air filtration systems closed-circuit TV monitoring systems and dedicated climate control that is guaranteed to keep you safe from the zombie apocalypse and more can run $500,000 and higher.
Banking / Business Safes
A hundred years ago, the only safe an average person was ever likely to see was the vault at their bank – mostly because it was often the only safe in town.
Today, all sorts of businesses utilize safes to keep their cash, important documents, and merchandise safe from theft and damage. While in many cases the safes used by small and medium-size businesses are simply larger and stronger versions of the home safes discussed above, there are a number of types of safes designed to serve the specific needs of banks and businesses.
Most commonly found in the banking industry, businesses that deal in very high-value merchandise (jewelers, scientific research facilities) and government agencies, vaults are basically ultra-secure walk-in safes in which a large amount of valuable material can be stored.
Vaults are usually installed at the time of a building’s construction. The side panels are typically made of steel (often 3 or more inches thick) which are attached to or embedded in concrete reinforced with metal shavings, iron bars, or some other sort of hard composite material to prevent drilling and damage due to explosions.
While circular vault doors were once quite popular, most of the vaults constructed today feature rectangular doors. Vault doors are usually extremely thick and heavy for added security (for example, the door to the vault at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York weighs about 90 tons).
The locking mechanisms for vaults, particularly in the banking industry and government facilities, tend to be quite complex. Most will use hardwired digital locks which can only be manipulated after biometric fingerprint identification (often programmed to recognize multiple fingerprints), and will usually have time-delay devices which will not allow the vault door to be opened during certain hours. More sophisticated locks will require multiple combinations (only one of which will be known to different individuals in an organization), or employ voice-recognition software and /or retinal biometric scanning safeguards.
Smart Safe (ATM)
Also referred to as multifunction or mini-bank safes, the version of the smart safe that most of us are familiar with is the ATM (Automated Teller Machine). In essence, a smart safe is safe with a computer incorporated into it.
Through the use of microchip technology, smart safes perform other functions while also keeping their contents safe from theft and fire. In the case of the ATM they will also dispense cash, print receipts, accept deposits, and allow for common banking transactions such as checking account status and balance transfers.
Customers are usually provided limited access to these machines through the use of cards with an RFID (radio-frequency identification) microchip embedded in them. Older version can still be found which used magnetic strip card swipe technology. Some newer versions can also be accessed via smartphones. Most ATMs are connected to a network via the internet which monitors and records transactions.
While most bank ATMs will be built into a solid reinforced concrete wall and have a steel mini-vault on the inside of the bank, freestanding versions will usually incorporate multiple locking systems. In most cases, a key is used to open a steel outer door on the front or side of the machine which will provide access to a digital locking mechanism. Most have an automatic lockout feature which will deny access after two incorrect codes are entered, and alarms often directly connected to law enforcement.
Outside of banking, smart safes are used by accounting and other types of financial firms; in this application, the safe will read the data on a paper copy electronically and transmit it to a central databank before securely storing the hard copy.
Climate control smart safes which monitor and adjust temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors are utilized by museums, libraries, rare booksellers, art galleries, and scientific research firms to protect rare and /or precious items from deterioration caused by environmental conditions as well as theft and fire. One of the largest of this type of smart safe can be found at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Deposit (also sometimes called drop) safes feature a small door or slot either on the top or in the front of the safe where small items (cash, receipts, etc.) can be put; the items will then drop into the body of the safe and the safe’s door must be unlocked before the items can be retrieved.
Deposit safes are widely used in retail businesses with multiple cashiers and small 24-hour businesses such as convenience stores which deal with a lot of cash. In most cases, cashiers will deposit envelopes containing larger denominations of currency and/or their cash-out tally sheets during or at the end of their shifts for retrieval later by the store manager.
In the banking industry, ‘night deposit boxes’ are usually a version of this type of safe. The door sits in a wall on the outside of the bank, while the safe itself is on the inside. The deposit doors are usually rounded (in the same way public mailbox doors are) to prevent anyone from reaching in, or ‘fishing’ items out.
Available in a number of different sizes, these safes tend to be quite heavy, and are usually bolted to the floor or wall. Most utilize digital or combination locks (those found in banks may use biometric fingerprint locking systems), and will often have built-in alarms which will trigger in the case of tampering.
Once almost exclusively used in businesses which needed to allow multiple individuals access to the contents (for examples, hotels), card swipe safes have become quite popular for home use as well in the last decade or so.
Utilizing the same technology commonly found in ATM machines and retail checkout points (prior to the advent of RFID card readers) card swipe safes utilize locks that can be opened when a card with a preprogrammed magnetic strip is ‘swiped’ through the card-reading slot. In many of these safes, the card swipe function will work in tandem with a digital locking system into which a PIN number must be entered after the card is swiped.
Card swipe safes are actually one of the more affordable home and business safe options available today, starting at around $150 for a model with 0.5 cubic feet of interior space. Larger versions with more features (automatic lock-out functions, time delays, etc.) will, obviously, be more expensive.
Safe Deposit Box
A safe deposit box is, in effect, a safe within a safe. Usually found in banks, safe deposit boxes are small personal safes normally installed in a secure room – often the same room in which the bank’s vault is installed. These rooms are monitored 24/7 by dedicated CCTV cameras and motion detectors in addition to the security in place in the rest of the banking facility.
Safe deposit boxes are usually numbered, and installed in the wall of the secure room in numbered rows. Larger banks will often have hundreds of safe deposit boxes in the same room.
Virtually all safe deposit box locking mechanisms work on a two-key system. A master key used by a bank employee is inserted in the steel door behind which the box itself is contained, after which the customer inserts their key, which will open the door. Neither key will open the door by itself. While metal keys are still the most commonly used, some banks are switching over to an RFID cardkey system which works in the same way.
Safe deposit boxes come in several sizes and are rented from the bank on a monthly or yearly basis. In most cases, banks will not ensure the contents of a safe deposit box. Rental prices will vary depending on the bank, but will generally be around $40 a year for the smallest size and $250 for the largest size.
Essentially a motorized safe on wheels, armored cars or trucks are secure vehicles used to transport large quantities of cash, gold and other precious metals, jewelry, stock certificates, art – basically anything anyone might have an interest in stealing – from one place to another.
Armored cars usually utilize an enhanced, military-grade explosive-resistant small truck chassis (to handle the extra weight), thick steel-plated cargo areas and cabs, and bulletproof glass windshields and windows. The doors to the cargo area (where the valuables are put) often have a dual locking system in which two keys, RFID cardkeys, or digital locks with different combinations must be engaged at the same time by two different individuals.
Armored cars are usually manned by two or three armed guards, and are often equipped with flashing lights. Most have tracking devices installed which continually transmit the vehicle’s location to a central control/dispatch facility, two-way dedicated wavelength radios, and will often have CCTV cameras allowing the driver to view the interior of the cargo area, as well as the area surrounding the exterior of the vehicle.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.