How to Choose Your Next Key System

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Choosing a new key system can be a challenging experience. With all the options available today, how will you know which one to choose? We’ve developed this whitepaper to help guide you through the selection process. Below are a few of the questions you should be asking key system suppliers and manufacturers when choosing your next key system.

Questions to ask in regard to key system design.

Are your materials (cylinders/cores, housings, key blanks and service equipment) manufactured in the USA?

This is important because it offers:

  • High quality construction
  • Superb manufacturing capabilities
  • Shipping/delivery lead times improvement

Language to use in key system specification:
The cylinders, cores, housings, key blanks and servicing equipment must be made in the USA.

Does your system allow multiple formats of cylinders to be operated by a single key, under the same master key system?

Typically, different cylinder types and formats are not consistent between manufacturers. Each cylinder manufacturer designs and develops their own key system specifications. Cylinder and key system specifications are not standard. This means that if you have a variety of hardware, each of the cylinders that lock those hardware pieces, and the internal key system components, are different from one another. The cylinders and their keys are not compatible with one another, which mean you are carrying multiple keys, stocking multiple cylinder pieces and components, and have different key system records to manage. There are some key systems on the market today that are completely retrofitable to existing hardware components and allow all locks and cylinders to be tied together under a "uniform" (one key) key system.

Different types of cylinder formats would include:

  • Rim cylinder
  • Mortise cylinder
  • Key-in-knob cylinder
  • Key-in-lever cylinder
  • Small Format Interchangeable Core (SFIC)
  • Large Format Interchangeable Core (LFIC)
  • Cam Locks (3/4" diameter)

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer shall provide a system where many cylinder/core formats can be operated by a single key within the same key system (Cylinder/core formats couldinclude, but not be limited to: rim/mortise/KIK/KIL/SFIC/LFIC/Cam Locks).

Is your key system patented? What type of patent protects your keyway?

A patented keyway offers protection against unauthorized key duplication. A manufacturer with a UTILITY patent key system design controls the manufacturing and distribution of the cylinders and key (key blanks). To the customer, this means that keys and key blanks are not readily available in the open market. Only authorized individuals, whose signatures are on file with the factory, can order key blanks, cut keys, and add combinated cylinders for a key system.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer will provide a highly restricted, utility patented keyway that will be assigned to the end user.

Have you had to defend your patent(s) in court before? If so, were you successful?

Weak patents get challenged, and sometime get ruled as “invalid.” You want to know that if the manufacturer’s key system patent comes under scrutiny in the court of law that, #1 ‐ the manufacturer has the resources to go to court to defend and protect the patent, and #2 ‐ if the patent has been defended in court, was the defense successful and the patent held up. If you select a key system that doesn’t have a very strong patent you could find that your key system could get compromised in the future by a counterfeit unauthorized, non‐original key.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer must demonstrate the ability to defend its patents.

Is your key system capable of having up to 64,000 useable combinations under a single 2 level masterkey?

You want your key system to last. It's an investment, and you need that investment to pay dividends for years to come. With a common pin tumbler lock, your masterkey system expansion is limited by the number of mathematic possibilities that are available. Those mathematic possibilities are called key bittings. There are only so many ways you can arrange the pins inside the lock, or the cuts on the key in order to get the maximum number of bittings possible. Most common locks only offer a few thousand bittings in a simple masterkey system.

Some patented key systems though, typically incorporates additional locking elements inside the cylinder, or on the key, to enhance the number of mathematic possibilities available to the user. Based on the history of the existing key system, and the need for a system that can support the future need for growth, a key system capable of expanding its bittings up to 64K under a single keyway profile is highly recommended.

Having a key system that can produce these amounts of bittings under a single keyway profile is also important to keep the integrity of the key system intact, the manageability of the key system simple, and requires less inventory to keep on hand.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s key system should be capable of producing 64K useable combinations in a simple masterkey system under a single keyway profile.

Is a Key Control Agreement(s) required to use your key system? What documentation do you require for an end user keyway?

As manufacturers trying to make a sale we all make promises. It's important to document those promises in writing so that they are fulfilled. Any manufacturer that is asking you to commit to a key system or keyway that offers a high level of restriction and patent life should also require the use of Key Control Agreements. Key Control Agreements outline the basic guidelines and principles for good solid key control, and help keep the integrity of your key system intact for the life of your system.

Think of it this way. The last time you bought a cell phone you signed an agreement. That agreement spells out the guidelines and promises between you and your cellular provider. Key Control Agreements for a key system act the same way but with a lot more importance. Key Control Agreements help protect the cylinders and the keys you use to protect life, property, and assets. I would be wary of any manufacturer that does NOT require you to sign an agreement that protects your facility, your key blanks, and your master key system.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer will require signed Key Control Agreements for the keyway that is assigned to help with the enforcement of key control and to maintain the integrity of the key system.

Can you describe the process for ordering combinated cylinders, cut keys, and key blanks? Do you require a Letter of Authorization to order combinated cylinders, cut keys, and key blanks?

The value of a patented key system lies in its ability to control key duplication. This control extends to the ordering process. One way to control and manage the ordering process for your key system components is through a Letter of Authorization. Authorized signers are established with the manufacturer, and only those individuals whose names are on file will be allowed to order product and materials for your system. Check with the manufacturer on what checks and balances they have in place to ensure that only authorized individuals can order restricted key system materials for your system.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer will implement a Letter of Authorization policy that only allows an authorized individual(s) the authority to order custom coined cut keys or key blanks (send sample letter of authorization).

How do you mark cut keys and key blanks? Will cut keys and key blanks be stamped or custom coined?

Custom coining is a factory key marking process that is used to enhance the security value of the key. Custom coining is different than key stamping. Stamping a key is good, but eventually that stamping can erode or become obscured due to wear. Keys that are merely stamped are also susceptible to alteration (removing or changing the stamping to something else, or simply removing the stamping all together).

Custom coining uses the same process that the US Treasury Department uses to mark coinage. During the coining process, about 10 tons of pressure is put on the key to embed a unique ID/marking (you chose the marking) on the key bow surface. The coining process leaves the key with a raised marking; similar to the raised markings you would find on a piece of US currency. The coining process also leaves the key with a jewelry style finish that signifies its high quality.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer will require the use of a specialized custom coining die (not stamped) to mark all of the blanks for the end user's system.

What material are your keys made of?

Keys made of nickel silver are extremely strong. In fact, nickel silver is one of the strongest materials to make key blanks from, versus keys that are purely made out of brass. Strong, nickel silver keys helps prevent key breakage. Reducing key breakage reduces maintenance and services calls and also helps prevent unnecessary lock-outs due to a key breaking.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer will only supply cut keys and key blanks that are constructed of high quality nickel silver.

Do you have a warranty on your key? What is the warranty on your keys? Do you offer a lifetime warranty on your keys?

From time to time, keys will break. There’s no getting around it. It’s good to know that a manufacturer will stand behind their high value, high quality keys with replacements when, and if, they do break.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer will offer a lifetime warranty on all key blanks.

What is the patent life of your key system?

Your key system, and its ability to protect your facility, is only as good as your ability to prevent keys from being duplicated without your knowledge. Having the ability to control who can copy keys, and where keys can be copied is the cornerstone for good access rights management. Your ability to protect your keys from unauthorized key duplication is a determining factor in your key system success.

Don’t be fooled by gimmicks such as “Do Not Duplicate” or “Unlawful to Duplicate” messages on your keys. These messages do nothing to protect keys from being copied. The only method for preventing keys from being copied without your knowledge lies in your ability to control the key blanks used in your facility. This can only be achieved through the protection offered with a patented key system that is reinforced with strong, legally binding agreements that account for keys and their method of distribution.

The patent protects your keys against unauthorized production and duplication.  It’s like an insurance policy. Look for a Utility patented key system with the longest life possible, while also taking into consideration the other elements listed in this guide. The key system should have all of the elements listed here as well as a patent life that is valid for a time long enough to protect your investment.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s key system (keys) will be a utility patent protected through at least 2021.

How many shear lines do your cylinders have? Do your cylinders require the alignment of a minimum of at least two shear lines before a key will turn?

A common pin tumbler lock only has one shear line. A cylinder with only one shear line provides less security than a cylinder with multiple shear lines. Multiple shear lines increase pick resistance, and depending on the design, also offers other benefits such as expanded master keying capacity.

Definition: Shear line – in a cylinder lock, the shear line is where the inner cylinder (the plug – what you put your key in to) ends and the outer cylinder (the shell) begins. The shear line is created when a key’s cuts align the tumbler pins in the cylinder to a point where there is an unobstructed separation of bottom and top pins that allow the plug to rotate within the shell. When a key with the wrong cuts is inserted into the cylinder, the bottom and top pins won’t align and either one of the two (bottom or top pin) will block the rotation of the plug.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s key system design shall at a minimum include two locking elements that will require two shear lines be established by an authorized key (traditional shear line for split pin tumbler cylinders/cores and a shear line established by a secondary mechanism).

What material are your bottom and top tumbler pins made of?

Bottom pins that are made of nickel silver, or nickel plated, don’t wear as easily as brass pins, especially when using a nickel silver key. Some cylinders in your system could get used hundreds of times a day. If a nickel silver key is used in an application like this, and the cylinder contains brass bottoms pins, those pins will wear extremely quickly. This reduces the life of the cylinder, could cause unnecessary lock-outs, and requires additional maintenance and service to key the cylinder functioning properly consistently.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s bottom pin segments will be required to be nickel silver or nickel plated.

Do you offer bottom and top tumbler pins in a spooled design?

Bottom and top pins that have a spooled design (can also be called “serrated”) help increase pick resistance. A spool pin is designed so that when a picking attempt occurs the pins will tilt back and forth giving the indication that the pin chamber has been successfully picked, when in all actuality it has not. Spooled pins are design to increase the amount of time required to pick a cylinder.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s bottom and top pin segments shall have certain pins that are spooled to resist picking attacks.

If we need to pin a new cylinder or rekey an existing rim or mortise cylinder, what is the procedure? How are they capped and do they use threaded set screws?

For rim and mortise cylinders, a threaded set screw cap adds additional security to the cylinder. The set screw cap design prevents the pin stack from being forced up, and out the top of the cylinder during an attack (comb attack). The threaded set screw design also offers additional benefits.

From a servicing stand point, when a cylinder needs to be rekeyed, the entire pin chamber cover does not need to come off - only the pin chamber that needs to be rekeyed needs to be serviced. Also, cylinders with individually capped pin chambers do not require the use of a plug follower. This design increases maintenance and service productivity, and will drastically cut down on the time that it takes to rekey a cylinder and reestablish security.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s non-interchangeable core rim and mortise cylinders shall be so constructed to use threaded set screws, not staked covers or caps, to cover each individual pin chamber.

If we need to pin a new or existing key in knob/lever cylinder, what is the procedure? How are they capped and do you use a slide on/removable pin champer to cover the cap?

Key-in-knob/lever cylinders that have a single, capped pin chamber design are less efficient to rekey and service than key-in-knob/lever cylinders that have a slideable, removable spring cover. With a removable spring cover, pin segments can be loaded through the top of the cylinder versus using a plug follower. A slideable, removable spring cover makes rekeying or servicing the cylinder easier.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s non-interchangeable key-in-knob/lever cylinders shall be so constructed to use a sliding spring cover, not staked covers or caps, to cover each individual pin chamber.

Are your keys upgradeable to an electronic head/bow?

Upgradeable key heads/bows provide you with options that you can utilize for the future growth of key system and security. Some manufacturers have hybrid style keys that incorporate a mechanical key blade (used to operate your mechanical cylinders), but also have the option for you to change the head/bow of the key from a dummy head (no intelligence) to an electronic head (has intelligence).

The electronic heads can come with 26 bit Weigand PROX or iClass, and will work with compatible electronic card/PROX readers. This will allow you to consolidate multiple credentials (mechanical key and PROX card/fob) into a single credential that will perform both functions (mechanical key and key fob). A key that is upgradeable to an electronic heads provides more convenience for your users, and could reduce the lifetime maintenance and support costs for your system.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s keys must be capable of being configured to allow an upgrade to a dual mechanical/electronic credential by the simple exchange of a field removable key head.

How many possible combinations can be produced using your key system under a single key way profile?

You want your masterkey system to last. It's an investment, and you need that investment to pay dividends for years to come. With a common pin tumbler lock, your system expansion is limited by the number of mathematic possibilities that are available. Those mathematic possibilities are called key bittings. There are only so many ways you can arrange the pins inside the lock, or the cuts on the key in order to get the maximum number of bittings possible. Most common locks only offer a few thousand bittings in a simple masterkey system.

A patented key system though, typically incorporates additional locking elements inside the cylinder, or on the key, to enhance the number of mathematic possibilities available to the user. Based on the history of the existing key system, and the need for a system that can support future need for growth, a key system capable of expanding its bittings up to 64K under a single keyway profile is highly recommended.

Having a key system that can produce these amounts of bittings under a single keyway profile is also important to keep the integrity of the key system intact, the manageability of the key system simple, and requires less inventory to keep on hand.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer’s masterkey system shall incorporate unique internal components that allow a key system's bittings (combinations) to be expanded beyond normal A2 or 2-step progression key system specifications under a single key way profile.

What type of key cutting equipment can your keys be cut on? Does your key system require special equipment to cut keys? Can your keys be reproduced on a duplicating machine?

You will want to know what type of servicing equipment will be required in order to service the key system. Specialized equipment or tools can be quite expensive but generic equipment can be inadequate.

So, you do not want to be blind sided with additional charges for equipment you did not know about up front, or be caught in a situation where you need this special equipment and don’t have it. Your lock manufacturer should be able to supply the Medeco key cutting equipment and service tools required.

Language to use in key system specification:
All keys shall be capable of being cut by a punch machine or electric or pneumatic key machine that originates the exact cut in the key from the bitting list, instead of using patterns.  Manufacturers must have such machines available and made by manufacturer.

Are your cylinders field serviceable? Can your cylinders be rekey end in the field? Can you describe how your cylinders are serviced in the field?

You want cylinders and keys that can be serviced in the field, by your own locksmiths and technicians. You do not want a system where you have to rely solely on a manufacturer or distributor to do your cylinder servicing and key cutting for you. You will want a system that could be completely self-serviceable. This will eliminate servicing delays.

Language to use in key system specification:
Cylinders and cores shall be immediately rekeyable to new combinations or a new combinations or a new system at any time desired and shall be serviceable on location in the field. Installation of the cylinders shall require no modifications to US manufactured commercial grade locksets.

What is your warranty on cylinders, cores, and servicing equipment?

This will be important in the event that cylinders fail or become inoperable due to a manufacturing defect. You will want to know what the warranty policies for the manufacturers’ key system you select.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer shall provide a warranty on cylinders, cores, and service equipment for a minimum of 2 years from installation.

With your key system design, who owns the master key system? Will I have complete ownership of the key records?

Who owns the key system? The end-user or the manufacturer? A key system that is owned by the manufacturer could severely limit what can and cannot be done with the key system. Such limitations could include:

  • How and when the system is deployed
  • Create a situation where additional key bittings for future expansion must be purchased from the manufacturer
  • Not having access to the COMPLETE (all possible bittings/combinations) set of key records (being held hostage by the manufacturer for new bittings, or copies of existing bittings.

It is also important to know what the ordering procedures are for cylinders, cut keys, and key blanks. Ensure that these key system elements (cylinders, cut keys, and key blanks) require an authorized individual (designed by the end user) to order. It is also good to know what levels, or what types, of authorization methods exist to order materials. The most secure authorization method is an original letter, on letterhead, that is signed and notarized by an approved and listed individual.

Language to use in key system specification:
The key system established for this project shall be proprietary and owned by the end user. The end user will have complete access to the key records for the system. The end user will furnish the manufacturer a list of those persons and their signatures that will be authorized and required to order additional pinned materials or duplicate keys. Orders not bearing authorized signatures will not be filled.

What happens when the patent on your key system expires? How does the key system stay protected after the patent expires?

A key system patent protects you from unauthorized key manufacturing, distribution, and duplication. However, patents do expire. What happens when the patent expires? Just because the patent expires it does not mean that your cylinders are going to stop working, or fall off the door. Operationally the cylinders and keys are fine.

What patent expiration does mean though is that the original manufacturer can no longer legally control the manufacturing and distribution of after-market key blanks that match your keyway. After-marketing key blanks are “open to the public” and are no longer restricted. Knowing how the manufacturer handles keyways after the patent expires is extremely important.

You will want to ensure that even though the patent expires, the manufacturer still honors the original Key Control Agreements that were signed when the system was first purchased.  This means that the manufacturer will still limit orders for cylinders, cut keys, and key blanks for your system to only authorized individuals at your facility. 

The manufacturer should also agree that your custom coined keys and key blanks will continue to NOT be sold to anyone except the original facility, and only with proper authorized signors. The alternative to this of course, is that the patent expires and the manufacturer opens up purchasing of your keyway and key blanks to anyone with an account.

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer shall continue to enforce its key control policies and ordering authorization/verification for cylinders, cores, cut keys, and key blanks for the life of the key system, even after patent expiration.

Can you provide 3 references that have been using your key system for at least a minimum of 2 years?

It is good to know what experiences other customers have had with a manufacturer’s key system. How is the manufacturer to work with? Did they honor the promises they committed to? Were there any challenges deploying the system? Were there any challenges with delivery or installation?

Language to use in key system specification:
The manufacturer shall provide a list of 3 references that have been using their key system for a period of at least 2 years.