The Right Fit
Choosing the appropriate access control solution for a retro
- By Gordon Holmes
- Feb 01, 2018
Over the past decade, there has been a considerable
need for added security in schools, hospitals and
commercial buildings. This heightened demand for
security has led to the continued growth and advancement
of progressive access control systems. Due to
these advancements, there is now more opportunity to retrofit existing
buildings with up-to-date, advanced access control solutions.
Choosing the appropriate access control solution in any building situation,
especially when discussing a retrofit, can be a complex task.
In addition to addressing factors such as cost, time and functionality
requirements, limitations inherent to a building’s design can make
upgrading or installing a brand-new access control system in older
buildings particularly challenging.
With so many options on the market it is important for distributors,
maintenance managers and facility managers to understand
the building’s characteristics and needs. What are the traffic patterns
in and out of the building and specific areas? What are the desired
goals for the system? What are the budget constraints to create a
solution that will suit the facility’s needs? What kind of level of security
Identifying and understanding the answers to these questions will
help someone make an educated, strategic decision on what kind of
access control solution works best for them. By avoiding a ‘one-sizefits-
all’ approach to access control, decision-makers can avoid unnecessary
time and costs.
Standalone systems, where certain access points are equipped with
card readers but are not connected to a larger network, can provide
a cost-effective access control solution. These offline solutions are especially
applicable in retrofit applications where there is not enough
room to install panels or monitoring equipment or in situations where
it would be impossible to wire the entire building. The electronic locks
also add a level of security that mechanical locks cannot provide.
There are certain situations where a building manager may need to
keep a certain person out. If the access point was controlled by a mechanical
lock, and that individual had a key, the locks would need to be
promptly changed. However, with a standalone system, the electronic
lock can be quickly programmed to not recognize that individual’s card
or keypad code. In addition, system administrators can download audit
trails to view when certain users opened specific doors. This allows
operators to monitor the activity to building entrances.
Standalone readers, while fitting for facilities that contain only a
few doors that need access control, are not practical in large buildings that contain numerous security points.
Standalone systems require an administrator
to walk to each reader to retrieve the
information and make changes to the access
rights. This is not only time consuming, but
it also means that standalone readers cannot
be monitored in real time. The inability
for real-time monitoring can be especially
problematic in schools and other facilities
where an immediate lockdown capability
may be needed.
Implementing a networked, or online solution
eliminates the need for administrators
to walk to each lock to update the system
or download the audit trail. Wired solutions
have been around for more than 30 years.
During that time, development of wireless
technology has improved to the point where
wireless systems can be as effective as wired
systems can but at a fraction of the cost.
Both hardwired and wireless solutions allow
system administrators to download audit
trails and program locks over the internet,
cutting time down significantly. Both solutions
can provide real-time monitoring and
management, and have more efficient lockdown
Wired solutions are more practical for
new buildings as they require extensive wiring.
When retrofitting a building, using wired
access control can be very costly and labor
intensive. In order to extend wiring to the
lock, the door must be drilled with a raceway.
This process is tedious, requires special
skills and leaves little room for error. Special
electronic hinges with thru-wires are needed
to run the wire from the frame to the door
and ultimately, to the lock. Another factor
to take into consideration for a retrofit is the
productivity of those already occupying the
building. The excessive noise and dust that
are by-products of modifying doors can be
very disruptive in environments where people
To prevent the additional cost, time and
construction of having to run wire through
older buildings, facility managers and other
decision-makers should consider a wireless
access control solution. Not only is installation
significantly faster, the costs with implementing
a wireless solution is far less than
those associated with traditional wired solutions.
This is due to the complexity of the
installation, hardware and ongoing licensing.
There are, however, other factors to consider
when deciding on a wireless system.
One aspect that is important to consider
is the type of wireless connection the device
uses—Wi-Fi or a wireless mesh network.
When implementing a Wi-Fi system, multiple
antennas will typically be needed to
support the size of the building and solution,
adding to the installation costs. Wi-Fi, while
extremely common, is generally less secure
than using a wireless mesh network such as
Zigbee. Zigbee 802.15.4 was developed for
devices with long battery life in wireless applications.
This technology is more secure
than Wi-Fi networks, allows for fast system
reconfigurations and is less expensive.
Another element to consider when comparing
wireless solutions is how often the
system updates. In most cases, systems will
only force updates once or twice a day. This
can be less than ideal for several reasons. A
system might not have the appropriate access
rights for hours after the administrator updates
the system on the computer, leaving the
building open to unintended security risks.
The more advanced wireless solutions on the
market are designed force an update every
ten minutes. This newer technology creates a
much more secure environment.
Some platforms available provide much
needed flexibility by allowing smart credentials
to be data transmitters between access
points. These data-on-card systems can
both read and write update information at
the lock/reader of both offline devices and
head-end systems and relay it back to the
server. This known as a virtual network. This
two-way communication between the card
and door allows the smart credentials to act
as carriers and enables the readers of each
door to be updated with crucial information.
Implementing this type of “virtual” network
eliminates the need for having a wired or
wireless lock at every opening one wishes to
secure. This greatly reduces the costs of the
access control system. The characteristics of
how a virtual network works with advanced
smart card technology both saves time and
money, and tightens security by providing
actionable data in a more efficient way.
Retrofitting a virtual network into a
building is a relatively inexpensive initiative.
In fact, implementing a virtual network access
control system can ultimately cost two
to three times less than a standard wireless
system. It is important for decision-makers
to contact experts in the industry to understand
what solution or combination of solutions
is best for their situation.
There are many factors to consider when
deciding to retrofit a building with an updated
access control solution. It is crucial to
understand the needs of the facility, as well
as the pros and cons of each type of solution.
A well-designed and executed access
control system can help reduce maintenance
and operational costs, while still providing
the highest level of security the administrator
desires. There may be specific situations
where it makes sense to install a combination
of wireless and virtual networks to best
serve the security needs of a building. Applying
new technologies gives distributors,
installers and end users a unique chance
to help facilities build a
customized access control
system that fits all of
their specific needs.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Security Today.