Wireless Access Control


All signs point to an increase in the use of wireless locking in higher education and other vertical markets.  This article is intended to cover benefits and use cases for wireless technology in higher education, limitations and design considerations.

Benefits and Use Case

Very few companies have key control managed and many cannot pass a simple seven-point key control adequacy test Business Protection Specialists, Inc. (BPS) has developed.  If access control is important to a higher education institution and it should be, we believe facilities, design and construction leaders need to be thinking about how to achieve access control more effectively while moving away from traditional mechanical locking solutions.  Many colleges and universities are already using standalone electronic access control devices which are better than mechanical locks in that setting, but even they have several shortcomings:

  • Higher sustaining costs as administrators must make trips to the door to upload changes and download records
  • Inability to change access privileges and conduct audits from a centralized control point and a common database
  • Inability to receive “real time” alerts of door alarms if a door is breached by being held open too long or forced open

So, the next emerging trend is an increasing use of wireless locks which overcome many of the shortcomings of mechanical or offline locks.  Some of the obvious benefits on a university campus include:

  • Extending the ability to electronically control access in unique conditions where cable runs are challenging such as concrete buildings, historical landmarks, buildings containing asbestos, in outdoor locations where costly trenching would be required including parking lots and roadways, and other outdoor areas.
  • Campuses usually have many buildings and doors and deploying traditional wired access control in a wide scale may be cost prohibitive. Wireless access control has a lower total cost of ownership due to lower installation demands and less equipment required.

Many of the common wireless access control solutions (e.g., Assa Abloy, Allegion, Salto) have strong integrations with the common and leading electronic access control software platforms making it very easy to incorporate wireless devices into an existing access control system.  BPS believes that the best overall design is one that brings together the best devices for the proper application,  which means not being married to a wired or wireless solution 100% of the time and mixing and matching systems consistent with risk, requirements and overall budgetary limitations.  A 2018 wireless access control study by Assa Abloy supports this position where it was reported that only 6% of installed access control systems are fully wireless while fully wired access control systems have fallen in the past two years from 57% to 41% of those surveyed.

Medical universities with teaching hospitals will understand the regulatory and accrediting agency constraints on running wire in patient care areas and appreciate the efficiencies of wireless locks.

Another good use of wireless access control relates to campus buildings with elevators.  Codes permitting, wireless access control communications are a good alternative to the use of conventional traveling cables which may be ill equipped to reliably transport credential data from the cab to the elevator controller.  Elevator shafts may also be riddled with sources of noise, which can corrupt communication integrity for card reader data.

These devices are available in both cylindrical and mortise form factors creating flexibility in how these devices can be deployed in differing environments.

A potential hierarchy of facilities on a campus based on risk including people safety, continuity, reputational and asset consequences is shown in the table below. When an access control project cannot be deployed in a single phase due to cost constraints, the following campus facility ranking might prove to be another filter which can be applied alongside wired versus wireless access control.

Wireless Access Control in Higher Education

LEED Certification

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a building certification process developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit organization (not a government agency) headquartered in Washington, D.C.  The USGBC developed the LEED certification process to enhance environmental awareness among architects and building contractors and to encourage the design and construction of energy-efficient, water-conserving buildings that use sustainable or green resources and materials.

For organizations interested in scoring points toward LEED certification, there are a couple of things to consider with respect to wireless technology at the opening as energy is one of several key areas measured by LEED.

Wireless locks may have the potential for LEED v4 contributions.  An online wireless lock may consume up to 25% less power at the opening and a WiFi enabled device may consume up to 80% less power at the opening.

While you are considering power efficiencies and batteries and you have an ADA operator on the opening, which is common on college campuses, go green on the push plate and consider a 900 Mhz. ‘power harvesting’ wireless push plate, which uses the energy created by the operation of the switch to power the wireless transmitter and activate the door operator. There are no batteries to maintain or replace in this system offered by Camden Door Controls.

Technologies and Communication Frequencies

There are some common communication frequencies used in wireless access control applications.

2.4GHz is widely used for Wi-Fi networks and can generate a lot of traffic in densely populated facilities.

900 MHz requires a separate gateway for transmission but can communicate with several locks.  It has the advantage of using very little power in communication and the ability to communicate in near real time—less than 10 seconds, which may or may not be adequate performance for a lockdown in higher education.  The table below compares 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz.

Wireless Access Control In Higher Education

Wireless Access Device Limitations and Challenges

Wireless access control solutions are not without their limitations, which is equally important to understand alongside the benefits and use cases to achieve the most balanced outcome of risk management results.

BPS educates our clients as to the dual benefits of electronic access control.  The first benefit is denial of unauthorized access into a restricted area.  The second, and often overlooked feature, is detection of security breaches such as propped or forced open doors.  For this article, we will assume that an institution is monitoring door alarms.  If you are not, you should reassess the associated risks with that posture, particularly for residence halls and other critical restricted areas.

While many of the wireless solutions tout the integrated nature of the reader, lock, request-to-exit function and the door position monitoring sensor, you have to understand how doors are used in the higher education setting or run the risk of excessive “door held open too long” alarms.  The request- to-exit sensor in a wireless device requires the lever set to be activated by the departing person for the door sensor to be shunted.  This works perfectly well for a low volume opening but not well for a high volume opening where students may be streaming out of a door and rather than turning the leverset, they will be putting their hand on the door and simply pushing it forward person after person.  With request-to-exit never resets and inevitably you are going to get a nuisance “door held open too long” alarm.  This type of nuisance alarm can be devastating to an alarm monitoring station.

Double doors also present a challenge for the wireless or WiFi lock for the purposes of handling door position monitoring and proper request to exit functionality.  A potential mitigation is to add an electrified lock to both sides of the opening, then the cost should be compared to a hardwired access control solution.

Another potential limitation with wireless locking solutions is range.  Limitations in building construction and environmental conditions which include steel, vegetation, thick concrete, rebar or water can drastically limit the effectiveness of the range of a wireless device.

Network failures can also create a potential problem with the effectiveness of wireless access control devices. Network failure mitigations might include the utilization of a self-healing mesh network (if available) or aligning with manufacturers that have put into place solutions to allow a wireless lock to operate in offline mode.

The use of batteries and the ongoing maintenance must be considered.  As opposed to a hardwired system, the use of wireless will result in extra effort required to change batteries.  Fortunately, manufacturers are producing more energy-efficient locksets designed to last for years on standard sources such as inexpensive AA or camera-type batteries. Compared to online wireless locks, Wi-Fi requires more power consumption and tends to give batteries a shorter life span.  This typically results in reducing communications frequency to preserve battery life.  This has a negative impact of reducing the “smart” part of the “smart door.”  This could impact lockdown efficiency where locks are not in continuous communication with the head-end and poll on a regular basis for updates, introducing a delay when sending updated access control lists or lock/unlock commands to the lock.

Some WiFi devices available on the market such as the Assa Abloy IN120 has a privacy button on the secure side of the lock which can be used in the event of a lockdown or in cases where a WiFi lock may be used for a restroom application.  If a lockdown will rely on the activation of a privacy button, institutions need to ensure the proper procedures, training and drills are developed and conducted to ensure proficiency in a time of crisis.

In some circumstances, it might make sense to provide hardwired power to a WiFi lock to accrue the benefits of WiFi locks without the downside associated with less frequent communications between the access control application and the lock.

Cyber security must be a consideration in any physical security application.  A random sampling of wireless products on the market revealed that wireless communications are encrypted, sometimes at AES 128 and others in AES 256.

Design Considerations

  • Ensure every design project is preceded with a security risk assessment.
  • Determine if a rapid lockdown is required. If so, be careful with wireless solutions, particularly WiFi.
  • Be cognizant of lock and key control to ensure the electronic access control database is not circumvented using brass keys. The use of keys will also generate nuisance forced door alarms.
  • Are “door held open” alarms required? If so, ensure that the opening is not a high volume opening or you may end up with nuisance “held open too long” alarms or, in the case of a wide gap contact, nuisance forced door alarms.
  • Specs should include a suggestion and guidance on the correct placement of nodes and the distances they can support to provide needed coverage. Ideally, conduct range tests during the design or, at a minimum, require that they be done as part of the exiting conditions verification portion early in the installation.
  • Ensure lock is designed to start giving tiered warnings through the access control software and/or at the door in advance as batteries age and voltage drops.
  • Ensure installing contractor recommends a program of preventative maintenance to replace batteries at regular intervals, optimizing reliability and cost savings.
  • Include provisions on how a wireless lock must operate in offline mode.
  • Training – ensure that installers have undergone manufacturers’ training (e.g., Zigbee or WiFi require mandatory product training on antennas, addressing, configuration and testing gear to reduce technical support calls).
  • One size does not fit all
    • Determine the appropriate connectivity (wired, wireless, WiFi). Note that to preserve battery life, Wi-Fi communication may be limited to a couple of times a day. If real-time monitoring and control of access events is not needed, access-control privileges do not regularly change, and you are not concerned with security breaches based on door position sensing, then using Wi-Fi might be a good option.
  • Power failure – Wireless locks do not rely on AC power to operate, but you must consider the entire system architecture in the context of how the system is going to be used.
  • Early in the design, find out what other wireless traffic may be present at the site to avoid potential interference.

The following table outlines a general range of costs for different access control solutions which can help higher education planners in determining rough budgets for access control improvement projects.

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