Physical security | Security threats

Fail Safe vs Fail Secure - and what most people get wrong

Read about fail safe vs fail secure locks - what to choose and how to evaluate.

4 min reading time

fail safe or fail secure lock

Updated on December 01, 2022

Written by Bernhard Mehl

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Voluntarily or not you'll eventually stumble across the fail safe vs fail secure questions. Should the lock be fail safe or fail secure?

Fail safe vs Fail secure Definition #

  • Fail safe The lock unlocks when power is removed
  • Fail secure: The lock unlocks when power is applied

Here is a great video about the door hardware fail secure vs fail safe:

Fail Safe Locks #

When looking at fail safe locks this means that it's default state is actually unlocked. To keep it locked during normal business operations, power is applied. Should the power be interrupted or fail, the door automatically unlocks or releases to let people out of the space. That's why it's called "safe" - it's safe for people - not the space!

Mostly fail safe locks are used for main entry points like office doors or lobby access doors. A popular use for this application are maglocks which - by design - require power to operate.

Fail Secure Locks #

So in the end fail secure means that if the power is interrupted or fails, the door stays locked. That's why it's called "secure": It's default state is locked or secured. So a fail secure lock locks the door when power is removed.

Often fail secure locks are used for IT rooms or other sensitive areas. However because the door keeps being locked in emergencies, typically it will be usable with a mechanical override, such as a regular key. However this is also a way of getting in the door without leaving any electronic traces. This is why the use of mechanical override keys is often restricted to only a few people who are highly restricted in use, naturally that would be to complex for too many members to operate.

Fail secure locks are used for fire related doors or staircase (stairwell) doors. The reason is that in case of fire, those doors should remain closed to seal off a portion of the space and help reduce spreading of the fire.

Read more about the different types of electronic locks

1) Most common misconception #

Most people would think that fail safe locks are there to allow fast exit in case of emergency. This is called "egress" and egress has always to be granted nevermind the lock. That means with a fail secure or fail safe lock you can ALWAYS exit the door or building - emergency or not. The terminology of fail safe or fail secure is only around ENTRY control which means it determines what happens in case of an emergency with entry. If all doors would be un-accessible during a fire - fire fighters or medical staff could be hindered to help properly.

The Physical Security Guide for Workplaces

Practices to keep your colleagues safe & automate your office.

2) Second most common misconception #

Typically because people want to avoid fail safe locks from unlocking during power outages, they install backup batteries. However that is actually defeating the purpose of why fail safe locks have been installed in the first place.

One big reason why many offices do this is because glass doors which look a lot better are much more popular. Since typically only magnetic locks work on glass doors, the company wants to operate them like a fail secure magnetic lock - choosing the maglock only for the reason of it working with the glass door.

3) Third most common misconception #

The third most common misconception is that electric strike locks are only fail secure. In fact they can be configured for either 'fail safe' or 'fail secure'. What makes electric strikes work are actually solenoids (magnets) inside of the strike shooting back and forth a little element to lock and unlock the strike. So depending on the polarity of the solenoid it can be movable when loosing power or stay in position.

Conclusion #

Fail secure locks are definitely the standard electronic lock type, but if you are more deeper thinking about security you should consider enter scenarios and that's exactly when fail safe locks come into play. A smart move is to get an electric strike that can be configured for both fail secure and fail safe. So if you ever want to switch the operating mode, you flip a switch instead of replacing the lock.

Bernhard Mehl

Bernhard is the co-founder and CEO of Kisi. His philosophy, "security is awesome," is contagious among tech-enabled companies.

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