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Don't Go Cheap When it Comes to Locks

Norman Martin |

COVINGTON, Ky. — My grandfather used some old-fashioned country colloquialisms for many everyday happenings. Two expressions concerning cheapness and foolishness were: “He would gag at a gnat, but swallow a camel!” and “He’s being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”It is sad but true that these expressions can be applied to our industry. To save a few dollars, operators put hundreds of dollars at risk. Or they are stunned to learn that some things they desperately need are just not readily available and ready to ship after a simple call — a need usually created by their own lack of foresight.Let’s “listen in” on a fictitious (but in some ways, all too common) conversation. The phone rings and the caller says, “I’ve broken my last key” or “I have lost my keys.”“Do you know the key codes for your coin boxes?”“No, but I have the model numbers, does that help?”“No. It doesn’t. You’re going to have to drill the coin boxes and replace them.”In some cases, this remark is followed by a long period of silence. At times, you must hold the phone at arm’s length while waiting for the screams to subside.THE LAST-MINUTE SHUFFLEToo many owners/operators will invariably get down to just one key for their boxes and then panic when it breaks and they need to get the old box out and a replacement put in right away. Or they will lose this last key and then be forced to drill all their boxes and replace them with new ones. Or they find that the key they need is obsolete and no longer available. Perhaps vandals have damaged the lock or the box.The grief and trauma that they experience can be minimized with a littleforethought and willingness to budget in some expenditures to protect their investments. These are not your car keys. These are not your house keys. The situation is immensely more complex than most people are willing to believe. The wise owner/operator will assess the situation regarding his/her keys and locks and take appropriate action before circumstances force him/her into panic measures. To do this intelligently requires some basic knowledge about laundry locking systems, perhaps some “mechanical archaeology,” and sometimes a bit of ingenuity.THE OLD AND THE NEWWhen most washers and dryers leave the factory, there are no coin boxes or locks in them. These are installed by the distributor at the time they are delivered. There is no correlation between the make or model of the machine and its keys. To confuse the issue further, in older facilities the boxes may have been switched around many times or re-keyed.There are coin boxes so old that the box, the lock, and the replacement keys are no longer available. Boxes made by National or ABT fall into this category. Neither have been available for years. There are still a few boxes in service using UL-style locks. These are also obsolete. Some are obsolete but still available at a price. The older Whirlpool round boxes are an example.Some machine models have been around for years and the locking methods on them have evolved over time. Certain models started with threaded extensions, and were later re-engineered to take quarter-turn extensions, and later redesigned to accept standard coin boxes that lock on four sides. This creates confusion. The owner/operator must know what he/she has to order without error. The more complete the information, the more likely that this person can get what’s needed without problems.Some machines have boxes that were fabricated by the manufacturer, but replacement locks and extensions are available. Some examples are older Maytag, IPSO, Huebsch, older Speed Queen stack units, etc. If these boxes must be drilled, then confine any damage to the lock only, because in many cases, replacing the damaged box can cost more than the machine is worth, as some of these are no longer available and it will take plenty of time to locate one.The owner/operator will then have to find someone with an old machine stashed in a barn somewhere so the box can be salvaged. This search will take time. If you want to keep a machine with an odd locking system in place, you need to plan far ahead. You might have to make special provisions, such as having a part fabricated, or source the spares you may need before you really need them.Even when it looks simple, it can be difficult. A standard coin box, made by any of the the three companies involved, may have any one of a dozen different styles of lock, some of which are only available through a specific manufacturer. Each of these locks may have as many as several thousand different codes.Some styles of laundry locks are obsolete. Trying to replace one kind of lock with another will create complications, as the “stack tolerances” of one lock can vary versus another type of lock, creating a binding action that makes it difficult for the box to work, or the locks may be so different from each other that internal parts will not match and are not interchangeable at all.It is more practical, and in the long run more economical, to replace the whole box rather than trying to piece it out. But hang on to those old boxes and keys. These are what you put in the machines as they leave when you replace them with newer equipment. This way you do not relinquish control of the keys you are actively using.AVOIDING PROBLEMSFor security purposes, you need to keep track of the key codes. Any records of who has what key codes in the field are potential areas for abuse. Generally, a key code is on a label somewhere on the tray, but not always. Some keys have the code stamped on one face of the key bow, but not always. Even if you find the key code, your problems are not necessarily gone. Some key codes are “assigned” to certain manufacturers and in turn to specific distributors. It may be necessary for you to take a particular path to order the keys needed.This process takes time. Sometimes there are minimum orders to be met, and orders for replacements may take quite a while to accumulate until the totals add up to the minimum. Once the order is in, the keys will have to “stand in a line” to be produced, for the odds of a spare being on the shelf is comparable to winning the lottery. Expect to wait several weeks, or even months, to get keys ordered in this manner.And don’t think running to a local locksmith with your last key will save you. With the exception of the short, tubular style keys, most key blanks are not available to the general locksmith industry. These are not house keys. You cannot get duplicates made at the local hardware store. You must do a bit of work to get keys for your coin boxes. There’s a reason for this. If it’s hard for you to get the keys, imagine how difficult it will be for someone else to get them.Quick question: What have you done to make certain you know where all of your keys are, and who has access to them? It does little good for key codes to be restricted if the owner does not keep track of his/her keys. Putting a string of keys in a can near the boiler, or hanging them under the counter is not exactly secure. Keys lying in a drawer, or left on the car seat are not secure. Keep in mind that most coin boxes can hold up to $400 in quarters or more. Add the number of coin boxes that are vulnerable and it becomes a significant risk.THE BUCK STOPS...You have made a major investment in your store and equipment. Being thrifty with locks puts everything at risk. The difference between a quality lock and an inexpensive one is usually no more than a couple of dollars per machine. If even one of your machines is opened and cleaned out, the loss can far exceed what would have been spent to protect the entire lot of equipment. It is no secret that the tubular-style locks can be picked. There are available tools to do so. I have seen a Web site that details how to pick a tubular lock with simple, homemade tools. Weigh the risk of being too cheap against potential losses.You are ultimately responsible for your facility’s security. All the complex measures taken to keep codes secure until they are placed in your hands are meaningless if you treat your key ring too casually. The costs of having secure locks, with adequate keys and adequate controls on access to the keys, must be just as important as paying your insurance premiums. The attention you give this matter is no less important than seeing that you lock the front door each night. The losses you incur can be substantial, perhaps ruinous. It is a matter worthy of your careful attention. 

About the author

Norman Martin

Monarch Coin & Security

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