Wireless Access Primer

By Ethan Ace, Published on Mar 24, 2013

In the past few years, one of the most interesting developments in access control has been the introduction and growing adoption of wireless access control devices. These devices eliminate wiring to the door, making retrofit of existing buildings simpler and potentially more cost effective from a cabling standpoint. However, they present some unique challenges of their own which must be realized before implementation.

When considering wireless access control, we recommend you consider the following key items:

  • The device(s) at the door: Integrated locksets and wireless reader interfaces
  • Integration with an access control management system: Open vs. Custom-integrated
  • Wireless technology used: Proprietary vs. Wi-Fi
  • Installation Issues
  • Cost comparisons of Wireline, Proprietary, and Wi-Fi based implementations
  • Manufacturer options including 3 common choices: Schlage, Assa Abloy, and Stanley

Inside the Pro section, we examine each of these elements in detail.

Basics

First, let’s examine the basics of the equipment.  A wireless access system typically consists of two components: the door device and a receiver.  Devices at the door fall into one of two categories.  

Integrated Lockset

Wireless LocksetMost common when wireless access is considered, the integrated lockset places all access control devices in the door hardware.  Typically this is in the form of a cylindrical or mortise lockset, powered by batteries.  Batteries typically power the lockset for 2-4 years, which is highly dependant upon the number of cycles the lock operates.  Manufacturers typically list a number of openings cycles the batteries will power, instead of a service span in years.  

To install the new lockset, the existing door set is removed, a few penetrations are made through the door for wiring and the door position switch, and the new lockset is installed. This is not as simple as it sounds and does require some specialized training, as we’ll discuss later. The benefits of these devices are aesthetics and retrofit capability. Having everything integrated into a single lockset reduces the number of devices around the door, which improves aesthetics. It also removes the need to run any cabling to the door, since it is battery-powered, which makes retrofit of difficult to cable facilities much cleaner.  

Integrated locksets can be found starting at approximately $1000 online, but end users should beware: there are many different options that need to be chosen when ordering, from finish to function to lever style, so consulting a professional is recommended.

Wireless Card Reader Interface

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The wireless card reader interface converts wired signals from standard devices at the door such as Wiegand-Wireless Card Reader Interfaceoutput card readers, door position switches, and request-to-exit sensors, to a proprietary wireless format. These interfaces may be useful in many cases, but typically require power local to the door to function.  If power does not exist near the door, the cost effectiveness of the wireless equipment is questionable.  Motorized gates are often equipped with wireless interfaces when access control is needed, since trenching for a hardwired connection is most often cost-prohibitive.

Interfaces such as these can be found online for about $1500, not including readers or other door devices.

Integrating Wireless Access

There are two ways of integrating wireless access control hardware with the access control system.

Open platform

In an open platform system, the receiver converts wireless signals to the same standard wiring a hardwired door would receive: card reader data, door status, request-to-exit, and lock relay inputs. This allows the wireless gear to be used on any manufacturer’s system, without any custom integration work being performed.

The downsides of the open platform design are the number of cabling connections that must be made to the ACP, and the lower door density of these interfaces, which are typically sold in two- and four-door packages.  Compared to 16- and 32-door interfaces seen in custom-integrated solutions or Wi-Fi locksets which require no receiver (software only), a large quantity of doors can become quite costly.

Schlage's AD series and Assa Abloy's Aperio are the most common examples of open platform wireless.

API-integrated

Some systems are integrated to the access control system via API, and connected via RS-485 or Ethernet. For practical purposes, they appear to the ACS as another panel. It is common for RS-485 interfaces to handle 16 or 32 doors, making them much more cost-effective than two- or four-door open platform interfaces. Since the locks "talk" directly to the access control management software, with no receiver hardware required, quantity is only hard-limited by software capacity and licensing.

Assa Abloy's Wi-Fi locksets are one of the more common custom-integrated locksets. Schlage also offers an RS-485 version of their panel interface module which is integrated via API.

Wireless vs. Wi-Fi

The wireless technologies the above-described devices utilize also fall into one of two categories:

  • Proprietary Wireless: Most often, proprietary wireless frequencies are used to transmit wireless access data. These fall in the 800MHz, 900MHz, or 2.4GHz frequency ranges.  Unlike devices which utilize wireless Ethernet, these devices require no networking knowledge, and are intended to be plug-and-play. Unlike Wi-Fi locksets, they generally function in realtime (or close to it), instead of periodic communication with the ACS (see below), so may be used for lockdown and up-to-the-minute monitoring.
  • Wireless Ethernet: Locksets which utilize standard 802.11 wireless Ethernet are also available. These devices make it simple to add a lock here or there when a wireless network is already in place.  Due to the power consumption of 802.11 radios, though, battery life is limited compared to proprietary wireless devices.  To compensate for this, the device often does not transmit transaction data in real-time, instead periodically sending events to the ACS, typically in intervals between 10 minutes and two hours.  This means that locks do not send alarms (such as forced door or access denied) as they happen nor can an instant lockdown be initiated remotely.

No matter which wireless technology is used, remember that for ideal operation, substantial planning and wireless studies may be required.  Range will vary dependent on many factors, such as building construction, existing wireless congestion, etc. Interior range through normal construction (drywall and steel studs) is about 200’, maximum.  In open air with high-gain antennas, range may be close to a mile.

Installation

Installation of wireless locksets can be trickier than installing standard access control devices, though with training and practice, it is generally quicker. Removing the need to install cables between panel and door further reduces time, as well as material and labor costs, though the tradeoff is the increased lockset cost. Installing locksets also may require some skills which typical security or IT techs may not have, so training is highly recommended. Knowing how to align a lockset properly with the frame's strike plate, or how to install a lock core, are generally not even considerations when using mag locks or electric strikes on a typical door. 

Cost Comparisons

The prices below are based on $75/hour labor rates, and internet pricing searches, assuming typical building construction: 9’ drop ceiling with drywall walls. Wired installation is based on twelve hours to install a typical door: four hours for two men to cable, and another four hours for one man to install devices.  Wireless installation is based on four hours for one man to install everything.

 

Wired

Wireless

Wi-Fi

Lockset

N/A

$1000

$1500

Receiver

N/A

$400

N/A

Reader

$150

N/A

N/A

Request-to-Exit Hardware (if req'd)

$125

N/A

N/A

Door Position Switch

$5

N/A

N/A

Lock/Power Supplies

$500

N/A

N/A

Cabling

$150

N/A

N/A

Installation

$700

$300

$300

Total

$1630

$1700

$1800

On paper without considering any other factors, wireless access is not less expensive. Even with a +/-10% margin of error on pricing, no substantial advantage is gained via any of the above methods.  However, two points must be considered:

  1. The price of the receiver must only be considered once per every two or four doors in many cases, since it will handle multiple doors.  In some cases, up to 16 or 32 doors may be interfaced to a single receiver. Cost savings increase with the quantity of doors. Across 16 doors, wireless access may save about $3000.
  2. The prices above reflect typical modern building construction.  In facilities with solid ceilings, concrete walls, or other construction that limits cabling access, labor to install a wired system may become so high as to be cost-prohibitive.  In certain historic properties, running cable may be prohibited by policy, as well. Running cable in a solid ceiling environment may easily double installation time.

We would expect that these costs would come down as more and more manufacturers adopt the technology, especially if access manufacturers partner with existing OEM’s, such as Schlage or Sargent.  

Manufacturer Offerings

Multiple manufacturers offer wireless access control products today. The largest three are Schlage, Assa Abloy, and Stanley:

  • Schlage: Probably the company most commonly cited for wireless access, Schlage offers wireless locksets in the form of their AD Series, which is upgradeable from one reader technology to another,? as well as from standalone to wired to wireless.  Schlage also offers wireless gate control kits and reader interfaces, and a portable reader specifically designed for mustering.  Schlage products have been integrated via the 485 bus to multiple manufacturers.
  • Assa Abloy: Assa Abloy currently offers Wi-Fi locks through their Sargent, Corbin Russwin, and Persona brands. These locks have been integrated to multiple third-party access control systems through their API, including S2, Reach Systems, RS2, and others.  They also offer 900 MHz wireless with their Aperio technology, built into multiple form factors from their brands.
  • Stanley: Stanley offers wireless access through their Best brand.  This system is proprietary, with the receiver interfaces managing up to 128 locks each.  The Stanley/Best system differs from others in that its receivers are Ethernet devices, so one may be added wherever a network drop exists, or in MDFs/IDFs.
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