Buying a Business Safe to Use as a Home Safe

Many people who want a safe at home will buy a used business-type safe from an auction or directly from a business that is closing.  They assume that a used commercial safe will provide appropriate security and fire protection at a cheap price.  Most business safes, however, are not suitable for home owners.

The majority of gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, bars, etc. have safes.  But their safes are typically steel B-rate units with no fire protection.  Businesses generally want to deter theft but do not want to pay the extra cost to get fire protection.  Many businesses have detailed daily accounting systems, so even if they do experience a loss due to fire, their business insurance will cover cash that was burned up.  Homeowner’s insurance is different, it normally does not cover a loss of cash.

Businesses often have deposit-type safes with which employees can drop money into the safe without opening the main door.  But any form of external deposit doors, drawers or slots will allow hot air to infiltrate the safe.  A home owner using this type of safe is likely to lose everything that was locked inside.

Some B-rate safes do not offer as much burglary deterrence as a home owner should have.  While the door is usually ½” thick steel, the bodies are thinner – much thinner.  In a retail setting the safe is normally anchored securely to the floor so it cannot be moved, and it is located in a place where there is no access to the thin steel body.  Access to the sides of a safe is very common in homes, so a commercial B-rate safe is not ideal. Beside that, stores have additional security in the form of alarms, cameras, etc., which most homes do not.

Consumers frequently assume that all safes protect against fire and burglary.  They do not appreciate the differences in mindset of a home owner vs. business owner.  Even when a business experiences a loss, it is most often just one day’s revenue; the home owner might lose a significant percentage of his life savings.

Other issues like weight work against using a business safe at home.  For instance, we were called two weeks ago to a recently closed jewelry store.  Knowing that the jeweler’s large vault had both fire and high security ratings, a man planned to buy it for his home.  He hired two men with an appliance dolly to move the safe to his house.  Well, the safe weighed 4200#, so his plan did not work.  If he had been successful in getting home, there was no way that his main floor or stairs would have supported the vault, anyway.

If you plan to buy a used business safe for your home, do enough research to make sure it is an appropriate unit.

Safe-T-Vaults, Small Top-Loading Fire Safes

We see lots of the older, top opening fire safes like the ones pictured here. They usually carry the “Safe-T-Vault” name by Meilink or Hercules. They have a one-hour fire rating, and the ones I have seen that went through fires have performed very well.

I believe these little fire safes were built in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. I happen to like them but it seems like no one builds them anymore. That is probably because too many people were not careful enough and had their fingers crunched when the lid came down accidentally. There is a chain to keep the door from slamming down behind the unit, but no good way to keep the lid from falling forward. So the manufacturers probably got sued over a broken finger here and there.
Anyway, the safes have handles on each end for carrying them. As the picture shows, some came with key locks while some came with dial locks. Safe-T-Vaults are great for protecting documents from fire, much better than the cheap plastic clam-shell units sold at box stores. Don’t store valuables in these fire boxes, however: They are easy to drill open, and easy to pry open. A thief could also run away with one because they are relatively light and they have those handles.
The dimensions of these little safes allow them to fit inside gun safes or other large safes to provide double fire protection. We frequently have them in stock and sell them for about $100. At yard sales, estate sales or on-line they go for a little less. Safe-T-Vaults and similar small safes are good low-cost fire protection.

Controlling Humidity in Gun Safes

In much of the country humidity can cause rust problems for guns and other items locked inside a safe.  Here in Michigan, for instance, where almost every house has a basement, gun safes frequently end up in basements.  While some basements do not have humidity issues, many are quite damp.  Old “Michigan-style” field stone basements or lake-side houses tend to be especially humid.  There are two good ways to control humidity inside gun safes.


1)  Heat bars are sold under several names like Dri-Rod and Golden Rod.  These heat bars are put in the bottom of the safe.  An electric cord goes out the back of the safe into a wall outlet. They run all the time, heating to about 120 degrees.  They dry the air out, and the warmed air rises, causing circulation.  I advise against using heat bars in a safe which holds photos, stamps, historic papers, leather items, etc., because I believe the warmer air will artificially age these items.

2)  Desiccant is hygroscopic – it actually absorbs moisture from air inside a safe without changing the temperature.  Desiccant is what they put with electronics, medicines, etc., to keep moisture from affecting products during shipping and storage.  Usually it is in the form of little beads in a paper pouch.  For use in gun safes desiccant comes in one-pound bags, boxes and cans.  Desiccant eventually gets saturated and needs to be dried out to be useful again.  Typically these larger packs have some kind of indicator that tells when the beads are saturated.  Drying them out normally takes many hours in an oven at about 200 degrees – not very convenient.

Eva Dry brand desiccant products are what I personally recommend for humidity control.  Eva Dry comes in two sizes that work great to dry out air inside a traditional safe or gun safe.  They are plastic containers full of beads with a colored indicator that tells you when the unit needs to be dried out.  The good thing is that rather than using your oven, Eva Dry has an electric plug that you just plug into a wall outlet.  In 10 to 12 hours the unit is ready to go to work again.  They usually last three to five months in your safe before needing to be dried out, depending on how often the safe is opened.

If you are concerned about guns rusting in your gun safe, controlling humidity is an inexpensive form of insurance.

Securing Historic Documents, Signatures, Stamps, Part 2

The last post was about why most fire safes are not appropriate for securing collections of historic documents, signatures, stamps, etc.  Media/data safes are the best way to store these items.

Media safes are built to protect computer discs, tapes, thumb drives, etc., which get damaged at much lower temperatures than paper.  175 to 200 degrees F – or high humidity — is all it takes to ruin discs and tapes.  Data safe insulation does not give off moisture like traditional fire safes, and it will keep the inside temps lower.  During the same test in which the inside of fire safes must stay below 350 F, the inside of data safes must remain below 125 F or 150 F, (lower than the melting point of plastics).  While the inside of most fire safes will become saturated with moisture in a fire, data safes are built to stay under 80% humidity.  Doors on media safes are also more air tight, and many units even have two air tight doors.

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There are trade-offs with media safes, however.  Thicker walls and doors mean that for safes with comparable exterior dimensions, data safes will be smaller inside.  They are not as burglary resistant as some other safes, either; it makes sense to keep the safe holding your collection in a locked room.  Cost of a new data safe is about three times that of other types.  But since few businesses now use data safes, used ones are selling cheap.

For example, the used Schwab 1844CTS pictured is rated 1Hour/125 F.  During the one hour test up to 1700 F, the inside will stay under 125 F at less than 80% humidity.  It is 50.5”h x 22.75w x 13d outside, 38.5 x 12.8 x 13 inside.  Original list price was over $8000, but we’ll sell it in like-new condition for $1000.

Don’t let your bit of history be ruined in a fire.  Protect your collection in a data safe.

Securing Historic Documents, Signatures & Stamps

Collectors of signatures, historic documents or stamps should secure their collections in good safes with two-hour fire ratings, right?  Maybe not.

Fire safes protect papers from charring and burning if there is a fire.  If you experience a fire, however, your documents are likely to be damaged by moisture in most types of safes.  When subjected to heat the insulation gives off water vapor to the point where the inside air is saturated with water.  As the safe cools down, lower internal temperatures cause the air to become super-saturated, so that papers will become damp or even wet.  They will get wrinkly and inks may get blurry.  In addition, water pressure from a fire hose may penetrate the crack between the safe door and frame, forcing water into the safe.  If the safe is in a basement and water pools up there, that water may also seep inside the safe.

People in the safe and gun safe industries usually recommend that valuable documents be protected by putting them in plastic sleeves or Tupperware-type containers to protect them from moisture damage.  This advice may be erroneous.  There are hundreds of different plastic compositions and each has its own characteristics. Good information is hard to find, but the melt point will vary depending on the exact chemical composition.

Consider Tupperware:  Most of their products are made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE) or high density polypropylene (HDPP).  From what I can find these materials begin to melt at temps as low as 278 degrees F for HDPE, or 266 F for HDPE.  Characteristics of the melting process also vary by chemical composition – they may just lose their shape, they might become sticky or they might give off damaging chemicals.  That process might damage the items you are trying to protect.  When fire safes are tested the inside temperature can go as high as 350 F before they are considered to have failed.  Plastic containers, therefore, could potentially melt inside a safe that is “performing well”.

Next:  A better type of safe for historic docs.