Misleading Safe Ratings & Performance Claims: A Guide to Reliable Safe Ratings

How safe is your safe?
Knowing your money, jewelry, important papers, firearms, prescription drugs, and other valuables are protected from theft and fire is the peace of mind we all crave. Safes, of course, were invented to do just that. Every year though, too many people put their faith in misleading or confusing claims about fire ratings and burglary ratings. And sometimes, owners find out the hard way that their sub-standard safe isn’t up to the task of defending their precious contents. And that’s why you should always look for the stick that contains a UL or ETL sticker, signifying your safe has been independently tested and VERIFIED to have passed those tests. Let’s take a look at some confusing and misleading claims in the market.

Isn’t my lockbox enough?

Really? Consider the lockbox – essentially, a box that locks. Lock boxes are not the same as “safes.” While lockboxes can be small enough for a set of keys, most are about the size of a cash register drawer, and rarely larger than a portable file. They are typically constructed of thin gauge metal, lightweight enough to be carried around, and come with various locking options — key, combination, or electronic. The boxes seem secure and are convenient as cashboxes for concert or theater events, swap meets, carnivals, garage sales, etc., or perhaps at home, for prescription medicines or important papers.

While lockboxes can even be installed permanently, they’re just not equipped, to fend off a serious break-in or to take the heat in case of a serious and prolonged fire. Thin metal, insubstantial hinge constructions, and simple locking mechanisms are no challenge for experienced criminals. While some lockboxes contain fire deterrents, without formal third-party testing there’s no way to gauge their effectiveness.

What makes a safe different (from a lock box)?

Safes, large or small, have several key distinctions that differentiate them from lockboxes. First, they are constructed of thicker gauges of steel and can offer advanced fire protections. Then, safe doors use sophisticated bolting systems and locking devices. They are highly customizable and come with options to suit any residential or commercial need. Quality safes are also certified by established independent testing organizations like United Laboratories (U.L.) and Intertek-ETL, meaning your valuables are far more likely to survive a crisis. You won’t get that with a lockbox.

Safes have been around for a LONG time

Using a safe to fend off the loss of valuables, isn’t a new idea. The ambition to create a secured enclosure dates back more than 3000 years. The first safe we know of was discovered in the tomb of the Pharaoh Ramesses II and was built in Egypt in the 13th century BCE. Made of wood, it used a locking system that resembles modern pin tumblers, replete with cleverly engineered movable pins that dropped into holes to secure the safe. Eleven centuries later, in the 2nd century BCE Greece, sealed money boxes were fashioned with slits on top to securely deposit coins that couldn’t be fished back out.

Some 1800 years on, Rome was brimming with jewelry, gems, coins, and other treasures that needed protection. Craftsmen who were already adept at crafting intricate keys, devised an ingenious locking system with fixed lugs, dramatically advancing security, and locking systems. Those clever Romans also deployed various sizes and shapes of notches, so each lock would require a unique key.

By the Renaissance, in the 16th century, keys and locking systems had been elevated into an art form, with an emphasis not only on security and mechanical ingenuity but artistry. From the Middle Ages until the 1700s, the technology to build heavy lockable wooden chests with iron bands and multiple bolts was continually refined. In the same era, combination locks were introduced in both the Middle East and Renaissance Europe.

Within two hundred years, safe alarm systems emerged with bells that rang when locked chests were opened. And, in the early 1800s, fire protection became the latest trend and safes resembling those we know today took off, particularly in the U.S. and Great Britain. Some successfully fended off burglars and fire damage. Some did not. Which is not all that different from where we are today. 

Making sure your valuables are protected

Fortunately, the safe industry has evolved uniform ratings and classifications that inform customers of what they can expect from a safe, and assist insurance companies to determine the insurability of its contents. The leading burglary rating and fire testing organization, U.L., was founded in 1894 as a not-for-profit independent testing entity. Another well-respected company, Intertek-ETL, performs independent testing for fire resistance.

Safes are categorized using two methods: Construction Ratings and Test Performance Ratings. Construction classifications relate to theft protection and are determined by an analysis of the safe’s material specifications. To receive a Test Performance rating, they must be built to a construction specification and tested for their ability to withstand intense break-in attempts or fire.

Be sure to check for authentic certifications in the marketing materials and on any safe you’re considering purchasing —especially if you plan to insure its contents. Safe manufacturing is an unregulated business and many manufacturers, especially in other countries, claim their safes are built to certification standards. Unless a trusted third-party substantiates the claim, however, it’s impossible to confirm.

Not every safe company submits their wares to be rated. U.L. and Intertek – ETL certifications can be expensive, often upward of $30K per model, depending on a safe’s function and design. Some manufacturers submit their safes for certification but can’t pass the rigorous testing process.

Misleading statements some safe manufacturers make

The most common phrasing manufacturers use to try and obscure their safe’s rating (or lack of), is “built to UL standards” or “factory fire rated.” While it is common practice, and usually acceptable to build a safe to testing specifications without ever testing the safe, the consumer should be aware of the difference. A factory fire rating, if you ever see this listed next to the safe, can mean a couple different things. Either the safe was built to perform for a set amount of time, in accordance to the specifications set forth by UL or ETL or the manufacturer tested the safe’s performance in their own factory. Testing one’s own safe in an uncontrolled environment isn’t the same as asking an independent agency to test in a controlled lab environment. To be effective, a fire or burglary test must be controlled, and applied in the same manner, to every safe, every time. Some manufacturers go out of their way to create their own rating system and assign arbitrary security and fire “levels” to their safes, commiserate with their price. The higher the price, the higher the level of protection. If you see this tactic used, you should ask the safe dealer what the verifiable lab rating equivalent is of the manufacturer’s proprietary safe level rating.

Safes are only as good as the job they do to protect your valuables. Cutting corners can lead to calamitous outcomes. Do your homework, ask questions. Safes are for worst-case scenarios, so make sure the one you’re considering for home or business can really withstand break-in attempts and fire. And whether the safe you’ve set your eyes on is “built to standards” or actually, independently verified for fire or burglary protection, its a good idea to ask about the safe’s warranty and what specifically it covers, in what situations, and for what duration of time.