Combination padlocks, keys, bolt cutters -- they're all getting harder to find in athletics, fitness and recreation locker rooms these days. That's because code-based mechanical and electronic lock technology has made life easier for both locker users and facility managers, if a little less lucrative for local locksmiths.
"Twenty years ago, you had guests either getting assigned a key at a key desk or bringing a padlock into the locker room," says Julie Advocate, vice president and CFO of Digilock, which introduced electronics to locking mechanisms in 1992. "Now, there are a whole lot of electronic solutions out there that basically allow the user's experience to be hassle-free. They can walk in and enter their code without having to carry anything. Management doesn't have to manage anything."
Locks programmed with the user's numeric code of choice make particular sense in shared-use locker settings, such as health clubs or recreation centers that have more members than available lockers -- which is the vast majority of them. "The shared-use style of lock allows members to come in, select any available locker and punch in their own self-selected four-digit code," says Doug Greene, general manager at Zephyr Lock. "When they come back, they punch in that same code, the lock opens up, they grab their belongings, and the lock then erases that code, making that locker available to the next user. It helps a facility maximize the number of available lockers that it has for its users."
Locks employing user-generated PINs fall into two basic categories -- those that operate with batteries (electronic) and those that don't (mechanical).
Electronic locks allow for ease of management through the use of electronic management keys that can open lockers in the event users have forgotten their code or the lock's batteries have died. "Since we made that electronic key bypass, we don't have the customer saying, 'Hey, we need more solutions in the lockers,' " Advocate says. "They've basically said, 'All those negative conversations about what happens in the locker room are gone, because the locks just work. We're no longer managing them.' "
Moreover, electronic locks may be programmed to visually warn a user and deny access to the locker once three (or more, if the facility chooses) false codes have been entered into the same lock. Another available programming option requires the user to enter his or her code to not only open the lock, but to relock it, as well (as opposed to having the locker lock automatically upon closing). "Some places want you to be able to have a code to open and have a code to close, so somebody just can't walk by and shut a door," says Nannette Howard, product manager for FJM Security Products.
Even more sophisticated electronic lock models exist that can interface with cell phones or with RFID chips embedded in membership ID cards, key fobs or bracelets. "The power of this technology is that it allows the facility owner to pull together different systems from multiple vendors -- parking ramp gates, keyless doors, front desk check-in and turnstiles, locker locks, cashless payment systems -- and have them work and communicate together using one 'key,' " says James Oonk, North America sales director for locking solutions provider Ojmar.
Electronic locks come with visual and/or audio warning that battery life is nearing its end, but trying to track each locker individually can be a difficult task in an often noisy room shut off from most of the facility and its employees much of the time. Lockers located at eye level toward the front of the room will get used the most and thus draw the most battery power, compared to a locker located in a lower corner. Still, some facility managers choose to replace all lock batteries at once regardless, typically every two years or so.
Others may prefer the maintenance-free aspect of mechanical locks, with models featuring numbered dials (usually three or four per lock) and numbered push buttons. "There has been growing demand for the mechanical shared-use locks," says Greene. "I think that has to do with larger facilities with high volume and a lot of traffic getting tired of having to change batteries."
Mechanical locks can come with or without the added convenience of a master key. "The lock with a master key is basically twice the cost of the regular lock," Howard says, "but it pays for itself the moment you have to bring in a locksmith just once at a cost of $75 or more." Once the current code has been retrieved (the master key inserted and turned triggers each dial to stop at its originally assigned digit when operated manually), a lock can be reset with the push of a button and given a new code.
RELATED: SPOTLIGHT: Lockers
INVESTMENT AND INNOVATION
Cost comparisons between electronic and mechanical locks can be difficult given that product models and the scale of projects vary, but an electronic lock may be three times as expensive. "The return on investment pays for the lock, because it really reduces the amount of management in the locker room," says Advocate, whose company will introduce a fifth-generation digital lock later this year. "In the old days, when users were assigned a key, if they lost that key, that lock needed replacement. And if the manager lost the manager key, the cores on all the locks needed to be replaced."
According to Advocate, much has changed since the advent of the first digital lock, with its boxy appearance and industrial-looking metal buttons. "Did it serve a purpose? It created a shared-use locking solution that didn't exist," she says. "It had a manager code, and it's quite durable. In fact, I still have customers using it."
Today's consumers may expect more, not only in terms of function, but aesthetics. Player lockers within the University of Oregon's football locker room feature a small lockbox behind the larger locker's front door -- with both locks operated by the same PIN. "Oregon loves the look of the locks, but they did not like the fact that the little light on our lock that says whether it's being used or not flashed red, so it flashes green" to match the school's predominant color, Advocate says. "We definitely have the ability to make customizations as required. The most common request is not necessarily to change the look of the lock, but to specify a finish that matches a given facility. 'I see you offer nickel. Can I have oil-rubbed bronze?' "
Locker manufacturers, too, have spurred lock innovation. FJM, for example, makes a horizontal keypad to fit lockers on which the lock hole is placed near the top of the door. "Instead of the standard lockers that we've seen for 50, 60 years, they're really trying to offer different styles and designs," Howard says. "The more they're trying to keep up with the fitness clubs or the football locker rooms, the more that we have to keep up with locks that fit those."
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "COMBINED PEACE OF MIND"