[Skip to content]

FM World logo
Text Size: A A A


Binding Contract Pixabay
Deciding on a padlock © Pixabay

25 July 2018 | Locks Direct

To key or not to key - that is the question that faces anyone who is trying to decide on the type of padlock to use on their premises.

There are, of course, many other factors to consider when choosing a padlock, such as size and shape, tensile strength of the components, security ratings, weather resistance and so on. But before all of that, the most fundamental decision is whether to go for key or combination. 

Who needs access?

The most common reason to choose combination padlocks over keys is to provide distributed access to multiple users. When you have keyed locks and a number of different people requiring access - say, for example, a facilities management team - you have to do one of the following to make sure keys are available as and when required:

  • Leave a shared master set in a communal place;
  • Have sets cut for all users; and
  • Use a ‘Keyed Alike’ system so all locks operate on the same key. That way, each individual only needs to carry one key around. 

None of these are ideal. Leaving master keys in a shared place or using keyed alike systems raises security concerns - if the master set or key got into the wrong hands, they would have access everywhere. Having complete sets cut for all users can get expensive, and then there is always the issue of lost keys getting in the way of things getting done.

Combination padlocks solve most of these issues in one go. It is much easier to share codes with a group of people than having sets of keys cut (and replaced on a regular basis). Assuming people don’t leave bits of paper lying around with codes written on, it is also easier to keep codes safe than keys.

When you are using a large number of padlocks, there is a decision to be made over whether you use a different combination for each lock, which makes memorising them all tricky, or a single one for all. This compromises security a little, in the same way using a keyed alike system does. One option is to have clear protocols for changing the master code on a regular basis.

A question of security

On the issue of security, you may sometimes hear or read that combination locks are not suitable for ‘high security’ uses. As a matter of convention, the most heavy duty padlocks used to secure outdoor gates and similar do tend to be key locks. But that is not to say that combination locks are unsuitable when security is a priority.

The convention has probably arisen from the fact that three-barrel combination locks are generally considered easy to break simply by trying all the combinations. An experienced lock breaker could get into one in about the same time it would take them to pick a key lock.

But most industrial duty combination padlocks these days have four barrels, and are made from the same heavy duty, cut and force-proof materials as high security key locks. Another factor to take into account is shackle design. With a closed shackle, it is very difficult to get a cutting tool between the lock and the door or gate, because it is half enclosed by the lock’s body.

If you want to be sure your padlock meets stringent security requirements, check the CEN rating. Whether it is combination or key, a high CEN score tells you it can be trusted.

Find out more at: www.locksdirect.co.uk


Emma Potter