Beginners Guide to Choosing a Safe

When it comes to home security, your choice of safe is critically important.

Regardless of home alarms, dogs, keypads and other security measures, the safe in your house is always the last line of defence. This is where the most valuable items you own are stored, so choosing the right safe is important. The right safe is the one which is secure, trustworthy, the right size and has the right features for your needs.

Table of Contents

Are all safes secure?

The degree of security a safe can offer does vary. Of course, a basic safe will offer security against the average thief, but thieves have been working out ways to get around safes as long as people have been making them. That’s why it’s important to get a model from a reputable manufacturer, which has been made with all the latest tricks and security measures in mind – and most importantly, a safe which has been tried and tested. Homeowners should look at safes which are marketed as ‘home safes’, as opposed to those used by shops and offices, as these will be far easier to install. A safe must be positioned in a carefully chosen point in the house.

The market for these domestic safes has risen dramatically in the last decade. More homeowners than ever have personal wealth which requires safeguarding against crime and potential disaster, such as fire. Meanwhile, advances in manufacturing mean that small, lightweight safes which are perfect for home installation are becoming more readily available and affordable. Together, these factors have resulted in better safe standards overall, with manufacturers communicating to improve their methods and keep designs as compact as possible, for residential installation. On the downside, the increase in demand has also created a market of cheap safes, designed to undercut the professionals.

For this reason, not all safes are the created equal. Homeowners need to exercise caution, because investing in an inadequate safe is a waste of money, as well as a loss of whatever’s kept inside. The most obvious counter to this is to choose well-known brands like Chubbsafes, Burton and Hydan safes. These brands adhere to industry standards and their safes undergo rigorous testing, something which can be checked with a little research. Naturally, a branded safe will be more expensive, too. The key is balance; finding a reputable brand at a good price point, with the features you need.

Taking the Aver safe from Burton Safes as an example, this model features a five-year warranty for domestic users and is only available through elite dealers. This kind of safe is professional grade and offers double protection, because not only is it high spec, but it can be well insured in the rare case that something goes wrong. All UK insurers accept safes such as this having cash ratings between £6,000 to £150,000, which offer the highest standards in security and are AIS (Association of Insurance Surveyors) approved. Always look at a safe’s rating before making a purchase.

Are all safes fire resistant?

Many homeowners choose to install a safe not just as a security measure, but as insurance against fire damage. Important documents, antiques and personal belongings cannot be replaced by a cash value in the case of theft or fire damage. This is a perfectly sensible use of a safe, but just as not all safes are equally thief-proof, not all are equally fireproof. Most safes will offer a degree of fire protection, but cheaper models may not withstand a real inferno.

The level of fire defence offered by a safe largely depends on its construction. However, plate safes provide hardly any resistance and a typical double-walled domestic safe will only give 10 to 15 minutes’ protection at relatively low temperatures. Buying a properly certified model is the best shot at true fire resistance, but new owners need to be aware that even then, there is variance between models. Some will only provide the minimum level of protection needed to claim fire resistance. Salesmen will attempt to talk this up, so it’s important to be aware of the standards and ideally see some evidence of fire resistance testing.

Fire resistance is rated in much the same way that safes are rated against burglary. There are three certificates for fire resistance in safe manufacture. These are LFS (a new European standard for safes), SP (a highly reputable Swedish laboratory) and UL (an American laboratory). Look for these initials in the description or model number of a safe to know that it has been officially tested in real-life, practical conditions. In addition to the letters, there should be numbers; 30, 60, 90 or 120 which represents how many minutes the safe can survive in a fire.

There’s a little more to be aware of, regarding choosing the right fireproof safe. The items being protected may be a factor. For example, computer media like DVDs and USB sticks can surprisingly be more vulnerable than paper documents; according to Safelincs, paper degrades at 350 degrees Fahrenheit while digital data starts to degrade at 125 degrees. Data tapes and film are also very vulnerable. Specific, specialist safes can be purchased for these needs. The insurance rating of a safe takes the fire safety rating into account, so this is an important aspect to consider.

What are my options for locking my safe?

In addition to choosing a security safe which is tough and fireproof, it’s worth considering the options for locking. This may be secondary to the defence the safe offers, but it’s still important. Different locking methods suit different users and can affect price, security and convenience. The most basic locking mechanism is, of course, a simple key, but there are also mechanical combinations, electronic interfaces and even biometric locks. Key safes are often either budget models or incorporate a key alongside other methods. While there’s no doubt that key safes are simple and effective, lost keys can undo the entire investment or require expensive replacements.

Mechanical combination locks may conjure images of the safes seen in movies, with a numbered dial to spin. These safes have been in use for centuries and while they do provide protection, the system is very fiddly to use. Opening and closing a safe like this several times a day is a chore and professional thieves know them well. Electronic locks are the obvious alternative, using much more up-to-date methods and relying on less moving parts. A number code can be entered in seconds and is often easier to remember. However, as with many things in life, this is rarely black and white. A cheap electronic safe, costing under £100, is likely to operate via a solenoid that can be ‘bounced’ open using essential tools.

Electronic locks come into their own when looking at higher price points and reputable brands. Some allow multiple user codes, meaning that each family member who needs the safe can have their own code (making it easier to remember) and the last known user can be logged. In fact, some models will save an audit trail with a history of the lock’s usage. This is mostly a feature for commercial users, but could be useful as evidence in the case of a burglary. Advanced electronic locks can also feature time delays, time locks and remote controls! Locks by Kaba & Insys are available that can be controlled and programmed remotely by a network. This kind of system can even alert the owner when the safe is opened.

The cutting edge of safe locking, seen in spy movies, is biometric security. This is an electronic system which uses some aspect of the owner’s body, such as a thumbprint or retinal scan, to verify that the correct person is opening the safe. Biometric locks were originally very dubious, with patchy reliability, but modern technology is developing in this field and making it accessible to everyday owners. The benefits of a biometric safe are that only the correct user can open the door and there’s no code to remember or key that can be lost.

Additionally, this system leaves an irrefutable audit trail that a certain individual was present at the safe. Fingerprint locks on the recent Burton Magnum Range and from Insys (available on various Eurograde safes) are easy to use, reliable and very robust, so the future is looking bright for biometric technology.

How are safes rated?

When shopping for a home safe, weighing up locking mechanisms, shape, size and security, there can be too much to consider. Thankfully, the existence of safe ratings helps a lot when making these choices. As previously mentioned, safes produced by reputable brands are given a rating or ‘cash rating’ to provide a comparable scale of how strong their protection is.
To understand how these work, it is important to know the primary purpose of a modern safe; to buy time against attack, either from fire or theft. No safe is completely thief-proof if the criminal has enough time and the appropriate tools. A safe therefore is not a guarantee of protection, but a security measure that makes it as hard and time-consuming as possible for a thief to get inside (or for a fire to damage the contents). This time allows for police intervention or for thieves to flee.

This means that insurers cannot assume that the contents of a safe are entirely protected and cannot ever be reached. The nature and value of the contents still needs to be taken into account for insurance purposes. Cash Ratings are the monetary amount an insurance underwriter would usually insure the contents of the safe for. For some valuables and most jewellery this figure would be multiplied by a factor of ten. For example, a £10,000 cash rated safe would be okay for storing that amount of currency or jewellery to the value of £100,000. Burton Safes have a great guide to this on their FAQ page.

Safes are given these ratings through testing. A safe with a recognised cash rating has been subjected to attacks in accordance with European attack test standards. This means that, in laboratory conditions, the safe has been attacked with a set list of tools by a professional who knows how to use them, replicating the amount of time a thief would need to get inside. To meet the standards, safes have to be submitted to national testing laboratories where they are attacked with a set list of tools and time taken to gain entry is recorded. A score will be awarded based on the tools used and the time that was taken.

Listed below are the different grades and their associated cash ratings:

Grade Cash Rating
Grade 0 £6000
Grade 1 £10,000
Grade 2 £17,500
Grade 3 £35,000
Grade 4 £60,000
Grade 5 £100,000
Grade 6 £150,000
Grade 7 £250,000
Grade 8 £400,000
Grade 9 £650,000
Grade 10 £1,000,000
Grade 11 £1,500,000
Grade 12 £2,250,000
Grade 12 £3,500,000

How should a Safe be installed?

Before choosing a safe, a potential buyer must consider the practicalities of installation:

  • Would a floor safe be better than a wall safe, considering the house layout?
  • Is there a suitable part of the home’s structure that can take the weight?

These questions are important for two reasons; firstly, they affect your purchasing decision and secondly, the correct installation of a safe relies on following certain standards. Should you be in any doubt, these questions are best answered by consulting the company from which the safe is purchased.

Failing to properly adhere to official standards when installing a safe in the home can create serious problems, starting with vulnerabilities. A safe is only as safe as it’s fixings, after all. Some budget safes can be affected by tipping and impact, a process known as ‘safe bouncing’. Small safes can be removed from their fittings and stolen in their entirety, to be cracked later at the thieves’ leisure. The other main problem with poor installation is that fault for a theft can be placed at the feet of the homeowner, invalidating insurance claims.

In order to comply with official test procedures, any products which are ECB.S certified (EN14450 and EN1143) and weighing less than 1 tonne should be base fixed to a solid concrete floor. Sometimes these safes also have rear fixing, but this is only to be used for extra security, not as the only method of fixing. Only using rear fixing could contravene the safe’s insurance, so this must be verified beforehand if there’s no other choice. Safe Options will only fix an ECB.S tested safe to a wooden floor at the customer’s own risk; it is the customer’s responsibility to speak with their insurance company and find out if this will affect the rating they are given.

Tested safes from reputable manufactures will come with specific fixing bolts, supplied by the manufacturer. It is very important to only use these bolts, which are tested along with the rest of the safe, so they are proven to work. Furthermore, safes should be installed by a professional. Investing in an expensive safe only to have it cracked or damaged by fire because it came loose from its fixings would be awful. Good safe suppliers will arrange this for you or at least provide a third-party installer. Even putting security aside, safes tend to be heavy, so getting a wall safe in place (for example) can be a potentially dangerous job.

Even a freestanding safe requires caution. In this case, placement is vital. Good practice suggests situating a freestanding safe in a place with limited access, such as under the stairs or in a cupboard, or even in a cellar. This makes the safe harder to access and find; remember that a safe is technically a mechanism for buying time, making life harder for thieves. This is one of the key reasons for the purchase of underfloor safes, which are by their nature easy to hide from prying eyes.

Safe Options provides a guide to the best practices in installing a home safe, or can offer trained safe engineers to carry out the work. When it comes to floor and wall fitted safes, it’s important to pick a place which his fee from electric wires and plumbing. The area must also be able to take the weight, especially if you opt for a heavy safe, so it’s wise to consult building plans. Placing a safe against two walls is a good way to prevent it being rocked from its fixings. You can even purchase safes with internal lighting, such as certain models from Burton Safes; a useful extra if your safe is located somewhere dark, like a cellar.

Will the safe be big enough for my needs?

When you choose a safe, you should take careful note of the measurements and internal layout. This may seem like it goes without saying, but safes are often smaller than they appear due to the thickness of the walls, or they may not be a suitable shape for the items you need to store. Furthermore, it’s worth planning ahead.

Many safe models are designed with a certain task in mind, such as a laptop safe, which will typically be a little shorter than other safes, since laptops are mostly flat. This may make it unsuitable for taller items. Reputable safe dealers will list all the internal dimensions, so if you do need to store stacks of documents, other media or precious items, you can take reasonable measurements. Importantly, note that many safes have shelves, which cut the effective room in half if they are not removable. Lastly, it’s sensible to plan ahead for your likely needs over the next 20 years, especially if you’re installing a safe under the floor or in the wall.

For larger items, a strongroom may be a better option. These are constructed of prefabricated panels and typically bolted or welded together in situ. While these may usually be seen in banks or Government installations, there is a growing market for domestic users, particularly those who run their business from home. Burton Safes have launched a lightweight strongroom for just this purpose. A strongroom is a great choice if you have room to spare and may need more storage in future, plus it can double as a panic room. This is simply a place to which you can retreat and be completely protected from the outside world, in the case of home invasion. There is a growing popularity for panic rooms, especially among the very wealthy and in particular those from Russia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. High-end customers might also want to purchase a showpiece safe from Stockinger, Doetling or Burton Safes. All these manufacturers offer top quality, bespoke jewellery safes starting from £25,000 and going up to £250,000.

How should I store cash in a safe?

Storing cash is one of the primary reasons for homeowners to purchase a safe. With the rising costs of safety deposit boxes at banks, it makes sense to have a safe in the home with reserves of cash for everyday use, or for emergencies, or simply for business use.

The first thing to bear in mind is the cash rating of the safe you wish to buy. Since this figure is literally given in a monetary value, it’s easy to pick a safe which matches the kind of money you want to store. The larger the amount you need to store, the higher rating you need, which in turn can increase the cost of the safe. It’s also wise to check the fire rating of the safe, since paper money is vulnerable to this threat. Lastly, ensure that the safe is large enough. Cash notes do not take up a lot of room, but several stacks may be larger than you first expect.

An electronic locking safe is a smart choice for an everyday cash safe, as the code will become ingrained in your memory quickly. Once you select a safe, the actual storage of cash is a simple matter. Binding notes together is smart to avoid stray notes getting stuck in the door when it closes. Some safes designed for cash will also have compartments for notes or coins, to keep them in their right denominations. This is perfect if the safe is for business use. You may also consider keeping the cash in a sealed bag, in case of flooding, as not all safes are waterproof.

What are safes made of?

Since safes were first used as far back as the Industrial Revolution, the design has undergone several refinements and changes. Though the basic cube-like shape has mostly remained intact, the lining, locking mechanism and more is being refined all the time. When safes first entered use, they would often be made of cast iron. While this was certain very tough and did the job well, modern manufacturers use steel. This alloy is the typical material for building a safe.

Steel has certain advantages over iron that make it perfect for safe building, such as being stronger and resistance to rust. An old-fashioned iron safe might get rusty at the base or where it’s bolted down, making it vulnerable. Special alloys can also be created with a higher resistance to fire. There is actually a complex metallurgy to creating the right materials for a safe, tweaking the recipe to give it better resistance to temperature and physical attack.

The typical safe has an outer ‘skin’, which is what you can see. Underneath this is a hard plate, specifically to protect the mechanism. This outer skin is often a milder metal, because very hard materials can crack under repeated shock. This way, the outer layer will dent and deform, but not crack, while the inner layer remains intact. Fire safes may have additional layers intended to insulate the contents, containing various non-conductive materials like vermiculite mica and gypsum, as noted on Tech FAQ. When it comes to very advanced safes, such as certain vaults, there may be a layer of glass inside the wall. This will break and trigger alarms if the wall is struck with force.

Though it may seem surprising, there is also a market for plastic safes. These are ideal for small items as they can be lightweight and water resistant. Plastic safes can be made in various colours, too. The very hard plastics used are specially formulated to be shockproof, corrosion resistant and can even have hygienic anti-bacterial coatings, as seen on Safes4Less.

Are Burton Safes any good?

Burton Safes are a well-known and trusted brand, which has been trading for over 25 years. The company has an excellent reputation both for safe quality and customer service. This brand has many accreditations; as listed on the Burton website, they are part of the ESSA (the European trade association of physical security manufacturers) and Eurosafe UK (the UK safe industry’s leading trade body), plus they hold ISO9001 accreditation.

Burton Safes can be purchased from stockists across the UK and online, while the head office is based in Holmfirth. They produce a broad range, including both home safes and industrial models. The Torino range is notable for a sense of style, having curves and red interior, ideal for a smarter home. These are mostly rated at £4,000. The brand new Brixia range has a similar contemporary style, with drawers and optional left or right handed hinges. There are tested and certified by ECB.S to the EN1143-1 standard, with a grade I £10,000 cash rating or £100,000 jewellery rating.

Are Chubbsafes any good?

Few brands can have the expertise that Chubbsafes can boast. Indeed, the Chubb brothers from Wolverhampton are credited with patenting the first burglar-resistance safes, back in 1835. With over 200 years of experience, it’s no wonder that Chubb Safes are considered almost unimpregnable (as far as any safe can be). They build safes to resist burglary, fire and even explosives. Their safes are sold internationally and can be bought all across the UK.

Details of the security standards they use are available on the Chubb website; they are certified by institutes like ECBS, SP, VdS and UL. Chubb home safes come in many varieties, such as the Earth, Fire Water and Air brands which address different strengths. Air safes have a cash rating of £1,000 and are quite compact. Earth safes are more sturdy, with cash cover up to £4,000 and double walls. Fire safes natural focus on fire resistance, offering 30 minutes of protection and £4,000 cash rating. Water has a lower rating at £2,000 with various sizes available.

Are Hydan Safes any good?

Before Hydan safes was established Churchill safes was known to be the best underfloor safes and was one of the largest manufacturer of floor safes in the UK. Since the demise of Churchill Hydan safes have established themselves as the heir apparrant having be3en established by former senior employees of Churchill.

Hydan floor safes are rated up to varying levels, with £4,000 available for domestic use, or the impressive Platinum model offering a £35,000 rating for serious valuables. The Briton Size 2 is a good large-sized floor safe with optional keys, combination or electronic locks, intended to be fit into concrete. Hydan also produce extra large floor safes such as the Clubman sizes 1 and 2 for larger valuables which has a £6,000 cash rating. 

Are Phoenix Safes any good?

This well-established brand has been offerring  safes for over 100 years and offers fire and security safes and cabinets of all shapes and sizes, but still has a strong line of lockable filing cabinets and safes. 

Fireproof cabinets are Phoenixg’s biggest strength. They produce models with any number of drawers and fire resistance for paper documents, digital media and more, with resistance to water sprinklers. Many of their cabinets are fire resistant for 60 minutes or more. Their domestic safes are known for offerring exce0ptional value with insdurance cash ratings from £1000 up to £100,000.

Are Dudley Safes any good?

Dudley Safes are sturdy and backed up by over 30 years in the business. This company was started by two brothers, not unlike the original Chubb safes, remaining a family run business today. This company is a leading producer of safes and meets the ISO 9001:2008 Quality Assurance Certification standard. Dudley Safes manufacture a range of Euro-rated safes certified in compliance with Grade 0, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4 and 5 Safes.

Free standing safes by Dudley have a good reputation. The Europa is a white model with a very classic design and high security rated at £35,000, which may appeal to the home user with a business to run or valuable antiques. These safes can also resist fire for 45 minutes. There is also a compact range for the more typical domestic user, rated for £5,000 and 25 minutes of resistance to fire. The door plate for a compact is a massive 10mm thick, with a total thickness of 85mm, so this is one tough customer.

Are De Raat Safes any good?

De Raat Security is a huge European wholesaler of safes, fire-resistant cabinets, data safes and more. The company began over 50 years ago in Leidschendam in the Netherlands, but has since expanded to Belguim and the UK, where they have an office in Ellesmere. Their safes can be purchased all over Europe and come in many shapes and sizes, including stylish models for executives.

De Raat produce a range of compact laptop safes which are ideal for anyone with expensive laptops or sensitive data. These are cost-effective and rated for £2,000m with programmable entry codes. De Raat domestic safes come in a huge variety too, from mini key safes to premium, electronic safes. For those wanting to store cash, the Protector Duo has a second, lockable inner coffer which would be useful for separating notes and coins. This safe has a £4,000 rating and has thermal insulation.

Are Burg Wachter Safes any good?

Billing themselves as ‘always the safe choice’, Burg Wachter produce a large range of very dependable safes. The brand started as a trading company in 1920, taking over the German manufacturer Burg. In 1950 the company became Burg Wachter and has stayed in the family, producing all manner of strongbox devices. The company has headquarters in Wetter-Volmarstein but sells all over Europe and the UK. Watch out for the castle logo, which represents the castle of Volmarstein.

Burg Wachter safes are available in many styles and even colours. The Karat line of free standing safes are cash rated for £6,000 and are AiS approved and ECB.S certified according to EN 1300 class B. These safes include several German innovations such as a triple- walled body with exterior walls of flame-cutting protected material, additional plating and extra anti-drill protection. The combi-line offers small safes perfect for home use, with 30 minutes of fire protection.

What security codes should I not have?

When purchasing an electronic safe, you will usually have to enter a digital passcode to open the door. This is one of the major plus points of an electronic safe, because a number can never be lost or stolen from you like a key can, though of course there are other downsides, too. Numbers can be forgotten or confused, or in some cases, thieves can guess what they are!

Avoiding these issues begins with picking the right code. A new safe will arrive with a factory default code, along with instructions to help you change it to a code of your own choosing. This is vitally important; never stick with the default code. Thieves may find out what the default codes are for a certain company and therefore will always try this number first.

Many safes use four-digit codes, so the kinds of numbers you should avoid are similar to those that should be avoided for smartphones. According to Naked Security, 15% of iPhone users use the same set of ten passcodes! These numbers are:

These numbers may be chosen for convenience, because of the way they are arranged on a keypad, but the time and effort saved is not worth risking the contents of your safe for. Resist the urge to make your code memorable by typing all the corner buttons on the pad, or the very common 1234. Similarly, it’s considered unwise to repeat numbers from your everyday life. A common mistake is using your date of birth as a code, on the basis that it’s easy to remember and thieves won’t know it, but in this age of data theft that’s no longer true. Your date of birth, address and more can be found on social media. Don’t be tempted to double-up the code you use for your phone or ATM PIN, because if thieves get one, they have access to all.

Finally, it’s good practice to avoid writing your codes down. A thief searching the house may find your notes, even those written on a computer. Though memorising a code can feel risky, remember that safe manufacturers do account for forgotten codes and can help you reset a safe if you can prove that you’re the owner.