A Locksmith’s Guide to Selecting a Smart Lock

Most articles simply list their top 5 or top 10 smart locks and explain the positives and negatives of each. This articles will also provide a list of top smart lock recommendations but will also explain some of the mechanics and functions of smart locks in general. It’s great knowing the benefits of different locks but first we must understand their basic functions.

Basic Lock Functions & Mechanics

Everyone interacts with locks, knobs and deadbolts, on a daily basis but few understand the terminology and mechanics of how locks work. First let’s discuss a standard entry knob. There is a lock on the outside and a thumbturn on the inside handle. If it’s in the locked position one must either turn the knob from the inside to unlock the door or use the thumbturn to manually unlock the door. If the knob is unlocked it will act as a passage knob and the door will latch making sure the door stays shut.

A deadbolt uses a bolt that goes into the door jamb. Generally deadbolts are considered to be more secure because they are harder to overcome by brute force. The inside thumbturn throws the deadbolt and retracts it. Of course, it can also be locked and unlocked using a key.

Both knobs and deadbolts need to be installed properly. It still amazes me how many incorrect installations I see. One of the most important parts of a well functioning lock system is correct door jamb latch alignment. Often times people will call us saying their locks are not working properly. When we arrive, we find that there are actually door and strike issues.

Smart Lock Function

It’s my contention that it’s easier and cheaper to make a smart deadbolt than it is to make a smart knob or handle lever. However, the mechanism that drives the deadbolt back and forth needs to have a clear path into the door jamb to work properly. If it senses any friction it might beep and not fully retract/latch. This is the most common issue we see with smart deadbolts. In order to fix this issues we often times have to lower the latch or open up the metal part of the latch with a dremel tool.

Door Handing

Look at any door from the entrance. If the hinges are on the right it’s a right handed door. If the hinges are on the left it’s a left handed doors. Most doors are right handed doors and therefor most locks are set at the factory to work with right handed doors. Smart deadbolts can also learn the handing of the door when it’s turned on for the first time and the lock is set up using the instructions inside the manual. Incorrect door handing for the lock is probably the second most common issues that we see. If the door shifts or tilts due to a change in weather or time, the latch my start to bind. This can result in the lock not unlocking even when the correct code is presented. This is one reason why we recommend carrying a key for a smart lock if it has a mechanical override. The lock may sense the friction and not work but the bolt can be “forced” open with the key.

Batteries & Key Override

Smart locks need power to operate. They generally use 4-6 AA batteries or a 9 v battery. There are some models that use 4-6 AAA batteries. Battery issues are probably the third most common problem that we see. When the batteries die, the code part of the lock will not function. Some models will have two spots on the exterior of the lock to “jump” the lock with a 9v battery. This is a very helpful feature, however you typically don’t have a 9v battery on your person when you arrive home and find that your smart lock is not working. A neighbor might have a 9v battery you can borrow if you are locked out.Some models have a key override that allows you to use a standard mechanical key to operate the lock like any other mechanical lock. This is one reason why we recommend continuing to carry mechanical keys even after you have a smart “keyless lock” installed.

Name Brands and Off-Brands

The popularity of smart locks has resulted in many companies producing inexpensive, read cheap, smart locks. We highly recommend not using these for several reasons. First reason is failure rate. If a name brand failure rate is say .03% an off brand lock’s failure rate might be .06%. You don’t not want to double your risk of being locked out. People buy and install smart locks for the convenience. You do not want to be inconvenienced by needing to call a locksmith for an emergency lockout. The brands we recommend are Schlage, Kwikset, Lockey, and Lockly.

Another reason to avoid off brand smart locks is the keys that these locks typically use. In America, the vast majority of residential locks either use a Kwikset type keyway or a Schlage type keyway. Many of these cheaper smart locks use proprietary locks that can’t be switched. Meaning we can’t put a Kwikset or Schlage cylinder in the lock to have it match other locks on a house. They also frequently use dimple locks and keys. These locks and keys are popular in other parts of the country but are more rare in America. It may be very difficult and expensive to get extra key copies.

The price difference between cheap smart locks you find online and name brand ones that you’ll find in big box stores like Lowe’s and home depot is not that great. You can find cheap smart locks online for $50-60 dollars but Kwikset smart locks go for as little as $100. It’s highly worth the investment to get a name brand model. Another reason is warranty and support. Most cheap locks do not come with a substantial warranty and they almost certainly do not have any support. If you buy a smart lock from a major retailer it will be much easier to process a return and get your money back or a replacement.

I’m Hiring a Locksmith to Install a Smart Lock. Should I buy it or you?

When we get a call asking for smart lock installation services the most common first question is who should buy the lock. Generally, we walk the customer through their options and help them decide which one is the right fit for them. If they have a product they are set on we don’t mind either. When it comes to who purchases the lock, we generally suggest the home owner buys the lock. It’s easier for us to not have to manage the inventory and accounting of purchasing a smart lock. We can purchase them for you but we do have to mark up the product to handle our labor and time for doing so. We don’t typically stock smart locks because there is too much variability. Between the different types, models, and colors we’d have to stock over $2,000 worth of locks to adequately cover what people typically have installed. The turn around time for us buying a lock and having it in-stock is typically the same day or 3 business days.

Should I Get a Smart Knob or Smart Deadbolt

This is typically the second question we get. The answer depends on your door set up and what you are trying to accomplish.  The two questions we ask right away are

1) Do you have a hole in your door for just a knob or for a knob and a deadbolt?

2) How important is it for the door to automatically lock?

If you only have one hole in your door, the least path of resistance is to use a smart knob. If you have both a knob and a deadbolt hole, I’d recommend using a smart deadbolt and changing out the knob for a passage/ hallway knob. This means that when the door closes it latches but there’s no locking mechanism. I’ve seen a number of people get locked out when their smart lock fails or someone locks the bottom lock and they don’t have a key. If you want keyless access this is the way to go. Again, please continue to carry a physical key if you have a key override available.

Smart knobs typically automatically lock. Many smart deadbolts need to be locked by the user. Meaning when they exit the house, they need to press a button in order for the lock to start locking. Other smart deadbolts can be set to automatically lock after 5 minutes or a similar interval.

Smart Home Integration

When purchasing a smart lock consider what type of smart home system you have or may want to have in the future. Some people are set on never having smart home devices and that’s fine. But if you are considering it or have a system, your choices become more complicated. Bluetooth, wifi, zwave, and zigbee are all different communication methods that these locks use. Typically, a certain lock will be a better match than others for the smart home ecosystem you have. Meaning if you have Alexa, get an Alexa compatible deadbolt.

Antique Doors

Consider consulting a locksmith if you have a vintage door and especially if you have antique locks on your vintage door. These doors can be finicky and have issues that are difficult to identify. There are numerous different ways of addressing these issues and it’s fairly variable what actually needs to be done. What you don’t want to do is try and DIY the installation and end up with a situation that is worse than when you started. Older doors and antique locks are common in cities like Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, University Heights, and Beachwood. One common door challenge is extra thick doors. These types of doors are significantly wider than standard doors. These types of doors are very common in Shaker Heights. Locks installed on these doors typically require extra long screws sold in what’s called a “thick door pack.” It’s a package of extra long screws to accommodate the extra width of the door. Finding a smart lock that can accommodate a thick door is more difficult and does limit your options.If you have questions about your particular door you can take pictures and text or email them to us. We’d be glad to take a look at them and help you come up with a plan for your door and needs.

Closing Thoughts

The simplicity and convenience of use is paradoxical to how complicated it is to select a smart lock and sometimes even to install it. However, much of the confusion can be reduced by answering a few simple questions about your situation and understanding what you want out of a smart lock. We’re always here to help you along the way.