Wireless access control may not be new to the market, but technology improvements and end user attitudes have changed in the past couple of years, making it a better choice for a wider variety of applications than ever before.

“We got involved early in its inception back when it really was not reliable,” says Mike Simmons, executive vice president of S3 Integration, Baltimore. “Today it is greatly advanced and we are very comfortable employing it.”

Traditionally, wireless access was reserved for applications where it was difficult, if not impossible, to hardwire an access control system. That is still a prime application for it today. However, with the advent of wireless networks, increased IT involvement in security decisions and a widespread desire to conserve costs, the horizons have expanded. The current generation of wireless access control can do nearly everything their hardwired counterparts can do. Wireless is no longer just a bandage on a problem. It can be a holistic solution for an entire system.


Wireless access control is all about communication. And there are many types of applications where communicating wirelessly makes great sense, for both the integrator and end user.

“It makes really good sense where it is difficult or cost-prohibitive to run cables,” says Jason Elkins, branch manager, SFI Electronics, Columbia, S.C.

“Sometimes when you have older facilities it causes a problem when you go to retrofit and have to run a lot of wire. It’s very expensive and time-consuming,” adds Doug Miorandi, commercial security consultant, Red Hawk – a UTC Fire and Security Company, Tempe, Ariz. “That is an instance where wireless technology is a huge boon.”

In most cases, wireless access control means wireless readers that use the existing wireless structure or a proprietary wireless signal.

Elkins’ company recently had a job where not only would hardwiring have been very difficult, but the facility had no type of network at all. “What we did was set up a wireless network. We have control panels that we placed in each building. We essentially created a wireless bridge between those buildings, allowing them to get all card holder data back to their server. This would not have been possible to do without great expense otherwise. It saved significant time, labor and cost.”

Kevin Lamonds, system technician, Seven Oaks Doors and Hardware, Oakboro, N.C., used wireless in a hospital environment. “The benefit to the hospital was we didn’t have to run any wires,” he says. “We just put the locks on the doors and they were functional. We didn’t have to intrude on any of the workers by getting above them to run wires. It was much less intrusive to them.”

In some situations, the access control is part of an overall plan to go “wireless.” Such was the case in a large school system that Miorandi is working with. “We are currently finishing installation on the first 300 locks. They are installing a wireless network in all of their schools. We go in and install the locks on the door, program directly at the lock, ping the server off our laptop using their wireless network and the lock identifies itself on the system. It makes a good cost savings because they are using the existing network. And I can put on one of these units more inexpensively than I can a hardwired system.

“Here in Arizona, 95 percent of the locations I go to have drop ceilings where it is really easy to run wire without a lot of heartache. Even in those situations, it is more cost effective as long as they have a wireless network set up. It’s less hassle, less frustration and less expense. In today’s economic climate we are finding people looking more seriously at wireless if they already have a Wi-Fi network.”

Brian Piccolo, senior account executive for S3 Integration, has been in the wireless business for several years. He is seeing a pickup in new construction specifications for wireless access control. “I see a big peak now that it has been proven in the retrofit market.”

Another boost to the technology is that IT managers like it. “IT professionals are really taking control of security systems and managing them,” Simmons says. “They are putting out the specifications. They do definitely prefer this wireless method.”

Miorandi agrees. “Let’s say company A moves into a building. The first thing they are going to be concerned with is setting up a network infrastructure right away. IT is going to want to do wireless anyway. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper and easier to do. Then they will start looking for security equipment. If they can do that wirelessly as well, it’s a win-win situation.”

Wireless gives these customers a better return on investment, Piccolo adds. “They are already sinking money into a wireless infrastructure, in many cases. To be able to attach something to that, it’s really just adding another appliance to your infrastructure, just like you would a laptop. Except it’s a card reader instead.”


The end user is not the only one who benefits from this technology. From an integrator’s point of view, wireless access control offers many significant advantages over hardwired.

For one thing, it’s easy to install. “We can install a cylindrical or mortise wireless access control lock in about a hour and 15 minutes, including the programming, removal of old hardware and testing,” Miorandi says. “We can get in and out. We don’t have to get up in ceilings and run wire. We are literally saving hours of work. It’s a huge time saver all the way around. We walk in, set it up, test it and leave.”

The ease of installation also allows integrators to move quickly to the next location, maximizing the amount of readers they can install, Piccolo adds.

It costs less to install. “Time and cost to put in a hardwired system is the one area that all integrators have risk in when putting a budget together,” Simmons says. “Then you factor in all the codes for how to hang wires above ceilings. There is a lot of additional cost. It is probably about two-thirds more expensive for hardwired, sometimes even triple.”

It’s safer to install. “Our techs never leave the ground,” Miorandi says.

It helps the integrator look good to the end user. “We deal in aftermarket,” Lamonds says. “A lot of that is we go in, take out what’s there and put something else in. End users are always wondering what we are going to tear up. Wireless is less intrusive and they do like that. Plus it has helped us on our bid costs when compared to a hardwired system.”

Miorandi believes wireless technology gives his company a competitive advantage. “I’m providing a very high-quality, high-tech product to my end users and I am able to do it based on what is best for their building. If I can sell them the latest in technology and even save them some money to boot, it’s a huge benefit. It separates me from the average integrator on the street that may be after profit maximization.

“Plus it helps me save face on the installation end. Whenever you are doing a hardwired system of any kind, there are always those things you just don’t quite anticipate when estimating the project. Even if I eat that cost, it slows down our installation time. It’s not our fault, but when I tell a client we will be out of here in three weeks and it takes four, I lose a little face, quite honestly. With the wireless, we are able to install on the doors, physically see the doors at all times and can better estimate time and make everyone a lot happier."

SIDEBAR: Power to the Lock

Most wireless access control locks run on batteries, often inexpensive “AAs.” The lock can communicate in real time with the server or be programmed for set “dumps” once or twice a day. “Most incorporate an electrified lock, a door contact, latch status, request-to-exit and card reader all in one unit,” Piccolo says.

But some manufacturers have recently begun offering a hybrid solution that uses Power over Ethernet (PoE).

“Some people really like the wireless technology where others want a more wired solution,” Piccolo says. “PoE is still less wiring than traditional hardwired systems. It’s essentially the same wireless reader, but instead of plugging it into a 120 power source, you are wiring it to a telecommunications room and providing access to the LAN. You are running one cable that is providing power, data and communications.”

One advantage to this is the absence of batteries, he adds. “Any time a wireless lock communicates, it draws on the battery, which can be a concern for some end users looking to buy a wireless reader. That is where PoE can really come into play.”

Of course, like any hardwired system, you still need to be able to reach the wires and there is a certain amount of wiring involved. “PoE will come in somewhere between a true wireless reader and traditional hardwired,” Piccolo says. “But it is still less expensive because you are eliminating the need for a power supply and running data wire as opposed to composite wire.”