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Reliably and effectively controlling access to commercial and residential properties can be difficult for many building owners. Accessibility for staff, tenants and guests is key, and assuring potential intruders will be prevented from gaining entry is of equal importance.

A popular choice amongst building management teams is the use of a key fob door system. Access control key fobs, similar to key card access systems, are among the easiest access management tools to operate and can be integrated alongside existing security features for increased security.

While access control fobs may be utilized as part of an effective, versatile and adjustable building security system, developing a building access control configuration best suited to any particular property will require some understanding of how key fob entry works. This guide will cover all that you need to know about commercial and residential key fob entry systems including different types of devices, components of door fob systems, installation and cost considerations.

What are key fob systems? 

Key fob access control systems are entry point management devices that feature a system of locks and credential readers to secure residential and commercial buildings from unauthorized persons. 

Instead of a traditional lock and metal key, fob key systems use electric or magnetic locks and proximity technology to let people unlock the door. Commercial electronic door locks with key fobs are connected to a series of wall-mounted credential readers, with each device configured to detect predetermined data stored in issued access fobs.

Depending on the unique entry fob system chosen, the fob itself may be a small handheld remote control or make use of RFID tags and proximity technology. Either way, when an authorized person presents their device to an associated reader, the doors to the building will unlock to grant access.

Components of a key fob door system

Regardless of the exact type of fob door system installed, most modern key fob door access control systems will typically contain three key components used to manage building access. These devices include:

  • Access key fobs for building doors or gates
  • Key fob door locking mechanisms
  • Access control readers
  • Control panel units 
  • Key fob entry system management software

Multiple hardware units may be installed in larger installations with each device connected to a unified management platform. This allows key fob access control systems to be entirely scalable and effective in many deployments from small-scale residential units to large apartment complexes and office blocks.

In addition to the access control hardware components of key fob entry systems, software also plays an important role. Fob access keys need to be programmed with the correct access permissions for each user, and managed by a security team or building operator. Additionally, a key fob building entry system records each unlock attempt, which is logged into the management software for auditing.

Cloud-based adoption has been steadily rising in recent years, with 90% of organizations indicating they are using cloud products and services in a 2021 study. Managing key fob access systems using the cloud gives remote access to key fob door lock controls and data, allowing security teams to monitor credentials alongside additional integrated cloud-based access control and security features.

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  • Encrypted DESFire EV3 128-bit AES secure key fobs 

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  • Fast and easy reader install with standard wiring

How do key fob door lock systems work with access control?

Door access key fob systems generally utilize electromagnetic locks to secure building entry points. Installed locks will be powered by an electrical current used to hold the door in a locked position until an authorized person presents valid credentials. With a keyless door entry system like this, when an employee, tenant or visitor holds an issued door access key fob up to an associated reader, the current is interrupted and the lock will disengage.

Some door locks with access fobs can be designed to operate using electric strike mechanisms as an alternative. In these configurations, when valid credentials are presented, an electrical signal will be sent to the door to disengage the locks. The key difference between these key fob door access systems is fail safe vs. fail secure locks; the right option depends on the type of door and location.

Regardless of lock type and during normal operation, to a key fob entry system user the process will be as follows:

  • The user presents their access key fob to a wall-mounted reader 
  • The reader scans the device to search for valid credential data 
  • Credentials will be checked against a preapproved database 
  • If accepted the door will open, if rejected the door remains secure and admins may be notified

Fob key systems installed as part of a wider building security system may be integrated alongside additional security features such as video surveillance systems or security sensors to notify admins of potential intrusions and access events. Readers may also be connected to on-site alarms designed to sound when hardware is tampered with, or linked to a cloud-based management platform to alert admins of intrusion events.

Common types of key fob door entry systems

Though the general operation of most commercially available key fob access control systems will be similar from the perspective of the end user, there are a few different types of fob access key devices that are configured and programmed to operate in unique ways.

Wiegand door access fobs

Wiegand key fobs for doors are the oldest form of access control key fob, having been initially developed in the 1970s as a way to transmit small amounts of data using a specialized magnetic field. Wiegand door key fobs are used to store binary data that cannot be erased or adjusted by normal magnetic fields, and as such are particularly hard to duplicate, reprogram or tamper with.

One notable benefit to the use of a Wiegand key fob system is that these devices do not contain microchips or other similarly breakable modern components, resulting in door access fobs that are often much more durable than comparable devices and so typically need to be replaced far less frequently.

Though Wiegand devices are commonly found as part of legacy access systems, modern scanners and readers are still often programmed to understand this form of data communication, allowing for integrations of Wiegand tech alongside more contemporary hardware and software components.

RFID access fobs

RFID access door lock technology is perhaps the most commonly found operational configuration used in a modern key fob door lock system. RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and describes a process in which data stored within an associated door access fob is transmitted wirelessly using radio waves.

An RFID key fob entry system for building security can be designed to operate using one of three main frequency bands, those being low, high or ultra-high. Low-frequency access fobs have the shortest operational range (around 10cm) and as such sent data is harder to intercept; high-frequency access fobs have a range of up to 3ft and are compatible with NFC readers; ultra-high-frequency access fobs have a read range of up to 50ft.

For building security, access key fobs with lower read ranges are generally preferred to reduce the likelihood of accidental activations. RFID key fob systems for entry doors are popular as individual devices can be programmed with unique location permissions and time restrictions, as well as integrated alongside keypad access system PIN pads and additional credentials to develop multi-factor authentication requirements to gain access.

NFC key fob system for door access

An NFC door key fob system works in a similar fashion to RFID configurations in that individual fobs communicate with stationary readers using programmed radio waves. NFC stands for Near Field Communication, named as such to indicate that each fob must be close to a reader to transmit data.

NFC devices are able to transmit larger and more complicated sets of credential data much faster than RFID fobs, though as a trade-off read ranges will generally be much shorter. This typically translates to a more secure entry fob system provided that proximity will not be an issue. For this reason, NFC key fob access is not always recommended for parking gates or logistics depots, where users may be unable to get close to readers.

As NFC and some high-frequency RFID systems use similar frequency bands to transmit data, configurations can be developed that utilize both technologies, allowing for versatile installations in which high-security areas may be secured behind NFC readers while common areas use RFID key fobs.

The pros and cons of a key fob building entry system

As with any proposed building security network, there are several benefits and disadvantages relating to the installation of any door key fob system. For some use cases, these devices can represent a cost-effective and suitably secure investment, others may require a more bespoke security solution.

Benefits of installing a door key fob system

  • Cost-effective — The installation and operation of a key fob entry system is generally less expensive than comparable biometric and mobile networks, though considerations should be made regarding the cost of issuing and replacing large numbers of key fobs.
  • Easy adjustments — Permissions and credentials associated with most individual fobs can be easily issued, adjusted and revoked remotely should a device be lost or stolen, or if a user leaves the company and fails to return their device. 
  • Personalized credentials — Each tenant or employee can be issued their own identifiable credentials stored in a physical device, providing better security than a traditional lock and key solution that can be easily duplicated, and allowing admins to reliably monitor individual system uses.
  • User-friendly — Operating a commercial or residential key fob security system requires no prior training and can be easily understood by all system users. Additionally, fobs can be easily carried in a pocket or on a keychain with no need to remember complicated passwords.
  • Audit trails and logs — Individual credentials can be monitored by security staff and used to produce reliable audit trails and access logs. Admins may use this information to investigate potential security breaches and better understand system uses to develop informed security networks.
  • Minimal maintenance — Key fob entry systems contain very few components and mechanical parts, meaning maintenance requirements are generally low, with minimal wear-and-tear on the readers compared to other systems.

Drawbacks of installing a key fob door access system

  • Lost or stolen fobs — Individual key fobs for doors can be just as easily lost or stolen as traditional keys. While this security threat can be mitigated by deactivating lost fobs, for large organizations the cost of replacing credentials can quickly add up. It’s important to note that some Wiegand access key fobs cannot be easily adjusted or revoked, making replacements a headache for building management staff.
  • Malfunctions — If door access fobs are not programmed correctly or the device experiences a technical malfunction, access may be confirmed or denied to the wrong individual. With admins only able to see which device has been used and not the specific person behind the access event, this can make mitigating incidents more difficult. 
  • Power interruptions — Depending on the type of locking mechanism installed, a loss of power could leave entry points fully accessible or permanently locked. Additionally, if an individual fob or reader loses power, such as with battery-operated remotes and wireless locks, the employee or tenant will be unable to gain access to any secured locations.
  • No guest access — When operating a dedicated key fob access control system, there will be no way to grant temporary credentials to guests without first issuing them with a personalized fob. This could lead to tenants or staff sharing door access fobs and exposing potential security vulnerabilities.
  • Lack of scalability — Not all door key fob security systems are futureproof. Some systems can only support a limited variation of credential types, which could lead to security vulnerabilities or frustration down the road if you want to expand the door fob system or incorporate newer access methods such as mobile credentials. 

Installation and cost considerations for a security fob system

The development and implementation of a building security system is often a large investment for any business or property owner. The system needs to not only provide effective and reliable security benefits, but also fall within a predetermined budget.

Major cost and installation considerations will often account for the size of the installation, the number of hardware units required, the most appropriate credential types and the presence of existing physical security infrastructure. While in many cases key fob access control systems represent one of the more cost-effective available configurations, actual costs will depend heavily on several factors.

  • Access fobs are physical credentials that will need to be purchased regularly. Not only will every employee or tenant require a unique device, but spares will be needed to account for new users, lost or stolen fobs and for the issuing of temporary credentials to visitors.
  • Initially configuring key fob credentials will require admins to manually enter user information into a local server network. This task can be time-consuming and should be factored into labor costs.
  • If a key fob access control system has been installed by an external company, engineers may be required to visit the site to perform updates and maintenance. This can result in additional costs or affect daily system operations should any issues occur.
  • Existing wiring infrastructure will need to be considered before choosing a particular type of key fob access system. If you cannot leverage the existing wiring, extensive work will be required, drastically increasing key security fob system installation costs.
  • If security teams plan on scaling installed entry fob systems in the future, chosen networks will need to be capable of integrating with proposed security features. Consider this and the cost of purchasing new readers and locks when creating a full security system budget.

A key fob entry system for buildings offers robust security

With an estimated 88% of modern businesses experiencing an increase in physical security threats, many property owners will be considering updating or improving building security systems. Of all available keyless configurations, key fob access control systems are often amongst the most cost-effective and easy to use, though the pros and cons of installing these devices should be weighed by security staff.

Before choosing a key fob access control system, think about how the network will be managed. Some devices may not be compatible with modern software or hardware and may be difficult to scale. Others may require additional wiring or structural work. Factor in the cost of replacement access fobs and decide how temporary credentials will be issued. With these bases covered, key fob systems can be effective for securing both commercial and multifamily residential properties. 

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