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Modern access control systems have become almost essential to business owners, landlords and security teams across the globe, representing a trusted, secure and reliable way to protect commercial and private properties from potential intruders. But choosing the best door access system for any given situation will require some understanding of how these technologies operate.

RFID door entry and lock systems have long been amongst the most popular access control system options for commercial enterprises, with RFID card locks and related technologies being relatively simple to install, convenient to use and suited to a wide range of applications, though not all RFID access control systems are created equal.

With so many solutions on the market, identifying a high-quality RFID door entry system can be a little tricky to those that don’t know what to look out for. So to help businesses, property owners and security teams get the most out of RFID door readers, this guide aims to explain exactly how RFID door access systems works, what to look for in an RFID key lock and the best use cases for RFID doors.

What is an RFID door entry system?

What is an RFID door lock? A RFID smart lock is a specialized electronic door locking mechanism that utilizes electromagnetic energy and Radio Frequency Identification signals to secure commercial and residential building access points. 

Rather than relying on an easily manipulated key-based lock, an RFID reader for a business requires predetermined electronic credentials to grant access to authorized individuals. RFID deadbolt locks are quickly gaining popularity, with 47% of all US apartment buildings utilizing these RFID door systems or similarly designed RFID smart locks in some capacity. 

As RFID lock access door mechanisms are electronic, they can be integrated with existing security features to prevent theft, or trigger alarms or automated lockdown functions in the event of an attempted breach. Unlike traditional keys, the credentials used to access a door RFID reader can be adjusted by admins without needing to replace the lock itself. 

What is Radio Frequency Identification?

The acronym RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification, an electronic network that enables two devices to communicate wirelessly via radio signals. In the context of door access systems, an RFID card door lock typically consists of a stationary reader and a key card or fob used to store access credentials.

RFID technology was first developed in the 1970s, though at the time both RFID tags and corresponding readers were far too large and costly to be of much commercial use. Today’s RFID entry systems, however, are compact enough to fit inside key cards and portable fobs for key fob entry systems, and as they’re now much cheaper to produce, it’s not uncommon to find RFID chip door lock systems and tags used in many industries, from library cataloging to the common utilization of an RFID reader for building security.

Active vs. passive RFID technology

The most common types of RFID devices can be divided into two main types: active and passive systems. Though these technologies do share some fundamental similarities, such as communicating via radio signals, the use cases for each style of device tend to be very different. 

An active RFID unit will be fitted with an internal dedicated power source and can be operated at a range of up to 100 meters from a corresponding RFID reader. This allows active RFID devices to constantly broadcast an uninterrupted signal, making them ideal for tracking moving objects in real-time. For this reason, active RFID security systems are mostly used for vehicle management and identification purposes. 

In comparison, RFID commercial locks for doors commonly make use of a passive system. Containing no internal power source, passive access control RFID systems only activate in response to the electromagnetic spectrum signal transmitted from a stationary RFID reader. This design helps to protect the credentials stored on the card or fob as the signal is more difficult to intercept; this in turn helps to improve the security of the access control RFID lockset itself. 

How do RFID access control systems work?

RFID access control systems work by utilizing a series of tags, readers and computer servers to grant door access to any authorized individuals in possession of valid credentials. Residents, staff or other authorized persons are able to hold their RFID key card up to the reader, which will then use a radio frequency to communicate with the RFID door knob in order to grant or deny access to an entry point.

RFID door entry systems are not dissimilar to near field communication (NFC) access control networks, though the main advantage of an RFID door lock commercial mechanism is that these configurations are able to communicate with devices that are much farther away than a comparable NFC-based network, making RFID commercial door locks more reliable than NFC-based systems.

Low vs. high-frequency RFID door systems

RFID access control technology is commonly found separated into two main operational systems: those that use low-frequency radio waves, and those that operate via high-frequency signals.

Low-frequency RFID security systems transmit a 125KHz signal, and have a relatively short read distance of 10 cm, meaning that presented credentials must be very close to the RFID door reader to register. As low-frequency RFID requires close proximity to operate (much like a proximity card access control system), there is less chance of the system being affected by interference, which is why low-frequency RFID door system configurations are often chosen for building entrances and offices.

RFID readers for a business use case, or commercial RFID door handle locks, can also rely on a high-frequency signal, with these readers operating at 13.56MHz and boasting a readable range of between 10 cm and 1 meter, making HF RFID much more versatile. High-frequency RFID also operates at a similar wavelength to NFC systems, so it’s not uncommon to find high-frequency RFID door locks that also support NFC-enabled devices. 

Ultra-high frequency RFID access control

Though these systems are far less common, there is also the option of installing an ultra-high frequency RFID lock for door entry systems. Operating at 900MHz, a UHF RFID door lock unit is capable of achieving readable ranges or visibility of up to 100 meters, though this will depend on the specific capabilities of the corresponding RFID tag. 

Though ultra-high frequency systems have the longest range and the fastest read times, they are more prone to interference, making these readers easier to intercept. For these reasons, UHF configurations are often used as outdoor RFID gate entry systems and for vehicle identification purposes, or utilized as part of a wider RFID gate access control system for private or commercial properties.

RFID door lock system components

A standard RFID access control system contains four main components, all of which are designed to work in sequence when attempting to verify presented credentials via a registered key card or fob. 

A full system RFID reader for building security will include:

  • An RFID tag — Typically installed in a key card or fob, this device carries the digital credential information needed to gain access to a corresponding RFID door lock. 
  • An RFID reader — An RFID reader will be installed next to the secured door or RFID gate lock; this device contains an antenna designed to receive transmitted data, and in the case of an active system, it will emit an electromagnetic field to power the RFID tag in close proximity. 
  • A control panel — Connected to the stationary RFID reader there will be a computerized control panel. This server is configured to read the data transmitted from the RFID door system. 
  • An electronic locking mechanism — If the credentials presented are verified by the control panel, instructions will be sent to the RFID door lock mechanism granting the user access. 

For an RFID door locking system to successfully grant access to a secured entry point, each of these components must be present and functional, meaning regular maintenance and testing is a necessity.

Using an RFID access control and door lock system

Access control RFID locks and credentials are not only much harder to duplicate, intercept or otherwise breach than a traditional key-based security system, these devices also provide a level of convenience to users that is rarely matched by any other alternative building security system. 

Once a set of RFID credentials has been issued to a chosen employee, residential tenant or team member, the admin of the system is able to monitor, update or in some configurations even revoke privileges remotely. Helping to drastically improve incident response times around the clock. 

Whether it’s an RFID reader for an office building, or you’re using residential RFID door locks for a multifamily building, here’s the process that authorized persons will follow to gain entry via an RFID access control system. 

  1. The authorized individual holds their RFID access card up to the stationary RFID reader. Depending on the configuration (low or high frequency) this can be done at distance or in proximity, though either way their RFID fob will begin communicating with the reader.
  2. The stationary reader establishes a connection with the RFID fob. Once connected, the authorized individual’s credentials are received by the reader to be sent on to the RFID door system’s internal control panel.
  3. The credentials are verified by the control panel. The computer inside the control panel checks the presented credentials against a predetermined database, with this information stored either locally or within a cloud-based access control server.
  4. The server instructs the RFID deadbolt lock to disengage. Provided that the presented credentials are verified by the internal computer server, the control panel will send a signal to the RFID lock instructing the door to open. If the data is rejected, an automated alert or lockdown function can be programmed to remotely inform admins of a potential breach. 

The simplicity of an RFID door lock benefits both the administrator and the end user. Not only do these systems allow authorized individuals to simply wave their ID card in order to gain access to a secured area, but security teams are given much more control over any active access credentials. 

The RFID security system is able to log each specific tag used to either gain or attempt to gain access to the secured areas, helping security professionals and IT teams to focus on potential perpetrators and the points of weakness that may have been exploited in their wider security network.

Benefits of Avigilon’s smart RFID readers

  • 99.9% reliable touchless Wave to Unlock technology

  • Unlock via smartphone app, key cards, fobs and more

  • End-to-end encryption and tamper-resistant hardware

  • Backward compatible with most legacy RFID systems 

  • Quick and easy snap-in installation with standard wiring 

  • Cloud software enables real-time alerts and actions

Integrating access control into a wider RFID security system

Alongside the standalone benefits provided by an RFID smart lock, such as ease of use and the simple management of access credentials, these systems can be integrated with many existing security features to help improve upon a business or residential property’s wider security network. 

Implementing an RFID lock system for checkpoints

For commercial properties that employ overnight security staff, any RFID locks installed around the premises can also be used to implement a checkpoint system. As RFID lock mechanisms will likely be installed alongside secure entry points designed to protect high-value items or information, security teams are often tasked with regularly keeping track of these areas of the premises throughout their shifts. 

By implementing a system in which security staff engage with each RFID reader as they move around the building, a log can be made to indicate when each area has been manually checked. In the event of a breach or attempted intrusion, admins can then reference these logs to gain valuable insights into the event, allowing teams to locate and secure CCTV footage and other evidence more efficiently. 

Integrating RFID door locks with security cameras

As RFID access control systems are electronic devices with IoT capabilities, many configurations are able to be connected to existing IP security camera networks. By implementing such a system, visual records can be created of access activity at the RFID locking system, and relevant footage can be stored each time the RFID mechanism is interacted with.

By operating via a cloud-based network, security teams can design protocols in which relevant footage is stored on a cloud server, allowing admins to review any footage and relevant video surveillance analytics flagged by the RFID access control system viewable from a connected smart device.

Creating automated alerts via RFID access control

A further integration for RFID smart locks is to use these systems and RFID tag data as a trigger for automated alerts and related lockdown functions. Similar to other smart card readers, when RFID smart locks are connected to a wider security system, any attempted breach of an RFID lock can be configured to send an electronic signal to connected security systems.

This signal can be used as a trigger for on-site alarms, additional shutters or deadlocks, highlighting and recording relevant video footage and sending real-time alerts to admins. This additional evidence can be used to improve incident response times and gain further insight into the cause of an intrusion, with the RFID reader acting as a physical event marker. 

What to look for in an RFID door entry system

Though basic principles such as contactless operation and the reliance on radio signals as a method of data transference will be present in all RFID door locks, some devices will contain a variety of additional features that can contribute to a much more effective system for certain applications. 

 Auto-lock features

If an RFID door lock is being installed to protect valuable items or important information, property owners should choose a system that’s capable of automatically relocking after being accessed. 

By opting for an RFID door entry system with this feature, property owners can be assured that their access points are not accidentally left unlocked by staff or tenants as they come and go, and reduce liability in the event of a break-in. 

Reprogrammable fobs

For businesses with temporary or contracted workers, schools, hotels, retail businesses and other environments that see high turnover, reprogrammable RFID fobs are an excellent investment. These RFID access systems allow admins to reconfigure passive tags and adjust or revoke credentials when necessary, preventing individuals that are no longer authorized to use their old fobs to open RFID door locks or bypass the security system. 

Reprogrammable fobs can also be used instead of fixed readers to issue temporary credentials to visitors, and remove the risks associated with lost or duplicated fobs with active tags, making this a top consideration for most applications of an RFID reader for a business. 

Anti-tamper technology

Anti-tamper features include the ability to program automated alarms and lockdown functions to be engaged if the RFID reader is manipulated by an unauthorized individual. Typically these features will be present in RFID access control systems that can be integrated with existing security networks. 

Devices that use a cloud-based server to verify credentials will often have the greatest degree of customization with regards to anti-tamper functionality, as these systems can usually be easily configured to communicate with remote access platforms in the cloud. 

Smart-device compatibility

Most modern RFID access control solutions will offer some degree of remote access, typically in the form of a smart-device application or a secure online portal. By utilizing this technology, property owners and security teams can approve or deny access without needing to physically remain on-site. 

The ability to monitor and adjust permissions remotely can help businesses to better utilize their available security staff, freeing up time for teams to focus on other aspects of their roles such as cybersecurity. 

Time-based automation

In some situations, such as in smaller office spaces, fitness centers and retail stores, it may not be possible to hire overnight security teams to protect the premises 24/7. In this case, choosing a  RFID commercial door lock system with time-based automations can be a cost-effective approach to round the clock security. 

By utilizing time-based automations, RFID doors or RFID gate locks can be programmed to lock at predetermined intervals, with these settings controlled via remote access. These systems are particularly effective for installations in which operating hours fluctuate, for example, opening hours may be later on weekends or day shift staff may require access at different times to overnight workers. By setting automated access schedules, changes in shift patterns can be easily controlled, monitored and adjusted.

Keypad and visitor access

It’s not always possible or realistic to issue RFID card lock access keys to visitors or vendors, as risking the loss or theft of these credentials may require the whole system to be reprogrammed. In these situations, having the option to issue a one-time passcode will be much more reasonable. 

An RFID reader for an office that also features a keypad can solve this issue. A personalized numeric code can quickly be assigned to the visitor to be used in place of an RFID door system, granting the user personalized access credentials that can easily be revoked when necessary. Some RFID commercial door lock solutions can also support digital guest passes. 

Are there any limitations to RFID commercial door lock and entry systems? 

Though commercial RFID door lock systems carry a number of benefits that provide great versatility for common use cases, there are some aspects of RFID magnetic lock designs that may lead to a property owner preferring an alternative access control system. 

Replacing RFID fobs

For residential properties, hotels and locations that expect a high number of daily users, operating an RFID magnetic door lock can result in the frequent loss of key fob door systems. This consideration may deter some property owners, though choosing a system with keypad access, time-based automation and remote access capabilities can help mitigate this issue. 

RFID commercial door lock power supplies

Some standalone RFID commercial door lock devices rely solely on battery power to function, meaning security teams will be required to regularly monitor and maintain individual RFID card access readers to ensure that each device is fully powered and operable, which can be time-consuming in larger buildings.

RFID card access security vulnerabilities 

Not all access control RFID credentials are entirely secure, with some older or less complex systems presenting security vulnerabilities that can allow hackers to clone, spoof or reverse-engineer credentials to gain property access. To avoid this, teams must ensure that all installed RFID card access readers support advanced data encryption and are able to be upgraded and updated as cyber threats evolve.

Alternatives to RFID access control systems

NFC door locks

NFC access control systems operate in a similar way to RFID door locks, with these devices relying on the same basic technology to transmit and read digital information, though across the board NFC-based networks often fail to match the efficiency and efficacy of a comprehensive RFID door system. 

NFC readers possess a much shorter operational range, at only 1 – 10 cm compared to a high frequency RFID reader at 10cm – 1m. NFC systems also generally exhibit much slower data transfer times than comparable RFID networks, making these systems less reliable when used frequently. 

Mobile-access systems

Mobile-access devices are amongst the most convenient and reliable keyless access control system alternatives available, removing the need for users to carry physical cards or fobs by issuing unique access credentials directly to approved smartphones. Active credentials can be issued, adjusted and revoked from a remote management platform, and readers can be integrated with wider security systems such as cameras, visitor management systems and alarms to form an informed remote-access network.

Choosing the right RFID door lock access control system for your business

In many ways, RFID security systems such as RFID door entry systems can represent one of the most versatile, reliable and efficient solutions to both residential and commercial property owner’s security concerns, though to get the most out of these devices it is important to consider the many permutations of modern RFID readers. 

Depending on intended use cases, you’ll need to choose between low, high or ultra-high frequency RFID readers, and further decisions regarding additional features including remote access, time-based automation and the use of alternative credentials such as keypad codes. 

Provided that these options are carefully considered, the ability for RFID door locks to be easily integrated with existing security features acts as a major benefit to the installation of these systems, though property owners must lead IT and security teams to implement dedicated security protocols built around the use of RFID access control to ensure the reliable and efficient use of RFID technology.

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