Exterior Home Security

Solved! What Are the Two Main Types of Door Locks, and Which One Is Best for Me?

See how new smart keyless locks measure up to more traditional keyed locks to best secure your home entrances.
Meghan Wentland Avatar
Types of Door Locks
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Q: We’re replacing our very old front door, and we discovered when we were hunting for a new handle and lock set that there are many more options than the last time we looked. The array of traditional, smart, and combination locks is considerable. Can you explain the different types of door locks and help us choose the right one for us?

A: When you first buy a house, the moment that the keys are handed over is a special one: It signifies ownership. An elegant keyed lockset with a handle and deadbolt or a sleek modern affair embedded in a metal plate can add style to any front door. At the same time, many people have had the experience of leaving on vacation, only to realize when they’re an hour away from home that they can’t recall if they locked the front door. While a panicked call to a neighbor can sometimes bring relief, a smart lock can let you check your phone and see that everything is locked up tight—and maybe even let you lock any doors you left open.

Style, security, and convenience are all factors you’ll need to consider when selecting a new lock for your entry, along with your comfort level with the technology needed to implement a smart keyless lock into your home system. Each style presents different benefits and requires different precautions, so you’ll need to consider your own security needs and your lifestyle when deciding which type is best for your home.

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Traditional key locks are most commonly used, but keyless smart locks are gaining popularity. 

Key locks are the standard in most homes. Available in many styles to fit the design of the door, key locks can fit into handsets or latches and be added on as deadbolts. Many people like the secure feeling of a bunch of keys in their hand—they can feel the weight of their keys in their jacket pocket and know they remembered to grab the ring off their desk when they left work, and know that all their keys are in one place. Traditional key locks offer tremendous security, many design options, and flexibility; owners can leave a spare key with a trusted relative or friend, tuck a key into a responsible teen’s backpack, or lend one to a neighbor to let a repairman in, all while knowing that when the keys are returned, the home is secure. The vast majority of households trust traditional key locks for these reasons—plus these locks require no wiring, no Bluetooth, and no internet connection, and they are impossible to hack without physically tampering with the lock. For these reasons, key locks provide a sense of solid security for those who aren’t comfortable enough with technology to entrust their home to it.

However, anyone who has ever watched a door swing shut and lock when the keys are inside understands the potential value of a smart lock: a few quick swipes on a phone or punches on a keypad can let you back inside to turn off the pan of boiling water or get to your young children. Keyless smart locks come in several configurations; some are simply a keypad onto which users type a pin number, but most contemporary versions work via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and unlock using an app, a paired key fob, or sometimes even a fingerprint. The app or fob sends a message to the lockset on the door and automatically unlocks it, saving you the trouble of fumbling with keys at the door and making your entry hands-free. In addition, many of these locks allow you to unlock the door from great distances via an app; a parent can open a door while they’re at work for a child arriving home from school or even for a repair professional who has arrived at the home. The convenience and easy integration into other smart-home products has spurred a rise in the popularity of smart locks over the last few years, which has increased as more styles and smaller devices have become available. One drawback is that keyless locksets are dependent on power and Wi-Fi: While most come with a battery backup in case of a power outage, they may not function properly if the router has lost power as well.

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How secure a traditional door lock depends on the lock in question.

Not all locks that have keys are the same; a locking cylinder can be used to secure something as simple as a child’s cash box or as complex as a warehouse full of expensive goods. Deadbolt door locks are the most secure type of key lock and are usually used on a home’s exterior door. Available in single- and double-cylinder styles, deadbolts are rated according to their strength from Grade 1 to Grade 3. A Grade 1 is the highest grade and provides the most security.

However, any deadbolt is only as secure as the material into which it is installed. A very strong deadbolt can easily be kicked in if the wood holding the locking mechanism and the bolt is weak. Deadbolt locks can be strengthened by using solid metal strike plates to prevent the wood from being forced out around the bolt, and by choosing longer bolts that slide more deeply into the door frame, they’re less likely to be kicked through. These can be installed as front door handles and locks or as a separately keyed deadbolt to accompany a simple doorknob lock. Grade 2 and Grade 1 deadbolts, along with doorknob deadbolts, are appropriate for interior doors on which you’d like extra security, but they will not provide enough strength to be the primary exterior door security lock.

Other types of locks, such as doorknob twist locks that can be opened from the outside with a key, can work in concert with deadbolts, but they are not secure enough to provide any real security.

Types of Door Locks
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Traditional door locks can be reinforced, while smart door locks cannot be. 

A traditional door lock with key can be reinforced by changing out the bolt, the strike plate, and reinforcing the frame regardless of how deep the reinforcement makes the casing. Combining those reinforcements with strong casing materials and a solid core door means anyone trying to kick in or force the door will have a big, noisy job on their hands, and it will likely cause anyone trying to break in to give up rather than continue kicking or hammering away at the solid door and immobile lock.

Smart door locks, on the other hand, can’t be adjusted. These highly technical locksets require a cryptographic key that triggers an immediate reaction that opens the lock. Changing out a strike plate or a bolt will interfere with the relay of information and cause the lock to stop working or make the lock vulnerable to picking or bypassing by a hacker.

This doesn’t mean that a smart lock isn’t strong. If you select one with a long bolt and make sure the door and frame are made of substantial material, it’s still going to be a secure lock. You won’t be able to adjust the components of the smart lock itself, but you can strengthen its surroundings.

Smart locks can work with a traditional deadbolt. 

Many smart locks are designed to pair with traditional keyed deadbolts. Some do this by way of a cover that slips over the interior knob that turns the deadbolt and mechanically twists it when the smart lock is activated. Others use the same concept but turn a key that is permanently installed in the lock. This allows homeowners to convert more traditional, secure locks into smart locks that can be controlled through an app or fob, which is convenient if the existing hardware is particularly suited to the appearance of the front door. At this time, smart locks are not available in as many finishes and looks as traditional keyed door locks for home use, which can cause homeowners to balk at the idea of changing over to a more modern look. Smart locks that can work with traditional, existing deadbolts let homeowners keep a carefully styled appearance while benefiting from the convenience and security of a smart lock.

Smart locks are not necessarily more secure. 

The technology of smart locks has come a long way since their inception. The old-style keypads whose plastic overlay would crack on the keys used most frequently, practically offering up the code to would-be thieves, are no more. While the majority of people won’t try to kick in a door, unfortunately, many people see the challenge of hacking into other people’s technology as a form of entertainment. This is a primary weakness of smart locks.

When you lock or unlock a smart lock (using the paired fob or an app), tech-savvy thieves may be scanning for the kinds of signals that work the locks and may be able to decode yours and activate it themselves. Any piece of technology can eventually be hacked if the criminal is smart enough. If the firewall and other safety features on your home network aren’t strong enough, a thief could get into your smart-home features and control the locks from inside the system. If, however, your Wi-Fi is well secured, you change your passcodes and passwords frequently, and use the security features included in the programming of a smart lock, they can be quite secure.

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What happens when the power goes out? Smart locks have battery backups—if you’ve remembered to replace the batteries in the unit. Your router will need to be powered as well if the lock is powered through Wi-Fi. Different locks will have different default settings, but really, what’s the better option: to have a lock frozen closed or frozen open? This concern hasn’t been fully addressed yet by technology, and it’s why some locks have manual overrides or emergency keyholes.

Beyond the technological weaknesses, there are some physical concerns about smart locks. As noted above, these locks often can’t be modified to add strength, and in fact some only work with thumb turn locks or doorknob locks, neither of which is secure enough for exterior door locks. Choosing a smart lock that already includes as many of the physical security features you’d prefer (such as a metal strike plate and longer-length deadbolt) eliminates this problem.

Types of Door Locks
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Smart keyless locks do come with some advantages. 

If you’re already using a digital home assistant; control your thermostat, lights, and entertainment equipment from an app; or have a WiFi-based security system set up in your home, a smart keyless lock is an easy and obvious next step. Many home security systems offer smart locks as part of a package, but you can also add them separately to other smart devices in your home. Combining all of your smart devices together in one app makes it easy to manage the different options, and it also means you’re more likely to take precautions to secure your Wi-Fi access. Integrating a smart lock into an existing system makes it part of a routine to check that the doors are locked and that all of the battery backups are in place.

Smart keyless locks also offer the tremendous benefit of time: time not lost to hunting for house keys or driving back home to check to see if the door is locked; time that you don’t spend running home because your kid forgot his key or your dog walker lost it—and then the time you’d spend rekeying the physical lock and replacing all of your keys. There is an ease and simplicity to a keyless lock.

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The right type of lock for your home depends on your own needs and habits. 

What are your priorities for your home security practices? For homeowners in the process of changing over to a fully automated home, smart locks can fit seamlessly into a system that has already been made secure by an owner who knows the best practices about securing their technology. And the smart lock will offer all kinds of convenience: laden down with grocery bags, there’s no need to untwist them all to rest them on the step while you fish your keys from your coat pocket, sort them out, and unlock the door, then scoop all the bags back up. If your habits include house cleaners, repair professionals, dog walkers, or babysitters, there’s no need to distribute keys to all the people who help keep your life running (and then wonder whether your home is really secure): A smart lock means you can let them in from your phone at the appointed time or provide them with a temporary pass code that only works at certain times.

If, however, you’re less comfortable with technology, a smart lock is probably not for you. And if you’re particularly concerned about top-grade security, a traditional key lock will offer you more flexibility to beef up the strength of the door materials and the lock itself to really maximize the strength of your entryway. In addition, traditional locks are available in many finishes and styles, both traditional and modern, to complement the exterior of your home.

While there are some valid concerns about the safety limitations of smart locks, these concerns balance against equal concerns about traditional locks. No, you can’t necessarily upgrade the components of the smart lock, and yes, theoretically they can be hacked. But when was the last time most homeowners really assessed the strength of the doorframe around their traditional deadbolt? And how many homeowners have a key to their front door stashed under a flowerpot or doormat? All door locks are, in the end, subject to user error. Whichever lock is best for your home can be made safer by following the recommendations to maximize its security.

You may also find that you’d prefer different door lock types on each entrance to your home. A stately front door that is only used for company may require an ornate traditional key lock, while a back door used by close family members and out of sight may be better served by a smart lock, especially if a security camera that’s part of one of the best home security systems keeps an eye on who is coming and going. The availability and cost-effectiveness of both kinds of door lock offers homeowners the ability to mix and match to design the entry security their home needs.