Welcome to your access control journey!
Whether you’ve just started looking or you’re nearing the end, you already know that every multi-tenant building needs an access control system. But there are a lot of systems on the market. So, how do you choose the right system for your building? Don’t worry, because we’re here to help.
This article will guide you through your buying journey as you weigh your options. It highlights the many types of access control systems available, reviews the most important features you should consider, and helps you find one that fits your budget and meets your needs.
Navigate this guide:
- What is an access control system?
- Components of an access control system
- Six types of access control systems
- The importance of an access control system
- How to choose the right access control system
- The best access control system
What is an access control system?
An access control system manages who can enter a building or room and when. Access control systems are often installed at building entrances, gates, interior doors, and elevators to ensure that only authorized people can access those spaces.
The main purpose of access control is to enhance building security and convenience by preventing unauthorized people from accessing a property while also ensuring authorized people can easily gain access. Many modern door access systems give building owners and operators the power to decide who has access to specific doors into and within a building.
These door access control systems consist of electronic hardware installed at a building’s entryway as well as access credentials used by authorized users to prove their identity and gain access. Some also offer keyless entry, which replaces traditional locks and physical keys with more convenient electronic access credentials, such as fobs, key cards, PIN codes, or even smartphones.
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Three building access control models
There are three main types of building access control systems. These three models differ based on how access is managed. You should choose an access control model that balances your building’s security and convenience needs.
The three primary access control models are:
- Discretionary (DAC): Discretionary access control is the least restrictive model. It gives multiple property admins or business owners — rather than a single security professional — the power to control who has access to certain areas of the building.
- Mandatory (MAC): Mandatory access control is the opposite of discretionary. It’s best suited for high-security organizations with strict confidentiality. Only one system administrator — such as a company’s Chief Security Officer — has the authority to establish access permissions.
- Role-based (RBAC): In a role-based access control system, users are assigned a role, and permissions are granted according to those roles. Building administrators have the power to assign roles and manage access for each role.
Open access control vs. proprietary access control
Access control systems can be divided into two categories: open and proprietary.
Open access control systems are systems whose hardware and software are interchangeable with other providers’ products. So, if you install an open access control system, you can operate the hardware with software from a different provider.
In contrast, a proprietary access control system is a system whose hardware only works with that provider’s software. If you install a proprietary access system, you must use the manufacturer’s hardware and software. So, in the event that you want to upgrade your access control software, you’ll have to replace the hardware, too.
Legacy vs. cloud-based access control systems
Historically, access control systems have required an onsite computer server at the property to store data and software. These are called legacy systems.
But the Internet of Things has introduced a better way for access control systems to function. Now, access control systems can store data on cloud computers instead of onsite. These are called cloud-based access control systems.
So, the primary difference between a legacy access control system and a cloud-based one is where they store access data and software.
Cloud-based access control systems are better than legacy systems for several reasons. First, legacy access control systems require an onsite server, which must be maintained by an IT staff member. Each time a change needs to be made to the building’s access permissions, a technician must go onsite to make these changes. This results in higher labor and time costs and lowers your building’s NOI.
Additionally, legacy systems quickly become outdated because they don’t have automatic software updates. In contrast, cloud-based access systems can be updated by the provider at any time, without the need to physically go to the property.
|Legacy access control systems||Cloud-based access control systems|
|Require an onsite server and server room.||Don’t require a server room because data is stored in the cloud.|
|Require a professional to maintain the server.||No need to hire an onsite professional to maintain the system.|
|High maintenance costs.||Low maintenance costs with automatic system updates.|
|High upfront costs to purchase the system and install the server.||Low upfront costs.|
|No mobile app or smartphone credentials.||Allows for smartphone-based access.|
|Little to no possibility to integrate with other building systems.||Simple integrations with other property technology, such as smart locks and property management software.|
Components of an access control system
There are several kinds of access control systems, but they all share a few things in common.
Access control systems require four main components:
- Control panel: The access control panel is the core of the system that stores tenant information and access permissions. The control panel can be either a physical device or cloud-based software that you can manage anywhere with internet access.
- Reader: The access control reader is installed at one or both sides of the entrance. It scans a user’s access credential, then sends the encrypted information to the control panel, signaling it to allow access.
- Credentials: Depending on the type of access control system, access credentials come in many forms. For example, credentials can be key fobs or key cards, mobile devices, or even fingerprints. But all forms of access credentials contain user identification information and access permission data.
- Door release mechanism: The control panel sends signals to the door release mechanism, which is either electronic or magnetic. If a person is permitted to enter, the door will automatically unlock.
Access control system installation
The process and price of installing an access control system depends on your building’s infrastructure and the installer you choose.
Before installing just any access control system, consider your building’s needs and access goals. Then, discuss your options with a professional.
There are two main types of access control installers:
- Local installers: Generally independent installers or companies who can help you weigh your options and choose the right system. So, they’re best suited for projects that only require a few security disciplines.
- Security integrators: Companies — usually with a national presence — that are best suited for projects requiring high-level design or particularly comprehensive security solutions.
Whichever type of installer you choose, be sure to request an onsite consultation with them. That way, the installer can assess your property and the complexity of the install. They can also provide you with an accurate quote.
Pro tip: Hire a certified installer to ensure the best results and prevent voiding the warranty on your system.
6 types of access control systems
There are several kinds of access control systems that vary by how they operate, the technologies that power them, and more. Your building may benefit from one or even multiple types of access control.
Below, we explore six access control systems to help you weigh your options:
- Key card and key fob system
- Wireless access control system
- Mobile access control system
- Video access system
- Biometric and face recognition system
1. Key card and key fob system
Key cards and key fobs are two similar types of access credentials. Tenants hold their card or fob up to a reader to enter a room or building.
Most key card and fob systems operate with RFID technology. RFID access control systems check credentials by reading information stored in RFID tags, which are built into fobs.
Key card and fob access systems can also run on radio waves, Bluetooth, or the internet. Regardless, all of these technologies – including RFID – are wireless, meaning that key cards and fobs can be considered a form of touchless access. A card access system, however, is less likely to be touchless because some card readers often require a user to actually insert or swipe their card.
A keypad is a keyless door access system that requires users to enter a numeric PIN code to gain access. Some keypads also pair with a mobile app, which allows users to open keypad-controlled doors and gates from their smartphones.
Keypads are great for entry points that visitors don’t use, such as:
- Back and side entrances
- Amenity spaces
- Staff-only rooms
- Self-storage facilities
- Gated entrances
All keypads require a power source, and some also require an internet connection. If the keypad is cloud-based, staff members can use a web-based dashboard to update the tenant directory and manage access permissions. But if the keypad isn’t cloud-based, staff must manage the system onsite or download the access control system software for remote programming.
3. Wireless access control
Wireless access control systems grant property access using wireless connections between the control panel, readers, and electronic locks. These systems require a wireless router, which enables the various components to communicate with each other.
The main benefit of wireless access control is that it eliminates the expenses and challenges of a traditional wired system. Purchasing and installing wiring to connect all the system’s components adds up, especially after a property has been built. Thankfully, since many modern access control systems now work over the internet, wireless systems cut costs and reduce installation time.
How wireless access control works
When a tenant presents their access credential to the reader, it communicates wirelessly with the control panel to determine whether that tenant is authorized. If the tenant is authorized, the access control panel sends a signal to the reader. Finally, the reader signals the door lock to open.
4. Mobile access control
Mobile access control systems use mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches as a tenant’s credential to access a building and the rooms within. Typically, tenants need to download an app to enable access control from their phones.
As smartphone ownership continues to rise, mobile phones are a convenient and secure way to manage access into and within buildings. This also means that you don’t have to issue physical keys, fobs, or cards to tenants, all of which need replacing – either because tenants lose them or they get damaged. However, tenants are far less likely to lose or forget their smartphones.
To use a mobile access control system, residents just tap a button in a mobile app or bring their smartphones near the reader to open the gate or door.
5. Video access system
Video access control systems provide video footage of all entry events and requests. These systems have a camera, which allows building staff and tenants to visually confirm a guest’s identity before granting them access.
Video access control comes in two forms:
- Video management system equipped with access control. Meaning, there’s video equipment connected to the access control panel that allows tenants to view video footage of whoever is at the door.
- One integrated device, like a video intercom system. Video intercoms send both video and audio footage to the resident when a visitor is at the entrance. Today’s video systems also have a screen for visitors to see residents, enabling two-way video calls.
How video access control works
For a video access control system to function properly, residents either need substations installed in their apartments or a mobile app on their smartphone to answer video calls from visitors. The base station at the entrance must also have a camera, but the substation may or may not have a camera. In either case, the resident gets notified when they have a visitor, and they view live video footage of the visitor before granting access.
On the property management side, building staff can review an audit trail of time- and date-stamped photos every time the door is opened once or multiple times. They can also ensure that an access credential matches the person’s identity, which can be especially useful in commercial properties.
6. Biometric and face recognition system
Biometric scanning and face recognition systems use a person’s fingerprint or facial features as access credentials. Although these systems may appear to be convenient, they require expensive technology and often pose privacy and security concerns.
To use a biometric fingerprint access control system, a tenant places their finger on the reader. The system compares the fingerprint to its database and then unlocks the door if the print is a match.
To use a facial recognition scanner, a tenant simply stands in front of the system’s camera. Since every face is unique, facial elements like the length of somebody’s nose or the distance between their eyes can be measured and categorized as data points. After scanning a person’s face, the system analyzes those data points and compares them to the ones inside its own database. If it’s a match, the face recognition access control system grants access.
Facial scanners and other biometric access control systems that don’t require a user to carry a separate credential are called frictionless access control systems.
Frictionless access is convenient, but it’s also expensive and is most often used for high-security offices or industrial complexes. For many property owners and managers, these systems are too expensive.
Watch how to open the door or gate with ButterflyMX:
The importance of an access control system
Whether people live, work, or play in your building, chances are it needs access control.
An access control system makes it easy for tenants to enter your property without requesting access every time. As a result, this creates a more secure and convenient property access experience. Additionally, access control systems with visitor management features go one step further by simplifying the process of granting access to guests.
Not only does a seamless access experience benefit your building’s tenants and their visitors, but it also simplifies your job as a property owner or manager. You get to avoid the hassle of copying physical keys, swapping out locks, and, perhaps most importantly, managing access requests every day — allowing your building staff to focus on the tenant experience.
Here’s how access control security benefits three kinds of properties:
1. Apartment access control
Every multifamily professional knows the importance of apartment access control. Apartment access control simplifies building access for residents, staff, and visitors. Today, renters seek out convenient and secure ways to enter their homes and to manage guest access — and apartment access control systems do just that.
Installing a modern access control system in your apartment building helps retain renters by enhancing the resident experience. With an easy way to safely enter their apartments and open doors for guests, residents will enjoy a better quality of life in your building. As a result, they will be compelled to renew their leases year after year.
Pro tip: Choose an apartment access control system that integrates with your property management software. That way, all essential information for building operations — rent roll, access credentials, maintenance requests, and resident messaging — will be in one centralized location.
2. Commercial access control
Just like apartments, commercial buildings need a way to ensure only authorized individuals can gain access. But unlike in multifamily properties, commercial access control systems often determine who can enter certain areas of a building and when.
Some systems also include a visitor management solution, which empowers tenants to grant access to visitors — from business associates to job candidates to food delivery — without building staff’s involvement.
It’s also worth noting that as remote work becomes the norm, the use of commercial office spaces is shifting. As companies move to hybrid work models and seek more flexible coworking spaces rather than long-term office leases, their access control needs change. The right commercial access control system can help you keep your building secure while ensuring seamless access for remote workers who may only need access to the office a few times per month.
Pro tip: Choose a commercial access control system that integrates with your commercial property management software and platforms like Google Workspace. This way, whenever employees join or leave the organization, their access permissions are added or revoked automatically.
3. Gated community access control
Tenants of a gated community place a premium on the security afforded by the gate surrounding their building or neighborhood. But they have to balance this with the inconvenience of not being able to drive right in. A gated community access control system keeps your community secure while providing a simple way for tenants and visitors to enter the property quickly.
Common gate access control systems include:
- Key card and key fob systems
- Gate intercoms
- License plate recognition systems
Many gated communities have a gate attendant to vet visitors around the clock. But the process of manually checking visitors’ credentials and calling tenants to verify each visitor is time-consuming. Properties and HOAs without a gate access control system often experience car stacking, long wait times at the gate, and tailgating.
Gate entry systems streamline the process of entering a gated property for both residents and visitors. And a mobile access control system provides the simplest access experience for gated properties. After all, most people have their phones nearby in their vehicle — sparing them the hassle of digging through their bags to find a fob or key card.
Pro tip: Choose a gate access system that lets tenants issue virtual keys to their guests. This will significantly reduce the time it takes for visitors to access your property.
How to choose the right access control system
Now you know how important an access door control system is for all kinds of properties. But how do you choose the right one for your building?
Features to look for in an access control security system:
Access control systems that let residents see and talk to visitors over a video call are called video door entry systems. Their defining feature is a camera installed at a property’s entrance that transmits video data to a resident’s apartment unit hardware or smartphone.
Video access control systems can:
- Store audit trails of all door releases. Video access systems take a photo every time someone enters the building. When your staff has access to that data, they can better secure your property.
- Video and audio communication. Two-way video access systems allow tenants and visitors to communicate with each other. Best of all, since tenants can actually see their visitors, they can visually confirm their identity before letting them in.
- Be controlled with a resident’s smartphone. Residents who use their smartphones for access control no longer need in-unit hardware installed in their apartments, saving you money. Additionally, residents enjoy the convenience of remotely opening doors.
On-premise access control systems are too cumbersome. But both residents and property staff benefit from cloud-based access control.
Here’s why you should choose a cloud-based access control system:
- Off-site hosting: You won’t have to store and maintain an onsite server, which is expensive and time-consuming. Instead, all your data is hosted offsite. Additionally, the hosting center automatically backs up your data for extra protection.
- Simple remote management: You can manage a cloud-based system and update access permissions from anywhere. So, say goodbye to physically scanning fobs or rewiring hardware just to update your system. Instead, do it all from an online portal.
- Save time and money: With a legacy access control system, it costs a lot to install and replace servers and card readers, write new software, and pay someone to manage the system. But with a cloud-based system, your provider handles everything.
One limitation of many access control systems is that they only provide a way for registered tenants to gain entry. Every building receives visitors, but many systems fail to offer a visitor management solution.
So, choose an access control system with dedicated guest management features like:
- Virtual keys: Tenants can create and send a virtual key to a planned visitor. As a result, the visitor can access the building even if the tenant isn’t there. Virtual keys include a QR code — which visitors scan at the access control system — and a PIN code.
- Delivery PINs: A delivery PIN is a code that building staff assigns to each delivery carrier. Carriers use that PIN to access the building every time they make a delivery. And staff can change or revoke the PIN at any time.
- Delivery passes: Residents can create and send a single-use delivery pass to couriers. A delivery pass is a six-digit code that residents copy and paste into the “delivery instructions” box upon check-out when ordering online. Then, when the courier arrives, they can easily gain access and complete the delivery.
The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the need for health and sanitation considerations in the field of access control. But in addition to reducing the spread of germs, touchless access systems offer many other benefits, too.
The benefits of a touchless access control system include:
- Added convenience: Touchless systems spare tenants the trouble of fumbling around for their keys. Instead, tenants can simply hold a fob up to a scanner, tap a button on their smartphones, or even use a voice command to open the door.
- Easier administration: Touchless entry systems often come with cloud-based dashboards that cut down on admin time. As a result, your staff can spend more time creating positive experiences for residents.
- Hands-free access for visitors. Touchless entry systems with visitor access features like virtual keys allow guests to enter the building by just scanning a QR code.
Pro tip: For a truly touchless access experience, invest in an automatic door that opens as soon as a resident’s credentials are verified.
Watch how ButterflyMX enables touchless access:
An access control system with a mobile app empowers users to enter buildings with just their smartphones. Keys and fobs are easy to lose or leave behind, but people are much more careful with their phones.
Additionally, systems with a mobile app allow tenants to open doors from anywhere they have an internet connection. That means they can grant access to visitors or delivery carriers even when they’re not home.
Access control systems that integrate with other smart building platforms create a unified, cohesive living or working experience that tenants and staff alike appreciate.
Access control systems can integrate with:
- Temperature sensors
- Smart locks
- Video intercoms
- Property management software
- HVAC systems
- Elevator controls
With integrations, you can create a proptech-powered access experience that’s both convenient and secure.
Picture this: When a resident uses your fully integrated access control system, the system calls the elevator, signals the resident’s lights to turn on, sets their thermostat to 72 degrees, and unlocks their apartment smart lock — all before they get through the lobby.
What’s the best access control system?
ButterflyMX offers the highest-rated access control system on the market. With more than 6,000, five-star ratings and more than 500k people using ButterflyMX every day, it’s the right solution for all kinds of buildings, from apartments to offices.
When you choose ButterflyMX for property access control, you get a powerful suite of integrated products. Each product works together to create a secure and convenient access experience for building staff, tenants, and visitors.
ButterflyMX access control products include:
- Intercom for building access: For your property’s front door or gate, invest in our video intercom system. Tenants can open doors for themselves and guests right from their smartphones.
- Keypads for interior and secondary entrances: Does your building have a back entrance or a garage? Or do you need access controls for your amenity spaces? Our keypad is the perfect solution. The ButterflyMX keypad connects with our mobile app, providing two ways to gain access: by entering a PIN code or tapping on the app.
- Elevator controls: If you control access to your elevators, ButterflyMX elevator controls help create a seamless experience. When visitors use the video intercom to enter a building, our elevator controls automatically unlock fobbed elevators for a set amount of time.
Best of all, ButterflyMX products are easy to manage through a convenient web-based dashboard, powered by the ButterflyMX OS. From one online portal, the property staff can update their tenant directory, manage access permissions, review door releases, send messages to tenants, and control every other aspect of the system.