The Best Policy: Vaulting mistakes - Building a vault the “Wright” way

The basics: safe vs. vault.

A safe is a securely constructed box of a size which could be anything from that of a mailbox to a double refrigerator.  Typical UL ratings for safes are TL-15, TL-30, TRTL-30, TL-15x6, and TRTL 30x6.  Underwriters Laboratories rates burglary resistance of safes in terms of minutes, not hours.

A vault is a room of securely constructed walls, ceiling, and floor in combination with a burglary-rated door. The UL ratings for vaults and vault doors are (ascending order) Class M, Class I, Class 2 (II), and Class 3 (III).  Be aware that there are vault-appearing doors with combination locks which are rated for fire protection, intended primarily for document storage.


Bluto Paz was at last ready to break ground on what would be the realization of a career-long dream – a beautiful new store in what he was sure would be a perfect location for selling jewelry.

And while Paz Jewelry had grown steadily over the years, Bluto’s vendors were almost as excited as he was about the plans - and projections were that the new store would run with inventory levels around the $3,000,000 mark.

One feature of the new store that he was especially looking forward to was an escape from the daily chore of having to pack his beautiful jewelry inventory into cardboard boxes to be crammed into the too-small space of his several safes - and no more having to discount jewelry because of damage suffered in the process of protection.  At the end of the business day, stock of the new store would be placed onto trays that would slide easily onto wheeled storage carts - which would then be rolled into his spacious new high security vault.

Bluto’s construction contractor assured him that building a vault would be no problem as he had built vaults for other customers - including a high profile real estate office and a mortgage company.  Bluto signed off on the plan, and so the project began.

The contractor built Bluto’s vault just like others he had built - concrete block walls with steel reinforcing bars running vertically through the cores of the blocks, and the cores then filled with concrete. On the finished room, a combination-lock door was installed with a release handle on the inside should a person be unintentionally or intentionally locked in.  The UL rating on the door was “4 hours.”

Finally, the showcases were in, carpet was about to be installed, and merchandise was on its way; the doors would soon be open to the public for the first time.

It was then that Bluto called his insurance agent to tell him of the pending move, and especially about the new vault! 

“What UL rating is the vault?” the agent asked.  “I don’t know,” replied Bluto, “we didn’t talk about a rating; I’ll ask my contractor.”

Contractor: “Rating?  Vaults don’t have ratings - you wanted a vault; I built you a vault.  A vault is a vault!  The UL rating on the door is ‘4 hours,’ and you can see the label attached to the door frame.”

The vault was not and could not be rated because UL standards were not used in its construction, and the room had a fire door rather than a vault door. Two of the clues that the door was a fire door and not a vault door were:  “4 hours,” (stated on the label as a fire rating), and the inside release lever - security vault doors do not have them (there is other protection for a lock-in). 

Concrete blocks and standard consistency cement can be easily chipped away using simple tools - which would leave only the steel bars as the final barrier. Since the construction and door were less than the lowest rating by UL for a vault (“M”), the room was classified as a “stockroom.” 

The insurance company determined that in order for Bluto to use his “stockroom” for jewelry protection, he would need to place high level safes inside the room. This not only added considerable cost, but defeated the original purpose of being able to efficiently use trays and carts instead of boxes.

Bluto Paz had wasted a great deal of money for very little benefit.


Alexander Wright was also building a new store and planning for the installation of a vault. Alex contacted his insurance agent early in the planning stages and learned something of vault and UL vault ratings.  The carrier recommended a Class 3 vault for the amount of inventory and other jewelry property that would be in Alex’s new store.

Alex passed that along to his building contractor as a requirement of the project. The contractor consulted one of his own resources, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) to obtain specifications for a UL rated Class 3 vault. [The ASTM form “F 1247-89” is a document which bridges the gap between Underwriters Laboratories testing facilities and standard construction materials and methods.]

At the same time, Alex explored a relatively new option for vault construction - individual panels which would be factory manufactured to UL standards and then brought in to be assembled on-site.  “New” is a relative term, as modular vaults entered the jewelry security scene 20-25 years ago.

This gave Alex a choice:

Option 1 – A class 3 vault poured on site by his contractor: multiple layers of crisscrossed steel bars or steel mesh grids would be placed within the forms, concrete poured to meet a specific level of density and hardness, with the resultant walls at least 27” thick. The same construction and thickness also applied to the floor and ceiling.

Option 2 – a class three modular vault - individual UL-rated panels assembled and welded to form the walls, ceiling, and floor. And because of factory conditions in the manufacturing process, each panel would be about 13” thick. A prototype of the panel had been submitted to UL for testing and had passed; thus each panel would bear the “UL Listed” symbol.

A Class 3 vault door would be applied to the room under either option.

Alex got prices both ways, but one obvious difference he noted related to floor-space. Using simple arithmetic, he calculated that the walls and door of a 10’ X 10’ poured-on-site vault would occupy about 90 sq. ft. of floor space - vs. 43 sq. ft. for an equally rated modular vault.

Alex made his decision, built his new store and new vault - was able to put more jewelry away, safely, than he ever had before - with much less time, inconvenience, and “shop wear” on his stock. If Alex’s needs changed in the future, the modular vault could be reconfigured, enlarged, or even taken with Alex to a future location.

Bluto had forged ahead, making decisions before having all the facts, and relying on the unqualified advice of a person who was not familiar with high security construction issues. And having approved the plans in advance, his recourse was limited.

Final question: Any vault is inherently more secure than a safe. True or False?

The answer: To a large extent, this is true, particularly in terms of modular vaults, the components of which having been tested and rated by UL - though the time-levels of the tests for Classes M and 1 are similar (15 and 30 minutes, respectively).  Class 2 is a 1-hour test in UL labs, and Class 3 is a 2-hour test.  An insurance carrier may typically insure multiple millions of inventory in the higher level vaults. Nevertheless, a key advantage of a vault is the ability to store and organize more inventory, which results in better overall security and lower insurance costs.

Bob Carroll is a Certified Insurance Counselor who has been serving the insurance needs of the jewelry industry for more than 30 years, in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He owns Robert G. Carroll and Associates, and is associated with Clockwork Insurance Services - representing Jewelers Mutual and other qualified carriers of insurance for the jewelry industry.  “Jewelry isn’t just something we do; it’s all we do.”, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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