Our guide to access control readers
Camilla Ashdown, 04. 04. 2023 | 5 min read
Access control readers are used to control access to a particular area or building. Or rather, simply put, who can go in, and who can’t! They come in all shapes and sizes and offer various features that enhance how they work: but there are loads to choose from and it can be overwhelming to know which is best for you and your needs.
In this guide, we’ll discuss the best features of access control readers, different access methods, where to install them, common problems installers encounter, and the difference between readers with inbuilt controllers and readers with separate controllers.
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What is an access control reader?
Access control readers are devices installed on doorways or other entry points that allow access to that area or building to be selectively restricted. They differ from intercoms in that they don’t allow for calling to those inside the building – instead, someone trying to enter needs to present some form of user credential (such as a PIN code or access card) that the access reader will verify before opening the door.
The access reader will read the user-credential data. It cross-checks this data within the user database to know whether the user is supposed to be in that place, in that particular time frame. If everything is as it should be, the user is granted access. Otherwise, the entry point stays locked.
User credentials: which is best?
Let’s briefly outline the various credentials and find out the pros and cons of each:
PIN Codes: Access control readers that use PIN codes require users to enter a unique code to gain access to a building or area. It’s good for granting one-time access to visitors, or as a backup access credential for other methods. PIN codes are generally considered to be secure in themselves, however, they require users to memorize the code and run the risk of being misheard/misused.
RFID Cards: Access control readers with proximity cards allow users to access a building or area by swiping or tapping a card on the reader. This method is convenient but requires users to carry the card with them every day. RFID cards are also commonly forgotten, and as is now widely known, can be very easy to duplicate! If you can, always use secure RFID cards with encrypted credentials. This means the reader will, instead of reading for the UID (a generic identifier of the RFID cards), it will instead read for a unique encryption key written in the card. To do this, you need to ensure that all readers supposed to read said encrypted keys have the appropriate reading key loaded in them. Then you can be sure that no other device can read these cards whilst ensuring it will be near impossible for hackers to misuse these cards.
Biometric recognition: Access control readers with biometric recognition allow users to gain access by presenting a unique biometric feature such as fingerprints, their eye, or face recognition. This method is secure but requires users to register their biometric data before they can gain access so it’s not our favourite choice due to potential GDPR issues.
Mobile access: Most, if not all, modern installations should use this access credential. It’s the future! It allows users’ mobile phones to act as access credentials and often uses Bluetooth technology. Mobile access is great for many reasons, but our favourites are that it can be quick, safe, and reliable – and users are far more likely to leave their RFID cards at home than their phones.
The best features access control readers offer
Access control readers offer loads of different features that enhance how they work. Some are essential, and some are simply added benefits! The best features include:
Multiple access method options: Essentially, all good access control readers should offer as much flexibility to users as possible. How? By offering not only one access method but multiple. This will benefit you as well as users! It means you can offer: double-factor authentication in projects that require more security, backup access methods for when people forget RFID cards (a common problem), an extra supplement to the popular mobile access (good for residential projects where users can be of varying ages and technological experience), or to grant access to one-time visitors in the form of a temporary PIN code.
Time and Attendance: Access control readers with time and attendance features allow organizations to monitor the entry and exit of employees, making it easier to track their working hours and attendance. It also enhances security for residential projects: timestamps of entrances and exits can make investigating security incidents easier.
Integration possibilities: Access control readers that can be integrated with other security systems such as CCTV, alarms, and fire detection systems enhance the security of a building or area – make sure to choose a provider that doesn’t neglect this important feature. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an incomplete solution more difficult to oversee.
Weather resistance: If the reader will be installed in an outdoor or exposed area, look for a reader that is weather resistant. This ensures reliable operation in all conditions.
How is access managed and how are credentials distributed/revoked?
Every manufacturer of access control readers will have some way of allowing integrators to manage access credentials: however, not all are created equal!
Manage access directly in the device’s OS
Perhaps the most common and direct way of managing access permissions/settings in access control readers is to do it in the operating system of the device. Of course, this is only an option for IP-based access readers, analogue ones won’t have this option.
This will offer you a lot of flexibility in terms of features – however, it limits you in terms of delegating everyday tasks to end-users. This option of delegation is something that we recommend making a priority – it will save you time and also travel costs. Also, end-users are likely to be happy with being able to change access rights and set what they need themselves! Of course, most (if not all) end-users will be unable to do this in the device OS – so what’s the solution?
Manage access via a centralised platform
This is where a centralised device management platform comes in. A good one will have a user-friendly interface and will allow for quick set-up of the system as well as the ability to delegate everyday access tasks to the end-user.
Systems like this will include features such as:
- Centralised device management
- Access logs & notifications in the event of breaches
- Attendance monitoring (particularly useful in commercial projects for workers)
- Area restriction settings
- Visitor credential management
- Variations in admin privileges/permissions across multi-company sites
Where to install access control readers
Access control readers are valuable components of access solutions – they are often smaller than intercoms and can be used to secure any area you choose. What are some examples of this?
Exterior Doors: Access control readers can, of course, be installed on exterior doors to enhance the security of a building or area, however, the more common choice is an IP intercom as it will allow visitors to call those inside to gain access. You can find access control readers that support user credentials that can be given to visitors (such as a temporary PIN) – but we recommend building a complete solution using an IP intercom. Find out more about intercoms here.
Interior Doors: Access control readers are commonly installed on interior doors to restrict access to sensitive areas such as server rooms, research labs, meeting rooms, or other confidential areas. They can also be installed on turnstiles or on narrow doorframes (provided they have the right design for this).
Communal areas: In residential projects, particularly luxury ones, there are areas such as gyms, pools, laundry rooms, etc that need restricted access. Installing an access reader in these places allows you to restrict the access as you need, according to the requirements of the project.
Parking Lots: Access control readers can be installed in parking lots to restrict access to authorized personnel and residents. Those who are just visiting can be given a PIN to enter – and you can also add an IP video intercom that can read the licence plates of permanent residents/personnel, so their access is quicker.
Lifts: When you include an access control reader in a lift, you include vertical access in your access control solution. This allows you to integrate restricted access to certain floors to enhance the overall security of the building. Start with an access reader in the lift cabin that allows users to authenticate themselves using an RFID card, fingerprint, PIN code or Bluetooth technology in their mobile phone.
Access control readers can be installed using different methods, including:
Surface Mount: Access control readers can be installed on the surface of a wall using brackets or screws. This method is easy and quick to install but may not be aesthetically pleasing. Often, however, access readers are installed in areas where it’s not possible to drill extensively (for example on glass) so this installation possibility is something a manufacturer should always offer.
Recessed: This installation type means the access control reader is installed within the wall but isn’t totally in line with it. Of course, because the product is mounted inside the wall, this method requires more effort and professional installation, however, the end result is more sleek and professional looking.
In-Wall/Flush: Access control readers can be installed inside the wall, so they are flush, providing a clean and seamless look. This method looks great, however, requires more effort and requires professional installation. Also, some manufacturers design their devices in a way that does not allow for a total flush mount – instead, they will offer a recessed mount that has a mere few centimetres of excess.
Common problems with access control readers
While access control readers are generally reliable, there are some problems that installers may encounter. These include:
Installation issues: Improper installation can lead to a variety of issues, such as unreliable operation or a shortened lifespan of the reader. It's important to follow the manufacturer's installation instructions carefully and ensure that the reader is properly mounted and wired.
Communication problems: Access control readers rely on communication with the access control system to function properly. Issues such as network outages or misconfigured settings can cause communication problems, resulting in the reader not functioning as expected.
Reader malfunctions: Like any electronic device, access control readers can fail due to internal components wearing out or software malfunctions. Regular maintenance and inspection can help prevent these issues, but it's important to have a plan in place to address malfunctions when they do occur, as well as choosing a provider that both prioritises quality materials/construction and regularly updates their OS to prevent software issues. Another tip is to go for a company that offers comprehensive technical support, should the worst happen.
Environmental factors: Access control readers can be affected by environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and dust. It's important to choose a reader that is designed to operate in the environment it will be installed. Plenty of providers test their devices for exactly this: some even make sure their readers are as strong as possible!
Readers with inbuilt controllers vs. readers with separate controllers
One key decision you need to make when choosing an access control reader is whether to choose a reader with an inbuilt controller or a reader with a separate controller. Here's a breakdown of the differences:
Readers with inbuilt controllers: These readers have a controller built into the device, allowing them to make access control decisions on their own, therefore they’re often termed ‘smart readers’. This means they don't need to be connected to a separate access control panel.
Their advantage is the use of unified cabling, where you just need an Ethernet cable to the door. You don't have to deal with different cables and interfaces (Wiegand, RS-485, OSDP) as with traditional solutions with a separate "smart" controller and a connected " dummy" reader.
Unlike controllers, where one controller can operate 2, 4 or even more doors, the smart reader is designed for one door. This gives you a single point of failure and the reader is also able to make decisions about authorized entry completely independently without the need to communicate with another element (controller, server).
Readers with separate controllers: These readers are connected to a separate access control panel, which is responsible for making access control decisions. This is slowly becoming outdated, and we recommend choosing access control readers with controllers inbuilt.
There we have it! Overall, when buying an access control reader, it’s all about finding the right supplier and the right features for the needs of your customers. Access control readers are a very important part of the access system as a whole, so make sure you think carefully before deciding!