Collecting Pokémon cards is bigger than it ever has been before! Not just in terms of collect-ability, but in price point as well. In some cases, cards that were bought five years ago have more than quadrupled in price. The market demand is strong, so the value is staying. With that value comes an increased need for security and protection. It's no longer about collecting your cards. It's about protecting your investment.
So, what is the best security option available to the common collector? There are plenty of strategies that can be implemented. However, the most common methods is a home safe. The combination of convenient protection with no monthly fee (compared to a safe deposit box or storage location) makes a home safe a favorite among collectors.
But what safe is “right” for PSA slabs and common Pokémon collectibles? The abundance of safes available on the market is absolutely staggering. There are dozens of manufacturers and plenty of price points, but are you really getting what you're paying for? The world of safes is huge, and so is this guide! I've broken this topic into several parts, to help you make the best possible purchasing decision for your collection. It's worth your time to sit back and read this one; it may be the best return on an investment you ever make!
SAFES 101: UNDERSTANDING THE SAFE'S OBJECTIVE AND CLASSIFICATION:
When you're in the market for a home safe you need to have a security goal in mind. Do you want it to provide optimal security from break-ins? From fire? From humidity? Think to the future as well: will this be a safe you have to move in the future? Will your safe be big enough to house your collection in the coming years? Is weight a concern? These are factors to consider when determining the objective of your safe, both now and in the future.
Any online reading you do on home safes will likely be very confusing. Safes different classifications for both security AND fireproofing. These classifications are tested separately and each use a different rating system. This section will only cover the security classification scale. Fireproofing will be in the next section.
UNDERSTANDING SAFE SECURITY RATINGS:
Burglar ratings are a mix of manufacturer standards and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) ratings. Underwriters Laboratories is an independent organization that tests products for safety and performance in a wide number of industries. When a product has a UL certification it means the product has held up to specific testing standards. Think of UL as the “PSA” of safes. The UL certification means you know what you are getting because it has been verified independently thorough a series of strict tests.
There is no regulating body that assesses all safes on the market. There are outlines from the U.S. Department of Justice that regulate gun safes but there is no regulatory oversight for those of us just trying to collect Pokémon cards. That said, the safe industry has established its own guidelines for what qualifies as a safe. UL has also published the standards for their rating system. Both systems are widely accepted by consumers and manufacturers alike.
The following list is a mix of common industry ratings, as well as UL ratings. These are the most common ratings you will see on the market. Keep in mind these ratings only cover the safe's level of burglary resistance. Fireproofing is not taken into account for these ratings.
"B" Rated Safe:
This is a safe with a body that is at least one-fourth of an inch thick and a door that is at least one-half of an inch thick. These safes face no testing and the presence of any locking device on the box gives them the "B" rating. Safes with this rating are easy to burglarize because they can weigh less than 200 pounds (easy to move with a dolly) and can be opened with a pry bar in just a few moments if bolted to the floor.
"C" Rate Safe:
This is a safe with a steel body that is at least one-half of an inch thick with a locking door that is at least one-inch thick. The door must have a hard plate and a relocking device. Just like a “B” rated safe, no independent tests are given to prove this rating. These are also easy to burglarize.
Residential Security Container (RSC) LEVEL I:
This is a UL security rating; which is defined as follows: “Attack level one requires the product to withstand a five-minute attack by one technician using common hand tools such as drills, screwdrivers and hammers. If the product successfully performs to the minimum requirements, it is eligible for certification.”The time limit only includes "tools on the safe" time or a net working time. The actual test might take longer than an hour to complete and may be repeated as many times as UL feels is necessary to ensure that all prospective avenues of attack have been thoroughly explored.
RSC LEVEL II:
This is a newer classification that was implemented by UL in 2018 due to the limitations of the old RSC rating system. The old rating failed to distinguish between working times for safes classified as RSC. Cheaper models barely lasted five minutes while others lasted much longer. It was impossible for a consumer to differentiate “good” and “bad RSCs as a result. UL responded to this concern by defining the tests for RSC level II as follows: “Attack level two products must be able to withstand a ten-minute attack by two technicians who use more aggressive tools such as picks, high-speed carbide drills and pressure applying devices. In addition, the technicians will attempt to make a six-square-inch opening in the door or the front face of the gun safe; the product must resist their efforts.” It should be noted that all six sides of the safe must pass this rigorous test to be classified as RSC level II.
Safes given a U.L.TL-15 rating have all passed entry tests defined by UL, using the same tools and usually the same group of testing engineers for RSC Level II. It is important to note that the TL-15 rating only has to test the door of the safe. The other five sides of the safe are only tested for 5 net working minutes. In effect, the safe may be considered “weaker” than an RSC Level II in terms of sides without a door. The door mounted side must repel attacks for 15 net working minutes, compared to RSC Level II's 10 minutes. The safe must be constructed of 1-inch solid steel or equivalent. The safe is tested using: "...common hand tools, drills, punches, hammers, and pressure applying devices". There are over 50 different types of attacks that can be used to gain entrance into the safe. Usually UL will only try two or three based on what they know about the product- and they know a lot.
RSC LEVEL III:
UL defines the test for RSC level III as follows: “Attack level three also gives two technicians a ten-minute window to perform the test, but the range of tools become even more aggressive. Additionally, the size of the maximum attack opening shrinks significantly from six-square-inches to two-square-inches.” This test is essentially a more intense version of Level II. Why is there a change to the two-inch opening for this test? UL does not state why this change occurred, but my current theory is that a two-inch opening would allow for the insertion of an explosive material, which could be used to blow open the safe. Your cards will not survive at that point, so your would-be burglar is getting away with nothing.
Tools used for RSC level one are on the left, tools for RSC level two are on the right.
The tests given for this rating are essentially the same as the TL-15 tests except for, you guessed it, the net working time. The engineers get 30 minutes and attack level III tools to help them gain entrance. Keep in mind that these engineers have the manufacturing blue prints and can disassemble the safe before the test begins to see how it works. They know their stuff. Just like the TL-15 test only the door of the safe has to pass 30 minutes of net working time.
The test for these safes are essentially the same as the TL-30 test except that the safe is tested on all 6 sides. Again, the engineers can disassemble the safe prior to testing and have access to the blueprints to see how the safe is built and how it works. All six sides much survive a minimum of 30 net working minutes.
Do keep in mind that other ratings besides the ones mentioned here exist, but the ratings listed above are the ones you will commonly see. If you don't see a listed rating on a safe, then that probably means it has no rating and should be avoided.
SAFES 202: UNDERSTANDING FIRE RATINGS
I've done a few dozen consultations for collectors who were looking to buy a safe. Without question the number one thing I'm asked about is fire protection. If you go out today and buy a “fireproof” safe, are you really getting what you paid for? To better understand what level of protection you will need, you must first understand the valuables you are protecting. Most of you are looking to protect PSA slabs, and maybe a few raw cards that you have stored away in toploaders or card savers. All of the storage options I just mentioned have a common denominator-plastic.
Through my own independent research, I've found that the standard PSA slab has a melting point somewhere between 150 °F (65 °C) and 200 °F (93 °C). Other plastic storage options generally use even thinner plastics that melt even faster. As a result, if you wish to protect your slabs you MUST keep your cards in a container where the internal compartment won't go above 150 °F during a fire event.
Similar to security ratings, the safe industry uses both manufacturer suggested ratings and UL listed ratings. Thankfully, unlike security ratings, fire ratings are easily identified by UL. These ratings give the total amount of time a safe's internal storage will stay below an established temperature. UL typically tests the exterior of a safe to a peak temperature of 1700 °F and then monitors the safe's internal temperature as it cools down. The safe is not removed from the furnace and is allowed to cool naturally.
When it comes to manufacturers setting their own rating, I advise caution. Manufacturers can do their own testing and are not known for establishing controlled environments for the internals of the safes they test. It's not unusual to see manufacturers run tests with varying degrees of heat intensity for the exterior of the safe (anywhere from 1200 – 1600 °F), some manufacturers will artificially cool the safes after a test is completed such as spray the safes with a fire hose to speed up the cooling process. So use caution when purchasing a safe that doesn't have a UL listed fire rating. You may not get the most optimal safe for your money.
As for UL its ratings are always consistent and easy to follow because the same formula is used to label each safe. UL's ratings tell you the maximum burn time (X hour) and the temperature classification (EX: Class 350 means a safe's internal temperature will not go above 350 °F). The most common ratings you'll see are:
1 Hour – UL class 350 Rated Safe (Over 80% of fireproof safes on the market have this rating, or a rating that is very similar. This type of safe is standard for document storage)
1 Hour – UL class 150 Rated Safe (Used for computer media)
1 Hour - UL class 125 Rated Safe (Used for older forms of computer media)
So back to protecting those slabs. What is optimal for collectors? Class 150 rated data and media safes are the best option on the market for protecting your collectibles from fire. That said, these types of safes do have a few drawbacks.
Security is not great on most of these safes. They do not have classifications on par with industry standards, although some sources suggest they are close to RSC level I. Additionally, these safes only have a few manufacturers and are difficult to find. The reason for this is due to how they are marketed. They are made for computer media, but as we move into an era of saving everything to an off-site cloud, there is less demand for them.
SAFES 303: HUMIDITY CONTROL
A couple of months back I had a few individuals from the community approach me and let me know that they lost thousands of dollars in PSA cards because they had humidity related issues with their safes. What I eventually learned was that the safes they were using had not been opened and maintained in quite a while. Humidity in the safes allowed water vapor to get inside multiple PSA slabs and warp the cards to a point where the cards could not be recovered. It was gut wrenching to sit there and look at the losses these people took. A silver lining to these losses is that they became an extremely useful lesson to the community at large.
When a safe closes, it seals the humidity inside. This humidity usually ends up settling on the contents of the safe or getting into spaces it should not (like PSA slabs). You must keep a form of humidity control in your safe at all times. Something like silica gel packs are perfect for this because they pull moisture from the air and can be reused. Rotating silica gel every one to two weeks should keep your safe at an acceptable relative humidity level.
Larger safes may come with an electric dehumidifier, which should be checked monthly. Another method to track relative humidity is to use a humidity sensor that monitors the inside of your safe. These are cheap and are great for alerting you to excessive humidity in the safe.
Safes are one of the many great options available to collectors to better protect their investments. For those of us who have collections that are too big to fit in a safe deposit box, or for folks who like the convenience of keeping their collections at home, safes play a big role.
The world of safes is huge, and it's a difficult one to navigate. There is always more to discover and more to learn. I suggest you research as much as you can, ask questions, and find what works best for your collecting needs.
Until then, thanks for reading!
Jason Micco is a consultant for trading card preservation and security. He has been an active member in the graded Pokémon card community for over eight years.