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How secure is your barrel lock and key system?

A well managed barrel lock and key system is vital to utility companies’ financial success. A proper locking system for meters, cabinets and other hardware, with enforcement and support through strict control over the distribution of the keys, has proved to be of utmost importance as the competitive utility environment evolves.

As utilities grow and merge, it is imperative that the integrity of internal security systems be sustained and security assured. For many years, utility companies have relied upon a barrel lock and key as the foundation for locking their field devices. This unique system restricts unauthorized access to their hardware.

But what about internal security within the utility? Is the lock and key system truly secure? Concern is growing among many utilities about the integrity of these internal security systems. Many believe that their once-secure barrel lock and key system has been jeopardised. Personnel turnover rates, lost and stolen keys and a number of other outside effects have raised questions as to whether the barrel lock and key system has been compromised.

Locking devices designed to accept traditional or disk-style barrel locks allow for seamless integration

Internal security audits have shown that an increasing number of barrel lock keys are unaccounted for. Barrel lock keys can be broken, barrel lock keys can be lost, and barrel lock keys can be stolen. Control of these security systems can go astray in the event of any one of these scenarios. The rising cost of services suggests that now is the time to regain control. More than ever, revenues must be protected. For utilities, this means safeguarding the meter – the ‘cash register’.

A barrel lock and key system is at the forefront of a utility’s security system. The meters, current transformers and enclosures must be properly locked to prevent unauthorized access and tampering. Barrel locks are widely used to prevent would-be thieves from gaining illegal access. But how are these systems kept secure?

A typical high security disk-style barrel lock and key

As with all security systems, access must be given to those who help maintain it. With utility companies, this can include a large number of individuals. Meter readers, independent contractors, supervisors and revenue protection officials may all have keys to these systems. In a large utility the number of keys in circulation is in the hundreds. 

While utility personnel recognise the need to protect the security systems, they also acknowledge that maintaining a 100% secure system is a challenge. Many incorporate internal policies that assist in system maintenance. This can include proper documentation of key dispersal, records of key repairs, maintaining a key serial number database. Keeping track of keys is vital; and with proper documentation and enforcement, a system can be kept reliable. Without proper record-keeping at start-up, the integrity of any barrel lock and key system must be held in question.

Recent accounts suggest that increasing numbers of utilities have concerns regarding the integrity of their current barrel lock and key system. In some cases lost, stolen and missing keys have reached intolerable levels. One utility reported that they can only account for 10% of the keys purchased over a ten year period. Many now acknowledge that their current system is compromised to the point where drastic measures must be considered. 

It is at this point that proper assessment and decision-making are needed to reverse the situation.


A quality barrel lock and key system can often offer what is known as an upgrade. These upgrades allow the utility to incorporate a new barrel lock into their current system without having to fully replace the system. The upgraded barrel lock can be used where instances of illegal access have occurred. The upgraded key will open both barrel lock types; but the old key will not open the new barrel lock. Incorporating an upgraded barrel lock and key into the current system allows the utility to take some initial steps to increase security throughout the system. 

However, while an upgraded key system allows for a new system to be introduced, concerns still exist regarding the original barrel locks in the field. By upgrading the barrel locks in trouble areas, initial problems can be addressed. But without replacing every barrel lock, overall security remains in question.


More and more utilities are planning to increase security measures by acquiring barrel lock and key systems that are exclusive. Instances often exist where neighboring utilities may use the same barrel lock and key, which raises further security concerns. Lost and stolen keys now pose a threat to the security of neighboring utility companies’ locking systems, because an upgraded lock and key system does not provide exclusivity. Some systems are available in which there are geographical limitations. This means no other utility can purchase the same system within a certain region, thereby helping the utility retain a certain level of exclusivity within the region.


Trends within the industry indicate that more and more utilities are looking for their ‘own’ system – one that is exclusive and unique to them. While plunger-style barrel locks can offer security and a variety of different lock mechanisms, design impediments exist which limit the number of possible configurations.

A disk-style barrel lock and key such as the Agbay lock and key syatem features a small, user freindly key

A barrel lock possessing its own unique combination has become an attractive solution. Given the limitations that the traditional plunger-style barrel locks pose, newer systems based upon rotating disks have evolved to a point where a quality system can solve these new demands. Known as ‘disk-style’ barrel locks, they use internal rotating disks to establish a combination. The inner components of disk-style barrel locks allow for a much wider variety of configurations, thereby allowing for thousands of unique combinations. The results allow utility companies to purchase and retain a much higher security barrel lock and key system that is truly exclusive. The inherent design of a disk-style barrel lock also supports building master key systems, providing greater control options.