Everyone has crucial documents—birth certificates, passports, old photographs, and more—that would be difficult or impossible to replace in the event of a disaster. For things you need easy access to, a fireproof document safe can make more sense than an off-site security deposit box. After subjecting five top-rated models to an actual trial by fire, we found that the First Alert 2030F is the best small fireproof safe for most homes.
We exposed our safes to real-world, 1,300 °F conditions in a specially constructed burn room (nearly melting our GoPro camera along the way), then blasted the charred safes with a fire hose and opened them with an axe. The 2030F kept a flash drive, a DVD, printed photos, and a newspaper free from fire and water damage in our burn. It’s large enough to hold 8½-by-11-inch sheets of paper without your having to fold them, and it’s as affordable as any other safe offering the same capacity and features. The key-based locking mechanism isn’t fancy, but it is secure.
If you prefer a safe that can hold hanging file folders and want the convenience of a digital keypad for quick access, go with the First Alert 2603DF. This larger safe has a design similar to that of our top pick, and it stood up just as well to fire and water.
Thankfully, I don’t have any experience with what happens to a safe in an actual house fire. So I worked with fire professionals to simulate the scenario accurately. My father and grandfather are both volunteer firefighters with 80 years of combined experience. They helped design, build, and burn a testing rig that approximated a house fire as closely as possible. I also interviewed John Drengenberg of UL to understand what the certifying body is looking for when it tests safes.
Document safes are meant to provide protection from fire, water, and to a degree, theft, without your having to keep anything off-site. They’re best for important documents—such as passports or birth certificates—or small items like hard drives or USB sticks. Most people can find good use for a fireproof safe, whether they want to be ready for travel or major financial transactions or just want to add an extra layer of safety for a drive full of treasured photos.
To be clear, fireproof safes are not meant to be burglarproof, or to serve as impenetrable time capsules. If you have jewelry, precious metals, or anything else of high value that you don’t need frequent access to, consider a safe that is anchored to your floor, or even a safe deposit box at a local bank. It isn’t nearly as easy for a robber to get into a bank vault as it is to enter your house. These document safes are also not gun safes, and should not be used as such.
For this guide, we weren’t looking for expensive professional installations or gun safes, but rather small, fireproof safes that fit under a desk or in a closet. This is the kind that’s heavy and secure but still ready to be lifted and moved if necessary. A document safe needs to be fireproof and watertight (so “floodproof,” too), with a locking mechanism that keeps opportunistic intruders out.
Most fireproof safes are tested and rated by the safety organization UL and the inspection firm Intertek, using the “ETL” mark, according to the Consumer Reports guide to choosing a safe. We spoke to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, about the organization’s testing procedures. He said UL tests to different ratings, depending on what kind of rating the manufacturer wants. Testers put the safes in a furnace at a specific temperature, for a specified amount of time; a safe maker can request tests at different temperature and duration marks. Then the testers drop the safes 30 stories before placing them back in the furnace for more heat testing.
Most household safes are rated to last 30 minutes at 1,550 degrees Fahrenheit, a standard based on modern firefighting response and how a fire typically moves through a house. This is a common certification from both UL and ETL, and one that all our finalists share. Part of the testing evaluates how suitable the safes are for different kinds of contents: The internal temperature needs to stay under 350 °F to keep paper safe, while digital media has a failure threshold of 125 °F. Tape recordings and film slides fall in between at 150 °F.
We surveyed about 200 Wirecutter readers to determine what they kept in a fireproof safe, or would plan to, letting respondents choose as many of the options as applied. Documents were the clear leader in demand at 97 percent, with digital media such as flash drives and CDs coming in second at 69 percent. A little less than half of the survey participants said they needed something suitable for jewelry, while 30 percent indicated that they wanted something for precious metals/coins and photographs, respectively.
With digital media ranking so high in that survey, we required that our picks keep their contents below 125 °F, which also keeps paper and film safe. Only 18 percent of respondents said they were interested in a safe that can hold hanging file folders, so we focused our search on smaller options, those safes just large enough to hold 8½-by-11-inch sheets of paper flat.
Three major brands make most of the fireproof safes you’ll find for home use: First Alert, Honeywell, and SentrySafe. We sought out every home document safe from all three companies, finding 35 in total. From there we narrowed the list down. Many of SentrySafe’s models listed on its website have been discontinued. Other safes weren’t large enough to hold an unfolded sheet of paper, or were far more expensive than comparable models.
After whittling down the list, we had five test models: two smaller safes, and three that could hold hanging file folders. We evaluated each one to see how well items fit inside, how easy the locks were to use, and how sturdy they seemed. Then it was time to burn.
We trust UL’s testing procedures, but we wanted to see for ourselves how our safe finalists stood up to a house fire and what they looked like afterward. So with the help of trained fire professionals, we built a 4-by-8-foot room out of plywood and two-by-fours, and installed drywall inside to radiate heat. Then we filled it with flammable couch cushions, a carpet, cardboard, and some wood, put the safes in, and lit it up.
We should note that this test was not an attempt at total destruction. We were looking for success, not failure. A safe could have failed for any number of reasons unrelated to its construction, such as how firefighters handled it. In this test, a safe that protected its contents proved that it was up to the task.
We filled each safe with the same contents: five printed photos in an envelope, a newspaper, a flash drive with various video files, and a DVD with a movie file burned to it. Within minutes, the fire was up to about 1,300 °F. We let it run its course for about half an hour before asking firefighters to put it out with a fire hose. When the safes (or what remained of them) were cool to the touch, we opened them up to check out the aftermath.
The best fireproof document safe for most people is the First Alert 2030F. First and foremost, it’s as protective as it promises to be. It survived our burn-room test by keeping everything inside safe from fire and water, and readable. Its locking mechanism is sturdy and easy to use, and it’s among the least expensive options of comparable size. The 2030F is large enough to hold documents without taking up too much floor space, and it’s deep enough that you’ll be able to fit in a good number of them. Although it won’t be the prettiest object in your house, it will get the job done.
In our active fire test, the 2030F performed just as we hoped. It kept all traces of water out, and the contents were unscathed. Neither the photos nor the newspaper showed any signs of heat damage, and the contents of the flash drive and DVD were both readily accessible.
UL rates the First Alert 2030F to withstand temperatures of up to 1,550 °F for half an hour while keeping the internal temperature under 350 °F. This safe has also been “independently verified” to protect digital media—something we confirmed in our test. If we hadn’t seen the results in person, we wouldn’t have felt as comfortable accepting such a vague, unsourced claim and simply trusting that independent source’s verification when it comes to digital media. But we saw it in person, so we’re confident in the outcome.
This safe locks up with a simple key and latch. We can’t vouch for how burglarproof the lock is, but it is secure enough to not pop open when you don’t want it to. Note that the locking mechanism, along with the entire exterior of the safe, was destroyed in our test fire. We had to pry the remnants of the safe open to get inside, since we had no chance of using the key (as was the case with all the safes we tested).
The 2030F has an internal capacity of 0.39 cubic feet, measuring 6 by 13¼ by 8½ inches. It’s large enough to hold sheets of paper without your having to fold them, but they will be right up against the edge and may curl the slightest bit. The safe lacks handles and weighs 27 pounds, so it’s a bit of a hassle to move around, but that can be a good thing: It’s easier for a thief to run off with something that’s easy to hold. You likely won’t be moving the safe around too much anyway.
As mentioned above, the internal width of the First Alert 2030F is exactly 8½ inches. Standard printouts will fit, but tightly. They’ll curl slightly at the edge, which isn’t a huge deal, and the more you have, the flatter they’ll sit. If you want to store larger photographic prints or documents that must absolutely remain unimpinged, consider our larger pick.
The lack of handles means that if you want to move the 2030F often, doing so won’t be easy. You really have nothing along the sides to grab, so your best bet is to get your arms underneath the safe to carry it.
The First Alert 2603DF is a larger option (with a 0.62-cubic-foot capacity) for anyone who prefers enough space to hang file folders but expects the same amount of fire and water protection. Although its design is very similar to that of the 2030F, this upgraded model also includes an easy-to-use keypad locking mechanism (with a manual-key backup), a feature that makes it easier to use than the other larger option we considered, the Honeywell 1106. The latch itself is the same as on the less expensive model, but the six-key pad means you don’t need to have your keys handy to get into the safe.
On top of the chest is a numeric keypad, with the numbers 1 through 5 and a * key. It runs on four AA batteries (included). You choose a code between four and eight digits long. When you enter the code, the latch pops open aggressively and plays a little chip-tune ditty. We like the keypad for quick access, though you’ll need the regular key if the batteries die and you don’t have replacements on hand.
Aside from the size difference and the keypad, the 2603DF performed just as well as its smaller counterpart. The materials we put inside survived our fire and water onslaught with no damage and remained readable, even though the safe itself was destroyed.
Humidity is a big concern with these safes, as they tend to capture and hold in moisture, which can damage their contents. It’s a problem that all three companies whose safes we tested speak to in their documentation and other materials. First Alert’s safes have stickers that read, “[Be] sure to place important paper documents, currency, jewelry, and other delicate items in an airtight, dishwasher-safe container.” The company says to ventilate the safe by opening it for 20 minutes every two weeks. SentrySafe offers a similar warning, suggesting an airtight container for “jewelry with working parts, watches, stamps, or photos.” It also specifically says not to keep pearls in its safes. Honeywell’s instruction booklet says to air its safes out once a week for 30 minutes. Humidity will vary in different regions and seasons, of course, but we recommend following the manufacturers’ instructions. Set a reminder to check on the contents of your safe every two weeks to see how humidity is affecting its contents.
SentrySafe’s CHW30100 was the only other safe in the 0.4-cubic-foot range to make our list of finalists. We preferred its honeycombed exterior over the 2030F’s design, but we encountered a few major problems that disqualified this model. The first is that its locking mechanism is installed on a plastic faceplate that you can pry off by hand—without much force, the whole mechanism can pop off in your hands when the safe is open. Although we didn’t test the safes extensively for theft protection, this isn’t a reassuring sign of design quality. SentrySafe didn’t reply to our request for a comment.
The CHW30100 also let water in during our burn-room test. As we mentioned eariler, it’s possible that damage from handling could have occurred, but in this specific test, this model failed. While we would’ve dismissed it anyway because of its faceplate, this performance shortcoming only cemented our decision.
Another safe meant for hanging file folders, SentrySafe’s FHW40200 (0.66-cubic-foot capacity), exhibited the same faults as the smaller model. Its faceplate came right off with a tug, and water damaged the contents in our fire test.
Honeywell’s 1106, with a 0.6-cubic-foot interior capacity, survived our fire and water test. We found its dual latches (on either side of the lock) to be a bit cumbersome, and less convenient than the electronic keypad on the 2603DF. If you’re willing to forgo that easy access, though, it’s a fine choice.
Originally published: September 26, 2016