Reader question: Fireproof storage, part two

Yesterday, I started answering a question from one of our readers, Hunter, about fireproof boxes. Check out the first post in this two-part series to discover what documents and files should be stored in home fireproof boxes and on hard drives stored off-site.

Today, I want to address features to consider when purchasing and implementing the use of home fireproof boxes and off-site digital storage devices. Both storage methods are essential if you’re looking to be organized in times of emergency.

Features for a home fireproof box

To properly store paper documents, you need a fireproof box with a temperature UL rating of at least 350 for 60 minutes. A rating of 350 and 60 minutes means that the inside of the fireproof box will not rise above 350 degrees during a fire reaching temperatures of 1,700 degrees lasting 60 minutes. Paper burns at 451 degrees, so you want the 350 rating for paper protection. If you live in an urban area close to a fire station, you can probably get by with a 30-minute fireproof box. If you’re in a rural area that is far from a fire station, I would bump the rating up to 120 minutes.

You also want the fireproof box to be waterproof to protect from the gushing water emitted from firefighters’ hoses. Don’t get a box that is only water resistant.


Additionally, you’ll want the fireproof box to be secured to the floor and/or very-well hidden for theft prevention. In an ideal world, the box should have a B2 security rating, which is the residential security container standard. It means that the box survived five minutes of UL technicians trying to break inside of it. There are better ratings (TL-15, TL-30, etc.) to consider if your needs are more extreme. Be ready to shell out a lot more money for these ratings, though.

If the box you purchase is keyed, you’ll want to store spare keys off-site. I recommend giving one key to the same person who is holding your hard drive and keep one secretly hidden in your garden (far away from your house and not with a hidden house key). Don’t put the key in a safety deposit box at the bank because you may not have access to that box without its key or proper identification. Also, emergencies can happen at any time, and your bank likely isn’t open at 2:00 a.m. The same reasoning applies to your desk at work. Without keys to your office and proper ID, you may not be able to get inside at all hours of the night. When you’re fleeing from a fire or other emergency you should not have to worry about grabbing your wallet and keys–you should focus on getting yourself and those you love to safety. Additionally, a regional natural disaster could wipe out your local bank, office, and home.

I do not recommend storing photographs or digital media in your home fireproof box. A box equipped to protect these objects from damage has to have a rating of 150 for photographs and 125 for digital media. Again, the bump in UL rating makes a significant increase in price, and, in my opinion, there are better ways to store these objects.

Check your local hardware or safe store for a broad selection of quality security boxes. Here are two reasonably priced and UL tested fireproof box recommendations:

Why, where and how to store backup copies of digital media

Digital hard drives should be kept at an off-site location. I make this recommendation for a couple reasons. Unfortunately, events like Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks were reminders that you may leave your home and never return. Also, some fires are so severe that you may not be able to re-enter your house for days or weeks afterward. There is the morbid fact, too, that you may not survive the emergency. Having a digital hard drive stored outside of your home that is accessible 24 hours a day by you and/or a trusted friend or relative will guarantee that your most valuable information is safe and available in times of emergency.

I also strongly suggest that the hard drive be stored in a different region of the country from where you live. If your home is destroyed by a tornado/earthquake/hurricane, it is reasonable to assume that your neighbor’s home would be destroyed, too. For off-site storage, you have two basic options.

Option #1: Load up one of two external hard drives with your latest information every four months and trade it out with an old one that is stored at a friend or family member’s home. Make sure that the person you choose is someone you see three or more times a year, lives in a different region of the country, and has a safe place in his or her home to keep your hard drive. You need to trust that this friend or family member will only access the information on the hard drive if you are killed in an accident or if you make a request to access the information on your behalf. Mailing the hard drives back and forth could work, too, but would be a less secure method.

Digital storage drives are relatively inexpensive these days and buying a couple will be worth the amount you pay. If you don’t have a lot of photographs and video files that you want to save, you may be able to store all of your information on a smaller, less expensive thumb drive. There are currently dozens of external hard drives on the market, and a trip to your local electronics’ retailer will yield you myriad options. Here are a few suggestions to get you started on your search:

Option #2: Encrypt your data and upload the information to an online storage server. I recommend using Jungle Disk with Amazon S3. There are other services out there, but this one has regular updates, a decent security reputation, and anticipated longevity. Be sure to give your username, password, and encryption key to a trusted friend or family member in a different region who will only access the information online if you are killed in an accident or if you make a request to access the information on your behalf. The downside to this option is that it has a continuous fee schedule. (Average consumers can expect to pay $0.10 per GB during data upload and $0.15 per GB per month of storage at Amazon S3.) I believe that option #1 is the better option financially, but option #2 is the most convenient.

12 Comments for “Reader question: Fireproof storage, part two”

  1. posted by Mirko on

    Very good pointers indeed! I opted for Amazon when it comes to all my secure backups because of the high security and the better guarantee that your data will not be wiped out by a natural disaster – they store the same information in several data centers to avoid that scenario.

    For anyone interested in giving Amazon S3 storage a try with Jungle Disk on a Mac I suggest this step-by-step guide:
    http://www.net-security.org/article.php?id=1049

  2. posted by Christine on

    Thank you very much for answering my question about storing digital devices inside of a fireproof box. Unfortunately, the majority of my family and friends are in the same region I am, so I would probably opt for the online digital storage. Great article!

  3. posted by Eric on

    If you have good broadband at two locations you could also use some sort of backup swap to keep both locations safe. I have a duplicate file server ( spare parts with big drives ) at my mothers home. I use rsync to keep them up-to-date.

    With the price of disks continuing to fall, this is a good option for those that want to invest a small amount of time and energy into getting setup.

  4. posted by Zorro Unit on

    Just FYI, I’ve heard great things about the companies Carbonite and Mozy for backing up your data remotely. Mozy is even HIPPA compliant with the pro version.

  5. posted by Cyrano on

    Excellent article, Erin! I didn’t expect you to cover the online storage stuff, so I’m very impressed =) Good job

  6. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Mirko –

    Thank you for the link to the Jungle Disk/Amazon S3 article! I hadn’t come across it, and it is very detailed.

  7. posted by keenboy on

    I’m a huge fan of Mozy. I’ve been using them for about a year now and they’ve done a superb job. Carbonite is probably not bad either, but their interface irritates me. It looks very unprofessional.

  8. posted by Dustin on

    Our company’s experience with Western Digital My Books has been very poor. With the 250 GB USB 2.0 model, we have had a 42% failure rate over one year of use. Our tests have shown that the “button” on the front of the drive will short and cause the drive to operate in a continuous reboot fashion. This eventually damages the logic board on the drive resulting in loss of data.

    I cannot vouch for the 500 GB model, as we have not used these extensively.

  9. posted by M. on

    Advice on these safe boxes my father gave me once: They have a lock and key, so it is tempting to think, ah, I’ll lock my valuable papers in here. However, they are small enough to be stolen easily and are no place to keep anything you are trying to keep from being stolen. A thief, seeing such a locked box, will take it away with him, planning to smash it later. Of course, if he could see inside, he would see that it has no jewels or cash, and would ignore it. So my father left the key right in the lock, hoping the thief would just look in and move on, bored by the birth certificates.

  10. posted by Emily on

    Question: Why use an external hard drive instead of just downloading onto a CD or DVD?

  11. posted by Breakfast at Charly’s | links for 2007-10-21 on

    [...] Unclutterer: Fireproof storage, part two Reader question: Fireproof storage, part two (tags: home.storage.documents home.office) [...]

  12. posted by A year ago on Unclutterer | Unclutterer on

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