Is It Safe?

For the last couple of days I have been contemplating buying another fire-proof security file. I currently have two Sentry KS-4100 files.

I keep a lot of records: Some are important, like identification documents for three countries, my last will and testament, lease agreements, insurance policies, deeds of ownership, computer backups, and, yes, even tax records. Others hopefully aren’t so important: Receipts for many of the items I have purchased. My credit card has a nice benefit that extends the manufacturer’s warranty by up to a year, and to claim that benefit, I need the receipt. Also, in case of a disaster that destroys my property, my renters insurance will want to examine the receipts so I can be reimbursed for the purchase or replacement costs, not just what the lost items were worth at the time.

Unfortunately, I’m running out of room for these receipts. While looking at buying another KS-4100, I more closely inspected its UL-72 certification. This particular Sentry file is manufactured to keep the interior at or below 350°F (177°C) for a fire that rages at 1550°F (855°C) for half an hour, which is apparently typical for an apartment fire.

As we all know, paper burns at 451°F (233°C) and it singes a bit sooner, at about 405°F (207°C), so keeping the interior of the file at or below 350°F keeps paper safe. Sentry also states that “CDs, DVDs, USB drives and memory sticks” are protected.

CDs and DVDs are mostly made of polycarbonate, with a melting point 513°F (267°C); jewel cases are mostly polystyrene that melts at 464°F (240°C), so CDs, DVDs and their cases are protected. I didn’t check the material of memory sticks and USB drives, although I’m a little worried about my portable hard drives now.

However, I also keep credit cards and ID cards in there, and they are usually made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (@I have since been corrected that credit cards are usually produced from polyvinyl chloride acetate, or PVCA, but I haven’t found the melting point of that yet.@), (@Apparently, the properties of PVCA can vary a lot, but one low figure that was provided to me was 257°F (125°C), which is still too low to be protected in the KS-4100 security file; PVCA cards would probably be safe in the expensive Sentry 6720 media file mentioned below.@), and I organize the receipts in nice colorful transparent polypropylene (PP) draw-string envelopes. PVC products, and therefore nearly all ID and credit cards, melt at a mere 176°F (80°F), and my PP envelopes melt at 338°F (170°F), just below the temperature the safe could reach while working as certified.

I’m really experiencing mixed up feelings right now, and I am considering switching to paper envelopes for organization, but the PP envelopes are so much more resilient and practical, and the temperature difference from 338°F to 350°F isn’t that great. That’s perhaps a risk I’m willing to take.

With IDs and credit cards, however, that’s a completely different matter. I’m fairly certain that in an apartment fire, the inside of the safe could easily reach 176°F and melt my passports, my international driver’s licenses and ID cards, and my credit cards (oh shucks, I’ll just get new ones, Washington Mutual willing, but that’s another rant for another hour).

I could get a data-storage security file like the Sentry 6720, which keeps the interior at or below 125°F (52°C). Apparently that’s good enough for floppy disks, and assumeably for hard drives as well, but unless I’m mistaken, it’s still too hot for credit and ID cards! And more importantly, it retails more than ten times the cost of the KS-4100.

How do protect your documents? Am I paranoid? Am I a “filing rat”, and you simply don’t have documents to protect? Please send me your ideas, if you like.


About Mathias

Software development engineer. Principal developer of DrJava. Recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Computer Science at Rice University.
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