Fireproof Home Backup and Storage Solution

With the completion of our recent Home Data Backup Series, I found that many of the alternatives had the same downfall. They still relied on the user having to physically take the chosen backup media to a safe place for storage. While this could be as simple as taking a drive to a fireproof safe in the same office, it still took an extra step that really did not have to be necessary. It also limited access to the data. To combat this, I decided to “customize” my NewerTech miniStack NAS to make it fireproof. Throughout this article I’ll affectionately refer to this project as “The Tank”.

I have to start with a disclaimer. This unit has not been tested in an actual fire and this article will make no claims as to the amount of fire and heat this creation can stand. During the course of this article I am going to break the warranty on a few pieces of equipment. Follow these directions at your own risk. The author of this article and assume no liability for those who choose to follow these directions.

What I needed:0004907400940_215X215

  1. NAS or other PHD (Portable Hard Drive)
  2. Personal Fireproof Safe
  3. Drill & Drill Bits
  4. Category6 Network Cable
  5. Fire Stop Caulk
  6. Wire Cutters
  7. Shrink Tubing
  8. Soldering gun and solder
  9. RJ45 Crimping Tool and ends
  10. Hot Glue gun and sticks or Rubber Cement
  11. Surge protector with RJ45 surge protection

For the purposes of this article, I chose the following equipment.

  1. NewerTech miniStack NAS 750
  2. SentrySafe H0100 Fire-Safe Waterproof Chest
  3. 3M Fire Barrier Sealant (caulk)

I already had the NewerTech NAS from a previous review that I had written. The unit performed very well, and even though I really didn’t want to risk destroying such a useful device, I wanted to do this article more. Being Network Attached, the NAS gave me the flexibility to place The Tank anywhere in the house. This unit also runs very quiet and cool; both are necessary features when planning to run in a confined space.

I chose the SentrySafe (Model H0100) for many reasons. First, the unit costs about $25 and can be found at your local supermarket. I got mine at WalMart. It’s waterproof and UL Rated to withstand heat up to 1550 Degrees. It’s small in size to make it easier to place in an inconspicuous place. Even with its small size, it has more than enough room for my NAS, while still leaving a little space for breathing room.

The 3M caulk was the first thing I came across at Lowes. It’s easy to apply (comes in a caulk tube), waterproof, bonds to metal surfaces, won’t eat the plastic coating on wires, and dries quickly. 3M says the caulk restores fire rated construction to its original integrity, which is good since we will be drilling holes in our safe. When introduced to fire, the caulk expands to fill in the holes more thoroughly.

Now that we have the why, and what, let’s look at how…

DisNAS Step 1 – Prepare the NAS I had to do a number of things to the NAS to make this work, most of which will void the warranty. Remember, continue at your own risk.

First I took apart the plastic case. It won’t be necessary with the NAS’s fancy new steel outer structure. The plastic will just take up room inside the safe. We need more room so that we have more airspace to help keep the drive cooler during normal usage.

I also removed the LED lights. Again, they aren’t necessary and only serve to generate heat. I considered re-wiring the LED activity lights and mounting them on the exterior of the safe, but that would require drilling another hole. I’m shooting for fewer holes for better protection. Function over aesthetics.

The NewerTech NAS comes with a small heat sink that can be found on the underside of the NAS unit to help disperse heat. For the time being, I am going to use the supplied heat sink to see if it will suffice in an enclosed environment. If not, I have an idea for a bigger heat sink to help keep things running efficiently.

In yet another attempt to void the warranty of this awesome piece of equipment, I cut the power cable. I cut the cable between the power block and the NAS, for two reasons. First, the power block expels heat, which we want to minimize inside the safe. Second, the end of the cable that plugs into the NAS is too big. To maximize fire protection, we want to keep the holes in the safe small.

I took an extra step by stripping off some of the factory shielding and replacing it with my own, much smaller shielding. That allowed the hole in the safe to be even smaller. I used the shrink tubing to protect the wires, and to assure that the bare wires didn’t short out on the safe walls.

Step 2 – Prepare the Network Cable Much like with the power cable for the NAS, I customized my network cable to minimize the size of the hole needed to go through the safe.

Remember when stripping or playing with network cabling, it’s important to keep the twists in the wire. These are important. I didn’t replace the outer shielding on the network cable. I ran the shielded part right up to the outside of the safe, but everything inside the case will be unshielded.

Wires Step 3 – Prepare the safe Once I had the network and power cables customized, I tested to see how big of a drill bit I needed to make the holes in my safe. I recommend using a good quality drill bit as these safes are pretty well made.

To determine exactly how small of a hole I could get away with, I took my drill bits and made test holes in a piece of wood first. I decided on 2 different drill bits, one for the network cable, another for the power cord. Once I found the smallest holes possible, I was ready to drill. I’ve chosen not to include the bit size I used, because the bit size you need will vary depending on the cable used, and how much work you chose to do with the shielding.

Now comes the part where I drill holes in a perfectly good safe. Those with weak stomachs might want to stop here. Again, keep in mind that we’re breaking warranties here. As a note, some home safes are filled with sand, or at least a loose substance, inside the walls of the safe. This acts as insulation for the fireproofing. It’s important to keep this in mind when picking a spot to drill the hole. I picked a spot on the lower half of the safe in the back… near the hinges. I thought this would be the best place with the flattest surface for drilling. I first tested by opening the lid to be sure I wouldn’t pinch the wires when I opened the safe for any reason.

Now with my holes drilled, I quickly inserted the wires and caulked the holes both inside and out. I used my fingers to make sure I had a tight fit around the wires.  This again assures minimal loss of  insulation that was housed inside the cavities of the safe. Although the caulk says that it sets up in under 10 minutes, I left my creation overnight. I didn’t break anything loose as I was pulling and moving the wires while putting it together.

CableThick Step 4 – Put the wires back together Now that the wires are through the safe wall, and the caulk holding them in place is dry, it’s time to put everything back together. I started out by sliding the old shielding on the network cable to make the job look nice.  To place a new RJ45 end on the Cat6 cable so that the unit is ready for communication, I used my handy-dandy crimping tool. Ensure the Cat6 cable twists are still in place.

I used a soldering gun and more shrink tubing to repair the cut I made in the electrical cord. I also used a larger piece of shrink tubing around both the wires to keep them together, and to try to make it as safe as possible. A fireproof safe isn’t much good if the fire starts inside the safe!

Step 5 – Install what’s left of the NAS At this point the NAS is little more than a hard drive with an attached heat sink and a circuit board. To ensure that the circuit board doesn’t short out on the steel structure it will be housed in, it’s important to use either rubber cement or a hot glue gun. Either of those substances will insulate the electrical components from the steel.  I placed the top of the NAS under the drive to provide some extra insulation.

Don’t use too much glue because we want to leave as much airspace as possible inside the safe, but use enough glue to give a little airspace under the unit. You’ll have to judge for yourself the proper amount. Be sure you check clearance of the lid of the safe when it’s closed.

Step 6 – Setup outside protection for the NAS In the list of items used above, I noted a surge protector with RJ45 (Network) protection. If your data is protected from fire, it might as well be protected from electrical surges as well. Ensure that your drive and network connections are connected to the surge protector. Not only does this give us some more protection for our secure data, but it allows us easy access to be able to power the NAS on and off when necessary.

Inside Construction done, now what?

Now that we’re done putting it together, it’s time to do some testing. I started with a simple test, with the safe open, to ensure that my customizations didn’t break anything. I turn on the NAS and tried to connect to it with my computer. Fortunately, everything worked just as it had when it was running in its own case.

Next, it’s time to do some long-term testing to see how the drive fares in the confines of the safe. For the purposes of this test I have a wired thermometer. I’ll close it inside the safe so that I can monitor temperatures.

My house is air conditioned and I keep it at a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Most hard drive manufacturers recommend that a drive operate in temperatures between 32 and 140 degrees F. With a maximum temperature around 140 degrees F and a room temperature of 72 degrees F, I expect to have enough headroom to make this experiment work. Note – 140 degrees Fahrenheit is maximum temperature and is certainly not our target. Drives generally operate best at less than 100 degrees F.

Under normal operation, with no one writing to the drive, the temperatures inside the safe ranged between 75 and 80 degrees. We’re off to a good start. Considering the maximum temperatures provided earlier, I’m pretty happy with the current results.

After allowing the drive to idle for a few hours so I could record the temperature results, I thought it was time to move on to a little more strenuous test to see how the temperature would change when the drive was put to work. To make the drive work, I tried performing a full system backup from my laptop. That’s about 85GB of data and should take some time to complete. About midway through the backup, the temperature reached its peak at 97 degrees Fahrenheit. While this is certainly not an optimal temperature, it’s well below the maximum temperature and even below our target temperature of 100 degrees F.

Since short tests are not very conclusive, I decided to check the temperature as often as possible over the course of a week, so as to continue to monitor the temperatures inside the safe. During the course of my test week, with nightly backups and sporadic access to the drive for access to my storage data, I watched the temperature gauge as often as I could remember. The average temperature through the testing period was somewhere between 87 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The peak temperature I recorded during testing was 101 degrees F.

Outside What can this creation handle?

The amount of fire your drive can withstand relies on the safe that you choose.  The better the safe, the better your drive will fare in the event of a fire.  For this test, I chose a cheap safe.  It’s effective, and will work, but isn’t the best option if you have very important data to protect.

Taking into account the specs of the safe, this creation should withstand 1500 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes.  It’s also waterproof, so the efforts of the firefighting team shouldn’t damage the drive either.  I would say it was well worth the $40 I have invested in it (in addition to the NAS device).

Final thoughts.

Basically this is a risk-vs-reward project.  To complete this project, you risk breaking the warranty on some equipment. You will be putting your equipment investment at risk by putting it into a fairly inhospitable working environment. There is also no guarantee that in the event of a fire, your drive will be totally protected, such as in a 1500 degrees F fire lasting longer than 15 minutes .

The reward is a drive that is potentially fireproof and waterproof   a drive that can withstand almost anything you can throw at it. You’ll have a safe place to keep your important files that you should never have to touch, and one that is always connected.

  • SpuD

    Very nice idea here!!
    If it was in a bigger fireproof safe would this reduce the risk of over heating ecy..?

    Also you got any more picctures 😉

  • Mike Renna

    I've heard that the rating on these safes is to protect paper inside from burning (a 1500 deg. fire outside will cause the interior temp to rise to below flame point of paper). I've heard hard drives / circuitry can't stand up to those temps (paper will still be there, but the solder on the boards will have melted / platters have warped. there's supposed to be media rated safes but they are likely more money. Realistically though, put this in the corner of the basement, and you are LIGHT YEARS ahead of other people in protecting your data! But then the basement is the first place to flood and the safe / drives aren't waterproof! There's no easy answer!

    But THANK YOU VERY MUCH for putting this together. Again, any of this is light years ahead of not having anything, which is the usual situation!

  • Blair

    Good point on the media rated safes. However, I think they were designed for floppy disk media. Which I'm guessing is more heat sensitive than a hard drive. The Sentry 1710 Data safe would be a comparable model. It's about $200 at street prices, or almost eight times as much. But, it does seem to offer quite a bit more insulation. It promises to maintain interior temperatures as low as 125°F (52°C) and 80% humidity for 1/2 hour.

    I found this on the Sentry site regarding 1/2 fire rating of the Sentry H0100:

    The one-half hour UL classification indicates that the interior of the unit will remain at or below 350° F (177° C) when exposed to fire at temperatures of 155° F (843° C) for one-half hour.

    It should be noted that fires usually travel through a structure, and that the average house fire ranges in temperatures of 900 to 1200° F, for approximately 20 minutes.

    In the end, I guess it comes down to how protection you're willing to buy.

  • ScHwErV

    I took more pictures when I was building it, but for some reason they didn't turn out. Something about the flash on my camera and the fluorescent light I assume. That's why all the red colors look like they are some form of neon. Many of the pictures overexposed and I just didn't notice it at the time. I was so wrapped up in what I was doing and taking notes, I just didn't watch the pictures as closely as I should have.

  • David Armstrong

    Now there are fire resstant external hard drives, but i want a server with raid and mirrored drives because the last seagate I bought died right before the drive in the laptop (less tha 6 months -infant mortality)

  • Great in depth article on Network Cabling

  • ryanmm

    Came across this via google, I like the idea.  Have this same safe and may try something similar...