Unvaulted: A look inside San Francisco's Federal Reserve

You probably didn’t realize, but there’s a huge pile of money right in the middle of Super Bowl City. You can’t see it from the street. It’s behind giant steel doors inside San Francisco’s Federal Reserve Bank.

KTVU’s Ken Wayne got a rare look inside to find out what exactly goes on in the vault.

In the basement of the bank, we got a chance to see more money than most of us will see in our lifetimes.

Tom Ballantyne, the Federal Reserve Bank’s director, said on a daily basis, about 6 million notes come in and out— from one dollar bills to hundreds, a billion and a half notes a year.

In an age of electronic banking and debit cards, there’s still an enormous appetite for cold-hard cash.

Ballantyne demonstrated a pile of bundled hundred dollar bills, only a fraction of what’s at the bank.

“Behind us we have about $50 million and that's enough to maybe buy about 10 Super Bowl commercials this year,” he laughs.

Think of the Federal Reserve as a clearing house for cash. Money comes in on armored cars from financial institutions across Northern California, Northern Nevada and Pacific Islands.

The money is sorted and checked in process rooms to make sure it’s not damaged or fake.

The machines look at 40 bills a second to weed out the bad cash.

“If it's suspected to be counterfeit, we'll look at it again with the human eye and then we'll send it to the secret service for final evaluation,” says Katherine Yang with the Federal Reserve.

If you’re wondering how the machines identify the bogus bills, unfortunately that’s a secret. The Federal Reserve says they can’t talk about the sensors that they use.

And by the way, paper money isn’t really paper at all. Currency is made out of a mixture of 25 percent linen and 75 percent cotton; each denomination having its own life span.

“Ones, fives, tens; about five years; twenties, fifties— about eight years, and hundreds— about 15,” says Ballantyne.
Most of it is kept behind giant steel doors in the basement, but the exact amount isn’t revealed. It might seem like a prime target for criminals, but we couldn’t show the elaborate security network and armed police at every turn.

“We have a very good track record here in San Francisco and I really can't get into too much related to the security,” says Ballantyne.

The money isn’t printed here, but if it’s found to be unfit, they destroy it with their machines. In fact, 200 tons of cash a year is shredded by these machines and sent down a tube to a waiting dumpster. 

After it’s shredded, it’s loaded onto trucks to the Central Valley where it’s taken to an energy plant where it’s actually burned and turned into power. The money is used as fuel at one plant in Stockton, which then supplies local homes and businesses with electricity.

It all comes back to the Super Bowl, where during Super Bowl week; small packets of the shredded cash are given to kids as a prize. The kids think they might be able to piece the money back together, but they’d need a lot of glue and an even more enormous amount of patience.