For the long-suffering residents of South Africa, the policy of load shedding to help manage demand from the country’s ageing and poorly maintained electrical generation and distribution system, is a major inconvenience. It can be fatal for devices with sensitive electronic components, such as fire alarm systems. Thankfully, an unexpected, and even unintended, solution now presents itself in the form of wireless fire devices.
Explaining the problem
First, some background. Fire engineers and installers across South Africa have dealt with the consequences of load shedding for several years. This not only shortens the lifespan of the backup batteries in control equipment, but if there is a surge when the power comes back on this can also create damage to components. With interruptions in power lasting from two to four hours, or sometimes longer, the battery backup system of the fire panel is constantly drained, often to zero, which also impacts their reliability and longevity.
Replacing these batteries sooner than expected has become a costly and unplanned expense. Due to these unexpected costs, some sites are left unprotected during some or all of the load shedding cycle, potentially putting people’s lives at risk. In some cases, additional UPS systems are procured to help keep the power to fire panels resilient for longer. Although this is effective, it is an extra cost to the end user and this backup eventually also suffers from the negative effects of load shedding.
The power supply with battery backup on a traditional wired fire system also provides power to the devices that are physically wired to the fire panel and contributes to the faster depletion of backup batteries. As the batteries are constantly being drained and recharged, this prematurely ages the fire system, which can lead to corruption and operational issues resulting from spikes. When the power does come back on, it is common for panels to trigger false alarms from reinitialisation, which further inconveniences building occupiers, especially in a residential setting, where false alarms are becoming increasingly common, often at night.
Whereas South Africa is one of the more advanced nations in Africa regarding fire regulations, plus the installation, testing and maintenance of effective fire systems, especially in larger residential and office buildings, it is also reliant on technology imported from Europe and elsewhere. This is a good thing in that it provides access to the latest fire technology, but it is not so beneficial when you consider that these panels and fire devices were never designed for the specific demands placed on them by load shedding. The battery backup of the fire control panels are intended for occasional power cuts and use in an actual fire situation, and not for the rigours of daily, extended shutdowns.
Fire industry professionals have grappled with the problems caused by load shedding for several years. The only solution available was the repair or replacement of defective or prematurely life-expired components. This costs the end user money that they would not otherwise be required to pay out, and in the event of maintenance contracts being in place, it costs installers money as well. The fire industry in South Africa has neither the physical capacity nor the desire to constantly charge customers to replace devices damaged by load shedding.
Is wireless the solution?
Wireless fire systems are nothing new in the global fire sector. They first came to the market in the mid-eighties and have come on in leaps and bounds since then, both in terms of their capabilities and affordability. In 2023, companies like the UK-based Hyfire, with its Taurus range, can offer wireless systems that are technically equal to their wired counterparts, and which often surpass them in certain areas. (Hyfire is represented in South Africa by Technoswitch Fire Detection & Suppression.)
These systems are traditionally marketed on the basis that they are faster to install (with up to 90% less cabling required) and fully compatible with the same fire panels, such as the Advanced MxPro, and all relevant EN and BS standards relating to fire systems.
In the UK, since the Grenfell Tower fire, demand for wireless devices has increased exponentially as fire professionals try to update fire systems as quickly as possible. They can be pre-programmed offsite and installed in minutes, with zero impact on the fabric of the building – a massive advantage in residential settings – and with the costs of copper wire and labour constantly on the rise, they increasingly make financial sense. All of these advantages are equally applicable in the South African market, but there is one more significant advantage that their designers never foresaw; the ability of wireless tech to overcome many of the issues presented by load shedding, not to mention the continuous theft of copper cable and containment.
One of the key advantages of wireless fire devices is that they are not reliant on the power of the fire panel loop. As we have already discussed, traditional fire detection systems require a reliable power source to power the loop and function correctly, placing additional strain on the power supplies
and backup batteries when the electricity goes off. Conversely, wireless fire devices are battery-powered, with a battery life of up to 10 years, and also extends the longevity of the fire panels backup supply, which now only needs to power the fire panel and translators, as opposed to hundreds of fire devices. The fire system will continue to operate for longer and also reduce the amount of collateral damage caused by load shedding.
In South Africa, multi-occupancy residential buildings are a particular challenge for fire installers. They tend to be built in separate blocks, often as part of a larger development, with individual fire panels for each building. This creates complex networks that are difficult to test and maintain at the best of times, but with load shedding it can become a nightmare.
After every extended load shedding shutdown, there is the potential for corruption, with spurious faults caused by spikes leading to false alarms. Given that power shutdowns often happen at night, this will likely wake up residents and will require fire engineers to manually inspect every panel. Put simply, it is an unsustainable situation.
The Hyfire team in the UK designed an L5 wireless system that can overcome this issue, covering an entire site with a much smaller number of fire panels, with translators and expanders ensuring that every building is covered. Not only is the system simpler, making it far easier to test and maintain, but it is also far less prone to false alarms and long-term issues stemming from daily load shedding. It is better for residents, less maintenance-intensive, and we know that the long-term damage from load shedding has been mitigated.
An accidental, but effective solution
Put simply, if you are a fire installer, building manager or property investor in South Africa, you need to look at wireless fire devices. Load shedding is not going away anytime soon, and these systems can help to overcome many of the challenges it creates. They can be installed quickly and easily without the need for extensive wiring or drilling; they are highly reliable and designed to minimise false alarms.
The specific advantages that wireless fire devices can offer South Africans are almost incidental to the primary drivers behind their development, but that should not take away from just how beneficial they can be. They mitigate many of the short-term challenges presented by load shedding, such as false alarms and the risk of UPS units running out of power, and solve many of the long-term issues caused by the constant draining of backup batteries that were never designed for regular use.
In conclusion, wireless fire devices are a valuable tool in overcoming the problems caused by load shedding in South Africa. These devices are battery-powered, flexible, reliable, and can detect fires even during power shutdowns. By investing in wireless fire devices, you can ensure that you are prepared for any potential fire risks, even during load shedding. This will help to prevent property damage, reduce the risk of injury or loss of life, and minimise the impact of load shedding on productivity and revenue.
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