Assessing your fire alarm system needs - A Q&A for electrical contractors

March/April 2000 Fire & Safety

Question:

The trend in the low-end fire alarm industry - in applications for small and medium-sized buildings - seems to be toward addressable systems and away from hardwired systems. What are some of the advantages of addressable systems and can the trend be expected to continue?

Answer:

There are many advantages to an addressable system. It can pinpoint alarm conditions better than a hardwired system.

That is because each addressable device can be individually identified. When used in fire detection applications, hardwired zones are incapable of providing individual device identification.

Because it requires fewer wires and smaller conduit, an addressable system can be installed more easily - and with fewer wiring errors. With its 'T-Tapped' circuits and sophisticated diagnostics, an addressable system will generally cut the time you spend on wiring by 25 to 35%.

From a performance perspective, addressable systems provide more reliable protection and greater expansion capabilities. It seems likely that the trend toward addressable systems will continue - especially with the price of those systems becoming increasingly competitive.

Question:

As a contractor, my prime responsibility is to complete a quality installation. Beyond that, my principal interest is in controlling the cost of labour - by getting on and off the job as quickly as possible. But when installing a small addressable system, I often spend several hours just locating ground faults. Are there any particular features I can look for in an addressable systems to reduce the time that is spent troubleshooting ground faults?

Answer:

Most systems are not capable of detecting ground faults to a single wire branch. Instead, a common ground fault is detected at the panel - and technicians must then isolate the source by removing wires one at a time. There is, however, a new feature on the market - device level ground fault search - which can significantly reduce ground fault detection labour. With this advanced software capability, 'device level' ground fault conditions are automatically identified at the control panel. If a ground fault occurs, it can be quickly pinpointed - and then rapidly corrected.

Question:

What other new technology features are available in addressable systems to cut down on labour and get the system up and operating faster and easier?

Answer:

Auto programming - and other features that perform self-diagnostics - can be of great value to electrical contractors. Auto programming enables a panel to read installed devices and expansion cards - and automatically program them for general alarm operation. Enhanced auto programming features are available that allow a panel to read only newly installed equipment - without affecting the programming already done. As a result, testing for occupancy can be performed immediately after device installation.

In projects involving larger systems, electrical contractors would be well advised to look for a supplier who will check out the system program itself - and thus remove from their shoulders the liability associated with more complex operations.

Question:

When choosing an addressable system for a small building, I want to be careful to get a system with the proper point capacity. How can I make sure the system I select will not only meet the customer's needs today - but also provide adequate expansion capabilities?

Answer:

Our analysis indicates that 50 to 70% of the fire alarm jobs in the low-end market require a system with 100 addressable points. But increasingly, there are more jobs where additional capacity - as much as 200 points or more - is needed. However, for low-end market applications it is unlikely that you will ever need a system with more than 250 addressable points.

Question:

What about smoke sensors? Even for small addressable applications, I still want superior detection capabilities. But price is always a consideration, so I need a cost-effective detection solution. Is it possible - for the small and medium-sized building projects I work on - to get analog sensing capabilities at a competitive price?

Answer:

Yes. There are now affordably priced photoelectric sensors designed for use with addressable systems in small and mid-sized buildings. New lower cost quick connect designs provide analog sensing with lower cost packaging. In addition, customers can take advantage of affordable analog control panels that can reduce maintenance costs by alerting supervisory personnel of a sensing condition which may require cleaning.

Question:

What about nuisance alarms after the installation? What can I as a contractor do to see that end users do not have their business operations interrupted by costly and unnecessary nuisance alarms?

Answer:

The answer may lie in part in the smoke sensors and detectors you install with the system. With today's technology, smoke sensors are capable of reporting a dirty trouble condition on the control panel. That can help ensure pro-active maintenance is performed in a timely manner - and can virtually eliminate nuisance alarms caused by the gradual build up of dirt or dust in a smoke sensor chamber.

If you want even more advanced technology to help rid your customers of nuisance alarms, consider the 'almost dirty' maintenance reporting capability. With that feature, a system can generate a report which identifies all smoke sensors that are approaching a dirty condition - so that pro-active, cost-effective maintenance can be performed. Keep in mind that in small and large systems alike, the majority of devices are smoke sensors. A panel that can tell you if the sensor is dirty will reduce costly callbacks resulting from dirty environmental conditions.

Question:

If a nuisance alarm does occur, is there a reliable way of determining where the 'fault' lies - and who is most logically responsible for repairing it?

Answer:

If it is important to you to be able to quickly and accurately trace the cause of a nuisance alarm, consider selecting a panel that can identify the kind of fault that has been detected. The more detailed the trouble information a panel is capable of providing, the less likely you will be asked to assume responsibility for a problem of someone else's creation.

Before deciding on a panel, ask the supplier to identify the various types of troubles that will be reported for individual devices, circuits and system status conditions. In addition, ask for a description of the type of information stored in history logs - and for a sample of the available system reports.

Question:

I often run into problems in networking individual fire alarm panels together for central annunciation. What can I do to make that process go more smoothly?

Answer:

Right up front, you can check whether the manufacturer of the fire alarm panels has a simple interface that provides networking capability. That small step can minimise your work - and greatly improve customer satisfaction.

Question:

Naturally, price is a driving force in the selection of a fire alarm system. But what are some other important factors that should be taken into consideration in choosing a supplier?

Answer:

In the long run, you will probably be best served by going with a full-service supplier. You obviously want to choose a company with proven, high quality equipment. But do not overlook the added value that comes from working with a supplier with multifaceted capabilities. Your job can be made much easier if you partner with a company that has a strong local presence; offers design assistance; understands codes and standards; provides strong installation support from certified technicians; and is experienced in acquiring certificates of occupancy.

Those value added capabilities are especially important on bigger jobs, where the programming and installation is more complex. When you are installing a smaller system, you may not need the comprehensive support of a strong supplier. But before taking on a large project, think carefully about your overall requirements - and choose a supplier with the resources to deliver all the service and support youwilll need.

Question:

What other kinds of value added services can a supplier provide?

Answer:

Depending on the application, you might also be interested in one or all of the following: site surveys and assessments; system specifications; system design and layout; systems integration; code/standards compliance; local code expertise; project management and installation; subcontractor management; consultative support; acceptance testing; system certification; operator training; inspection and testing; preventive maintenance; 24-hour service availability; parts and technician labor; and central monitoring.

Question:

Those are all great capabilities. But what if I do not want or need all the services that a full-service supplier has to offer?

Answer:

Your supplier should be willing to work with you - to meet your specific application requirements. You are the customer - so you should be given the option of choosing only those products and services you want. You should look for a company that is structured in a way that allows its products and services to be modular - and that can and will work with you to build a customised solution that fits the precise needs of your job. In the fire alarm industry, the very best suppliers are those which provide high quality and consistent delivery, service and support - throughout the life of the system. Ultimately, you get what you pay for - in equipment and services.




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