Recently, while attending a lunch-and-learn presentation from one of the better local distributors of fire alarm systems, we wound up discussing the quality of fire alarm system submissions from contractors. We talked about the expectations of engineers and contractors who often seem to know the buzzwords of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code but do not understand the actual code requirements.
So, my first question to all contractors: Do you own a copy of NFPA 72 2010, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code? My second question: Have you read it?
These two questions hold a very important key to becoming a genuine fire alarm systems professional. To understand the requirements for a fire alarm system submission, you must know the requirements in the code for such submissions.
I am not being facetious or trying to embarrass anyone, but it appears that, while most contractors carefully plan other electrical installations, they do not carefully plan fire alarm system installations. Frankly, I don’t know why. Perhaps most contractors consider the fire alarm system a small piece of the overall electrical or systems project. Often, the fire alarm system is the last one a contractor installs on a given project.
Of course, some of you have learned that relegating the fire alarm system to the back burner will delay the building’s occupancy permit. If you do not finish installing the fire alarm system, perform the acceptance tests in the presence of the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), and promptly correct any deficiencies—all in a timely manner—the owner will suffer the consequences when he or she cannot occupy the building. Once you have experienced an owner’s wrath over this error, you won’t repeat the mistake.
It is important that, when you accept the responsibility of installing a life safety system, you develop a plan, which means determining the layout of how you will install the circuits to accommodate the audible and visible appliances and all detection devices.
If you haven’t established your audible/visible circuit layouts, you will not know how many and what type of appliances you will have on a circuit. Without this information, how will you calculate the voltage drop?
Not all engineers know the code requires voltage drop calculations, but NFPA 72 2010, Section 10.18.1.2 states: “At the authority having jurisdiction’s request, complete information regarding the system or system alterations, including specifications, type of system or service, shop drawings, input/output matrix, battery calculations, and notification appliance circuit voltage drop calculations, shall be submitted for approval.” Many contractors assume the equipment suppliers will include these calculations when they prepare the equipment installation drawings and equipment specification sheets for submission to the engineer, but think that through. The suppliers cannot assume how you will wire the circuits, which affects the voltage drop calculations. What size wire will you use? What type of conductor material? How long will each circuit extend?
So, before you ask for the equipment submittals, you need to perform the basic planning process. Then, you can tell your suppliers the number and type of appliances per circuit and the size, type and length of the wire you plan to use.
Planning your fire alarm system circuit layouts also lets you review potential problems with detector locations as they relate to obstructions other trades may create, such as heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) supply and return diffusers. NFPA 72 2010 requires that, when you locate smoke detectors in a space, you do not locate them where airflow from the HVAC diffuser will prevent the proper operation of the smoke detectors. The code prohibits locating smoke detectors in the direct airflow of the diffuser or closer than 36 inches from either the supply diffuser or the return air opening. However, larger diffusers, or those that direct airflow straight across the ceiling at a higher velocity than normally expected in a small commercial or residential facility, can require greater clearance between the diffusers and smoke detectors.
Most building codes and the Life Safety Code require the HVAC system, the elevator recall controls and, possibly, door controls to interface with the fire alarm system. Because of this requirement, you must also carefully plan the circuits for these emergency control functions.
Developing your circuit plan gets you more than halfway to another set of documents that the code requires: as-built or record drawings.
Remember, you haven’t finished the job until you finish the paperwork. Growing up in the trade, I heard it a hundred times. In the case of a fire alarm system, part of the paperwork includes the as-built drawings. And please don’t think as-built drawings simply mean the engineer’s layout design returned with your name in the title block.
NFPA 72 2010 defines as-built drawings, or “record drawings,” as “Drawings (as-built) that document the location of all devices, appliances, wiring sequences, wiring methods, and connections of the components of the fire alarm system as installed.” Although one would expect the professional contractor to understand what is included in a set of as-built drawings and also recognize that it is his or her responsibility to create them, the code still requires that they be developed. In fact, the code requires a set of reproducible as-built installation drawings, operation and maintenance manuals, and a written sequence of operation be provided to the building owner or the owner’s designated representative.
As a contractor, you should see that you have the responsibility to develop the drawings and to coordinate the presentation of the rest of the information required by the code that you have obtained from the equipment suppliers.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of these drawings. If you intend to offer test and maintenance contracts, these drawings will be worth at least their weight in gold. Your technicians will have a much more difficult time troubleshooting a circuit after installation if they do not have these drawings.
And one of the final paperwork requirements in the code includes the “record of completion” documents. Again, many contractors assume the equipment suppliers will fill out these forms. Remember, the equipment supplier did not install the system. You did.
NFPA 72 2010 requires the contractor—the qualified and experienced person described by the code in Section 10.4.2—to prepare the record of completion documents. The technical committee that writes the code developed these requirements to help ensure accountability of those people installing fire alarm systems. Yes, the equipment supplier and the engineer have a shared responsibility to supply the information the contractor requires to complete the needed documents. Hopefully, the suppliers and the engineers will hold up their end. Ultimately, the AHJ will want to have all of the code requirements met, including all calculations and documentation.
Obviously, although you have specific responsibilities when installing a fire alarm system, it really takes a team effort, and knowing your responsibilities, you should always want the best people on your team. The team includes your trained technicians, competent and supportive fire alarm system equipment suppliers, and well-trained, code-savvy engineers.
In the end, the installation’s success depends on you. Plan your systems properly. Follow the code requirements. If you do, your fire alarm system installations will always prove profitable.
MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.