Owners often contact contractors to install fire alarm systems in existing buildings. And, just as often, the Code does not require these installations. Rather, the building owner simply wants a fire alarm system installed for his or her own peace of mind. The owner usually wants the system because of his or her desire to meet building or life safety protection goals.

As a contractor, you often begin by asking, “It’s not a Code-required system, so do I have to follow any Code requirements?” Would a conscientious contractor install “optional” electrical equipment without following the National Electrical Code? Of course not!

Before we look at the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72-2002, requirements, let’s review some common-sense questions one should ask before proceeding with the bid and installation.

Why has the owner requested that you install a fire alarm system?

Presumably, the owner does not really understand what type of automatic detection is needed or what makes up a Code-compliant fire alarm system. That means you’re the expert. What type of detection you choose should depend on whether or not the owner desires property protection, life safety or mission protection. Most contractors understand the meaning of property and life safety protection. Mission protection is defined as the owner’s ability to continue his or her operations after the fire.

Each of these fire protection goals demands a different approach to detection choice and placement. Do not fall into the trap of designing to what you think the owner can afford. Also, avoid providing inadequate protection with the caveat that “some protection is better than nothing.”

Inadequate detection will give the owner a false sense of security and, ultimately, the owner relies on your knowledge and expertise to provide the “right” fire alarm system to meet his or her needs. This puts the responsibility for system and detection choices squarely on your shoulders.

What if you don’t feel comfortable providing the design or layout of the fire alarm system? What choices do you have? You could recommend that the owner have a fire protection engineer design the system. Or, you could suggest that the owner install a fire alarm system as outlined in the local building code for new buildings having the same occupancy and construction characteristics. This latter approach at least gives the owner a base line of protection for his or her existing building similar to that he or she would receive for a new building.

Once you have presented the owner with a choice of the type of fire alarm system and detection, and the owner accepts the bid accepted, you must now install the system.

As most contractors know, the National Fire Alarm Code contains the requirements for the application and installation of fire alarm systems.

To return to the original question: You can’t go wrong by following NFPA 72-2002.

NFPA 72-2002 defines a non-required fire alarm system as “a fire alarm system component or group of components that is installed at the option of the owner, and is not installed due to a building or fire code requirement.” NFPA 72-2002, Chapter 5, Automatic Fire Detection Devices, states, “Where installed, detection that is not required by an applicable law, code or standard, whether total (complete), partial or selective coverage, shall conform to the requirements of this Code.”

Even when some applicable law, code or standard does not require detection, the Code requires that the fire alarm system must still comply with all the requirements of NFPA 72, including the specific detector location, installation, operation and maintenance requirements for the type of detector used. The technical committee adopted this requirement to help ensure that purchasers of non-required systems still receive systems that work.

Decades of experience in fire alarm system design, installation and maintenance have shown that compliance with the requirements of the Code results in systems that have a high probability of providing consistent, reliable service.

However, an exception to the requirement permits the use of detector spacing that deviates from the spacing specified in the prescriptive sections of the Code. This exception recognizes that certain system objectives may not require detection spacings found elsewhere in the Code in order to attain the performance intended for the non-required system.

Whenever anyone designs a fire alarm system, the Code requires that the design documentation stipulate the objectives for that system. Although the exception in the Code exempts “nonrequired” detection from the prescriptive spacing rules of Chapter 5, the design documentation must still substantiate the selected spacing. This will ensure that the spacing selected for the chosen detectors will satisfy the design objectives for the system.

By following these guidelines and requirements, the contractor can help ensure that his or her customer gets a reliable code-compliant fire alarm system that meets the owner’s goals for the existing building. EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.