The calls vary, but all have a similar theme: “My fire alarm system needs work. Can you help?” Of course, the answer is always yes. But professional contractors know they must make a thorough investigation of the installed system before determining the scope of the work.

Conducting only a visual inspection of the fire alarm system may not give you all the information you need to determine what the system needs in terms of repairs or upgrades. But, such an inspection offers an important start. The visual inspection may reveal if you need to totally replace the system.

By visually inspecting the fire alarm system control unit, you can determine if it is damaged. You may find that it displays indications of trouble conditions that point to operational problems. You also can determine if its age means it may be obsolete.

If the owner has a testing and maintenance agreement, ask to review test and repair reports for the previous 12 months. Similarly, asking questions regarding the system’s false alarm history will provide useful operational information and may point you toward areas with poorly installed or misapplied detection devices.

A visual inspection will help determine if the existing system complies with the requirements of the code. Never assume the system passed its initial acceptance test, and never assume the authority having jurisdiction originally reviewed and approved the installation.

A thorough inspection of the wiring and of the installation workmanship also will provide useful clues as to what will be needed to meet the owner’s goals of fixing the system. Opening a few junction boxes to check the condition of the circuit splicing or to uncover any “T” tapped circuits will determine if the previous contractor wired the system correctly. Whether the existing wiring used twisted or untwisted pairs also may play a part in how the system may be expanded or upgraded.

The owners also may have changed their fire alarm system goals and objectives. Or, they may have inherited the existing system when they moved into or purchased the building. In any case, you need to carefully review the owner’s goals and objectives for the fire alarm system, as well as any future building renovation plans that may require more detection devices, notification appliances, or additional control equipment and power supplies.

You must test the existing system to determine if it continues to function properly. This testing will cost the owner money. Often the owner will balk at paying you to develop a quote for the repair needs. But, if you offer to credit the testing cost if you get the job to repair or upgrade the system, most owners will readily accept your proposal.

You must test the entire system, including such things as the audibility of the notification appliances. A complete test will allow you to uncover most, if not all, of the operational problems with the system. Then you can proceed to develop a thorough plan and a comprehensive bid to upgrade or replace the existing fire alarm system.

As part of your investigation of the existing system, you may want to involve the supplier of the original equipment. Of course, if you decide to do this, you must avoid a number of pitfalls. These pitfalls include not jumping to the conclusion that you need to replace the system before you complete your investigation. And, avoid the pressure to replace only the fire alarm control unit until you determine if, by doing so, you will have locked your customer into that brand for all future work.

Of course, the original telephone call you receive from the owner may come because the owner plans to perform building renovations. Perhaps the fire official has informed the owner that he will need to upgrade the fire alarm system because of those renovations.

The wise contractor will first communicate with the fire official to determine a detailed list of new requirements. When an owner plans to upgrade a fire alarm system as a part of building renovations, some jurisdictions may require the entire system to comply with the provisions of the current edition of the building code and of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code. If you do not uncover this requirement, your bid may prove woefully inadequate and make the job unprofitable.

You also should remain aware of the NFPA 72-2007 requirement that states, “This Code defines the features associated with these systems and also provides information necessary to modify or upgrade an existing system to meet the requirements of a particular system classification.”

If you want to bid profitable fire alarm system renovation or upgrade projects, you must add a thorough knowledge of fire alarm systems and the applicable requirements of the codes to your extensive knowledge of the proper installation of electrical systems.