Is high-tech better?

Fire alarm system technology seems to be developing faster each day. It wasn’t that many years ago when an electrician treated a fire alarm system just like any other electrical system he or she had to install. Each detection device, whether a manual fire alarm box or an automatic detector like a smoke detector, was wired just like a simple switch.

Today you must understand the nuances of the high-tech systems. Addressable analog technology provides more detailed and accurate information to the technician, the owner and the fire service. In an age where information is king, most engineers automatically specify these systems for all medium to large buildings. The new technology system can be programmed to perform multiple functions from a single alarm input. But is this new technology better than that used in the old days?

The new technology is easier to install. In most cases, a two-wire signaling line circuit (SLC) can accommodate numerous devices and the wiring of each device is not complicated.

However, the new technology is delicate, meaning the equipment is more susceptible to interference from such things as electronic ballasts, power spikes, cell phone transmissions, radio transmissions and electric motor operation. In some cases, the manufacturer requires the use of shielded cable when installing the signaling line circuits and other manufacturers forbid the use of shielded cable in the same circuits. Most often the cable used must also meet certain capacitance requirements or the installation may prove troublesome.

The analog-addressable devices used often require special handling and in most cases require additional work to “program” or adjust the device settings to indicate the device’s address and location. If improperly set or if poorly documented, errors will result in the system operation, causing additional troubleshooting time and potential delays in system approval, subsequently delaying the building’s certificate of occupancy.

The fire alarm control unit (FACU) requires significant software programming that most contractors are incapable of performing on their own. This means that the contractor or his or her electricians and technicians will need constant training or the contractor must rely on the manufacturer’s representative to provide the necessary software programming in a timely fashion. Often this programming is detailed and must be designed to operate the system as specified. This issue alone can be the cause of constant delays and back charges due to a lack of coordination and documentation during the design and installation process.

So these high-tech systems can be more demanding and more difficult to understand. But does that dictate whether or not they will be specified on more and more projects? For most applications, the benefits outweigh the negatives. Designers, owners and the technicians that must maintain these systems find that once installed, the systems perform better than conventional systems and are less expensive to maintain. So high-tech systems are here to stay. How can you position yourself to install these systems successfully?

Many electrical contractors have found that it is better and more efficient to find one or two of their journeyman who have a good understanding of these high-tech systems and use them on every fire alarm system installation.

Another method is to standardize on a single manufacturer or supplier that can provide the necessary training, programming and troubleshooting assistance that will enable you to gain on-time acceptance by the authority having jurisdiction.

Understand the causes of system interference in the analog-addressable fire alarm system and then avoid them by taking extra care during the installation.

Understand the importance of coordinating the system’s programming needs with the engineer, owner, other trades such as the mechanical contractor and the fire service.

Establish a labeling procedure so that as the devices are installed the documentation will automatically be provided for the as-built drawings and device lists.

Many contractors find that it is a mistake to buy only the equipment without the technical backup from the fire alarm system supplier. This looks to be one of those cases where buying the low-bid fire alarm system without knowing the technical requirements of the system, regardless of how well the balance of your electrical installation was performed, could result in lost revenues or worse, a dissatisfied customer.

Addressable-analog fire alarm systems are easy to maintain once programmed and installed, so for those electrical contractors who market ongoing maintenance contracts, this is another positive feature of the high tech systems.

Properly managed, an addressable-analog fire alarm system installation can be both profitable and easy to install. The secret to a successful installation: understanding what your electricians and technicians need to install the system properly, training those people and aligning yourself with a qualified and reliable supplier. 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.