In these difficult economic times, we see much more renovation than new construction. Generally, when an owner renovates a building, the work will more than likely affect the fire alarm system coverage or operation.


It makes sense, then, that when you quote electrical work for a renovation project, you should also review the physical building changes planned—as they relate to the fire alarm system—to verify the detection and notification appliances will meet the requirements of both the owner and the currently adopted version of NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. For example, if the renovation adds or enlarges conference rooms, you will need to add a strobe or increase the candela rating of the existing strobe. Additionally, new offices, walls or halls could trigger the need for more audible or visible notification appliances to comply with NFPA 72 requirements.


Many jurisdictions often require a complete system upgrade when you simply want to replace the fire alarm control unit, but the code does not require this! Assuming you have developed a relationship with the fire officials in your market area, you will already know of the existence of some of these “back-pocket” requirements. I call them this because they often do not actually appear in any code. 


Nevertheless, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) may have “heard” from a misinformed contractor that replacing the fire alarm control unit triggered a full system upgrade. So he or she became convinced the code required this and began enforcing that process as if it did. So although you may not successfully convince the AHJ that the code does not require what he or she asks for, you will, at least, have an opportunity to advise the owner—your client—what to expect as an unintended consequence of the renovation work.


Regardless of the local official’s back-pocket requirements, audit the existing fire alarm system to determine if the currently adopted code would affect detection and notification appliance coverage. After reviewing the existing system, determine if the wall or room changes require new detector spacing, if their locations need alteration, or if the renovation will mean additional detection devices or notification appliances.


Ask when someone last tested the existing fire alarm system. If it has been more than a year, offer that service. This becomes especially important if the work you bid on includes the addition of detection devices or notification appliances in the renovated areas.


The system audit I am suggesting would help reveal if the circuits to be modified will support the new devices or appliances. Adding equipment to a fire alarm system changes the voltage-drop calculations, the power supply capacity calculations, and the standby battery calculations. If you choose not to audit the system, the owner will likely resist paying you for any additional equipment above what you originally specified to meet code requirements.


Another caution when dealing with renovations: avoid the trap of replacing the existing fire alarm system equipment one-for-one. Many fire alarm systems salespeople will try to convince the owner that this “upgrade”—using the existing wiring and locations—will provide the most cost-effective approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you replace the entire system, the AHJ will most definitely require you to meet the currently adopted codes. Moreover, the owner will look to you to ensure the fire alarm system meets the code requirements.


This mandate will force you to meet audibility requirements and—if the fire alarm system uses voice evacuation—intelligibility requirements. This could have catastrophic consequences on the project’s cost-effectiveness. Always advise the owner to allow you to review and audit the existing system against the current code requirements to ensure the one-for-one replacement does not turn into a black hole for cost overruns. 


If you do not feel comfortable performing the review and audit, find a qualified fire protection engineer to contract with the owner to provide the service. Otherwise, a mistake could cause the AHJ to void the certificate of occupancy or withhold it until all corrections have been made. 


After considering this information, it should seem clear that simply bidding on renovation work that includes some modification to an existing fire alarm system takes more thought and initiative than simply pricing the additional equipment and the labor to install it. Understanding both the fire alarm system pitfalls and the opportunities that can result from renovation work will enable you to increase your sales and your profits.