The tools and equipment necessary to install and test a fire alarm system have changed over the years, and until a fire official asks to perform a particular test, many contractors may be unaware that they need a new meter or specialized piece of equipment.

The tools and equipment mentioned here do not include the common ones, such as screwdrivers, tape measures or lineman’s pliers. Instead, these tools have specific uses, in most cases, when installing and testing fire alarm systems.

After installing a new addressable analog fire alarm system, the first piece of equipment you must have is a laptop computer. The fire alarm system operates based on a program developed for the project that will ensure the system meets the expectations of the designer, owner and fire official. Following a detailed discussion with the designer, ensure your installed system will perform in accordance with the matrix of operation specified. If the matrix of operation has changed, the program will need to change. Additionally, ensure the “labels” for each detector that appear on the display (their location, for example) correctly provide the necessary information. Supply the details of these labels to the programmer as early as possible to ensure a smooth acceptance test.

Generally, the system manufacturer of the fire alarm system control unit has trained the programmer, so he or she can make changes as required. If possible, avoid making too many changes during the acceptance test, as they could extend the test time and require the inspector to make a second visit, often at an additional cost. In fact, pretest the programming and operation of the fire alarm system before you notify the fire official and schedule the formal acceptance test.

You probably already own a multimeter. You will use this simple piece of test equipment to confirm voltage drops, current draw on a circuit and line resistance.

You will also need a sound level meter to test the notification appliance sound levels, as required by the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. This type of meter is available from numerous sources. Do not rely on someone else’s meter because they may not have properly calibrated it, which puts you at risk of failing the audibility tests. You get what you pay for, so buy a quality meter. Learn how to use it, and find out where you can send it for calibration. Practice ahead of time, and become proficient at using this important test instrument.

If you have installed an in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications system (EVACS), you may need to use a specialized meter to measure the intelligibility of the voice message. Notice I wrote “may need to measure” the intelligibility. The code requires all voice messages to be intelligible, but it does not require the intelligibility levels to be measured.

In the case of a challenging acoustical space (high ceilings, hard wall or floor surfaces, etc.), you may need to enlist a professional sound and communications contractor to assist with properly measuring the message intelligibility. Hopefully, the EVACS’s designer understood the issues encountered in any challenging acoustic spaces. And, of course, if you provide the design for the system, and you have no professional sound experience, consider hiring someone who does. Unless you install a large number of EVACSs, I don’t recommend you purchase an intelligibility meter. It costs a significant amount of money and requires substantial training to use it properly.

You also need aerosol gas for smoke detector testing. Most practioners commonly call it “canned smoke.” All editions of NFPA 72 from 2007 to 2013 require the in-place operational and smoke entry testing of smoke detectors to ensure smoke can enter the sensing chamber of the detector and initiate an alarm signal. You may perform the test with actual smoke or by using a listed/labeled product acceptable to the manufacturer or in accordance with the manufacturer’s published instructions.

You will need one final piece of test equipment to measure the airflow through the sampling tubes of any air duct-type smoke detectors. This instrument—-generally a water tube manometer or the electronic equivalent—will measure the differential pressure of the air flowing through the sampling tubes in inches of water. For duct smoke detectors to work properly, the sampling tubes must actually sample the airflow in the duct and duct housing.

All of this equipment is absolutely necessary to ensure a reliable fire alarm system. As a professional contractor, you will want to have the necessary equipment on hand to perform the fire alarm system acceptance tests to ensure the system you installed will perform properly when called on to do so. Your customers will thank you.


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 wmoore@haifire.com.