New UL standard outdates FACUs many consider current

Most contractors know the Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL). They see the stamp, label or tag on just about everything electrical. UL operates as an independent, not-for-profit, product-safety testing and certification organization. It has tested products for public safety for more than a century.

However, because of a new UL requirement, you may find the fire alarm system you bought earlier this year will become a piece of equipment the manufacturer has chosen to no longer support. Assuming you want your installation to satisfy your customer and assuming you count on repeat business to help your business grow, you may now have a looming problem.

According to Underwriters Laboratories, “The UL label is accepted as an indication that the product bearing the label will be safe to use and operate if installed as specified in the manufacturer’s literature.

“UL has developed more than 800 Standards for Safety. Our Standards for Safety are essential to helping ensure public safety and confidence, reduce costs, improve quality and market products and services. Millions of products and their components are tested to UL’s rigorous safety standards with the result that consumers live in a safer environment than they would have otherwise.”

Many contractors do not know UL revises its standards with input from manufacturers, authorities having jurisdiction and others in each specific industry.

UL also provides representatives who participate in the NFPA codes and standards process. Thus, UL will incorporate National Fire Alarm Code requirements, as they apply, into the various UL product standards.

Many contractors also do not know UL tests each product in a fire alarm system, such as a fire alarm control unit (FACU), using a defined product standard. For example, UL 864 is the UL standard that contains the testing and performance standards for all fire alarm control units.

Today, most new fire alarm control units offer programmable features. To do this, they must contain more sophisticated components and software than previous models. These new programmable FACUs provide many and varied functions that appeal to both the customers you serve and to your technicians. In contrast, because of these many features, these control units often prove somewhat more difficult to install.

Underwriters Laboratories’ staff realized the more sophisticated fire alarm control units must have the same level of reliability as the earlier, more conventional types. They also realized by allowing the placement of a UL label on these units, UL has a responsibility to ensure the unit meets minimum requirements.

Section 1.2 of the latest UL 864 Standard states, “The products covered by this standard are intended to be used in combination with other appliances and devices to form a commercial fire alarm system. These products provide all monitoring, control, and indicating functions of the system. An installation document(s) provided with the product describes the various products needed to form a fire alarm system and their intended use and installation.”

Difficulty in programming the FACU and unreliability of the software appear to introduce more problems into today’s system installations and delay the acceptance process. The Ninth Edition of UL 864 mandates reliability requirements for system software to help overcome some of the problems that have become issues with most new systems.

The Ninth Edition of UL 864 represents the most recent requirements all manufacturers must meet when producing new UL-compliant fire alarm control units. This means the manufacturer must resubmit all FACUs they plan to continue to manufacture for testing to the new standard.

This resubmission may sound innoc-uous. However, as a result, many manufacturers have made a business decision to discontinue those FACUs that might prove too difficult to upgrade to meet the new control panel standard.

As the manufacturers choose not to make equipment, they also become less likely or able to maintain a stock of spare parts to repair the now-obsolete equipment. Imagine your customer’s chagrin when he or she finds out the fire alarm system you installed last year cannot be maintained due to parts unavailability.

Understandably, for many electrical contractors, the fire alarm system installation represents a relatively small portion of their business. However, unless you ask questions of your fire alarm equipment supplier, you may indeed wind up with a fire alarm system that will not meet your customer’s expectations for length of service.

Your customers rely on you to meet their electrical needs, and if you don’t meet those expectations, you won’t see any repeat business from them. If you want to ensure this pathway to customer dissatisfaction does not happen to you, make sure you know the official manufacturing status of the fire alarm equipment you buy. 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.