Developing a ‘specialty’ crew is important


The fire alarm system installation for most new building projects inevitably is a Division 16 responsibility. Because the fire alarm system often represents a small percentage of the electrical contractor’s overall bid for the project’s electrical work, he or she often spends less time understanding the system design and rarely plans the fire alarm system installation.

If you have approached installations this way, you surely have experienced the typical unfortunate results at the project’s completion: the fire alarm system is not complete or is not code compliant and is holding up the certificate of occupancy. And even though the balance of your electrical work was installed on time and in a quality manner, the owner is threatening to never use you again (or worse, file suit) because they cannot open their building.

As you might imagine, there are some simple guidelines a contractor can follow that will help to avoid these end-of-project catastrophes. First, understand the design. Make sure that you know the National Fire Alarm Code and NEC installation requirements as well as the local requirements. Be proactive.

Ask whether or not the owner has any special requirements and find out whether or not the system is being installed at the request of an insurance provider. For example, if that insurance provider is FM Global, the spacing for some detection devices may be more stringent than those allowed by UL and NFPA 72-2002.

When planning the cabling for fire alarm system installations, establish a color code. Color codes should be consistent for all fire alarm systems installed by your company. This policy will also facilitate future troubleshooting and repairs when necessary. Although the NEC allows the use of standard junction boxes, many contractors have found that using locked terminal boxes, sized properly for the number of system conductors, facilitates both installation and troubleshooting of fire alarm circuits.

Understand the importance of developing a “specialty” installation crew trained in the installation of fire alarm systems and don’t change crews or foreman in the middle of a project. Ensure that they are trained by the fire alarm system equipment supplier or ensure that the supplier has allocated installation oversight and will assist your journeyman/foreman during the installation.

When accepting bids for fire alarm equipment make sure you look beyond the price. It may prove beneficial in the long run to “sole source” a specific manufacturer. Installation personnel will maintain familiarity with the equipment and their speed of installation will be increased at the same time minimizing unnecessary trouble shooting due to installation errors. Often a manufacturer will require special cable or special back boxes. Make sure you deal with a supplier who will ensure that you and your installation personnel know about these issues.

Make sure your electricians understand when the code allows T-tapping of a circuit connecting detection devices. Many contractors wrongly assume that any addressable system circuit may be T-tapped. This is true only for Class B or Style .5, 1, 3, 3.5, 4 or 4.5 signaling line circuits. Class A or Style 2, 5, 6, and 7 can not be wired in a T-tap fashion.

Contractors must be careful to calculate the number of notification appliances (horns, strobes, etc.) that are planned for each notification appliance circuit. Given the high current draw of strobes, it is easy to overload a circuit, which can result in costly repairs at the end of the project.

Be aware that detection devices cannot be installed until after the construction cleanup of all of the other trades is complete and final (NFPA 72-2002, Section 5.7.1.11). When planning the actual installation, make sure to include time to 100 percent test the entire system before calling the authority having jurisdiction for the acceptance test!

To recap:

1. Understand the design

2. Know local requirements

3. Understand the insurance requirements

4. Determine the owner’s special requirements

5. Understand the National Fire Alarm Code

6. Understand the Fire Alarm requirements of the National Electrical Code

7. Develop a policy for color coding wiring

8. Ensure junction boxes are sized properly and consider using terminal boxes

9. Train your electricians; develop a “specialty” fire alarm system installation crew

10. Don’t change foreman in the middle of project

11. Train your electricians

12. Know when T-tapping is allowed

13. Don’t overload notification appliance circuits

14. Consult with the manufacturer for specific types of cable or special back boxes that may be required

15. Competitively bid equipment, but ensure the equipment can do the job!

16. Allow enough time for complete system testing

Installing a fire alarm system is a great responsibility. When you choose to install these systems plan how you are going to perform the work. EC

MOORE, a licensed fire-protection engineer and a director of operations for Hughes Associates Inc., Warwick, R.I., was a co-editor of the National Fire Alarm Code Handbook.