This is a column about tools. For technicians who install, maintain and repair components of a building’s low-voltage networks, basic hand tools include wire cutters and strippers, crimpers, punchdown tools and testers—many designed specifically for voice/data/video. Labeling tools mark cables and patchcords and identify punchdown blocks, patch panels, face plates, racks and shelving.


However, rapidly changing technologies have added new tools that don’t fit into conventional categories. Today’s smartphones, for example, not only make telephone calls, but they also take photos, videos, send and receive data and emails, have GPS capability and can monitor installed systems. In addition to smartphones, laptop computers and, more recently, tablets are considered essential for many projects.


None of these devices can perform without software applications, which are often developed for specific trades. These apps expand the definition of “tool” to include software used for installation or repair of a building’s integrated system network.


Consider fire alarm systems


“Aside from basic hand tools, such as pliers, screwdrivers and a volt/ohm meter, fire alarm installers may need a laptop to perform the large majority of system programming,” said Tom Rosa, training supervisor for Fire-Lite Alarms (www.firelite.com).


A basic fire alarm system consists of the main controller, primary alternating current (AC) power source, secondary direct current (DC) power source, inputs and outputs. Supplementary capabilities can include elevator shutdown, air handling and damper control, extinguishing system interface, display monitor interface, door-holding devices, and printing of an event history log. Rosa said fire alarm system wiring is primarily copper; however, larger systems may use fiber optic cable to network control panels together.


Rosa said an electrical contractor generally pulls the wire for a fire alarm system, and the fire alarm control panel and devices—such as detectors, pull stations, etc.—are mounted on the wall.


“However,” he said, “the most difficult and, in many cases, the most time-consuming task is the programming of the system. Many of today’s fire alarm control panels come with some basic autoconfiguration software, but the programming of a system can be made so much easier through programming software tools provided by the manufacturer.”


PS-Tools is a time-saving software tool from Fire-Lite Alarms, designed to simplify fire alarm system installs and service while building a database of information on each installation.


“The program assists users in system programming in addition to helping with remote diagnostics,” Rosa said. “It can be used with every Fire-Lite Alarms addressable and conventional control panel on the market today. This software tool and user instructions can be downloaded free of charge from the Fire-Lite website.”


The tool allows installers to set up and verify the configuration of the alarm system before downloading any programming to the panel. Details on multiple installations, including location, components, settings and facility contacts, can be logged and tracked through the tool program.


To quickly diagnose troubles remotely, the software can provide access to a system’s event and history logs either locally or through remote connection. Virtually every function available to an installer standing at the panel is replicated in the software tool.


Software tools also can help prepare bids for fire alarm projects. Rosa said pulling together a professional bid to meet a specification—complete with all of the updated paperwork such as product data sheets—can be a time-consuming task.


“Fire-Lite Alarms’ Lite-Configurator software tool,” he said, “is designed to simplify the process of organizing a professional fire alarm system bid package or bill of materials with the inclusion of the required equipment data sheets. Its users can create worksheets with battery calculations that can be printed or exported to different programs to allow users to customize their bids with their company pricing, logos and more.”


Lite-Configurator can be downloaded from the Fire-Lite website for free. Users can register to receive email notifications each time a new version becomes available. 


Other fire alarm brands—e.g., Silent Knight (www.silentknight.com)—offer similar bill-of-materials configuration tools.


In addition, Rosa said, many fire alarm manufacturers provide software tools for calculating backup battery and power supply requirements for individual systems.


As the capabilities and sophistication of alarm systems advance, they become more complex, making installer training increasingly important. Software tools can help make training more efficient by making content easier to understand.


“After receiving numerous requests for a fire alarm course geared toward more advanced technicians with a primary focus on system programming,” Rosa said, “we created a software applications course, which walks participants through a complete Fire-Lite Alarms system setup from configuration and voltage-drop calculations to programming and updating control panel software. The one-day training covers the Fire-Lite Alarms full suite of free software packages of Lite-Configuration, Lite-Calcs, PS-Tools and PPU Wizard. The software applications course does not cover hand tools, but it does provide each participant with the most up-to-date versions of the four aforementioned software tools.”


Silent Knight offers a similar advanced training course called Tech Ed. In addition, it is holding two-day basic fire alarm training sessions in more than 50 cities this year. These free hands-on sessions are an introduction to general fire alarm system components and operation.


Rosa said online training modules employing software tools are growing in popularity with more than 2,000 certificates of completion issued since mid-2012.


However they are used, Rosa believes software tools provide multiple benefits.


“Aside from the big benefit of time-­savings,” he said, “many of these software tools help ensure technicians have the latest installation and programming information and provide [that] elements such as power requirements, battery backup, and voltage drops are correctly factored into the system before installation begins.”


Once system installation is complete, Rosa said, NFPA 72 clearly defines what tests are to be performed for system acceptance and commissioning. But you have to learn how to do them. 


The National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) certification ensures that alarm technicians are up-to-date with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards and code requirements.


NICET recently introduced Fire Alarm Systems Standard Model/CBT computer-based testing (www.pearsonvue.com/nicet) to expand benefits of its certification program by providing flexible exam dates and appointment times; immediate scheduling and confirmation; and quicker exam scoring. The certification program is for engineering technicians in the fire alarm industry who plan systems, select equipment and do system installation acceptance testing, troubleshooting and servicing, and system sales.