It's common in our business that almost every new fire alarm system we install is the final system to come online. However, a building does not get an occupancy permit unless its fire alarm system passes the acceptance test. Before that happens, you must ensure all fire safety functions are integrated into the fire alarm system and correctly programmed for their operation. Most of these fire safety functions require coordination with the other affected trades. And of course, if you chose the low bid supplier, their only programmer may be busy with other projects. As a result, you must wait to complete or troubleshoot your system. How will you manage to get the acceptance test accomplished on time without paying overtime and breaking the bank (and lowering your profits)?
The best place to start the successful fire alarm system installation is at the beginning. Have you trained a specific crew to install fire alarm systems understanding the requirements of NFPA 72 2019, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code? Or, because it’s electrical work, do you believe anybody can do it? If your opinion is the latter, you are only half right.
It’s generally true that anyone with electrical experience can pull the wire and mount backboxes. Did you calculate the voltage drops for the audiovisual circuits? Do your installation technicians understand the importance of limiting the appliances installed on each audiovisual circuit to ensure the voltage drop is not exceeded? Have you allowed for possible increases in the number of appliances per circuit to accommodate changes in meeting the code-required audibility measurements (15 dBA above ambient) and strobe visibility levels? It is not a given that anyone with electrical experience can manage a fire alarm system installation.
When you receive a project to bid, do you search for the cheapest supplier, or have you found one you can trust to support you? In this age of programmable fire alarm control units, you need assurance that a system programmer will be available when you need them and trained well enough to efficiently program your installed system.
When you bid the fire alarm system installation do you ensure your foreman knows to coordinate the interconnections of all fire safety functions, such as elevator recall or fan shutdown? Will they know they need to collaborate with their peers in the other affected trades to ensure the interfaced systems will all operate as specified and will be tested for that operation by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ)?
As you plan the system installation during the bid development, do you include the necessary time to perform a pre-acceptance test in addition to the final acceptance test? The code requires the system to be tested completely to establish a baseline of reliability. The pre-acceptance test is intended to ensure all the testing the code requires is completed and shows the system functions as specified. It also gives you time to fix any issues that are found. The pre-acceptance test will help to ensure the acceptance testing performed in the AHJ’s presence will be completed without a problem.
Another important aspect of the fire alarm system installation is knowing the local jurisdiction’s requirements. If you are unfamiliar with the local AHJ and its requirements, it is better to investigate at the bid stage than encounter surprises when the owner wants to occupy their building and your unaccepted fire alarm system installation prevents them from doing so.
A final word on training your technicians: They need to be trained not only on the code requirements but also the design or installation issues that could cause problems later, such as numerous false alarms as the building is occupied. They also need to be empowered to speak up when they see these issues that are either false-alarm related or when detection coverage may not meet code requirements.
Although you as an owner may want to file a change order after the fact, by preemptively finding issues, you will still be able to charge to fix all problems found and keep the owner on track for building occupancy. In fact, owners are no different than we are. They do not like surprises (especially costly ones) and will appreciate proactivity. AHJs also hate surprises and will appreciate you going the extra mile (pre-acceptance test) to show you know their time valuable.
With good planning and trained technicians, you can avoid most surprises, and your reputation will grow after every successful fire alarm system installation and acceptance test. That will help to grow your business and your profits.