Ask the Right Questions: Upgrading aging fire alarm systems

Published On
Jun 15, 2021

Upgrading aging infrastructure seems to be on everyone’s minds in the post-COVID world we are moving toward. Many contractors will be called on for their recommendations for upgrading building fire alarm systems in their service area. Where do you start?

There are several important questions to ask before agreeing to provide direct input on any fire alarm system upgrade. The first and easiest is: Will the building occupancy classification change? Is the office building being converted to condominiums, apartments or some type of outpatient medical facility? This is a viable concern, because it may change the fire alarm system requirements for the facility. If work-from-home policies continue, office buildings or portions of them may be repurposed. A change in occupancy requires conformity with the current building codes and the current National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.

Assuming the occupancy is not changing, consult the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to determine its requirements for a system upgrade. Some jurisdictions require a complete system upgrade in accordance with current codes and standards. Others will allow a direct replacement of existing equipment with new equipment, even though the existing system may not comply with the current codes and standards.

Another question to ask is: How much of the existing system will be replaced? If it is only the fire alarm control unit, the local AHJ needs to be consulted. Some AHJs believe that a complete fire alarm control unit upgrade triggers the requirement for a total system upgrade to the current codes. Better to discover that before proposing this upgrade than after the owner has received a price for the panel. My mantra is to limit surprises to all concerned.

The next question you should ask is whether the existing devices are compatible (under UL requirements) with the proposed new fire alarm control unit. There are several options here, and the answer depends on whether the existing system is addressable or conventional. If the detection devices are conventional, you can still upgrade the control unit to an addressable type using relay interfaces for the zones in the existing conventional system.

However, it is important to inform your customer that future device replacements may eventually need to be addressable (at least by zone) to fully upgrade the system. You can plan with you customer to perform the device upgrades over time.

If you are asked to upgrade the entire system, do not fall into the trap of providing a one-for-one replacement of all devices and notification appliances. The existing system may or may not have met the code when originally installed. Never assume that because the building is occupied, the AHJ you’re dealing with approved the original installation.

Moreover, it is likely that smoke detector spacing may not be code-compliant. It is very likely that the notification appliances’ audibility and strobe installations do not meet the code either.

If the system is an in-building emergency voice/alarm communications system (EVACS) more than 10 years old, it is extremely likely that the intelligibility of the speaker system is not code-compliant. You will need more speakers, maybe different types, to meet the intelligibility requirements of NFPA 72.

Before finalizing plans for the fire alarm system upgrade, determine if there have been excessive false alarms or system trouble conditions. If you don’t get this information, you could be living with the poor design that was originally installed. An additional question to ask is: Have there been any changes to the building operations or an area of the building? This question is very important in industrial facilities and the answer will often dictate changes to the new system design and installation.

In any system that you upgrade, especially when you begin with a fire alarm control unit upgrade only, include the cost to completely test the entire existing system in your estimate. This helps ensure that you know of any existing trouble conditions, wiring issues or defective components that will impact the upgrade.

Finally, investigate all the wiring in the system to ensure continuity and code-compliant installation. If the system has been wired in a Class B manner, locate all the end-of-line devices. If it is an EVACS, ensure the speaker riser circuits are survivable. This could be a very costly mistake if missed, especially if the AHJ expects the system to meet current codes.

Upgrading systems can be very profitable and often will lead to inspection, testing and maintenance contracts. The key to profitability is to approach fire alarm system upgrades carefully and to perform a complete audit of the existing system to ensure you know what your challenges will be.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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