Collaboration From the Start: Resolve design problems with engineers

Shutterstock / MJgraphics
Shutterstock / MJgraphics
Published On
Jul 15, 2022

A common issue with fire alarm system installations is receiving incomplete or incorrect plans and specifications.

According to the 2022 Profile of the Electrical Contractor, about 60% of contractors have some kind of professional relationship with engineers. (For more information, read part 2 of the Profile of the Electrical Contractor in this magazine’s upcoming August 2022 issue.) This group has a better opportunity to sit with the fire alarm system designer and ensure that correct information is disseminated to prospective bidders. However, this assistance is not consistently provided to the engineer, and contractors are left with a poorly designed and specified fire alarm system to bid on.

Specification issues

I have encountered many situations where the engineer has apparently pulled a specification from the files thinking it will suffice for bidding. These old specifications often show equipment that is no longer on the market, and this mistake leaves it up to the bidders to determine what will prove “equal” to outdated or unavailable products.

I have asked many engineers why this happens so often. Their answers range from, “We always give the fire alarm system design to the newest person in the firm because fire alarm systems are relatively easy to understand,” to “We are not paid enough to provide proper detailed plans and specifications for a fire alarm system.”

My response is “But you do get paid to do it. Don’t you feel obligated to do the job correctly?” The electrical contractor is expected to perform the installation correctly and in a code-compliant manner. The first response would be acceptable if the new person were given clear instructions or a mentor so they could be trained to perform their job competently.

But sometimes contractors wind up with specifications and a fire alarm system design that is incorrect and almost impossible to bid without either losing the job or paying money to fix it. So, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) will accept the installation.

Offer your expertise

What can you do when you encounter engineering firms that perform fire alarm system designs incorrectly?

I realize that electrical engineers are not provided much code training except for NFPA 70, National Electrical Code. Occasionally an engineer may be told to read a copy of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. This effort takes time, however, and the engineer is under pressure to produce “something,” which results in a poorly designed system.

You can offer assistance to engineers. Explain that the design should be based on the building code and the owner’s protection goals. Help with the specifications to ensure the installation requirements meet NFPA 72.

I have also met my share of engineers who decline my assistance because they feel I am criticizing their work and overstepping my bounds. When that happens, I realize I did not communicate my offer clearly. It is important for a professional contractor to offer help because you know more about NFPA 72 and what the AHJ wants. If you do provide this assistance, the project will likely be awarded to you.

Engineers who design and specify fire alarm systems want to do the right thing. They are usually given little or no training in these systems and are expected to learn on the job. You can provide training and ingratiate yourself with the engineering firm.

Another way to approach such situations is to inform the engineer of your relationship with the AHJ. The engineer is more likely to accept that kind of help when you suggest changes to the specifications and plans using the “AHJ input.”

It is also beneficial to present “informational seminars” to engineering firms specific to fire alarm system basics and good design and installation practices. These seminars are also a good marketing opportunity to introduce yourself to engineering firms and promote your company’s reputation in the fire alarm systems field.

Don’t sit back and complain about problems. Take the initiative to assist the engineering community, and it will be recognized with more opportunities to grow your business.

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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