Providing ITM and System Replacements for Existing Systems
By Wayne D. Moore
As you develop your inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) book of business, you will sign contracts to perform ITM on existing systems. If you simply count devices and appliances and base your pricing on that outcome, you will undoubtedly be headed for trouble. You need to develop a protocol for first evaluating the condition and code compliance of the existing system. This protocol should first include an equipment review to determine if there is any equipment that is under recall, is considered obsolete by the manufacturer, has no replacement parts available and will soon be obsolete or is deteriorated beyond repair.
In addition, if you find an installation error, what is your responsibility? I always recommend that you photograph non-code-compliant installation or equipment issues so you can make your case to the owner regarding the problems found.
Once you have performed this first step, you need to determine your ability to perform the ITM services in accordance with NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. In other words, should you find a part defective, do you have the ability to obtain the replacement part? If the answer to this question is no, then you should reconsider whether taking on the business makes sense. Make no mistake that when you sell a contract for ITM on an existing system, you are implying that not only are you qualified to work on the system, but you have access to replacement parts that will allow the system to remain operational in a code-compliant fashion. In other words, you “own” the system.
You should always ask the owner for the last test report, who did the work, whether any faults found were corrected, as-built drawings of the installed system, the system matrix of operation and any calculations (such as battery standby, voltage drop, etc.) that they may have available. Battery standby is just one instance where existing system failures have occurred. A local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) began requiring a 24-hour test on batteries before he would grant approval and found a 43% failure rate.
I recommend you establish a “rule of ITM business” that the first test of the system be a 100% test. You do not want to find yourself halfway through the year and a fire occurs and the system did not work because you did not test that section of the system. Remember, as stated earlier, once you take over the system, you own it. Never assume the system was working 100% before you take over the ITM responsibility.
Another important rule to remember is just because the system is installed in an existing building and the building is occupied, that is not an indication the system was approved by the AHJ. You don’t even know whether the original AHJ had enough background to properly accept a fire alarm system.
You also do not know if the original installer or ITM provider had the proper installation training or whether they knew the code requirements that applied to the system installation and ITM requirements. And you do not know the ethics of the original installer. In other words, did the original installer or ITM provider cut corners? Were they as dedicated to doing the right thing as you are?
Obviously, you won’t know unless you investigate, and that is the point.
With all these unknowns, how do you approach the sale of your ITM work? Carefully, I hope, and with at least the above protocols in place.
Another issue with existing systems is their replacement. You will be called to many buildings where the equipment has failed and the AHJ has required a system replacement. Once again, it will pay to be diligent. In many cases the owner will not tell you that the AHJ advised them that the system must meet current codes and standards. However, you should not need that information, because if you are installing a new system, you should already know that it needs to meet the current code requirements. There is no “grandfather statement” that allows you to replace the existing system device-for-device and appliance-for-appliance.
Even if the existing detection coverage is compliant with the current code, you can pretty much count on the notification appliance layout to be non-code-compliant. Most contractors in the past never worried about the audibility requirements of their systems. But today’s AHJ will no doubt ask for the sound level readings in each area as proof that the code-required audibility has been met. Even if the AHJ is too busy to witness a 100% commissioning test, that does not relieve you from your responsibility to ensure code compliance. Additionally, the current owner may have different fire protection goals than the original owner. You need to be aware of those differences.
If you have been asked to add on to an existing system, you need to verify that the fire alarm control unit (FACU) can be expanded. Look for compatibility issues with the existing equipment, especially if you are only replacing the FACU. And remember that all interfaced systems must be tested with the fire alarm system. Make sure these systems currently work before attempting new work.
Remember, you are considered the expert, so ensure all equipment is installed in conformance with all applicable codes. It is you job to do what is right. If you develop that reputation, then you will never be without work.