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Upgrade or Replace? Assisting Customers with Their Fire Alarm System Decisions

Fire Alarm Nic Taylor iStock
Image credit: Nic Taylor / iStock

One of your goals as a professional contractor should be to become a trusted advisor to your customers. This goal doesn’t require you to be the low bidder on every project, but it does require you to show your customer why working with you long term is the most cost-efficient way to obtain all systems electrical including their fire alarm systems. How do you show them why you are the smart choice? A few of the best ways I have found to do this include going the extra mile, providing expert advice regarding troubling issues, and resolving their problems quickly and satisfactorily.

Through our actions, we must constantly prove to our customers we have their best interests at heart. Are your techs trained to see a problem and to fix it immediately? Are your techs clean, dressed appropriately and courteous? Are your techs trained to troubleshoot the fire alarm systems currently installed in your customer’s properties? They should be trained to report to you any fire alarm system trouble or supervisory conditions regardless of their reason for being at the site. In turn, you must respond immediately to determine how you can ensure the customer stays protected.

You want to be able to determine the existing fire alarm system's reliability so you can establish priority upgrades. You also want to have a good relationship with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to avoid costly surprises and mistakes. Ensuring your design plans are correct the first time and that your installations are always ready for acceptance testing are two ways to have the AHJ on your side when you need to ask for a favor.

Common challenges with fire alarm systems

Often the AHJ informs the owner a system needs to be replaced. Typically, there are two reasons for this demand: the currently installed system is obsolete and cannot be maintained, or the system is prone to false alarms. After you receive the frantic call from the owner that the AHJ has demanded an immediate system replacement, it is important you call the AHJ. You want to determine exactly what the issue is, so you can present a plan to the owner for either a system upgrade or complete system replacement. During this call, you also need to ask the AHJ if the work can be accomplished in phases to reduce the owner's financial hardship. And you ask this last question even if the owner has not brought it up just to show the owner you are looking out for their best interests.

Remember neither NFPA 72 nor the building codes require any changes or upgrades to a fire alarm system if it is working properly and can be maintained. There are instances the building or fire code may have requirements that address fire alarm system upgrades or replacements, but unless the system’s condition will put the occupants at risk, there are only opinions and hearsay as to why the system is required to be upgraded.

With your trained technicians, you can often determine whether a simple upgrade to a fire alarm control panel will meet the performance the AHJ intended or if a replacement is necessary. You will need to determine if the existing wiring for the system has been modified and whether it was code-compliant when installed before providing any cost estimates.

If indeed the system is old or obsolete but still operating, you need to advise the owner that, in the event of a system failure that cannot be repaired, an emergency complete system installation will be needed. Emergency repairs are always costlier than a phased, orderly fire alarm system replacement.

What are the challenges owners face when upgrading their fire alarm systems?

  1. Little or no budget
  2. Completely occupied buildings
  3. Lacking complete system inventory
  4. Lacking audits for Code compliance
  5. Not knowing the existing systems' condition (e.g., how many are now obsolete and replacement parts are unavailable?)

If you have customers with old fire alarm systems, you should at least offer to perform a system audit to both determine compliance with current codes and to provide the cost estimates for what it will take to ensure ongoing fire safety to the occupants of the building. The cost estimates could be used for budget submission. You should also be prepared to explain how you would install the new system with the least disruption to the occupants. You may need to involve a fire protection engineer in the new system design depending on the installation's size and complexity. This effort should result in plans showing the design and all the documentation NFPA 72 now requires.

Remember, using existing infrastructure is often the more economical approach for establishing a base for new upgrades, but there are traps that could be costly or result in unreliable systems. Be careful when replacing the detectors and notification appliances. Replacing one-for-one is not always the smartest or most code-compliant method of replacement.

Start early in the process to assist your customer with establishing their fire protection goals for life safety, property protection, reliability and equipment standardization. They may indeed want to upgrade to a voice system (emergency voice/alarm communication system or mass notification system) to replace the existing fire alarm system. This option will enable the new system to perform multiple functions, which reduces operational costs and increasing the overall fire safety for their employees.

Becoming a customer’s trusted advisor is beneficial to both of you. To do this, you must be thoroughly familiar with all of the applicable codes and have developed good relationships with the local fire AHJs. You must be able to answer the question of whether a customer should upgrade or replace their fire alarm system with conviction and authority.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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