Wants vs. Needs: Nonrequired fire alarm systems

Shutterstock / Cash1994 / BonezBoyz / Grimgram
Shutterstock / Cash1994 / BonezBoyz / Grimgram
Published On
Nov 15, 2021

Why do I have to follow the code for a nonrequired fire alarm system? I often receive this question or a similar one from installation contractors.

Specifically, the question centers around the installation of smoke detectors or a limited fire alarm system in a facility where the building code does not require any type of detection or fire alarm system because of building size or occupancy, for example, offices, medical practice buildings, retail stores, etc. These types of installations are in response to owners stating they would like to have “some smoke detectors installed to provide early warning of a fire.”

As a reminder, NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, does not require a fire alarm system to be installed in any building. The building code in force in the jurisdiction has those requirements. But when a system is installed, it must meet the requirements of the referenced edition of NFPA 72.

Unfortunately, some contractors respond by supplying the number of detectors the owner requested or by determining how many detectors they think the owner will pay for. These contractors may connect the detectors to a listed fire alarm control unit (FACU) but still do not inform the owner that the amount of detection is inadequate.

They often do not submit a drawing for approval to the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) because it was nonrequired coverage, believing the nonrequired smoke detectors were not considered a fire alarm system. They believe any detector installed exceeds the requirements of any building code, and they are not supplying or installing a complete “fire alarm system.”

Some companies advise salespeople that a drawing of the system is required and must be reviewed and sealed (stamped) by a licensed professional engineer and submitted to the local AHJ for approval and permitting. Because the salesperson is trying to sell the owner what they asked for (some smoke detectors), they are concerned that their company’s requirement increases the project’s direct cost as well as the amount of their sales time spent coordinating all the company requirements.

Additionally, when an owner requests “some smoke detectors for early warning,” the salesperson feels they must advise the owner that the cost will be higher than expected because the design may need to be changed after the contract has been signed due to “the AHJ demanding more than the salesperson thought would meet the code.” In many cases, the salesperson loses the sale because the owner does not want to install what is now required by the AHJ. (Blaming the AHJ for their poor design or incompetence is obviously not fair.)

Is all this simply a misunderstanding of NFPA 72? Isn’t some protection by a few smoke detectors better than none?

The latter question has been the subject of debate since I entered the fire alarm systems field more than 40 years ago. The only time the answer is yes is when the owner understands that one or two smoke detectors will not provide much in the way of protection for life safety or property protection. There are too many factors affecting smoke detection to guarantee early warning of a fire by the installation of just one or two smoke detectors in a facility.

This point, apparently, is not understood by those contractors who will readily agree to supply this limited amount of detection. The answer to the question must always be no because it provides the owner with a false sense of security that is reinforced by the contractor agreeing to the installation. The owner rarely informs the contractor that he wants some protection based on any real sense of fire-protection principles. The contractor must counter the request by educating the owner about the limitations of smoke detection.

The answer to the first question is, in my opinion, the contractor has not read all the chapters in NFPA 72, because if he had done so, he would realize that the code is clear with regard to installing nonrequired components.

The following is a review of the NFPA 72 requirements that reference nonrequired or voluntary systems installation. NFPA 72 Section 3.3.180 defines “nonrequired” as a “system component or group of components that is installed at the option of the owner and is not installed due to a building or fire code requirement.”

The Annex A material referenced to the definition states in general that the code recognizes, “There are situations where the applicable building or fire code does not require the installation of a fire alarm system or specific fire alarm system components, but the building owner wants to install a fire alarm system or component to meet site-specific needs or objectives.”

These needs and objectives must be understood by the contractor, and the owner must also understand what type and how much detection it will take to meet their objectives.

The annex further states, “However, it is not the intent of the Code that the installation of a nonrequired fire alarm system, or fire alarm system components, trigger requirements for the installation of additional fire alarm system components or features.”

Another example is when a building owner voluntarily installs a FACU to transmit sprinkler waterflow signals to a central or remote supervising station. The code states that this installation will not trigger a requirement to install other fire alarm system components or features, such as manual fire alarm boxes, occupant notification or electronic supervision of sprinkler control valves.

We know that owners will often ask for smoke or heat detection when none is required by a building code. This request could be to apply detection to meet certain performance goals or to address a particular hazard or need.

However, when an owner asks for some smoke detection with the goal of life safety or property protection, we must explain that they are asking for “feel-good protection,” and that more coverage is needed to truly meet their protection goals.

Remember that the owner generally will have no fire protection or detection knowledge. Advise and guide them to develop a performance objective that describes the purpose of detector placement and the intended response of the FACU to detector activation. The performance objective statement can include a narrative description of the required response time of the detectors, a narrative of the sequence of operations, a tabular list of programming requirements or some other method to ensure the owner and anyone else involved in this application understands the detection and operation goals.

Nonrequired detection and systems are more common than one might imagine. Don’t let the owner dictate what should be installed when they have no idea what they are asking for. Do the right thing by educating them, and demonstrate that you are truly knowledgeable in the NFPA 72 requirements to meet their needs.

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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