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When Does Replacing a Fire Alarm System Become an Upgrade?

Fire alarm.
Published On
Mar 14, 2022

One of the biggest mistakes a contractor can make is agreeing to replace an existing fire alarm system with exactly what is installed, only with new equipment, in all the existing locations. This is a mistake for the following reasons:

  1. The existing horns or speakers may not meet the audibility requirements of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.
  2. The building layout may have changed since the original fire alarm system installation, requiring more horn/strobes or speaker/strobes and possibly additional detection.
  3. The system has had false alarms in the past, or has impairments now, or both.
  4. The wiring does not meet the requirements of the National Electrical Code or NFPA 72 Chapter 12.
  5. The existing system was never approved by the fire inspector, who may no longer be with the fire department, and the new inspector may now require a complete upgrade in accordance with NFPA 72-2019 whenever an existing system is replaced.

Before getting in trouble financially on a fire alarm system replacement, the first step is to examine the existing design or layout and determine where the “holes” may be in detection, wiring or audiovisual appliances. Once you have audited the system, you will need to test it to ensure the audible appliances will provide the code-required 15 dBA above ambient noise levels and the appropriate levels inside the offices, apartment bedrooms or hotel rooms in the building. It is almost a given that you will need to add audible appliances, because earlier systems were never properly tested for audibility.

A test before system replacement, especially when using existing wiring, will also provide a baseline of the wiring integrity. You should ensure the wiring is correct and code-compliant. The jurisdiction may now require Class A wiring, and if the existing system is Class B, you may be required to rewire it to meet the current requirements.

If the building is a high rise, the fire official may require that the risers to the speakers on each floor be survivable in accordance with sections 12.4 through 12.4.4 of the code, which, if left to chance, will be a major cost factor.

When you are in the building conducting the audit, you should always ask the workers or facility directors what issues are present in the existing system. They will normally be happy to tell you about false alarms or faults. Obviously, you should ask the owner why the system is being replaced. Of course, once you have completely audited the system, your first call should be to the fire inspector. Knowing why they are requiring the fire alarm system replacement, as well as what they are expecting from this replacement effort, will help to avoid costly changes after the new system installation.

If the system has had false alarms, you will want to research the reason so that your replacement system won’t have the same issues. This could simply mean changing a detector type or location. Generally, false alarms are not caused by the fire alarm control unit (FACU); however, it will also be important to ascertain whether or not the FACU has any inherent issues. Be careful when discussing false alarms with anyone. Sometimes the occupants will call a trouble signal a false alarm. It is important therefore to ensure you understand what they are telling you by asking direct questions, such as whether they were required to evacuate when the “false alarm” occurred. Obviously, if the FACU is in a trouble condition when you arrive, you will need to determine what has caused the trouble.

Of course, system impairments are also important. What should you do if you determine the fire alarm system is not operable and is a life safety hazard? NFPA 72 states the following:

“10.21.1 The system owner or the owner’s designated representative shall be notified when a system or part thereof is impaired. Impairments to systems shall include out-of-service events.

10.21.4* The service provider shall report to the authority having jurisdiction any system that is out of service for more than 8 hours.

A.10.21.4 It is important for the authority having jurisdiction, typically the local fire official, to be informed when systems have been out of service for more than 8 hours so that appropriate measures can be taken. The term out of service is meant to refer to the entire system or a substantial portion thereof.”

You may be thinking, “I am just reviewing the system for estimating purposes, so I am not the service provider, and therefore those requirements don’t apply to me.” That is true, but you are, or will be, accepted as an expert in the field by the courts, and you may be the last person to look at the system. If a fire occurs and the alarm system malfunctions, it will be deemed your responsibility to have made the appropriate notifications, as outlined above, upon discovery.

I don’t make these statements to scare you away from working on fire alarm systems, but just to remind you of your responsibility when dealing with life safety systems. The takeaway from the above discussion is to never assume anything when performing fire alarm system replacements. By understanding your responsibilities and the importance of being thorough when asked to replace an existing fire alarm system, you will avoid financial issues going forward with the system replacement, and will continue to show your customers a level of professionalism not seen in the competition.

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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