System Augmentation

When upgrading electronic security in a retrofit, it’s quite common for electrical contractors (ECs) to receive a bid specification where they are expected to add to an existing fire or burglar alarm system. Unfortunately, the electrical engineer often doesn’t provide the make, model and wiring requirements, leaving the choice to the EC who may not have all the information.

Usually, the EC will call an alarm company for a turnkey price, and in many cases, this is a correct move. But sometimes such a situation can be turned into a success story for an EC’s low-voltage division by looking at the job from a recurring revenue point of view.

ECs that know the value of recurring revenue will look at retrofit situations in terms of “takeover.” This is important when a job involves a nonmonitored alarm system. Not only do you have an opportunity to earn additional dollars on the initial bid specification, but it’s quite possible to turn the client onto 24/7 central station monitoring with very little trouble. This can be done by developing a relationship with a third-party central station service.

Consider giving the client 12 months of monitoring for free. Simply include the third-party cost in your bid price. In most cases, at the end of the year, they’ll elect to keep it, paying from that point on. In this case, you will have gained yourself a long-term monitored account.

Another long-term positive to a turnkey mindset is ongoing service and the possibility of a subsequent maintenance contract. Consider this: the fire code requires yearly inspections and ongoing maintenance. There is no reason why a licensed EC cannot earn additional income by inspecting smoke detectors, manual fire pulls and all the other equipment that goes into a common system. The bottom line is you shouldn’t leave money lying on the table for another company to grab.

To take advantage of retrofits, ECs must be able to handle these jobs from start to finish. An EC should enlist help from others already in the business, such as distributors and manufacturers

Alarm equipment distributors often are willing to work with ECs on obtaining equipment and engineering help. Traditional electrical distributor, such as Graybar, Gexpro or a low-voltage specific distributor, also handle alarm equipment. Manufacturers also are a great resource.

There also are online sources of equipment specifications and technical manuals with myriad data, such as

And for those systems the EC cannot buy, such as proprietary brands, they can turn to any number of Web sites structured for peer-to-peer contact. For example,, a Web site of which I am the director, provides an online platform through which professionals can network anonymously.

Bid notes

There is no doubt that satisfying a bid specification—with regard to adding to an existing alarm system—can be challenging. First, determine whether the system uses conventional or addressable technology. To determine this, look inside the alarm control panel. If there are 20 devices in the system and as many or more cables, the system is likely conventional. However, if there are only a few, then it is probably addressable. In all cases, the EC should verify exactly what the alarm system is by contacting the manufacturer or a distributor.

Parts availability also will be an issue, so check with your local alarm equipment supplier to find out if the system is readily available through open distribution. If the system is proprietary, the best way to proceed is to get a list of dealers from the Web site. You may also be able to talk the client into switching from what they have to what you can more readily offer.

Above all, look at the cabling in use before installing a single wire. If you are adding a motion detector, look at an existing one and follow suit. Do not assume anything, especially in the area of shielded or twisted-pair cable. Just because shielded cable works well with one brand doesn’t necessarily mean it will with another.

Correction: The May Security column stated smoke detectors are made to a more exacting specification than smoke alarms. Actually, smoke alarms and smoke detectors are made for the same engineering standards. The reason for the excessive false trips in homes has more to do with misapplication and the fact that smoke alarms used are usually the ionization type, as opposed to photoelectric. I regret the misunderstanding.

COLOMBO is a 35-year veteran in the security and life safety markets. He is director with and a nationally recognized trade journalist in East Canton, Ohio. Reach him at

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