Filling Installation Needs

A limited number of low-voltage contractors specialize in the installation of sprinkler systems power and controls. For them, it provides a regular source of revenue that most contractors have bypassed. There are reasons many don’t tread in the fire-pump installation market—the work is highly specialized, and pitfalls lurk for companies that haven’t kept up with regulations or just aren’t getting the real-time detail and instruction they need on the work site when they need it most. However, the shortage of labor that those in the industry report makes this market potentially lucrative.

Every sprinkler system requires power connections from either an electric or diesel engine, fire-pump controller and alarm control panels, along with the transmission of a signal from the controls to a back-end server or other recipient in a control room. While sprinkler service companies install these systems, they hire subcontractors to accomplish the electric wiring, said Steven Baird, marketing manager for fire products, Armstrong Fluid Technology, Toronto.

This work is best suited for an electrical contractor or integrator, and with the shortage of skilled labor, the need for new systems and upgrades is growing. All new commercial, residential and industrial sprinkler systems come with some form of automation and controls, while many buildings upgrade their existing systems each year, especially in concert with major renovations to older buildings. While the technology changes slowly, there have been developments that make management of sprinkler systems more accessible for security staff or building managers. Most notably, the data can be received and managed on a mobile phone or tablet device, Baird said.

Like its competitors, Armstrong sells its products in the form of loose pieces of equipment, including the controls, which are installed by the sprinkler contractor together with an electrical subcontractor. The alternative is a system partially built for the contractors by Armstrong. This latter option is increasingly popular in part because, if a sprinkler system doesn’t work properly, it can be hard to determine where the problem lies and who was responsible for that part of the installation, Baird said. With a packaged system, the hardware comes in an already constructed form from the factory with the internal wiring already completed.

Individuals ask for this partially completed solution because of the shortage of skilled labor in the marketplace, Baird said.

Installers have to stay educated. Keeping ahead of changes in regulations and understanding what is needed for each electrical installation is a major challenge for electrical contractors, according to those in the business of selling and installing these systems.

One distinct challenge for electrical contractors is understanding the National Electrical Code (NEC) Article 695 requirements for fire-pump installations, said Tom Brown, president of Carolina Engine, which supplies users with fire pumps and controllers. NEC Article 695 was established to ensure that the fire-pump motor runs, despite any risk to the conductors. After all, if the pump stops operating, the water won’t get through the fire protection system. Electrical contractors need to approach each installation with a very simple goal—to ensure the pump starts and runs, no matter what else happens.

However, Brown pointed out that correct application of NEC Article 695 can be confusing. Published about three years ago, Article 695 reverses the original fire-pump power installation model in which electric motors were cheaper than diesel motors to install. According to Article 695, electric motor-driven fire pumps must have a reliable power source, which could mean a connection located ahead of (but not within) the service disconnection; an on-site power supply, such as a generator, located and protected to minimize damage by fire; or a dedicated feeder derived from a service connection.

Also, the supply conductors must directly connect the power source either to a listed fire-pump controller or a listed combination fire-pump controller and power-transfer switch. Therefore, a fire-pump controller and power-transfer switch are now required.

As a result of this Code change, the bill for any electric motor installation for fire pumps increases. Transfer switches (averaging $15,000–$30,000 each) and a separate generator (ranging from $35,000–$200,000) can be more expensive than the capital outlay for a system. Maintenance and long-term repairs also are affected with an increased cost.

“I’ve seen people get tripped up by this on a regular basis,” Brown said. 

While electrical contractors should be getting their information from electrical engineers that could help them avoid installation errors, that often doesn’t happen.

Furthermore, the power-generator motor-starting requirements that contractors commonly follow for sizing are often incorrect, Brown said. 

“NEC 695.7 requires that voltage [drop] no more than 15 percent upon starting the electric fire-pump motor,” he said, adding that this requirement greatly increases the power generator and associated distribution switchgear size.

In fact, many times, the starting power requirements nearly double the cost of the electric fire-pump system, which then far exceeds the initial cost of a similar diesel drive-pump system. 

“Also, contractors need to consider long-term parts and maintenance cost associated with the double systems involved in the electric fire-pump arrangement,” he said.

Then there is the question of accommodating generator power. Many building owners consider an emergency generator as a necessary part of their sprinkler system, but they also want to add other loads from uninterruptible power supply systems, exit lighting and emergency circuits throughout their building. 

“Many times, it’s overlooked that the other loads being considered to be carried by the emergency generator need to be subservient to the fire-pump load,” Brown said.

Most of Texas Fire Pump’s sales problems result from bad communication or relaying of submittals to electrical contractors before or when they get on-site. Jeremy Brown, sales director of Texas Fire Pump (which supplies sprinkler systems to end-users), said that the electrical installation too often hasn’t been done when his company gets on-site, and the electrical contractor is still waiting for word about proper wiring. 

“Most of the time they are waiting for us to show them,” he said.

To offset this problem, Texas Fire Pump has taken to sending a technician to the site in advance to work with the electrical contractor and ensure it has the work underway long before Texas Fire Pump and the fire marshal arrive for inspection. 

“The biggest problem I see is a lack of education, and that comes from the engineers and general contractors,” Brown said. 

He said that the fire pumps are considered safety equipment, and proper installation can be critical, which can be intimidating for installers.

“That can be touchy because of the liability tied to that industry,” Brown said. 

He urged electrical contractors to not be afraid of the work. 

“I know that’s the reason they stand back” from installing the system according to their own knowledge and instructions, he said, adding that motor wiring diagrams don’t always reflect the installation’s needs.

“Five times out of 10, their hesitation is correct,” he said. 

Hesitation, however, can sometimes lead to a better installation, while other times that pause is simply the result of being excessively concerned about the potential for errors.

As a result of this problem, sending a specialist on-site helps, but he also urges contractors to reach out for help if they are unsure on the wiring.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to the supplier,” Brown said. 

When they do, they are more likely to have the job done by the time the supplier gets onto the job site. 

“The less time we’re waiting around, the better,” he said. 

Brown said a similar problem comes from the plumbers and other subcontractors. When a contractor finds himself asking, “Where do we land these mysterious interlocking wires?” as he wires a block heater, that means it’s a good time to get on the phone with the supplier or talk to the electrical engineer or general contractor.

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