Fire Alarm System Panels: Conventional versus Addressable

Should you install conventional or addressable fire system panels? The answer ultimately lies upon close examination of the application and the protected premises. Don’t get pigeonholed into one technology or the other. Know first that conventional systems are simply wiring based, while addressable systems have programming and software involved. Take heed of building codes and the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), because those entities often dictate the technology. Conventional systems are hardware based, with each detector or device home run to the control panel. They don’t have all the intuitive “smarts” of addressable systems, but are perfect for smaller applications without myriad smoke detectors or notification appliances such as horns and strobes. Addressable systems that pinpoint individual sensors or notification devices are priced lower than ever, and now may come near the cost of conventional panels. Contech MSI Co. in Rolling Meadows, Ill., August Conte, sales manager said that, addressable systems are “clearly the choice of any job that is larger than one or two rooms.” He ascertained that an addressable panel is easier to install. “When the wiring is simpler, you can save quite a bit.” The beauty of the T-Tap With conventional panels, installers have to wire each device. With addressable fire alarm panels, installers can use “T-Tapping,” a method by which you connect all red wires and all black wires, for example, and each device is programmed in its proper order. The technology of addressability has also been extended to notification devices such as horns and strobes. This is another important industry advancement, said John Haynes, director of marketing, SimplexGrinnell, Gardner, Mass. Once addressable smoke detectors, and now, notification appliances became available, there was a dramatic decrease in the amount of wiring needed. “Addressable technology brings the advantages of T-Tap wiring to a fire alarm system’s output notification appliance component. The installer uses fewer wires and can connect more appliances per circuit. In many projects, T-Tapping can save the installer 30 percent or more in labor and materials. Addressable technology offers electrical contractors an opportunity to increase profitability by lowering costs. Non-addressable notification appliances require a labyrinth of wires, which take a long time to install and leave opportunities for errors.” Some argue that addressable technology makes routine maintenance easier and less expensive. According to Jeff Hendrickson, director of marketing, Silent Knight, Maple Grove, Minn., you no longer have to replace all the heads on 20 smoke detectors when you’re not quite sure of where a problem lies. “With addressable systems, you can get two levels of warning, a maintenance alert, and a trouble signal for each separate detector, sensor, or device. There’s also a technology called drift compensation. This keeps the detector operating in the proper range. As the detector ages or environmental changes occur, the control panel adjusts to maintain the detector’s UL acceptable operating level—unlike a conventional system—where a dirty detector may keep creeping up on its threshold level, eventually causing false alarms.” Ken Beeson, vice president of marketing, Gamewell Worldwide, Ashland, Mass., said both panels have their place. “There’s definitely a place for conventional panels, such as applications that don’t require multiple levels of input/output. In reality, conventional fire alarm panels are quite simple for electrical contractors to install. The electrical contractor pulls the wires, follows the connection schematics, and has the AHJ approve the system. Addressable systems require programming via laptop, allowing each detector to have its own address, etc.” Beeson added, “Any installation of a fire alarm system has to be application driven; that’s what’s important. Whether you install a conventional or addressable panel, the decision is up to the designer, and of course, the building code and fire authorities.” O’MARA is the contributing editor for Security and owner of DLO Communications Inc. in Park Ridge, Ill. She can be reached at or (847) 384-1916.

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