It's a Trap

When I am performing construction administration services for my clients and ask contractors why they installed the fire alarm system the way they did, they often lament, “That’s all the code required!”

Is that how you think? Has it come to the point in our profession where we only satisfy the code’s minimum requirements? Thankfully, we still have contractors who take pride in their work and install their fire alarm systems with an eye to best practices learned over the years from their journeyman teachers. These contractors will not base the quality of their installations on the code’s minimums.

I have often wondered if this attitude stems from the fact that the fire official reviewing a fire alarm system installation has no electrical installation background and can only base his or her approval on the requirements of NFPA 72 2013, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. You probably already know that few, if any, fire authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) come to their position with any electrical experience. In fact, most fire AHJs began their careers as firefighters. Either someone assigned them to fire-marshal or fire-prevention inspector duties, or they were injured and moved to the inspection assignment until they receive clearance to return to firefighter duty.

The code states in Section 1.2.3 that it “establishes minimum required levels of performance, extent of redundancy, and quality of installation but does not establish the only methods by which these requirements are to be achieved” (emphasis added). Many fire officials cannot tell the difference between a poorly system that appears to meets the code minimum and an excellent installation that meets all code requirements but also achieves the best installation practices of professional craftsmen.

You may feel that, if you go beyond just meeting the code, you will either lose the project in the bid stage or you will lose money on the project once the owner awards the bid. So you argue that, regardless of your training, you need to lower your professional standards to meet the code and win the job. That thought process offers an easy way out and will later cause you much grief.

Think about the fact that we deal with life safety systems. Our goal should be a reliable fire alarm system installation that will work when the occupants need it to work. In these articles I have written for ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, I have often expressed the need for you and your technicians to get proper training. Perhaps you invest in this. However, to prove truly complete in its scope, part of that training must have a component that relates to good installation practices that will ensure long-term reliability for your installed fire alarm systems.

Most journeyman technicians know that they will learn good practices on the job from someone more experienced. Early in your career you likely learned how to distinguish between a good practice and a poor installation tactic. Deciding to use the correct wire or cable and knowing the installation heights of equipment can, and often does, come from knowing the applicable code requirements. The code directly covers protecting wire as it enters the fire alarm control unit and ensuring you make the wire terminations neat, cut to the correct length, and installed properly around the terminal screws. But, where in the code does it require you to install the wiring in a fire alarm control unit at right angles using cable markers or color coding to ensure you make the right connections?

Another example: where does the code require you to ensure the fire alarm circuits (when installed without metal raceway) do not run parallel to alternating current (AC) power circuits to avoid electrical interference? Similar cautions apply to areas with fluorescent lighting with electronic ballasts where you must ensure the circuits are separated from the fluorescent lights by at least 3 feet. No code requirements address these issues, but anyone with field experience knows that induced voltages from various AC power circuits can cause problems with addressable fire alarm circuits.

These all are examples of best practices training that technicians must receive. “But,” you argue, “other contractors do not follow these best practices because of the costs to do it right, and they get away with it.”

That may, indeed, be the crux of the problem. Why do these installers get away with the poor installations? It’s because the fire inspectors have not been trained to look for these issues. A fire inspector may receive training on enforcing the code requirements and may know what constitutes a code violation, but they simply do not know what constitutes good practices because they never worked as contractors installing fire alarm systems.

The answer to this problem is relatively simple. Raise the bar to make the poor contractor meet a higher standard of installation practices. Because you already meet this higher standard, you will have a greater chance to bid quality and win the project. And, you can accomplish this goal by specifically teaching the fire inspectors what to look for in any installation.

Educating the inspector will require creativity and possibly build mockups in your shop to show the fire inspector the difference between a quality installation and a poor one. Show a properly installed fire alarm control unit with the wires installed and “dressed” properly with marked or tagged conductors. Contrast it with a poorly installed fire alarm control unit with wires crossing over the front of the electronics, no markings to differentiate conductors, and poorly made terminations. Explain how this type of poor installation affects the reliability of the entire system—possibly causing the system to experience frequent “trouble” conditions and certainly becoming difficult to maintain.

Now, you may get some resistance from the fire inspector because he or she may feel it is not their job to evaluate wiring installation. Fire inspectors will state that the electrical inspector must cover those issues. But make the point that, instead of trying to “cross-train” the fire inspector, you only intend to make him or her aware of good installation practices that all contractors should use to ensure reliability.

You may need to point out that NFPA 72 2013 states clearly in Section 1.3.4 that, “The intent and meaning of the terms used in this Code shall be, unless otherwise defined herein, the same as those of NFPA 70, National Electrical Code.” And, the NEC requires in Article 110.12 that, “Electrical equipment shall be installed in a neat and workmanlike manner.” The NEC goes on to note that, “Accepted industry practices are described in ANSI/NECA 1-2006, Standard Practices for Good Workmanship in Electrical Contracting, and other ANSI-approved installation standards.”

With this Code language, you have leverage with the fire inspectors to help them institute inspection practices and bring the quality of an installation in line with your professional standards. With this leverage, he or she can enforce the Code and make the inept installer do the job correctly.

This process will not be easy and you will need to go the extra mile to help the fire inspectors in your area better understand what they should look for.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing the minimum. Pride in your work is as important as meeting the codes. For that quality to show through, you will need to become more involved with training—not only for your technicians, but also for the fire officials.

I have a friend in the business who often says, “Quality does not cost. It pays.” I, too, believe it pays to help the fire official understand what installation practices make up a quality installation and what that level of quality means to a fire alarm system installation. Most of all, it means reliable life safety.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist
Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Moore is a vice president with JENSEN HUGHES at the Warwick, R.I., office. He c...

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