Manage Your Future: Fire Alarm Equipment and Code Trends

One of your business’ primary goals is to ensure the work is done right the first time, everything is code-compliant and that the installation will reliably operate well into the future. To meet your profit and reliability goals, you need to stay abreast of industry developments that will affect these goals. Often after the fire alarm system equipment has been installed, you may still not open the building because the equipment supplier’s system programmer is on someone else’s project.

Fire alarm system equipment manufacturers continue to develop sophisticated, software-based, fire alarm control units (FACUs). It is true that equipment suppliers limit the number of technicians who are trained to program the systems they sell. This limitation is often due to the cost to train the technician. However, more recently, it is because of the limited number of technicians who can understand system programming and be efficient in using the software.

Knowing all future fire alarm systems will be software based, you need to find a way to train one or two programmers to avoid being dependent on the equipment supplier. This can also help the supplier and should lead to better pricing given your investment. If you are concerned about having programmers on the payroll who may not be consistently busy, arrange with the equipment supplier to subcontract their programming needs during the programmer’s downtime. But if you want to be efficient in the future and ensure on-time delivery of fire alarm system installations, plan now.

Another change coming soon is in the testing of smoke detectors. UL 268 contains all the operational requirements for smoke detectors. The seventh edition of this standard is set to take effect May 2020. Why is this important to your future fire alarm system sales and installations? The significantly revised standard incorporates three new tests, including a new cooking nuisance alarm test and two polyurethane foam tests for smoldering and flaming fires. These new tests better represent the smoke profiles and behavior of modern building fires to help ensure next-generation sensors are designed to give building occupants enough time to evacuate safely.

These tests also will go a long way in reducing and possibly eliminating false alarms. The code and the standard require all UL-listed smoke detectors to meet the enhanced requirements by 2020, representing a major change in the life-safety industry. The smoke detectors that are already installed do not lose their UL listing. For code authorities, system designers and installers, no action is required at this time because of the updated standards. Manufacturers have until May 2020 to redesign their products to meet the new requirements. It is expected that the traditional, single-sensor products will not comply with the new test criteria and will not be manufactured after the deadline. Great news, right? May 2020 will be here before you know it.

What are the unintended consequences? First, it will be almost impossible to perform partial upgrades. Second, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) will demand the new smoke detectors for any system prone to false alarms. Third, old detectors that fail will be required to be replaced with the new UL-listed version, and you will need to ensure the new unit’s compatibility with the FACU. Depending on the amount of equipment you may stock for inspection, testing and maintenance services, ensure you are not overstocked with old smoke detectors unless the owner is willing to pay you to stock them for their system.

The point is to pay attention and plan. It also means, if you receive bids from a supplier and it is next year, for example, it may be wise to insist on the smoke detectors that meet the seventh edition of the UL standard. All the above information notwithstanding, you could use the new UL-listed smoke detectors as a positive way to advise existing customers to both plan for the possible upgrades and change out their existing smoke detectors with the new seventh-edition-listed smoke detectors to avoid future false alarms.

Code changes will also affect future operations. Because the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code does not go into a specific cost analysis for each change, it is always advised to review each change based on its impact on installations. Sometimes the change can be subtle, like the definition for readily accessible: “Capable of being reached quickly for operation, renewal, or inspections without requiring those to whom ready access is requisite to take actions such as to use tools (other and keys), to climb over or under, to remove obstacles, or to resort to portable ladders, and so forth.”

If bidding on a design performed by someone else and smoke detectors or control equipment are in areas that will make the installation non-code compliant, address that issue long before the acceptance test, or be prepared to pay for changes.

Another subtle code change relates to who can design a fire alarm system. The new definition for a design professional includes individuals who are “registered or licensed to practice their respective design profession as defined by the statutory requirements of the professional registration laws of the jurisdiction in which the project is to be constructed, or other professional with qualifications or credentials acceptable to the jurisdiction in which the project is to be constructed.”

If designing fire alarm systems using a person who is not a licensed design professional, it is important to obtain AHJ approval for their qualifications before going forward with the design, or, again, you will pay for unplanned expenses.

Another change to NFPA 72 2019 relates to the new requirement for design documents for any addition or alteration to an existing system. The Annex A material providing guidance for this requirement states, “It is the intent [of the code] that existing systems that are altered should have design (layout) documents prepared that are applicable only to the portion(s) of the system being altered.”

The final two issues arising from the NFPA 72 2019 changes relate to in-building emergency radio communication systems and survivability. All installation requirements for in-building emergency radio communication systems are now contained in NFPA 1221.

Chapter 12 describes survivability requirements, but Chapter 24 of NFPA 72 contains the requirements to install survivable cable or connections. Two new sections allow a variance to the strict survivability requirements.

Section 24.3.14.4.1.1 states, “Where notification zones are separated by less than 2-hour fire-rated construction, a pathway survivability of Level 1, 2 or 3 shall be permitted.”

Also, Section 24.3.14.4.1.2 states, “Where Class X or Class N system pathways are installed and the incoming and outgoing pathways are separated by at least one-third the maximum diagonal of the notification zone, a pathway survivability of Level 1, 2 or 3 shall be permitted.”

Knowing these changes could give you an advantage when bidding systems that would normally require survivable circuits. I will make it easier to control your future sales and avoid costly surprises. Take the time to manage your future!

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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