Retrofitting Fire Alarm Systems

Anyone planning to retrofit anything electrical in a building faces a difficult task at best. Only a true craftsman can successfully install something as a retrofit that looks like the original installation had included it. When retrofitting a fire alarm system, additional challenges can present themselves.

Some of the many reasons someone may ask you to retrofit a fire alarm system in an existing building include:

o Increased owner awareness

o Changes in a local or state law for existing buildings

o Adoption of an existing building code or a building rehab code

o Insurance company requirements

o Change in use of the building

o Good salesmanship

Regardless of why someone has called you, there are items you will need to address well before you determine the best way to install the new system. For instance, you must first determine the owner’s fire protection goals. Simply stated, you will want to know their reasons for wanting the fire alarm system.

One of the first questions you must answer: Should you “design” the system? Don’t answer “yes” too quickly. Unless you have had specific training in fire alarm system design, and unless you have errors and omission insurance, you may want to involve an engineer who does have that training, and who holds a professional engineering license in your state, to provide the design. This becomes more important if you intend to provide a life safety fire alarm system. You need to not only understand the correct applications of detection devices; you must also know their limitations.

NFPA 72-2002, the National Fire Alarm Code governs the installation of fire alarm systems. With regard to required versus non-required fire alarm systems, Chapter 6 states the following: 6.2.3 Nonrequired (Voluntary) Systems. Nonrequired protected premises systems shall meet the requirements of this Code. Nonrequired systems shall meet performance standards approved by the authority having jurisdiction.

So, regardless of whether or not some code requires a fire alarm system, you must install the system in accordance with the requirements of the National Fire Alarm Code. The Code allows you to install a partial fire alarm system, or provide selective detection coverage, but in all cases, you should determine who would take the responsibility for making those decisions.

Once you have determined what type of fire alarm system you should install, you next must determine with what other fire safety systems your new system must interface and either monitor or control. For example, will the fire alarm system interface with the elevator controller? If it will, does the elevator controller have the necessary control equipment to provide recall as required by ANSI A17.1, Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators?

Other building functions that the fire alarm system could initiate or control include:

o Unlocking of stairwell and exit doors

o Release of fire and smoke dampers

o Monitoring and initiating of self-contained automatic extinguishing or suppression systems

o Lighting control to provide essential illumination during fire alarm conditions

o Emergency shut-off of hazardous gas

o Control of building environment heating, ventilating and air-conditioning equipment to provide smoke control, and

o Control of process, data processing and similar equipment during fire-alarm conditions.

The type of building will also determine your difficulty in retrofitting a fire alarm system.

Obviously, aesthetics and preservation of historic fabric will become paramount in a historic building. These factors will not have as much importance in an industrial building.

You should know which of your electricians is competent and innovative enough to work under those conditions. The owner will usually not allow you to install exposed EMT in the historic building, except in “back-of-house” areas. The owner may ask you to find a detector that you can “conceal” from view, but that will still operate when needed. This extra care leads to more time. More time leads to more cost. You may also need to address what time of day the owner will allow you to work in a building during the retrofit process.

Involving the fire department in your retrofit project will also prove very important. Ensure that the fire official understands the design and issues you face while retrofitting the fire alarm system. You may need to adjust detection device spacing beyond the Code’s prescriptive requirements due to construction issues. The fire official needs to review those issues and accept your approach.

Keeping all of these factors in mind, you will still find that retrofitting fire alarm systems can serve as an excellent market, especially when new construction falls off during a downturn in the economy. EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.


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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