New alarm technicians are probably less familiar with conventional (IDC) systems than they are with addressable systems. I'll even go so far as to say that the development of the addressable fire alarm system was the biggest thing to hit our industry since the photoelectric smoke detector. And, if we are talking intelligent addressable systems, then I know it is. Virtually all panel manufacturers now offer all sizes of addressable and analog addressable panels-and for good reason, or maybe two good reasons. The first is a reduction in price, from the high-end costs originally associated with these panels.(And the second reason I will touch on at the end of this column.)
Initially these systems were large and expensive and aimed at specific markets where the cost of wiring played a big part in the decision whether or not to use them over conventional panels. The first addressable systems had hundreds, even thousands of points. Since the development of smaller addressable systems (in the neighborhood of 50 points), their popularity with the average alarm company has surged, allowing them to offer the same advanced features the "big companies" offer their customers.
Money-saving addressable systems
Installing an addressable system in a 12-story building can ultimately save big money when elevator recall and other safety control functions need to be provided. This is due to the ease of mapping detectors with their associated relays that addressable systems afford. The code also requires each device on each floor of a high-rise building to be identified separately. Without addressable systems, this would mean that smoke detectors, manual pull boxes, waterflow alarm and water control valve supervision devices would each have to be a wired "zone."
A conventional panel would require more than 50 pairs of wires in a typical 12-story building. Addressable systems make the distinction between device types automatically. In a three-story building, the addressable system still provides proportional savings, albeit not as significant. However, when you factor in the future savings that intelligent sensors provide in troubleshooting and repairs, and even time saved providing smoke detector sensitivity testing, it's easy to see how their popularity has risen over the last five years.
What improvements should you look for in your favorite addressable fire alarm control panel or FACP? First would be the ability to send data over longer distances with existing wire. The ability to move from conventional to addressable technology has been lacking with some panels. Without the need for special wire with a specific number of twists-per-foot and without requirements for a certain capacitance or even gauge, the retrofits and upgrades will become more of a parts swap, rather than a full-blown engineering project; again, saving time and money. The number of retrofit installations has increased significantly because of the drop in new construction, making these types of flexible features more significant. Also aimed at the retrofit market is a new product Potter Electric Signal Co. has indicated can synchronize multiple manufacturer's audiovisual devices even when all are installed on the same circuit. To further illustrate the industry acceptance of addressable systems, Potter will be manufacturing this new fire alarm panel themselves-a departure from their usual private-labeling of other manufacturer's equipment. Honeywell is also staking a claim in the market with their announcement of three new "earthquake-proof" addressable panels-the only products approved to meet the International Building Code's seismic survivability requirements.
New capabilities and functionality
Addressable systems have expanded with increased available functions due to improved software and memory capabilities and not necessarily the addition of terminals. Software is, as you know, can be complicated but of course it continues to be a big part of product innovation. Electronic components are being designed for devices that don't exist yet. It has to be this way so that technology is not obsolete by the time it gets to market. This line of thinking isn't new. For example, during WWII a 1,200- mile pipeline was built from the Texas oil fields to docks in New York, in order to get the much-needed oil for the war effort more quickly to the tankers that would take it across the ocean. The flow of oil was turned on even before the pipeline was finished at the other end! The engineers in charge anticipated that by the time it took the oil (their product) to get there (three days), the pipeline would be finished, and their product would be available to meet the demand.
Speaking of demands, addressable systems are getting another boost from an unexpected source, the Association of State Fire Chiefs. This organization's members have proposed adding a requirement to the Codes which would require newly installed commercial fire alarm systems to identify and report alarm and supervisory signals "by point." Since this proposal is still in the Comment stages I will have to report on it another time.
Suffice to say, if your company has not yet standardized on a make and brand of addressable fire panel, now might be the time to do so. Many are available, any of which would help responding personnel, your customer and your service department save time identifying the source of signals and most importantly, fires.
Greg Kessinger is SD&I's long-time resident fire expert and regular contributor to the magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.