Fire & Life Safety: CAD Trends and Features

Oct. 19, 2012
CAD programs assist in the execution of fire and life safety plans and drawings.

In my roles as both a licensed “Fire Alarm System Designer” in Ohio and a provider of fire alarm training seminars I’ve often been asked about the software I use to prepare drawings for fire alarm plan submittals. I know from experience that the search for the right program can be overwhelming. It can also be costly since some of these drawing programs are expensive. Additionally, learning how to use them can sometimes turn into a vocation unto itself.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is the buzz word throughout today’s architectural and engineering communities. BIM 3-D modeling programs allow each building system to be layered onto a drawing to allow for more accurate ordering of parts, as well as increases scheduling control over the different construction trades. By modeling the project using the BIM process, there is much less chance of a conflict involving a clash of equipment or construction methods. The BIM goal is to allow the 3-D virtual construction of a building to identify problems before they occur by moving all the coordination of trades into a very detailed planning phase.

An over-simplification of a scheduling problem which could be averted using BIM would be, for example, the pouring of a concrete floor before the electrical conduit or the water pipes beneath the floor have been laid. A more cogent example might be one where the layering process allows the building owner to realize beforehand, that the large mural of their company’s founder planned for the lobby will cover the fire alarm system’s graphic annunciator. Another example might allow the architect to see early on, that the location of the EXIT signs planned for the corridor side wall will obscure the view of the hallway strobe lights. The layering process can also allow the fire alarm installing company to reserve the space needed to install strobe lights on ceilings, from being hijacked by the background music installer.  

The most common BIM package, sold as “Autodesk Building Design Suite 2013,” starts at around $5,000. You must have your fire alarm drawings prepared using this format in order for your layout to be combined and compared with other building system drawings using the BIM process. If you have never used this level of design software, you can expect to spend 40 hours a week for the next year learning the basics. Your reward will be the ability to transfer and trade drawings between architects and engineers knowing that you will have compatible, complete and accurate translations of each originators’ work.

It is all about compatibility. The industry software standard for architectural drawings is the Autodesk.dwg file format.   However, if you do not have the time or money to invest in full blown Autodesk software, there are several excellent alternatives. First, there’s their Autocad LT version, selling for under $1,000. Importing others’ Autodesk drawings, so that you can add your fire alarm symbols, won’t be an issue if you keep it all in the family. I don’t use Autodesk software for my drawings, so I need to eliminate compatibility issues when importing Autocad.dwg drawings prepared by others. It seems all drawing software manufacturers advertise the ability to import dwg drawings, but I have had mixed success with all the various releases and versions of Autodesk and with all the software drawing programs I’ve tried. I now just avoid the entire compatibility issue and use the program Visio Pro (now owned by Microsoft).

Autodesk allows the architect the option to save their drawings in formats other than the dwg format. I now call or email the architect and ask them to send me a simple floor plan drawing, showing the names of the rooms and spaces, in the Adobe pdf file format (with a 100 percent success rate, I might add). I then open the Adobe pdf in Acrobat, crop the borders around the drawing, including any notes and other information leaving me with only the floor plan. I then perform a “Save As” and choose a high quality jpg image format.  Visio (and other similar software drawing programs) will allow you to “import” a jpg as a background image. I then re-size it to fit my printer paper and position it on my drawing ‘page’ to save room for a key and wiring notes. I then protect the imported image, by not allowing it to be re-sized or moved once I have inserted it on my page. With these parameters in place, I am free to drag and drop my own fire alarm symbols onto the floor plan image and connect them with my wiring symbol. Visio allows the wires to glue to the symbol/shapes. This way, if you need to move a symbol on the drawing, the wires will move with it. Connecting the symbols in this way allows you to forgo creating a separate line/riser wiring diagram.  Like Autodesk, Visio has a ‘viewer.exe’ program you can send along with your drawings so that others (who don’t have the software) can review them. Or you could just save your drawing, complete with fire alarm symbols, as a pdf or jpeg to send as an email attachment.  

Other options

You might also want to take a look at Smart-Draw, as it is in the same price range as Visio. Marketing by both software vendors seems to promote the diagramming and flow chart capabilities over their drawing features but rest assured, they are both capable of creating the type of simple drawings smaller alarm companies use most. As a bonus, both Smart-Draw and Visio have trial versions for you to download before you invest your time and effort.

When shopping for a computer-aided drawing program, always look for your selection to include a “Bill of Materials,” or BOM feature. A good software drawing program can create this for you automatically. This is accomplished by attaching a product description and/or model number to the symbols you use when you layout each fire alarm system. When you are finished creating your drawing, the software will be able to print a schedule, listing the quantities of each piece of equipment used in the drawing by referencing the symbols you used. The drawback is that you will have to create a separate drawing symbol for each possibility. The possibilities include all combinations of strobe light candela ratings, each horn type, each type of speaker, etc. multiplied by each manufacturer of equipment you specify. This must be done for both wall and ceiling models, where appropriate. While the symbol for a horn-strobe will look the same on the drawing, you may have 30 of them to choose from in your inventory of symbols, based on their BOM descriptions (which you create). For example, when you select an outdoor-rated, 75-candela weatherproof horn-strobe, then drag and drop it onto the outside wall of the building floor plan, the software will silently add a quantity of “one” followed by its make/model number and your own description (which will include the required gasketed back-box), into the BOM you create when you’re finished with the layout.

If you plan to prepare your own fire alarm system drawings, you will need to own a good, flexible, easy-to-learn, drawing program. Ask other company owners what they use, or check out the ones mentioned here. As always, the features being advertised will only benefit you if you are able to make use of them. Do your homework and buy a program that will save you time and money in the long run.