Conventional vs. Addressable Fire Systems

Feb. 11, 2015
For long-term installations, considering the complete cost of an offering can be more important than initial price

Long before I crossed over to the “dark side” — or left my business as security systems dealer in favor of a position in manufacturer sales — I was shocked by how difficult many of my competitors made their own lives. Today, holding a national position, I continue to be surprised that the trends I saw locally extend nationwide. While the mistakes I see made are diverse, they all come down to two common problems: clarity and vision!

Wearing Blinders

I was fortunate enough to have learned this lesson early in my career thanks to a “kind” electrician who literally smacked me upside the head on a pre-wire, and asked “Are you stupid or something?” Apparently my asking what he was talking about confirmed his suspicion. He took pity on me and explained that he had watched me on countless projects with my trusty Milwaukee drill and 3/8-inch bit, drilling hole after hole, often drilling two or three holes through the same stud to fit all of my wires.

He handed me his heavy duty drill with ¾-inch auger bit and said try this. It ripped through the studs in no time with a nice big hole that would accommodate all of my wires, in less time than it took me to drill a single 3/8 inch hole. I handled his drill back and explained that hopefully someday I could afford to buy one. He responded with the expected smack to my head and said “Dummy, you can’t afford not to buy one!”

Sometimes lessons learned need to be painful in order for them to sink in. And yes, I did go out that night and bought the right tool for the job. I certainly didn’t want to spend $300 more for a drill, but amazingly my productivity doubled and the drill paid for itself that same week. That additional $300 ended up making me thousands of dollars!

Today, in the commercial systems space and especially in the fire market, there are countless areas where small changes can make all the difference in your bottom line. Too often I see dealers trying to save a few dollars up front which ultimately ends up costing them thousands of dollars in the not-so-long-run.

Fire Systems: Conventional vs. Addressable

Much like my trusty drill of yesterday, conventional fire alarms often have an attractive entry cost, and sensors are affordable. All too often, that is where the price calculation — and to be honest, the benefit of a conventional system — ends. Conventional systems admittedly have their place in certain applications, but the cost-effectiveness of those systems is usually limited to waterflow (sprinkler supervision) systems and basic upgrades of existing conventional systems where existing the devices and wires can be reused.

What hasn’t been considered is the real cost of conventional systems vs. a similar analog addressable product. Sure the addressable panel and sensors bear a slightly higher price tag, but that is far from an accurate assessment. What is overlooked when comparing the two systems styles, are the complete cost of the systems. In most applications, conventional systems require higher volumes of home-run wires and more conduit for multiple “zones”, increased labor (the real profit killer), and a staggering cost of inspections and mandatory sensitivity testing. The reality is that analog addressable systems, such as Napco’s Gemini Firewolf, save money.

Even looking at a simple comparison of a single wire-run example, where you are tying in a wet sprinkler riser with a flow switch and a gate valve to a fire system, the difference can be surprising.

Theory in Practice

Here is an example of an office building project at a warehouse that I recently reviewed with a customer. While on the surface it may seem as though the conventional solution is less expensive, when you look at the overall system, it is far less expensive with an addressable system.

Example 1 – Conventional system using 2 panel zones for Sprinkler Supervision: The raw MSRP cost to the end-user minus labor and conduit for a 250-foot wire run to the riser costs around $160 (major brand nationally advertised 16 AWG 2 Conductor FPLR, one pair for each zone, at $.32/foot or 500 feet total). Since these are zones on a conventional system, they are typically home-run to the panel and cannot be used for other points of protection.

Example 2 – Analog addressable system using a dual-input module on the FACP’s SLC Loop: The raw MSRP cost to the end-user minus labor and conduit for the same 250-foot wire run to the riser costs $210 (major brand nationally advertised 16 AWG 2 Conductor FPLR, single SLC loop run, at $0.32/foot or 250 feet total, plus 1 FWC-FSLC-EZM2 dual input module at $120 end-user MSRP).

After looking at these examples many of you are probably thinking, “Where is that electrician, because this guy needs another slap upside the head. That addressable protection costs 25% more!” On the surface you are correct, but we didn’t actually look at the example objectively because no experienced technician would run a home-run to the panel for that sprinkler riser. The reality is that fire systems normally include additional protection, including pull-stations, smoke detectors, heat detectors, etc.

Analog Addressable systems use a Signal Line Carrier (SLC) Circuit, which is a data circuit that daisy-chains to many protection points over a single two-wire circuit. Each device has an individual ID on the circuit; and the panel knows the exact status of every installed device. We would just extend an existing run or simply add the riser to the circuit.

Looking at example 2 again and subjecting it to reality, we know that an experienced technician would only have to wire from another protection point to the input module at the riser. In this particular example, the building required a pull-station about 30 feet away from the riser. If we correct this costing formula for the real world, the technician only had to run about 30 feet of wire, delivering a cost of about $129 (major brand nationally advertised 16 AWG 2 Conductor FPLR, single run, at $0.32/foot or 30 feet total, plus 1 FirewolfFWC-FSLC-EZM2 dual input module at $120 end user MSRP).

After taking a broader view of the system, we see that the addressable protection saved about 20 percent. While that was very limited example, it holds true more often than not, especially as systems grow larger.

Hidden Costs

Even ignoring the complete installation costs, conventional systems are expensive to inspect. The small conventional system’s $200 savings in hardware is quickly overshadowed by the cost of a multi-thousand dollar sensitivity tester and the sheer time required to test those conventional sensors.

Installing an analog addressable system eliminates the need for expensive testers, excessive labor for testing, and gives you the ability to automatically generate the same reports directly from the software you used to program the panel; either locally via a serial connection,or remotely via telephone line, IP connection, and/or cellular communicators like Napco’s upcoming Starlink Fire.

Software, such as Napco’s Quickloader, enables you to simply upload the system’s status after functionally testing the system. The status and sensitivity of each device is organized and stored on the PC in professional and printable format. You do not have to worry about noting figures and sensitivity readings, translating chicken scratch or manually creating those reports.

The start of the New Year is a great time to look at your business, remove the blinders, and realize that the complete cost of an offering is more important than price. A lower overall cost combined with a better experience generates more customers and healthier bottom line. For me, the New Year is an opportunity to look back and thank Ferrell Busby, Master Electrician, for those desperately needed smacks in the head.

Brandt Phillips is the Commercial Fire & Security Director of Sales For Napco Security Technologies Inc. ( He can be reached at 1-800-645-9330 Ext. 353; cell 516-361-0659; or at [email protected]. To request more info about the company, visit