Leaders in Fire Alarm Systems

Oct. 27, 2008
An Exclusive Security Dealer Roundtable

Susan Brady, Editor in Chief:
What criteria should a dealer use when deciding between specifying a conventional fire alarm system or an addressable fire alarm system?

Richard Roberts, System Sensor, Product Marketing Manager: It all depends on the level of system functionality and total installation cost. If the system is a basic straight forward type that activates a general alarm from one input, a conventional fire system is most likely sufficient. However, if one input activates several different outputs, then an addressable fire system would be most cost effective.

A typical type of application is a system that interfaces with an elevator system for capture/recall. The total system installation cost is a consideration as well. The cost of addressable initiating devices is typically 70% more than a conventional device. However, the installation labor and wiring costs of an addressable system is less than a conventional system because there are fewer conductors. The rule of thumb for many designers determining whether to install a hardwired or addressable system is: if the system has more than 10 IDC’s, an addressable is more cost effective.

Jeff Hendrickson, Silent Knight, Director of Marketing: Consider lifetime cost of the system. Addressable systems are easier to service and troubleshoot. They allow service personnel to identify malfunctioning sensors with pinpoint accuracy which helps reduce false alarm occurrences. Addressable systems are often easier to install because the wiring capability of the addressable system allows t-taps without supervision issues.

Tim Frankenberg, Potter Electric Signal Company, Fire and Security Product Manager: There are three things that come to mind. These include the size of the building being protected, demands of the AHJ and long term inspection, testing and maintenance. There comes a point to where installing a conventional system is no longer cost efficient. The technology is reaching the point where addressable makes sense in a building that in the past would require over 8 to 12 zones. Although the addressable peripherals are a higher front end cost, the features you gain on the addressable systems are much greater and, in the long term, the maintenance costs are reduced. It makes sense that on smaller buildings and some residential occupancies the conventional system is a better fit due to cost and the fewer features needed.

Many AHJs are now pushing for all addressable. The systems are generally there for two purposes: evacuate the building and notify the emergency services. Most of the emergency services (i.e. Fire Department) would prefer to know exactly where the area of the alarm is located to easily determine if a fire exists or not.

The inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems are essential in keeping the system in a state of readiness. In smaller buildings, the conventional systems have fewer devices and have less interruption for testing. In larger buildings, the addressable systems allow testing of some to all of the devices, as well as the ability to bypass or disable certain features such as fire doors, HVAC equipment, or notification circuits.

Jack McNamara, BOSCH Product Manager for Fire Products: This is a difficult question. It mainly depends on application and time to find the alarm point. Where as a conventional zone can cover 20,000 square feet, or up to 22 smoke detectors, in an addressable system each of those detectors is called out as an individual point.

Brady: Older facilities, like a school for instance, often need upgrades to their fire systems. What is the best way for dealers to approach applications like this where they are in need of updating?

Roberts: I’ll address schools specifically. Many schools built in the 1980s only installed pull stations and a few notification appliances. Some school districts will only replace the pull stations, add a few smoke detectors and add ADA/UL 1971 notifications appliances. Some school districts will add smoke detectors throughout the school and voice evacuation to the gym, cafeteria and auditorium. The dealer should work with, or be aware of, local school district requirements and funding.

Hendrickson: Discuss the overall cost of the installation and maintenance of the system; explain the unique capability of the addressable fire system. Look at the issues that the older system has had and show how the addressable system can better serve their needs.

Frankenberg: Determine the needs of the facility. What is the age of the current system? Are parts readily available and can that system be added to? Are there troubles that cannot be cleared or, worse yet, does the system have unnecessary alarms? What is the condition of the peripherals connected to the system and cable to those devices?
If the system is near or over ten years old, seriously consider replacing it. Technology is making it difficult for manufacturers to continue to supply the older parts. As the parts become less available the price increases to the point that a new system is the only option. If the system is not working or has constant unwanted alarms, then it is time for a new system.

Consult your local AHJ for the specific requirements. He will know if the system is required for full updating or can be added to. This is basically determined on the amount of renovation work being done.

Brady: Concerns over proper alarm management and false dispatches is a hot topic on the burg alarm side of the business. Why is fire different—or not?

Roberts: There are two reasons. The National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72) requires fire alarm systems to be tested and maintained. Many AHJs do an excellent job enforcing these requirements. Also, the quality of fire alarm products has greatly improved. For example, most smoke detectors have integral smoothing algorithms that smooth out any spikes due to moisture, dust, steam that may cause nuisance alarms. They also have the ability to generate a maintenance signal to the control panel when a detector is dirty and requires cleaning. This allows the dealer to schedule a regular, non-emergency service call to clean the detector before it goes into alarm.

Hendrickson: Fire is not different; perhaps we are only because it has been recognized as an issue in the fire industry for a much longer period of time. It is well understood in the fire community that if an alarm goes off and the fire trucks roll that there is a tremendous strain on the firefighting resources.

Frankenberg: There are still a large number of fire alarms that are either unnecessary (unintentional pulling of a manual station or dry cooking) or system malfunctions (dirty detectors, construction that shorts a zone). However, the fire alarm industry is different than intrusion. The fire alarm has more stringent installation standards and a set of “checks and balances.” There are engineered design and sign off, plan reviews, and inspection by independent third parties for the fire alarm systems. These systems are given a higher life safety value than the intrusion systems.

Both sides of the industry have training opportunities and the latest in technology. However, there are not many local authorities that review the installation of an intrusion system. The industry is more self regulated. Unfortunately, many times both installations are given the lowest priority in the construction cycle and this forces the installer to come up with creative means to accomplish an acceptable installation.

McNamara: I think fire is different as most of the systems are commercial, and not residential. Commercial systems have an installation code such as NFPA 72. NFPA 72 has improved the installation, maintenance and testing criteria for commercial and household fire warning systems. And, commercial fire alarm systems are operated and monitored by regular users of the system.

Brady: What new technologies are available to: (1) Help dealers be more efficient when installing fire systems; and (2) Make for faster and accurate fire notification.

Roberts: The trend in the system-connected smoke detector market is toward wireless and addressable technologies. The reason for the trend is because both technologies minimize the installation costs and provide more accurate notification. Obviously wireless detectors are easier to install and more cost effective than hardwired units, particularly for applications where it’s difficult, or impossible to run conductors. However, addressable smokes require significantly fewer conductors than conventional hardwired detectors. The installation labor and wiring costs of addressable smokes are significantly reduced by having all devices connected to a single two-conductor circuit called a Signaling Line Circuit (SLC) instead of having many IDC circuits that are typically found in conventional systems. Also, it is easier to pinpoint the exact alarm and trouble conditions with wireless or addressable smoke detectors. Wireless and addressable smoke detectors will report their alarm or trouble condition to the control panel.

Hendrickson:The current generation of addressable control panels allow for more flexibility in wiring the building sensors and modules. This flexibility when combined with flexible programming options can help speed up the installation process. Addressable control panels feature built in communicators that enable pinpoint accuracy when reporting events. The installer can also use the communicator to query the system for the event history and detector status from a remote location which allow for more efficient troubleshooting.

Frankenberg: The software in the new systems make programming simpler and provides flexibility, as well as more feature sets. This allows the dealer to do more now. The dealer installing the system should know the full capabilities of a system.
Fast and accurate fire detection and notification is the goal of every fire system. The use of the analog/addressable fire systems is the logical way of the future. These systems allow for indication of dirty devices, adjust the sensitivities and automatically compensate as a detector becomes dirty. Also, NFPA annual testing is much simpler using the sensitivity levels in the panel. The software should be simple to operate and allow flexibility. New panels should be easy and quick to program and offer aids to the installer as to what conditions exist and where they are. In addition, the walk test allows for quick testing without the need for an extra person resetting the panel.

McNamara: Since the advent of computer based systems, system programming and false alarm reducing features have been added through software—most of which is not even visible to the installer or user. More is being done with software to insure that you have programmed systems correctly and all devices are operating properly, and within specification. Devices are becoming more intelligent, and can warn you if you are nearing a false alarm state. Wiring is moving toward “you can’t wire it wrong.” All these features and improvements make today’s systems easier and more cost effective to install.