Fire alarm systems are essential to the protection of life and property. Contractors who install fire alarm systems take their responsibilities very seriously. They are committed to complying with applicable codes and standards, making buildings safe and secure, and completing the installation with optimal speed, cost efficiency and success. Advancements in technology are playing an increasingly critical role in the fire alarm industry, helping to enhance protection and enabling installing contractors to achieve their business objectives. Here is a look at 5 key benefits that advancing technology is bringing to fire alarm system installations.
1. Faster, more efficient installation
When it comes to fire alarm system installation, faster is definitely better. Installing contractors like to get on and off the job as quickly, efficiently and profitably as possible. The good news is that advanced technology can go a long way toward making fire alarm system installation faster, easier and more cost efficient.
Addressable notification technology is one of the latest advancements that provide significant benefits for installing contractors. Addressable notification systems leverage “smart” technology that differentiates them from conventional hard-wired systems. Conventional systems are limited in flexibility and programmability and more difficult and costly to install, reconfigure and expand. Due to the complexity of the design of conventional systems, wiring changes or errors can be difficult to locate and resolve – consuming valuable project time and labor.
In an addressable system, each device has a unique address and built-in intelligence to continuously report its status to the fire alarm panel. This means the supervision of the circuit is not limited to the wiring and is not dependent on an end-of-line resistor or the in and out wiring to each device on a loop. Rather, the addressable communication to each device is direct to that individual device, regardless of the wiring path.
The addressable technology also means that if a device needs to be added in the future, wiring can be accessed at the nearest junction box as opposed to wiring back to the main panel. The result is that addressable notification systems have a more open wiring scheme and are easier to install. In fact, installation time can be cut by more than 30%. With the flexible wiring architecture, more appliances can be connected per circuit and fewer power supplies, batteries and dedicated AC lines are required. The addressable technology also means the system is “forgiving,” allowing wiring to easily be adapted or equipment added as an installation project progresses.
The ability to set notification appliance candela levels from the fire alarm panel also contributes to reduced installation time and is much more efficient than hard setting the candela levels. In addition, a report showing each device and its candela setting can be generated. Troubleshooting is also faster and easier with an addressable system. Faults can be isolated down to the device level. With a conventional system, faults can only be isolated to the circuit level. Similarly, testing of a repaired device can be performed at the device itself, without needing to activate the circuit.
2. Quicker, smoother commissioning
By the nature of their business, installing contractors focus on completing projects on time and under budget. Delays of any sort are troublesome, because they can postpone project completion and jeopardize the timely issuance of an occupancy permit to open the building.
Given these dynamics, it is encouraging that technology can make a difference in fire alarm system commissioning. The latest technology developments include a tool, specifically designed for addressable circuit wiring, which can streamline the commissioning process. This is essentially a portable fire alarm panel. It enables contractors to quickly verify that wiring and peripheral devices are installed correctly and operating properly – even before being connected to the fire alarm control panel. Battery operated and simple-to-use, the instrument uses advanced software technology to scan hundreds of addressable fire alarm system devices and pinpoint potential problems such as ground faults, shorted wiring, or incorrect or duplicate addressing. Typically, the use of the tool in fire alarm installations means there are fewer troubles associated with the start up of the system. Test information can also be downloaded to a laptop or tablet for electronic report generation and archiving.
Another advancement in technology with the potential to streamline the commissioning process is a new cloud-based solution that enables a remote connection to a fire alarm panel. This allows a technician, working in concert with an installing contractor, to test devices and initiate alarms remotely and use a mobile device to view the results as displayed on the fire alarm panel. In addition to speeding the testing of fire alarm system devices, the technology enables the panel to generate follow-up reports that are time and date stamped. This gives AHJs (authorities having jurisdiction) a validated record showing that all devices were tested.
3. Lower costs of installation and ownership
Addressable technology can lower the cost of fire alarm system installation and the cost of ownership over the life of the system. The benefits associated with a flexible wiring architecture, combined with the greater power efficiency of the appliances themselves, mean less wiring is needed and that devices can be installed with smaller gauge, unshielded wire. Appliances that operate at lower current draws can increase wiring distances by up to 250% or allow more devices to be connected per circuit.
Rather than restricting circuits to specific fire zones as is necessary with conventional technology, addressable technology allows a single pair of wires to penetrate multiple fire zones – as addressable control functions work independent from circuit wiring. Software can easily provide the functionality for any system operation that is required. With fewer circuits, less head-end hardware is required, which translates into additional cost reduction. Costs are further reduced because fewer power supplies, notification appliance circuit (NAC) cabinets and back-up batteries are needed. This provides cost savings during installation, as well as reduced service and maintenance costs over the life-cycle of the system.
In addition, the technology’s ability to eliminate remote power supplies throughout a building means the owner does not face the challenge of finding wall space to mount the power supplies. Consequently, the owner avoids the labor and expense of long-term maintenance of batteries and smoke sensors (which must be placed above remote power supplies per NFPA standards).
The appliance self-testing capability of addressable notification (described in more detail below in item #5) also helps to lower the cost of ownership over the life of the fire alarm system. Because addressable notification appliances can essentially test themselves, the life-cycle costs of testing, inspecting and maintaining the devices is significantly reduced. That is true whether the building owner contracts for fire alarm system service or deploys in-house staff to maintain the systems.
4. Easier retrofits, upgrades and expansions
Technology can also play a role in making it easier and more cost effective to complete retrofit projects or to upgrade, expand or update existing fire alarm systems. In many cases, existing conventional systems can be upgraded without the need for costly removal or replacement of existing field devices, wiring, conduit or panel back boxes. Some fire alarm systems provide the ability to adapt to multiple end-of-line resistor values – and the adjustment is provided in software! This “circuit agility” allows a contractor to use the existing wiring infrastructure while also eliminating the time-consuming task of finding and replacing existing end-of-line resistors. Because the installing contractor can make use of much of the existing infrastructure, there is less disruption to building occupants and operations.
With addressable technology, fire alarm systems become extremely scalable and capable of growing and evolving as life-safety needs change. Upgrades to new technology platforms can be made very readily and cost effectively.
Many building owners and managers are migrating their fire alarm systems to addressable technology simply because new codes and standards demand more precise capabilities to maintain compliance. As a result, new systems are geared toward providing the latest in technology while easing the transition from an older system. This helps make compliance to new codes less disruptive to building occupants and businesses and less costly through the use of as much of the existing infrastructure as possible.
5. Increased value for the building owner
Advanced technologies built into fire alarm control panels, initiating devices and notification appliances can provide better, more reliable protection. Technology can also be a differentiator in offering more value for the building owner, including improved operational efficiency, less downtime, lower costs over the life of the system, and better reporting and documentation to support code compliance. Some of these benefits come from the deployment of Internet-enabled technologies. For example, remote diagnostics technology can alert service providers to fire alarm system issues or problems. By analyzing the diagnostic information prior to a site visit, the root cause of an issue can be proactively pinpointed. This helps the service provider to fix a problem on the first visit to the building, up to 90% of the time. This same diagnostic technology can also be used to identify upcoming predictive maintenance needs, such as smoke detectors that will soon need cleaning to prevent them from causing a system trouble or nuisance alarm.
As addressable notification appliances are continuously supervised, the fire alarm panel is able to generate an automatic notification when repair or maintenance of a specific device is needed. In addition to maintaining their fire alarm system in a “trouble-free” condition, building owners are also responsible for ensuring that regular testing requirements are met. With addressable technology embedded in notification appliances, self-testing is now possible. This feature represents one of the key innovations of addressable notification. Each notification appliance contains a light and a sound sensor that can be activated remotely from the host fire alarm panel. Once activated, the self-test feature will momentarily activate a device and send the results of the test back to the main panel for archiving. If a device fails the test, it will be identified at the panel, which means the self-testing process meets the testing, inspection and maintenance requirements specified in NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. This self-testing process also helps to eliminate one of the major challenges in testing of notification appliances in an occupied building – the disruption of the occupants themselves. The self-test process takes just seconds to complete and can be initiated manually or programmed via the fire alarm control panel to run automatically. Testing can be done at a time when it’s most convenient for the building owner, thereby minimizing disruption to building occupants, eliminating the burden of after-hours testing, and significantly lowering operational costs. When testing is complete, device information and test history can be retrieved from the panel and downloaded to a USB memory device.
In summary, technology in fire alarm systems continues to evolve – and the technology innovations are enabling cost savings and other benefits for both the installing contractor and the end user. With savings on installation labor and wiring costs, contractors can complete fire alarm jobs faster and more profitably. And with remote diagnostics driving more efficiency in service and appliance self-testing reducing occupant disruptions, end users also realize the ‘addressable advantage.’ It’s definitely a win-win scenario – driven by important advancements in technology.