Green Upgrades Save Some Green

Building owners can upgrade to addressable fire alarm control panels that are relatively easy to install and troubleshoot, including panels specifically intended for retrofits.

For many owners, renovating a building is a smarter choice these days than erecting a new one. The renovation preference has been apparent this year among school districts, hospital boards, and owners of commercial buildings, according to recent surveys and industry reports. Because renovating one of these structures may necessitate a major upgrade in its fire detection and suppression systems to meet current codes, owners and architects look for economical solutions.

Jim Spooner, product manager for the Farenhyt product lineFortunately, they can upgrade to an addressable fire alarm control panel that is relatively easy to install and troubleshoot, including panels that are specifically intended for retrofits, said Jim Spooner, product manager for Silent Knight's Farenhyt product line, which ranges from a 25-point control panel to a 1,016-point panel and a networkable control panel.

Conventional systems used to be the industry standard. They consist of smoke detectors on a string of wires going out to each zone of protection, with as many as 30 detectors for each pair of wires. The control panel for such a system will say zone 1 is in alarm, for example, but it cannot tell you which of the detectors is in alarm. Addressable systems place detectors with exact addresses and descriptions, such as "smoke sector 1, science room," on the wires.

While conventional systems cost less, fire marshals and insurers appreciate the benefits of addressable systems. First, they offer point identification of the detector, eliminating guesswork. "And from a service standpoint, if I have a detector that says it's in trouble, instead of trying to troubleshoot an entire zone of 30 detectors, wondering which one is having a problem, I have a detector that says, 'Hi, it's me,' " Spooner said. "It's just smarter. It saves money in the long run."

The job of troubleshooting a conventional system might take two days; the job might be done in two hours with an addressable system, he said.

Not surprisingly, addressable systems now have the lion's share of the market. He said conventional systems still capture a share. They are used in restaurant chains, which have a small control panel because they already have sprinklers and by code are not required to have detectors. These structures need only a conventional control panel to drive the notification circuits -- the bells and alarms that activate when a detector goes into alarm.

Customers said they chose conventional because it was less expensive and easy to install, so Silent Knight (part of the Honeywell Life Safety Group) developed a 25-point panel made for small facilities. The IFP-25 is compatible with an easy-to-install addressable detector line. The installer sets an address on the back of the device, then hits a button on the control panel. The panel already knows the zone in which to program that detector, and its built-in web browser comes with all of the information needed to program the control panel.

It works with most Internet browsers. The engineer does not need specific programming tools, Spooner said. "You'll probably see this a lot more in the fire industry," he added.

Another option gaining popularity is firm alarm reporting via IP (Internet Protocol) systems, replacing the traditional means of phone lines for firm alarm communications to central monitoring stations. Spooner said a campus might have 16 buildings with 16 control panels, each costing $140 per month for two leased phone lines, and may spend additional sums for monitoring. But all fire alarm communications can be handled through one existing IP line, eliminating the multiple monthly payments, Spooner said.

Another drawback with phone lines: There is an automatic check only once every 24 hours to determine whether the phone lines are communicating. If phone lines are down, it may be hours before you are alerted to a problem. With an IP system, there is communication between the panel and the central station every 90 seconds.

The typical cost of an IP system to an end user is about $1,000. "They'll make that money back in less than a year," Spooner explained.

Higher education institutions must have excellent fire protection systems in place, particularly inside dormitories, he noted. "Sprinklers are good for protecting property; they don't typically save lives. So the earliest notification of a fire with smoke on a fire alarm panel is the best way to achieve life safety in these kinds of facilities. When you have students in classrooms, you have to get them out quickly."

Stricter Code Enforcement is Apparent
"One of the things that our engineers have always done with our systems is design them to work with any kind of wire," Spooner said. "There are a lot of fire system manufacturers that specify certain types of wire to be used on their fire systems. For example, you may have to use twisted or shielded for their system. This can add cost to the overall installation."

Beth Welch, public relations manager for Honeywell Fire Systems, said reusing wire saves not only the cost of pulling wire, but also having to install conduit around facilities. This work is where a lot of the expense comes in, she said.

Asked to quantify the cost savings, Spooner said replacing a single loop of 30 conventional detectors would cost the customer about $2,500 -- $40 per detector plus labor costs. Addressable detectors will cost more, but the cost of being able to install programmable detectors on the same wires would be a significant savings, he said.

If an owner wants to have an addressable system but lacks the budget to convert all of the current system's detectors, the solution may be patented Flexput circuits -- flexible input and output circuits that can be programmed to be the notification outputs or to provide power, such as power for activating fire doors. The circuits also can be programmed as conventional fire circuits so the existing conventional loops can be tied into this control panel. Then, as budget allows, the owner could eventually convert those conventional circuits to addressable detectors, he said.

Using existing wire to install new detectors is a "green" solution that will work whenever the existing wire is satisfactory and unbroken when tested, he said, adding, "There's a control panel that will fit anybody's job site."

Working with Alarm Distributors
The upgrades required during a renovation are determined by the AHJ (authority having jurisdiction) for that location, such as a local fire marshal. NFPA 101: Life Safety Code and codes such as the International Building Code describe the types of systems that must be installed, based on occupancy type or use group. They all reference NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code for installation and performance requirements.

Typically, a service contract goes to a fire alarm distributor, which inspects and files a report with the AHJ. But if such paperwork isn't filed for a given facility, the AHJ then has a reason to go out and inspect it.

"What we're seeing is a trend: A lot of safety managers are being approached by AHJs, many who haven't been before, because construction is down," Welch said. "The AHJs, their schedule is not as packed trying to inspect and approve a lot of newly constructed systems. So now what they're doing is they have the time to look back on those other facilities, maybe the older facilities that they know had construction recently or maybe they haven't visited in some time, and start giving them a closer look. We're starting to see much stricter enforcement of codes throughout the country."

Different jurisdictions may reference different versions of NFPA 72. Its 2010 edition came out recently and has not yet been adopted in many jurisdictions, while New York City still uses the 1999 edition, Spooner said.

Architectural and engineering firms maintain inches-thick books to keep up with changing codes that affect everything in a facility from its door locks to air conditioning and fire protection systems. Spooner said he has been busy for the past two years making presentations to engineering and architectural firms in which he asks them to build solid relationships with distributors of fire alarm engineered systems. He said he tells them the distributors' experts can review drawings and even create drawings for them, as well as help them understand current requirements and stay abreast of changes.

Silent Knight conducts an annual conference for its Farenhyt distributors. This year's conference took place Nov. 7-9 in Naples, Fla.

For More Information
1. Frequently Asked Questions about NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, 2010 Edition:

2. Frequently Asked Questions about NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2009 Edition:

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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