More codes and more at stake with alarm-system installation

Additional training and expertise a must for contractors looking to enter the field.

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With the protection of people and property at the forefront of concern among facilities managers, many are choosing to upgrade existing alarm systems or emphasize the importance of these systems in the early design stages of new construction.

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Installing alarm and fire/life safety systems in a cost-effective manner—one that allows for future growth and easy modifications—has many turning to integrated system designers and installers, and a structured cabling approach. While this presents opportunity for staying competitive in today's economy, alarm system design and installation should be carried out with an awareness of the stringent codes, required expertise, and key responsibilities.

Know the codes

While the datacom industry is primarily dictated by EIA/TIA and IEEE standards, alarm systems design and installation are governed by a variety of codes under the NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency), UL (Underwriters Laboratories), and the ADA (American with Disabilities Act). The National Electrical Code (NEC), published by the NFPA, focuses on proper installation of electrical systems and equipment to protect people and property. Specific standards for wiring alarm systems include NEC 760 (NFPA 70) for fire alarm circuits, and NEC 725 for power-limited circuits, such as burglar alarms and access control.

Every fire/life safety alarm system design and installation is affected by the more than 300 NFPA codes and standards, intended to minimize the possibility and effects of fire. "NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm Code and NFPA 101 Life Safety Code are the most significant standards in fire alarm system design and installation," says Jeffrey Behuniak, national training manager for Honeywell's Fire Systems Group (www.honeywell.com). NFPA 72 provides requirements for fire alarm system installation, performance, testing, inspection, and maintenance, while NFPA 101 Life Safety Code determines whether a fire alarm system is required in a given occupancy.

Within the hundreds of NFPA codes, specific standards dictate the placement of detectors and devices, HVAC shutdown, damper control, and fire prevention requirements for specific types of facilities and systems. According to Behuniak, understanding the rules and regulations of fire alarm systems is not something learned on the street. "It's not just pulling cable. When we're talking about peoples' lives, every installer needs to be properly trained to know the specific rules and regulations," says Behuniak.

States and municipalities have their own codes for fire/life safety alarm systems. Within each town and city, the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), which is typically a fire inspector or marshal, reviews all fire/life safety system designs and installations. "You have to know the regulations of the town and state you're working in—they're not just standards to use as a guideline, they are laws," says Carl Spiegel, president of ASP Security Systems (www.aspsecuritysystems.com).

"With a fire alarm system, a permit is required, the plans are approved by the AHJ, and the installed system is 100% tested in the presence of the AHJ," Spiegel adds. That is a far cry from the typical certification of a network-cabling installation. According to Spiegel, designers and installers should also understand the codes and standards of other building systems with which a fire/life safety alarm system interfaces, such as elevators and HVAC.

While burglar alarms do not fall under the stringent NFPA codes and regulations, UL lists specific equipment, installations, and monitoring stations for both burglar and fire alarm systems. "Every fire alarm installation has to be UL-listed, but not all burglar alarm systems have to be installed to UL standards, especially for residential," says Al Lizza, director of marketing for Ademco (www.ademco.com).

"However, if a customer wants the burglar alarm system to reduce insurance costs, then it usually has to be UL listed," he adds.

In addition to listing manufacturers' specific alarm equipment, UL lists specific alarm service companies to install and monitor UL-listed installations, and these systems are subject to random audits by UL. According to Lizza, it's not uncommon to have combination systems where smoke detection and notification are integrated with a burglar alarm system. For these systems, NFPA codes and standards apply.

NFPA 72 requirements for manual fire alarm pull stations and notification appliances also meet the requirements of the ADA, enacted in 1990 to provide equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in public accommodations and commercial facilities. "When you step from burglar alarm systems into the fire alarm world, the codes and standards become much more stringent because you're now dealing with life safety, not just property," says Behuniak. "A burglar alarm system has less interaction with the general public. But when it comes to a fire alarm system, there are pull stations that everyone has to be able to operate and horns and strobes that must be effective in notifying all people."

Have the expertise

Aside from knowledge of the codes and standards, alarm system design and installation requires specific expertise. "For both fire alarms and burglar alarms, designers and installers should understand the devices and be able to configure them to fit the application," says Lizza. "Depending on the sophistication of the system, the equipment and application may be easy to learn, or it may require more intensive training to develop the expertise." Most alarm system component manufacturers offer specific product training, and NFPA (www.nfpa.org), UL (www.UL.com), and the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA; www.alarm.org) offer professional development classes and seminars.

One of the primary differences between an alarm and datacom installation is the location of cables and terminations. "When you're installing a data-communications system, you're pulling wire to a closet or workstation," says Lizza. "With burglar alarm systems, you have to deal with doors and windows, which can be ornate, expensive architectural elements. Most end users are comfortable seeing jacks and knowing that cables are there for the network. But, when it comes to security, it has to be hidden. Burglar alarm system installation requires more precision and, therefore, can be more time consuming."

According to Lizza, customers have higher expectations with a burglar alarm installation, and wires showing behind moldings or in other visible areas often lead to customer complaints. A wireless alarm system is one solution for hard-to-hide cabling.

Most alarm systems feature four- or two-wire shielded cable for devices, and some LAN-type systems connect control panels via optical-fiber backbone cabling. "Wire in an alarm system has to be supervised with end-of-line resistors," says Lizza. "With data-communications, resistors are usually built into the connectivity, whereas with alarm systems, installers need to know how to wire the resistors." Codes require that most alarm system devices be wired with two wires coming in on one side and two wires to the other, creating a redundant wiring path from the control panel to ensure that all devices will function in the event that the cabling is damaged.

To design a burglar alarm system, a certain degree of expertise is required to best protect property, "We're dealing with bad guys, and to design these systems, you have to be able to identify high-risk areas of potential break-ins," says Lizza. "It takes years of experience to know how the various technologies—glass breaks, magnetic contacts, motion control—should be combined and placed to protect an area." The design of fire/life safety systems also requires the expertise of knowing the latest technology and determining which type of equipment is best, based on a building's construction, the local fire department, and occupancy.

Proper cable gauge size and survivability are important aspects of a fire/life safety system design and installation. The gauge size must ensure that horns, speakers, and strobes are loud and bright enough to inform the public of a potential fire. "The more devices, the more current draw and the thicker the gauge," says John Maccone, national account manager for Fire-Lite Alarms (www.firelite.com). "Calculating voltage drop and choosing the right cable is a huge challenge for alarm system designers, and many AHJs will ask for calculations to determine if the proper wiring was used."

Cable used in a fire alarm system must be fire-rated to maintain survivability in the event of a fire, especially for a the notification portion of a system. "A voice evacuation system in a high rise may need to work for hours to direct people away from a fire or hazardous situation," says Maconne.

Face the responsibilities

After a datacom installation is completed, the responsibility of the designer and installer fades, with the exception of responding to moves, adds, and changes. But many customers require 24-hour monitoring services following an alarm-system installation. "With data communications, you're usually dealing with a 9-to-5 office environment, and when there's a problem, the network can wait," says Spiegel. "If an alarm system is malfunctioning at a restaurant in the middle of the dinner crowd, you had better be available. There's a lot of competition in the industry, and you have to be willing or able to lose money on every alarm system installation up front, and make it back over time through monitoring services." According to Spiegel, the alarm industry is extremely service-oriented, and those who think otherwise will suffer financially.

Although burglar and fire/life safety alarm equipment manufacturers have worked to create standard control-panel prompts and tactical methods for verifying an alarm, false alarms are still a major problem. "False burglar alarms can result in local police fees and diminish your chances of being responded to the next time around," says Spiegel. "It's often a battle to determine if a false alarm was caused by error on the part of the customer or by an installation problem. This is something that alarm system installers need to be prepared to deal with."

Because burglar alarm systems protect property as opposed to lives, designing and installing these systems requires fewer codes, and less expertise and responsibility. According to Behuniak, if you are going to design and install fire/life safety systems, you had better know what you're doing or it can create a huge risk to people. "Gaining the expertise to offer burglar alarm services is easier than moving into the fire alarm industry," says Behuniak. "For burglar alarm systems, you need to understand the devices and how they work, but you could have that same knowledge about fire alarm devices, and still not be able to apply them."

Tread with caution

While expanding your services to include the design and installation of alarm systems may bring more business, it's imperative to have experienced staff with a thorough knowledge of the codes and standards, and the required training and expertise.

"The expertise of data-communications designers and installers may allow them to implement the fiber-optic backbone for networked alarm systems that utilize a structured cabling design," says Spiegel. "However, when it comes to the placement of the actual devices, the programming of control panels, and the responsibility issues, alarm systems are better left to the experts. You don't dabble in it just because you know how to pull cable and terminate jacks."

As some delve into the alarm system business, says Fire-Lite's Maconne, "there will be a group of individuals that will succeed and a group that won't go near it with a ten-foot pole. Unfortunately, there's usually a dangerous group somewhere in between, and you don't want just anybody designing and installing a system that's supposed to save your property or even your life." Maconne suggests that end users only employ the services of reputable designers and installers who are certified to install alarm systems and can prove that they've had proper training.

Homeland security funds are being delegated for schools, airports, hospitals, and other high-risk areas. Although it may seem like a potential business opportunity, most alarm industry professionals agree that it's only for well-funded and experienced alarm system designers or installers.

"To expand business, designers and installers need to develop a business plan, know and identify the markets, and understand that there's a lot of required training," says Spiegel. "Many feel that when business gets slow, they should turn to a similar industry. But these people should reflect on their own business and expertise, and question whether they can, in reality, acquire the skills needed to support the responsibilities."

Betsy Ziobron is a freelance writer covering the cabling industry, and a regular contributor to Cabling Installation & Maintenance. She can be reached at: bziobron@comcast.net

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