fire alarm

Undertaking fire alarm retrofits in older buildings

Challenges and strategies to satisfy current codes
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
by Martin Coles

The replacement of a fire alarm system can be a complex and challenging undertaking. The basic issues are few: Provide at least the same level of safety as the existing system, conform with applicable codes, and satisfy the authority having jurisdiction – typically the municipality. The challenge comes from accomplishing this while minimizing cost and disruption to building occupants.

At its simplest, a fire alarm system consists of a control panel, initiating devices like manual pull stations and smoke detectors, notification devices such as bells and strobe lights and the wiring connecting these components. Together, the system provides a means to determine the presence of a fire, and to notify building occupants. Humans can be among the most effective fire detectors, but may not always be present or awake.

A fire alarm replacement project may result from an emergency development or from a planned process. Emergency developments include equipment failure or a fire department order and can lead to costly firewatch requirements, a shortened contractor tender process and inconvenient equipment delivery times. When a fire alarm system is allowed to deteriorate to the point where an emergency replacement is required, cost and inconvenience are increased.

The risk of such an urgent situation can be reduced by routine maintenance by a qualified fire services company. As soon as the fire service company gives notice that the equipment can no longer be economically repaired should problems arise, engaging a reputable consultant increases the level of control of the situation for the owner. This is similar to maintaining an older car. There comes a time when replacement parts are no longer available and maintenance costs outweigh the costs of replacement. Fire alarm systems typically reach this point between 20 to 30 years of service life.

Planned replacement before failure allows a controlled process. The owners have the luxury of time to select hardware that will suit their needs, make considered improvements to the system, and choose a contractor without the cost and time pressures of an emergency. This is a much less stressful and economical process than an emergency replacement.

Replacement may be required for reasons other than age. For example, when the building’s use or occupancy changes, it is generally subject to some code upgrade of systems including fire alarm. This change of occupancy can include the conversion of industrial or commercial spaces to residential, or the addition of a daycare to an existing space.

Fire alarm replacements to accommodate elevator upgrades have been very common in recent years. When an elevator system in a building is replaced, many jurisdictions require that the new elevator system be in full compliance with the current elevator code, which includes sophisticated recall functionality based on the activation of specific fire alarm devices, like the smoke detectors in elevator lobbies. Equally importantly, elevators are not to respond based on the activation of other devices, like manual pull stations. These recall functions are required to be accomplished through the fire alarm system, but not all existing fire alarms are capable of performing the required sequence. In that case, the only choice is to replace the fire alarm system with a new one. Of course, this can come as an unpleasant surprise to building owners who are already faced with costly elevator improvements.

When beginning a project and deciding on the scope of improvements, several principles should be followed. For instance, code requirements are rarely retroactive. That means that while everything that you do must comply with current codes, conditions that are not a direct hazard can generally be left as-is. For example, when replacing a fire alarm control panel, you need to make sure that all the devices throughout the building are compatible with the new panel, but generally, there is no requirement to add more devices, or change their locations. Similarly, when the wiring is still functional and will work with the new system, it does not need to be replaced, even if it does not fully comply with current codes.

Another key principle is that the building code assumes new construction, and by extension, also assumes that the building is fully compliant with the code and applicable standards. Many building systems, including the fire alarm system, are interconnected with others, so older buildings cannot always achieve full compliance as envisioned by the code. In those situations, it can be quite difficult to satisfy the municipality that a new design that may not fully comply with the prescriptive requirements of the codes still improves safety and is sufficiently compliant.

Replacing a fire alarm system in an existing building can be a complex and unpredictable process. The help of a design consultant and a good fire service company can make it as economical and streamlined as possible.


Martin Coles is a project engineer at Jensen Hughes. He focuses on the development of fire alarm systems, code consulting, and engineering technical services.

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