July 27, 2018 By Nick Georgiou
July 27, 2018 — As an electrical contractor, you understand the importance that codes and standards play in your daily activities. Contractors not only have to know their local electrical code, but also have an understanding of building and fire codes. Keeping up-to-date with product changes, technology and standards can be a daunting task. Whether it’s a restaurant, school or high-rise condo, here are some basic things that all electrical contractors can do to make their lives a little easier when it comes to fire alarm systems.
1. BE FAMILIAR WITH THE INSTALLATION CODE
When it comes to building fire alarm systems, understanding the local requirements are critical to prevent any unnecessary delays. In Canada, electrical contractors must follow CAN/ULC-S524 “Standard for the installation of fire alarm systems”, which describes the requirements for the installation and interconnection of all necessary devices and equipment to operate a fire alarm system.
This standard continuously undergoes updates and changes, so having a copy of this reference is a must for contractors who are ultimately responsible for the letter of installation before occupancy is granted. The latest version is CAN/ ULC-S524-06 (5th ed., with 2011 amendment), and it can be purchased online from the Canadian Fire Alarm Association (cfaa.ca).
Being aware of the specifics related to the location of devices or wiring practices is critical because…
2. SHORT CUTS WILL BE CAUGHT
As a life safety system, fire alarm systems must be tested, verified and inspected annually. Whereas the installation of lighting or electrical distribution must meet the electrical code, there is definitely more rigor regarding life safety systems. Were a non-conformance issue missed on the initial inspection, there is a good chance the deficiency will be caught on future inspections.
Following drawings and wiring requirements—such as separating redundant wiring in separate wireways or mounting end-of-line boxes on the wall—can save hours of unnecessary re-work. Avoid the complications of having to run new lines in finished units, which can cost at least 3x more than during the construction phase.
To help safeguard against any potential issues…
3. DO NOT DEVIATE FROM APPROVED DRAWINGS
As most contractors know, the drawings are sacred, so don’t make any changes without first obtaining the consulting engineer’s approval (which should come in the form of a revised drawing).
From a contractor’s perspective, the layout of an alarm system may not fit previous best practices; while there may be better ways to do a job, any deviation from the drawings becomes a red flag for inspectors. From equipment delays to trade schedule changes, things will go wrong on construction projects, all of which put pressure on the general contractor or developer to keep to the occupancy schedule.
Electrical contractors are under constant pressure to make up any lost time on a job, but don’t succumb to pressure from the builder/developer. Shorts cuts will be flagged! Do not make changes to the design/layout unless approved by the engineer. Get the change approved and stamped by the engineer and, when possible…
4. UNDERSTAND THE SYSTEM YOU’RE WORKING WITH
There will always be system nuances between manufacturers of life safety equipment. Being familiar with the capabilities of a system — such as understanding the limitations on addressable loops, which affect the gauge of wire used — will enable you to plan an efficient installation. Other considerations for wiring include wire gauge for long runs and the resistance specs, because high resistance may lead to communication errors and trouble in the system.
Check that lines are free of ground faults; if one loop can do five floors, it is better to look for a fault on a floor than to complete the loop and then try to find a fault later. With more systems moving from conventional to addressable, the wiring charts and manufacturer specifications are valuable resources.
Troubleshooting is always easier at a smaller scale, which will help with the pressure of occupancy. Working with a manufacturer in a project partnership is important, so…
5. SHARE ANY CHANGES TO A SYSTEM WITH YOUR SALES PROFESSIONAL
A manufacturer’s rep shares the same interests as the electrical contractor: a clean project without any issues, and a happy customer.
Sometimes, years will have passed from the original estimate to the issuance of the purchase order and, as a result, changes occur. Work with your rep regarding changes in design or scope of work. Original device counts may vary, or runs between devices could impact the cost or even functionality of a system.
Work closely with your rep to avoid the dreaded Change Order that most contractors try to avoid (or hide). Be forthcoming regarding changes and avoid calling changes “deficiencies”, because working together in a transparent manner reduces the potential for conflict or claims. The ultimate goal for all parties related to a fire alarm system is to…
6. PAVE THE WAY FOR A CERTIFIED SYSTEM
Everyone wants the job finished yesterday. As with any project, the more work that is done upfront will often help with the final approval. When working with system reps or fire alarm technicians onsite, let them know about any issues or challenges with the project.
When a building has multiple storeys (e.g. a condo or commercial tower), some owners or tenants may move into their spaces before others. High-rise buildings with partial occupancy require partial verification, which includes the common areas and any areas that serve the units to be occupied. So while the developer may want owners to move into the first five floors but the mechanical room is on the top floor, the latter has to be tested and verified in addition to the stairwells and parking areas that serve the occupied floors.
Confirm the floor occupancy schedule with the builder and plan the testing and verification schedule with the manufacturer or fire service company. Building inspectors sign off on partials and, from time to time, there may be questions, so it is always wise to…
7. CONSULT WITH THE BUILDING INSPECTOR
When in doubt, consult the building inspector. It is always better to verify the requirements than to make guesses or assumptions, which can be very costly. Bring them in during the construction phase and, when an interpretation is required, be sure to get it in writing. Inspectors can change from the start to the finish of the project, so having documentation will protect against future claims against completed work.
Numerous seminars and training courses are available to help demystify the ins and outs of fire alarm systems. Some excellent sources of information include the Canadian Fire Alarm Association, local fire departments, colleges and manufacturers, all of which can help you be efficient during the construction process.
Knowledge and communication are essential for reducing wasted effort. Time is money, and we all want more of both.
Nick Georgiou, CFAA, is the service construction manager with Mircom Engineered Systems (mircomgroup.com), a Canadian-based designer, manufacturer and distributor of life safety equipment. He is also a member of the Canadian Fire Alarm Association, Ontario Chapter (CFAA, cfaa.ca). Nick can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Electrical Business Magazine.
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