Code-Compliant Systems Turn on Inspection and Testing

It was 20 years ago when I purchased the television I now have in my living room. Recently, I marveled to myself at how long this General Electric-made set has lasted. Throughout these 20 years I have yet to ask a technician to inspect, test or adjust it. It appears there are some fire alarm system owners out there who can make the same claim.

There have also been times when I’ve walked into a retail store or office complex and marveled over the age of the fire alarm system employed there. I’m even more surprised when I find out that no one has been back to inspect or test it in years, sometimes since it was installed.

Where are the code enforcement people in these jurisdictions? Even more importantly, where are the fire alarm companies that installed them?

No doubt, some of these firms went out of business by now. However, it seems strange in all these years that not a single observant fire alarm technician noticed the museum pieces still mounted on the walls and ceilings of these businesses. Why didn’t they offer to make some extra money inspecting and testing these systems?

Knowing the codes and standards pertaining to the inspection, testing and maintenance of legacy fire alarm/life-safety systems should be embraced as good business and a revenue opportunity.

Inspectors Must Be Qualified
NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code (NFAC), published by National Fire Protection Association,provides direction where it involves the routine inspection and testing of fire alarm control panels and the devices that go with them.

Routinely, control panels, automatic and manual activating devices, notification appliance devices, and other components associated with a quality, working fire alarm system must be visually inspected and tested to assure they are working properly. Inevitably, there are always those fire alarm system owners who think they can save money by allowing their maintenance department to test their fire alarm devices.

According to the maintenance supervisor of an Ohio nursing home, “We used to test our own smoke and heat detectors until this new fire inspector came along. Now we have to pay a fire alarm company to do it.”

Obviously, the previous fire inspector either failed to read his or her codebook or simply let the nursing home slide on this issue.

Anyone conducting inspections, testing, or maintenance must be factory trained and certified for the brand of equipment in use. Another option is to be certified by a recognized alarm certification organization; registered, licensed, or certified by a state or local authority; or employed by a firm recognized by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as UL and FM.

Code Stipulates Testing Frequency
In order to maintain new and vintage systems, it’s important that fire technicians inspect their fire alarm systems according to published code. For those who follow International Fire Code by the International Code Council (ICC), Section 907.20.2 of IFC, 2003 Edition, stipulates the use of NFAC.

“Testing shall be performed in accordance with the schedules in Chapter [10] of NFPA 72 or more frequently where required by the fire code official. Where automatic testing is performed at least weekly by a remotely monitored fire alarm control unit specifically listed for the application, the manual testing frequency shall be permitted to be extended to annual.”

There are two ways to assure a fire alarm control panel and all the components that connect to it are working properly: visual inspections and testing. Knowing when to do each of them is integral to code compliance and quality life safety.

Fire alarm control panels that are monitored for alarm, supervisory and trouble conditions should be visually inspected and tested annually. Those that are not monitored for the above conditions should be inspected weekly. Technicians should examine all fuses, lamps and LEDs, all equipment interfaced to the panel and the primary power supply, which is usually 120VAC.

Lead-acid and dry cell batteries need to be inspected monthly, while sealed lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries must be looked at semiannually. For additional information on the test frequency assigned to the various battery types, refer to Table 10.4.4(5-7) in NFPA 72, 2007 Edition. SSI will cover this issue in more depth in a subsequent installment of “Fire Side Chat.”

Automatic and manual initiating devices, such as smoke detectors and manual pulls, must be inspected regularly. According to NFAC, these devices must be inspected every six months and tested annually. NAC devices should also be visually inspected semiannually and tested annually.

There is an exception to this rule when dealing with special fire detectors, such as radiant energy fire detectors, which need to be tested semiannually. Water-flow and water valve tamper switches should also be tested semiannually.

When Left to Old Devices
No manufactured product will last forever. Fire alarm companies that specialize in service are likely to encounter systems containing devices that need to be replaced. This includes automatic and manual detectors as well as notification appliances.

“It is inevitable that some smoke detectors will be replaced over time, some notification appliances will be added to a system as the fire alarm system expands, and as building owners and managers you hope that replacement parts and units are available at a reasonable cost,” says Scott Edwards, vice president of Fire Protection Products for Gentex of Zeeland, Mich.

The problem is, however, replacement parts are often unavailable for these vintage fire alarm panels, and those that are lack the proper listing from UL, FM or any other third-party listing service.

A good example of this is a defunct notification appliance bell in an old 120VAC fire system. Because the manufacturers no longer support this system, the fire technician is often left holding the bag. The best he or she can offer is to try to match a recently made bell’s specifications to that of the defunct part.

In a perfect world, one manufacturer’s bell will work with any other manufacturer’s fire alarm control panel. Perhaps in time that will happen, but for now fire technicians will have to do the best they can when faced with this type of situation.   

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