The Ultimate Guide to Fire Alarm Systems

Fire alarm systems are essential for protecting a building and keeping its occupants safe. Without them, the threat of a devastating fire would loom much more closely. Fire alarm systems give us the peace of mind and security we need to conduct business and trust that our belongings and building occupants are safe. While the cost may be high for large buildings, a fire alarm system isn’t something you should skimp on. 

If you’re looking for a commercial fire alarm system for your business, there are many options to choose from. Here, we’ll walk you through some of the different types of fire alarm systems so you can make an informed decision before installing one in your building. Understanding your system and how to use it will ensure the system runs smoothly without any hiccups. 

Today’s fire alarm systems can be wireless or hard-wired, and each is similarly reliable. Systems can also be either addressable or conventional. Additionally, there are various components commonly included in fire alarm systems, such as pull stations, annunciators, and control panels. 

Fire Alarm System - The Ultimate Guide

Where to Install Fire Alarms

Knowing when and where to install fire alarms is based largely on building codes, so be sure to consult those requirements before choosing and installing a fire alarm system. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends putting alarms on each floor and stairway, and one alarm covers an area of approximately 21 square feet. 

You should install alarms in hallways, offices, storage areas, bathrooms, and indoor parking areas as well as any occupied room. This means that large commercial buildings with many rooms could have hundreds of fire alarm components. The more alarms you have installed, the better your property will be protected in the event of a fire.

Codes and regulations may also require regular cleanings and inspections of your alarms and overall system. Routine inspections and tests ensure that your fire alarm system is working correctly. Licensed fire protection technicians must perform inspections depending on the type of system your building has.

Where to Install Fire Alarms

Types of Fire Alarm Systems

There are many different types of fire alarm systems, and knowing how each one works will help you determine which type is best for your building. A fire alarm system uses electrical signals to trigger anti-fire countermeasures, like fire sprinklers, as well as trigger alarms to tell people to evacuate the building. 

Most fire alarm systems include triggers to send emergency signals to local firefighting stations. They also send signals to fire alarm control panels and annunciators so you can control the system and be informed in the event of a fire. 

Some of the common types of fire alarm systems include addressable fire alarm systems, conventional fire alarm systems, wireless fire alarm systems, and hard-wired fire alarm systems. 

Addressable Fire Alarm Systems

Addressable fire alarm systems assign each alarm in the system with an address that operators can use to identify fires or potential issues. Each device detects changes in its immediate atmosphere to determine the exact location of a fire within the building. The system tracks its progress through the building, allowing rescue personnel to evacuate occupants from dangerous areas proactively.

On an addressable system, one central monitoring system displays all smoke, fire, gas, emergency, and security devices throughout a home or property. This is different from a conventional system, where devices cannot be programmed and each device is connected via a landline. Conventional systems are analog while addressable systems are digital.  

Addressable alarm systems convert an analog signal created by voltage variations to binary code via the system’s integrated computer. That code then digitally transfers information from the individual safety devices throughout the building to the primary control panel. 

Because of this digital communication, an addressable system can transfer a much wider variety of information to its control panel than a conventional analog system can. 

Addressable Fire Alarm Systems

Addressable Fire Alarm Systems vs Conventional Fire Alarm Systems

Each type of system has its place. To compare, consider the pros and cons of each type of system: 

Pros of an addressable system: 

  • Alerts are immediate and efficient 
  • Less susceptible to false alarms 
  • Can self-diagnose and monitor the performance of devices in the system 
  • More personalized 

Cons of an addressable system:

  • Expensive to install 
  • May not be able to mix and match brands of devices
  • Take longer to install than a conventional system 

Pros of a conventional system: 

  • Cheaper to install than an addressable system 
  • Relatively quick to install

Cons of a conventional system: 

  • Analog system can limit precision 
  • Potential for delayed response times
  • More susceptible to false alarms 

Who Should Use an Addressable Fire Alarm System?

In modern buildings that house a large number of people, addressable systems are the safest option. The same applies to large complexes or properties with complicated layouts like hospitals, university campuses, and even historic buildings.

Any owner of a building where a rapid response to fire is essential should consider an addressable system. For instance, addressable systems are ideal in cases when very young children, elderly folks, or inhabitants with disabilities need more time and direction to evacuate the premises. 

Frequent travelers who find themselves away from home for extended periods may also benefit from an addressable fire alarm over a slower, less sophisticated analog system.

Read this article to learn more about addressable fire alarm systems

addressable fire alarm system

Automatic Fire Alarm Systems

Automatic fire alarm systems are the most common; they’re activated automatically, as their name suggests, thanks to fire detectors. Many automatic fire systems are designed with manual alarms, too. This allows people who see smoke or a fire to have a quick response.

However, automatic fire alarm systems usually trigger their sprinklers or other countermeasures indiscriminately. With an automatic system, it’s possible that sprinklers will go off when there is not a fire, which could damage your building. 

One-Stage/Two-Stage Fire Alarm Systems

One-stage wireless fire alarm systems quickly send a signal to tell everyone in a given building that a smoke detector or other sensor was activated. 

Two-stage firearm systems, in contrast, only warn authorized individuals that a fire or smoke signal was detected. This gives administrators the chance to assess the threat and determine whether a second-stage response, like sprinkler activation, is necessary. This can prevent unnecessary sprinkler response, but it also delays the response in the event of an actual fire. 

Wireless Fire Alarm Systems

With almost everything being wireless these days, it makes sense that wireless fire alarm systems would become more popular as well. Both wired and wireless systems can be configured as automatic, one-stage, or two-stage systems. 

The best wireless fire alarm systems have a single control unit that acts similar to a cell phone. Wireless fire alarm systems use radio frequencies to transmit signals from smoke detectors or other devices. Once the system receives a signal, it can send a response signal to sprinklers, to emergency services, and more.

More importantly, modern wireless fire alarm systems are reliable and robust. Their signals can be relied on to transmit clearly, thanks to improvements in technology and the widespread use of Wi-Fi networks.

Wireless Fire Alarm Systems

Wireless Fire Alarm System Benefits

Wireless fire alarm systems are becoming more popular for good reason. Some of their benefits include: 

  • Quick and simple installation
  • Easy maintenance and limited downtime 
  • Similar reliability to wired systems
  • More aesthetically pleasing than wired systems 
  • May be more inexpensive to maintain than a wired system
  • Alarms and devices can be moved easily 

Wireless Fire Alarm System Drawbacks

Despite the many benefits, wireless systems aren’t perfect. Here are some of their drawbacks: 

  • Initial setup and installation can be pricey
  • Batteries need to be checked and replaced regularly; some types of fire alarm batteries can be expensive  
  • Won’t work if there is a disruption to wireless coverage 

Who Should Use a Wireless Fire Alarm System? 

Examples of buildings that are well-suited to wireless systems include:

  • Historical buildings (no tearing up walls to install wires!)
  • Businesses
  • Public buildings
  • Large areas

Wireless systems can work well for anyone provided you have a reliable wireless signal and are able to afford the upfront cost. 

Read this article to learn more about wireless fire alarm systems

Hard-Wired Fire Alarm

Hard-wired fire alarm systems are more traditional than wireless systems, and they work well for a variety of purposes as well. Choosing the right fire alarm system is a crucial business decision that owners and managers must make to protect their investment.

A fire alarm hard wired is an alarm that is wired directly into your commercial building’s low voltage electrical system. These alarms typically have a backup battery in case of power outages.

If you choose a hard-wired system (as with any other system), you’ll need enough alarms to adequately protect your building. The budget should not be a concern when it comes to protecting your building and the lives of your employees and customers. You’ll need at least one alarm for every 21 square feet and at least one alarm for each separate room in your building. 

Hard Wired Fire Alarm System

Hard-Wired Fire Alarm Benefits

Just as wireless systems have many benefits, so do hard-wired systems. Some of these benefits include: 

  • Backup power source: most hard-wired systems have a backup battery in case of a power outage
  • Alarms can be linked to alert an entire building of fire
  • Are often linked to strobe lights for a visual alarm 
  • Heat sensors minimize false alarms 
  • Can be more reliable than wireless systems, particularly if there is an interruption to wireless signal coverage 
  • Typically require less maintenance than wireless systems

Hard-Wired Fire Alarm System Drawbacks

Hard-wired systems have their drawbacks, too, including: 

Hard-Wired Fire Alarm Troubleshooting

While many people today opt for wireless fire alarm systems, hard-wired systems are tried and true. They’re known to be reliable and detect fires quickly. Nonetheless, every system can experience problems from time to time. 

When a hard-wired fire alarm beeps, it might mean that the backup battery is dying. 

A hard-wired alarm might also beep or even give a full alarm if the sensing chamber gets covered in dust. The fire alarms are installed on ceilings or walls and will inevitably accumulate dust. Make sure you shut off the power to your fire alarm before cleaning the dust.

A beep coming from your hard-wired alarm might also mean it is getting old. Fire alarms hard-wired typically last about ten years, and then they need to be replaced. 

If your alarm is beeping or malfunctioning and you can’t figure out why, it might be a good idea to have a professional inspect it to determine the problem. This is especially true if your alarm is a newer model, where age is less likely to be a factor. 

Read this article to learn more about hard-wired fire alarm systems

Parts of a Fire Alarm System

Once you know what type of system you have or are planning to install in your building, you need to make sure you understand how all the parts of the system work. Of course, there are the alarms themselves, but there are other components of the system that you need to understand as well. 

Parts of most fire alarm systems include the fire alarm control panel, fire alarm pull station, and fire alarm annunciator. Some — but not all — systems include a fire alarm camera as well. 

Make sure either you or your systems administrator knows how each part of the fire alarm system works. This will make things much easier in the event of an alert or malfunction, and it will keep everyone safer in the event of a fire. 

Fire Alarm Control Panel

A fire alarm control panel is the heart of a fire alarm system. It is the hub that receives the information from all fire alarms throughout a building or property and communicates any issues to the people monitoring the system. It is also able to control the alarms throughout a property, alert authorities, and complete safety tasks such as shutting off the HVAC system. It’s sometimes abbreviated as FACP or FACU. 

Fire alarm control panel is activated and in alert mode.

How Does a Fire Alarm Control Panel Work? 

A fire alarm control panel works by centralizing information regarding all components of a fire alarm system. If a fire is detected via a smoke detector, heat detector, fire pull station, or another trigger, the unit alerts authorities, triggers sprinkler systems, recalls elevators, and shuts down HVAC units. It can also monitor the operational status of alarms and provide alerts about any malfunctions or improperly working alarms.

What Are the Parts of a Fire Alarm Control Panel? 

The control panel has a section that displays alerts or alarms from components of the system. In a conventional system, the alerts will be lumped into zones. For example, the panel may show that there was a fire detected in zone B. After looking at the key, you will see that it is on the third floor. The system will not show which exact detector detected the fire. The zone in question is typically indicated by a light on the control panel.

In an addressable system, the control panel shows which exact device in the system is triggering the alarm. This is typically indicated by text that will display on the screen of the control panel.

Most control panels also contain the following elements: 

  • Cancel alert
  • System reset
  • Sound alarms 
  • Silence alarms 
  • Enable 
  • Disable
  • Test
  • Acknowledge

Using and Maintaining a Fire Alarm Control Panel

When you have a system with a fire alarm control panel installed, you should be given instructions or a user manual. Refer to that for the most detailed and accurate information. 

In general, you can sound alarms, silence alarms, or acknowledge alarms on your control panel. 

You may see a trouble alert on the panel, which means some part of the system is not working correctly. If you see an active alert, that means a device in the system has detected a fire. 

Read this article to learn more about fire alarm control panels 

Fire Alarm Pull Station

The pull station is an essential part of a commercial fire alarm system. You’ve probably seen one when you’ve walked through a school, hospital, or other public building. They typically consist of a red box mounted onto the wall with a T-shaped handle. 

If a fire breaks out, the handle can be pulled to trigger the alarm manually. This is an important safety measure because it allows a person to trigger the alarm system if the devices are not detecting a fire or if there is a malfunction within the system. 

Fire Alarm Pull Station

Types of Fire Alarm Pull Stations

All types of fire alarm pull systems are connected to an alarm system. As soon as the handle is pulled, the alarm will start to go off. When the handle is pulled, a signal is sent to the fire alarm control panel. If the system is monitored, a message will be sent to the company in charge. They in turn will alert the authorities. If it is a local alarm only, the authorities won’t be automatically alerted so you’ll need to do this manually.

Single action fire alarm pull stations consist of a handle. Pulling the handle activates the alarm instantly. 

Dual action fire alarm pull systems are usually enclosed in a glass or plastic box which will need to be broken before the alarm can be triggered.

Addressable fire alarm pull systems work with addressable systems. Each pull station has a unique address, letting you know exactly where in the building the fire is.

Who Needs a Fire Alarm Pull Station? 

A fire alarm pull station is needed in practically any building, regardless of its occupancy classification. This is in accordance with the National Fire Protection Association, 101 Life Safety Code. It states that “additional safety guards shall be provided for life safety in case any single safeguard is rendered ineffective.”

Pull stations provide that additional safety guard to help keep occupants safe. 

Where to install a fire alarm pull station?

They should be installed anywhere from 42 to 48 inches from the floor, which is in accordance with the local fire alarm code, and NFPA 72 standards. It needs to be fully accessible to those in a wheelchair, as well as installed in an area without any obstacles.

You also need a pull station within 60 inches of each exit. If there are groups of doors that are situated more than 40 feet apart from one another, a pull station must be installed on each side of the grouping.

Pull Station Inspection 

Like other parts of a fire alarm system, the pull stations should be inspected regularly. Visual inspections of fire alarm pull systems should take place right after they have been installed, and every six months moving forward. These can be carried out by the building owner or a trained professional.

They should also be tested at least once per year. Before they are tested, a technician will need to deactivate the strobes and alarms. This ensures the occupants of the building aren’t disturbed.

Read this article to learn more about fire alarm pull stations

Fire Alarm Annunciator

The Fire Alarm Annunciator is, quite literally, the face of your fire alarm system. It identifies problems and depicts where a fire was started, what caused it, and how efficiently the fire alarm system is functioning. It displays accurate and relevant information to you and the fire department to help take actionable steps to curb the fire and prevent problems.

Using a variety of lights, icons, and maps, the annunciator relays audible and visual alerts for any fire-related issue. They generally consist of a wide variety of sensors and controls, along with sirens and a screen to depict alerts.

Every element including the smoke, heat, and fire detectors; the manual stations; and the Waterflow stations are consistently sending out information to the annunciator panel. The annunciator in turn depicts the status of the fire alarm system and points out as soon as it witnesses a malfunction.

Fire alarm annunciators constantly take in signals and codes from various parts of your fire alarm system. Any break in signal or any unusual occurrence that might point towards a system failure is immediately displayed by the annunciator.

Fire Alarm Annunciator

Fire Alarm Annunciator Benefits

In the chaos of a fire, anything that simplifies locating the fire can save lives. Here are some of the ways annunciators are beneficial to fire alarm systems:

  • They alert to potential problems, signal breaks, or system failures
  • They help locate fires via blueprints within the annunciator
  • Using maps and visuals, they can help guide you out of a fire
  • They’re user-friendly and make it simple to interpret and respond to any issues 

Who Needs a Fire Alarm Annunciator? 

Any building with a fire alarm system can benefit from an annunciator. The easy-to-use interface makes issues simple to interpret, saving both lives and property effortlessly. The fire alarm annunciator’s live updates and assistive features to prevent, control, and halt the fire drops damages caused to a minimum.

It’s risky to assume your fire alarms are working on their own without a system to continually check them. Although it might be tempting to think that your smoke and heat detectors are self-sufficient or that your fire alarm system does not need an annunciator, your overall system and detectors are only so efficient. You cannot afford to disregard the possibility of a system failure. The opportunity cost is too high.

Additionally, the codes in your area may require an annunciator for certain building sizes or heights. There might also be requirements for the proximity between annunciators and doors in the building. In general, the larger the building, the more you could benefit from a fire alarm annunciator. 

Read this article to learn more about fire alarm annunciators

Fire Alarm Camera

A fire alarm camera is a camera that can detect fires, and they’re often used in large industrial buildings. Note that fire detection cameras are different from hidden cameras in fire alarms. 

Fire alarm cameras work by sensing temperature, smoke, or both. Most fire detection cameras are able to detect fires much more quickly than a traditional smoke detector. 

Rather than waiting for the smoke to rise and reach a traditional detector, the camera sees smoke or senses temperature and alerts as soon as it is present. 

Security system Installation and fire alarm Integration

How Fire Alarm Cameras Work

A fire alarm camera works by using infrared technology to detect temperature. The camera turns thermal radiation (heat) into a picture so it (and you) can visualize the temperature of an area. Fire detection cameras take this information and send out alerts or alarms based on the heat settings of the camera.

There are a few different ways to set up a fire alarm camera. One popular and effective way is to set thresholds for temperature. When something in the room reaches one of the set temperatures, the camera will alert or alarm.

Another way to detect temperature is to set your camera to alert when the temperature changes at a fast rate. This type of setting works well in an area that reaches high but stable temperatures. A rate of change alarm would sound if the temperature rises too quickly, but the alarm will not go off for general high temperatures. 

Fire Alarm Camera Benefits

Fire alarm cameras can save lives and buildings by alerting to fires incredibly quickly. Here are some of their overall benefits: 

  • They typically recognize fires much more quickly than traditional smoke detectors
  • They’re not prone to false alarms
  • They can provide warnings of potential fires before they happen
  • Owners can view the cameras remotely

While fire alarm cameras are really beneficial in some situations, they aren’t ideal for every building. 

Who Needs a Fire Alarm Camera? 

Fire alarm cameras are more beneficial in some types of buildings than others. Fire detection cameras need to have a direct line of sight, so they don’t work as well in small or cluttered areas. Unless you have a large open space like a factory or warehouse, a fire alarm camera probably won’t be very effective. 

Fire alarm camera are commonly used in industrial areas, factories, warehouses, waste plants, recycling plants, and wood processing plants. 

Traditional smoke detectors don’t often work well in these types of buildings. The dust and particles that are released into the air can cause false alarms. Additionally, many of these places are at high risk for dangerous fires and explosions. Fire detection cameras can alert you to a fire much faster, thus potentially avoiding disaster. 

Read this article to learn more about fire alarm cameras

Commercial Fire Alarm System Cost

A commercial fire alarm system is a big-ticket purchase for most businesses. However, the commercial fire alarm system cost is money well-spent to safeguard your workers and your assets. Many factors come into play when determining the cost of a fire alarm system. These factors can include the size of the building, the age of the building, the type of system, and the components you choose to include in the system. 

Commercial Fire Alarm System Cost: Building Size

Unsurprisingly, the larger your building, the more it will cost to install a fire alarm system. Typically, the more square footage your building has, the more expensive your equipment and installation cost will be because you will need more sensors, alarms, and pull stations. The cost per square foot can range from $1 to $5. 

To get an idea of an average cost, installation in an apartment building can cost $1800-$2500 per apartment, and installation in a large, crowded office space or other structure can cost up to $20,000.

Commercial Fire Alarm System Cost: Building Age

Older buildings often present unique challenges when installing fire alarm systems. Retrofitting an older structure may cost between $4 per square foot up to $12 per square foot. This is due to the cost of additional labor for a more difficult installation. New construction installation is usually easier and cheaper.

Commercial Fire Alarm System Cost: Type of System

The two main types of systems to choose from are wired and wireless systems.

Wired systems are typically cheaper to install, especially if you install them while a building is being constructed. 

However, in older buildings, a wireless system may be less expensive to install in order to avoid the labor-intensive process of running wires in existing ceilings and walls. The quick, low-hassle installation will minimally disrupt the work environment.

So even though the cost of wired vs wireless systems can vary, the overall cost is still largely determined by the size and age of your building. 

Commercial Fire Alarm System Cost: Components in System

The fire protection components you choose will affect the overall commercial fire alarm system cost. You might choose to include: 

  • Manual fire alarm pull stations, which cost $20 to $99
  • Smoke detectors, which cost $10 to $70
  • Heat detectors, which cost $11 to $150
  • Carbon monoxide detectors, which cost $15 to $150
  • Flame detectors, which cost $2800 to $3,000
  • A fire alarm control panel, which costs $2000 to $5000
  • Audible and visual warning devices, which cost $40 to $200
  • A sprinkler system, which costs $2 to $10 per square foot

Of course, the more components you add and the larger your building, the higher your overall price will climb. 

Cost to Monitor a Commercial Fire Alarm System

A final commercial fire alarm system cost is the monthly monitoring fee. Again, this cost will depend on the type of monitoring you choose for your business, your building size, and the number of sensors you install. Generally speaking, the monthly monitoring fee will range from $50 to $100 per month. In some cases, this cost includes yearly equipment inspections. Choosing a reliable monitoring company is vital to protect your business.

When safeguarding your business, opt for trusted fire alarm brands like Silent Knight, Honeywell, Siemens, and Kidde to ensure utmost safety and reliability.

Read this article to learn more about commercial fire alarm system costs

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