Buy cheap, pay more- cutting corners

Lee James, General Manager – Product Marketing, Nittan Europe looks at what happens when you try to cut corners to buy fire detection systems. Life safety systems, such as fire detection systems, may not pique most people’s interest when it comes to building and architecture, but these systems perform one of the most valuable of building services: they save lives in the event of an emergency.  Their importance is such that they are heavily regulated, with standards relating to product design & manufacture, system design and installation.

No reputable specifier or installer readily opts for a fire detection system that doesn’t meet these standards; the results could literally be fatal. However, installing a fire detection system, or even elements of that system, that meets all the standards but errs towards the cheaper end of the product spectrum can bring its own set of problems and may well find you paying a higher price one way or another.

Here, we look at key aspects of fire detection systems that are impacted when you cut corners and buy low cost, low quality product.

Detection Algorithms

An algorithm is a set of instructions designed to perform a specific task. It takes input and changes the data according to the pre-set ‘instructions’ to create an output. In fire detectors, that input includes smoke and non-combustion products such as steam, aerosols and dust. The sophisticated part of the process is to identify and differentiate these and only activate the sounder in the presence of smoke. If the sounder is activated when it’s only non-combustion products, then that’s a false alarm.

False alarms are more than just annoying; they are bad for business (both the installer’s and the end user’s) and can be distressing, especially amongst more vulnerable people such as those in care homes. They are also a costly waste of public resources. The latest government figures for England* show that of all incidents attended by fire and rescue services, fire false alarms made up 42% compared to actual fires at 28%.

There are many types of different fire detection algorithms in use and you get what you pay for. Go with a cheap fire detection system and you leave yourself open to a greater risk of potential false alarms. A quality fire detection system, on the other hand, employs advanced detection algorithms which are able to clearly distinguish between smoke and non-combustion products, providing extremely reliable fire detection without – or considerably reduced – false alarms.

Transmission Protocol

At the heart of all commercial analogue addressable fire detection systems are control panels. When a device’s detection algorithm has identified smoke the output data needs to get back to the control panel as quickly as possible. This is achieved through the transmission protocol – the system’s ‘language’. And just like languages the world over, there are plenty of different protocols.

Interestingly enough, the most commonly used protocol in the fire industry, which is square wave pulse based, is not the best; it’s quite susceptible to noise and interference and has limited information capacity. Does this matter?  Well yes, very much so. When it comes to noise and interference this can compromise system operation, showing devices as missing when they’re not and leading to a corrupt data warning on the panel, all of which will require an engineer site visit.  In the worst case, it could lead to a false alarm and an unnecessary visit from Fire & Rescue Services. When looking at information capacity, if a system can only cope with limited data, then it’s ability to determine what is and what isn’t a false alarm is restricted, as is your choice of devices as you will be unable to use more intelligent ones. For example, Nittan’s EV-DP and EV-DPH alarms with dual optical alarm technology (see below) require more capacity than a standard Multi-Sensor or a single sensor device.

One that avoids these issues is the Sine Wave, Frequency Shift Key (FSK) protocol, but comes at a higher price. However, it does bring further benefits, including very high speed transmission, minimal transmission errors, ability to take more inputs / outputs, more controllable features and more type codes for devices, plus is not affected by the number of devices on the loop. This makes it not only highly reliable but a lot more flexible when it comes to system design.  Unsurprisingly, Nittan chose to use the FSK protocol in our Evolution fire detection systems.

Product Range

Poorer quality fire detection systems frequently have a limited range of devices and accessories, meaning you may have to take a mix and match approach to get the system you want, which isn’t ideal. It’s far better to create a fire detection system from one manufacturer as the different elements of that system have been designed to work in harmony for end-to-end system performance. If you start using different manufacturer’s devices within one system and it isn’t performing as you expect, whose to blame?  Which company do you turn to for assistance? If it’s all sourced from one manufacturer, the answer is simple!

Better quality systems also frequently come with more innovative product. A Smoke Sensor with a built-in sounder, for example, saves you the cost of buying two separate products i.e. the sensor and a separate base or wall mount sounder, plus it’s quicker to install and doesn’t require any additional wiring. Neither does it require a separate device address point. Nittan’s EV-PYS Sensor with built in-sounder, for example, could save at least 15/20 minutes per point to install when compared to fitting separate sounder products. When you are dealing with a large system, this becomes a significant saving.  Of course, this solution has the added bonus of being more aesthetically pleasing.

In many cases, these innovative products have been designed to solve specific problems that customers have identified and that manufacturers have fed back into the R&D process. Designed specifically to address the issue of false alarms caused by steam, Nittan’s EV-DP and EV-DPH sensors are a good example of this. They feature Dual Optical technology which uses the standard Infra-Red light, plus a second Blue LED, to provide a more accurate measurement of particles within the chamber. By calculating the ratio of these light sources, which operate at different wavelengths, the detector can determine the particle size and thus distinguish between smoke and non-combustion products such as steam and dust.

Installation Times

A considerable part of the cost of a fire detection system can be attributed to labour. Equipment that is quick and straight forward to install and commission is therefore an important consideration. Better quality systems nearly always have this aspect designed into them so that whilst they may come at a higher price, they work out to be quicker to install and therefore more cost effective than their cheaper counterparts.

This doesn’t just apply to the devices, but also the control panels. Good quality control panels come with a number of time saving features such as simple ‘select & click’ programming for engineer configuration through to installer friendly Touch Screens, Auto-learn, Loop Detection and On-board Scope facilities for ease of commissioning and fault finding. These panels often come with remote diagnostics, saving you a costly and inconvenient trip to site, which is worth factoring into the overall cost equation.

System Expansion

Buildings are frequently reconfigured to take into account extensions and change in usage. When this occurs, the fire detection system will also need to be adapted to ensure it provides the correct level of protection.

This can be disruptive, time consuming and expensive for the building owner/inhabitants, but can be minimised if, in the first instance, you install a panel that allows a peer-to-peer network. Panels that use this can easily expand the system to enable the panel to communicate with any other compatible fire panel, remote terminal or network peripheral. Some Nittan panels require the addition of a network card to facilitate this, but our evolution1 panel even comes complete with integral network card at no additional cost. There are other methods of reducing the negative impact of system expansion, but you need to have a good quality system in place first.

Training & Technical Support

I doubt if there’s a person reading this that hasn’t at some point bought something online that’s super cheap and then regretted not buying it from a reputable company when something goes wrong as there’s no recourse and no help.

The same applies to professional products and services, including fire detection systems. Reputable manufacturers who make good quality products are there to provide you with the training and technical support you might need, including problem resolution site visits.

Buyer Beware

A good quality fire detection system doesn’t just meet the minimum criteria set down in the relevant standards; it has years of industry experience and substantial R&D resources put into it to deliver a system that is reliable, that understands the needs of the installer and end user, and that is forward looking. To dismiss these benefits and opt for a low cost, low quality system is ultimately a false economy.

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