Upgrading Fire/Life Safety Systems in Older Buildings
July 01, 2001

By Staff
Appeared in Building Operating Management/FacilitiesNet

Upgrading a fire/life safety system in any older building presents a host of architectural and code-related challenges. So it is not surprising that many building owners have delayed for years the implementation of a building upgrade that offers the single biggest payback of any: enhanced safety for building occupants.

The fact is, upgrading to an analog addressable fire alarm system and installing sprinklers throughout the building - the best protection for property - does not have to break the bank. Even in a building under landmark or other historic preservation status, proper planning and creative thinking can cost effectively and successfully meet these challenges.

Owners have three main reasons to upgrade the fire/life safety system in an older building. The first and best reason is that many facilities are still operating with their original systems. It is not uncommon to find 20- to 40-year-old conventional high-voltage and low voltage multiplex systems still in use today, even though these have serious liabilities. These outdated systems do not come close to providing the level of life safety offered with today's technology.

Second, replacement components and devices are no longer manufactured, so proper maintenance is just about impossible to achieve. Even if a building owner or manager can find an electrical or fire alarm contractor to repair such a system, the components and parts rarely carry the UL seal.

The third major driver for fire/life safety upgrades is the need for compliance with national and local building codes, standards and laws, including the requirement for fire alarm visual notification devices (i.e., strobe lights) under Title III (28 CFR Part 36), the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Most older systems simply can not be retrofitted with visual alarms.

Today, most building owners are selecting analog addressable fire alarm systems for virtually all upgrades because of their superior features and benefits. Analog addressable systems are the state of the art for reliability and flexibility in a wide range of customized applications - particularly important in landmark buildings. These systems also allow sensitivity adjustments of individual detection devices from the control panel, reducing the incidence of nuisance alarms from pantries and similar "dirty" environments. Various manufactures offer equally sensitive micro processor based smoke detectors.

The first step
The most important step in an upgrade is taken before the system is designed, yet it is often neglected: identification of the exact occupancy and use of the building. Assuming the owner does not have the original certificate of occupancy (as is usually the case), the engineer should perform a record search at the building department and pull the certificate of occupancy. This determines the requirement for type and operation of the fire alarm system based on occupancy classification and use. For example, depending on occupancy, certain buildings may not legally require a voice system. It is also recommended that if the actual usage does not match the certificate of occupancy (C of O) usage, the area be formally legalized with department of buildings.

Approvals should be obtained in writing from the local authority having jurisdiction (usually the fire department) prior to completing design, and certainly before starting construction to avoid costly delays and changes. While the majority of local codes follow the standards of the National Fire Protection Association, device placement requirements vary and each authority having jurisdiction may have its own local laws and rules.

For example, some may require a remote annunciator at the entrance to the building. However, the New York City Fire Department requires the fire alarm panel to be in view of the elevators, which could be remote from the building entrance. In almost all cases, the location of the fire alarm panel and/or command station will be a new location than before the upgrade.

The engineer also should contact the local landmark and/or historic preservation commission to determine what portions, if any, of an older building are under landmark preservation -- facade, lobbies, etc. - and which will be affected by the installation of new fire alarm devices and components of the sprinkler system. Submitting detailed drawings and digital photos really helps these organizations and agencies to understand where the owner is preparing to install new devices.

Code mandates and variances
One of the biggest code-related challenges in older buildings is compliance with ADA, which requires that fire alarm visual notification devices be mounted at 80 inches, rather than 96 inches, above the finished floor. But this is not an insurmountable problem even in an historic building. For example, it was not permissible in New York's Rockefeller Center to wall mount strobe lights on the concourse level. In this case, higher-powered, ceiling mounted strobe lights met both the historical commission's requirements and NFPA's "equal facilitation" criterion for adequate candela coverage.

Depending on the location of the building, there may also be some code variances and/or directives published by the fire or building department that allow relief from local codes -- for example, the placement of pull stations. For example, a local building code may allow a mounting height variance for new pull boxes when the upgrade reuses existing wiring and back boxes. Owners must remember that despite such a variance, an ADA lawsuit in the future may result in a court order to lower pull stations to 48 inches.

Locating fire alarm control panels or a command station within the lobby also presents challenges in older buildings, including landmark properties. In New York's Chrysler Building, a code variance was required from the fire department to locate the control panel in a room off the lobby rather than beside the elevators.

Overcoming architectural challenges
There are a number of architectural challenges with respect to retrofitting fire alarm and sprinkler systems in older buildings. In many older buildings, the patching and painting required to restore plaster walls and ceilings after routing conduit and sprinkler piping can cost as much if not more than the systems themselves. Yet most owners reject surface mounted conduit, and for good reason: it is aesthetically undesirable and may reduce the value of the property. Furthermore, if the building is designated as historically preserved, it is unlikely that surface mounted conduit will be acceptable.

Another major issue is hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead paint. In some cases, the cost or risk of abating these materials to conceal the installation of the system is prohibitive. In one hospital building, for example, it was necessary to avoid running conduit in the ceilings because of asbestos, but the owner did not want surface mounted conduit in the hallways. So wiring was routed through surface-mounted conduit in a series of offices adjacent to the corridor, and the corridor walls penetrated to mount the devices. This was a little more time consuming and slightly more costly, but a good solution, which did not disrupt corridor traffic.

Routing sprinkler plumbing is an even bigger challenge. First, code installation of a sprinkler "Siamese" connection on the exterior of the building, which allows the fire department to supplement the sprinkler system. This, of course, requires that the contractor breach the exterior wall to install what is an inherently obtrusive piece of plumbing. It may not bother most owners, but in the case of a landmark building, a historic preservation commission will probably require that it have an attractive finish and be placed in as unobtrusive a location as possible.

Then there are the sprinkler heads themselves. Where the presence of hazardous materials or aesthetic considerations limit use of ceiling-mounted heads, sidewall sprinkler heads can be wall mounted and concealed within custom soffits, as long as proper coverage is attainable.

Phasing an upgrade
For many owners, engineering a fire/life safety upgrade to enable phasing makes good economic sense. Replacement of a 40-year-old high-voltage system may be phased to coincide with an owner's building modernization plan. The plan may begin with the installation of the new infrastructure for the fire alarm system, and individual floors fitted out with devices as tenant renovations proceed. In some cases, manufacturers' new systems maintain a level of "backward compatibility" with multiplex systems, which is another way to enable an owner to phase in an upgrade.

In any older building, a fire/life safety upgrade is a challenging process, in which engineering, architectural and code issues interact. Yet with proper foresight and creative engineering solutions, it will be an investment that will benefit building owners and occupants for years to come.