All fire alarm systems have a control panel that communicates with the field devices (smoke detectors, pull stations, etc.) that alert the building occupants of a fire and signal the sprinkler system to activate. Thus, the fire alarm panel acts as the “brains” of the system and can trigger a building’s sprinkler system if a fire is detected. However, how the detection devices communicate with the control panel varies by system type.
Conventional fire alarm systems vs addressable fire alarm systems
Two types of fire alarm systems commonly found in commercial buildings are addressable systems and conventional systems. The main difference between these two systems is how the field devices communicate with the fire alarm panel.
Conventional systems were the first fire alarm system that came to the market. Addressable systems are newer and more advanced.
Conventional systems have zones on them, which are basically just circuits. Conversely, the fire alarm panels of addressable systems actually communicate over a communication circuit with each field device.
In other words, with addressable systems, there is one wire that connects all devices to the fire alarm control panel. In contrast, there is a different wire for each device with conventional systems, and each wire connects to the fire alarm control panel.
As a result, addressable systems require less cabling than conventional systems since each detector has its own unique address.
With conventional fire alarm panels, there will be multiple devices on a zone, so if any of the devices on that zone go into alarm, you’ll get an alarm at the panel that will say “Zone Alarm.” It will also tell you what location, as they’re numbered. This means that if an alarm comes in, it will tell you the building area that the notice is in, but not a specific location since it could be any of the devices on that circuit. You would then have to walk around in that area, looking at the devices to try and determine which one caused the alarm.
Addressable systems allow you to set an address on the field device, usually a 3-digit number, and then tell the panel what and where that device is located. If you get an alarm, you will see something like: “Alarm Smoke Detector (Address: 023) 1st Floor Hall at Room 102.” These systems will provide a specific location where the alarm is and what type of device caused the alarm. This is a big help in response times for the fire department or the customer. It also gives you the ability to individually program each device, so if you have one smoke detector and one duct detector next to each other, you can program one to send an alarm and the other to just send a supervisory and not set off the horns and strobes. On a conventional panel, every device on the same circuit would report the same.
The fire alarm control panel on an addressable system receives information and status reports from each device and indicates its exact location if there is smoke or fire.
Conventional fire alarm systems cost less to purchase but actually cost more to install due to the extensive wiring involved with these systems. It takes more time and more wires to install conventional systems.
Addressable fire alarm systems are more advanced from a functionality standpoint but cost less to install. Addressable systems can also be more cost-efficient in the long run when you consider the accuracy of these systems at detecting fires and therefore preventing fire damage. These systems are also less likely to signal false alarms, a costly mistake.
Looking at pure functionality, addressable fire alarm panels are more advanced and allow for more control and flexibility. These types of systems are even known as “intelligent” fire alarm systems. They are also more reliable than conventional fire alarm panels when it comes to false alarms.
This isn’t to say that conventional fire alarm systems are not effective; just in some ways limited when it comes to the scope of protection they can offer.
What type of fire alarm system is suitable for my building?
Conventional systems are still used for minimal applications or for customers who don’t want to upgrade, but they have severe limitations as to their abilities to protect more significant buildings. Addressable systems are generally “safer” systems as they can decipher and communicate more detailed information to the control panel and therefore increase the speed and accuracy of fire extinguishment. First responders need as much information as possible when responding to a fire alarm. In addition, addressable fire alarm systems provide the exact location of a fire in a building, saving lives, time, and money.