Conventional vs. Addressable Fire Alarms: Choosing the Right System for Your Safety

fire alarm panels

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. The fire alarm panel acts as the “brains” of the system and can activate a building’s sprinkler system if a fire is detected. However, how the detection devices communicate with the control panel varies by system type.

When installing a new fire alarm system or upgrading your existing system, understanding the difference between the two main types of systems on the market today – conventional and addressable systems – can have a significant impact on your company’s bottom line. 

Conventional Systems

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This systems are hardware-based and use analog technology. Conventional fire alarm systems are made up of zones. Multiple devices, both initiating and notification devices, make up a zone which connect to the main control panel. Conventional systems are analog in that they use electrical currents to communicate with the control panel. Initiating and notification devices are designed to dramatically increase the current in the circuit (the amount of electricity flowing through the wires) any time the environmental conditions (heat or smoke) in the area of the sensor exceed a predetermined threshold. This change in the current is communicated to the control panel to trigger the alarm. 

Because a conventional system relies on individual circuits to communicate with the control panel, the information the panel can receive is limited to the number of devices it can support. The information is also limited in the sense that it only tells the panel whether a device has been activated or removed, not which device or where.

Addressable Systems

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Instead of relying on changes in the electrical current running through a circuit in a conventional system, with an addressable system digital technology transfers information from the connected devices to the main control panel as binary code – combinations of ones and zeros. 

The binary code starts as an analog signal created by variations in voltage within the signaling device. With an addressable device, there is a “mini-computer” that converts these variations into binary code. Depending on the device and the types of information it is designed to convey, an addressable device can transfer a wide variety of critical information to the control panel as opposed to the single triggering signal that conventional systems provide.

Because they use digital technology, addressable systems offer a much broader range in the types of information that the control panel can receive from the devices. While all addressable systems provide the location of every device on the system to the control panel, newer, “analog addressable” systems provide even more information, such as how much smoke or heat the detector is sensing. This information allows the control panel to make “intelligent” decisions such as when or when not to go into alarm mode.

The most important type of information that addressable systems transmit is exactly where the fire is occurring in a building. Because the exact location of each device in an addressable system is programmed in, firefighters know before they even arrive precisely where in the building the fire is occurring, which allows them to respond more quickly to a fire. With a conventional system, unless the area in which the system is protecting is a single room, the firefighters will have to spread out to locate the fire.

Conventional vs. Addressable Fire Alarm Systems: What Is the Difference?

Wiring

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 individual field device. In other words, with addressable systems there is one wire that connects all devices to the fire alarm control panel. Whereas with conventional systems there is a different wire for each device and each wire connects to the fire alarm control panel.

Location

With this basic difference, there are also different locations that can utilize each system. Typically, for a larger location, an addressable system is best. This is because it can provide that specific direction of where a fire has been detected. Taking the guesswork out – an essential perk when working with a large location where a fire may not be immediately clear.

In fact, addressable alarm systems allow you to set a specific address on the field device which is usually a three-digit number. This makes for easy identification when it comes to locating the fire and alerts you of the type of device that triggered the alarm.

As you can imagine, this offers several advantages such as cutting down on the response time from the fire department and the customer. It also allows for devices that are programmed individually to give you information on what alarm went off.

In a conventional system, multiple devices are linked to the same zone which means smoke detectors in multiple locations could be tied to the same area. This makes it more difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the emergency, rather, it only lets you know what zone it’s occurring in. This means that fire safety specialists will have to walk around the zone to determine the specific location of the problem. 

Cost

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.

Functionality

Another difference between these two systems is how they function. Conventional fire alarm systems use analog technology and they are hardware-based. There are various zones that make up part of the larger control panel that rely on individual circuits for communication. This means that how much information the panel can receive is limited by how many devices it supports.

Addressable fire alarm systems, on the other hand, rely on communication that’s transferred to the main control panel as binary code. This information is communicated through combinations of ones and zeros that’s computed by “mini computers.” These systems provide the exact location of fire in the building.

Possibility of False Alarms

fire alarm

False alarms can be expensive for fire departments and first responders as they utilize fuel, resources, time, and the potential for an injury to develop in the process.

In a conventional system, it is always picking up dust and contaminants that can trigger these alarms when there isn’t a real issue. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine if the conventional system is going off due to a real issue or because of a mishap until the first responders have arrived.

Addressable systems offer more reliability when it comes to false alarms because they can send the critical information directly to the control panel, helping to save time locating the fire in the building. The alarm panel is constantly monitoring the sensitivity level of the detectors to make sure devices aren’t triggered accidentally. 

Scalability

Addressable systems provide a great deal of flexibility in comparison to conventional systems. While the number of devices either system can accommodate is determinant on the manufacturer of the alarm panels, every type of device added to a conventional system requires a new circuit.

Because they require less wire, an addressable alarm control panel can accommodate far more devices than a conventional system. They can have anywhere from one to 30 loops, commonly referred to as a signaling line circuit (SLC), each of which can monitor and control several hundred devices.

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