Fire, Security & Electrical Blog

Commercial Fire Alarm Iceberg

Table of Contents

Last Updated on 22 February 2019.

The questions you NEED to be asking about your fire alarm (but don’t)

How long will my new commercial fire alarm last for?
What is the lifetime cost of the system?
Do I have a choice on who supports me?

All important questions, right?  Unfortunately though, you probably don’t answer these questions.

Instead, all your focus is on the tip of the iceberg.

Which I understand, especially when “a fire alarm does nothing for you”.

It’s a dead cost.

The only time you’ll appreciate the thousands you’ve spent on your fire alarm is when you’re alone on the first floor of your office and the system detects smoke on the ground floor. It gives you just enough time to escape with your life.

That’s when it’s worth much more than whatever you spent on it.

Experience is revealing

Reflecting on 26 years in the commercial fire alarm industry made me question;

‘How long should a commercial fire alarm last for?’

But the bigger question hidden under the waterline is ‘What’s the true lifetime cost?’

Taking into account not only the monetary cost but more personally, the hassle and time you spend managing it.

Let’s assume you’ve done your due diligence.

You know what type of system you need.

And, you know what job the system is doing for you.

Then I recommend you have a quick read of my blog post on what fire alarm do I need? as this covers the fire alarm system design.


The 3 Distinct Fire Alarm Considerations

There are 3 distinct parts to a commercial fire alarm. I could list them all, but we’d be here all day if I did, so I’ve stuck to the main 3:

  1. Infrastructure – Is it Wired or Radio (wireless)?
  2. Control Panel – This could be a network of panels required to support the size of system you’ve installed.
  3. Devices – Smoke Detectors, Heat Detectors, Manual Call Points (a.k.a. Break Glass Units) and Sounders (these could be Bells or Electronic sounders). There are other types of detection such as Air Sampling (a.k.a. VESDA), Fire Beam detectors, Flame detection and Linear Heat Detection Cable.

(There are far more than I’ve listed above, like Voice Alarm Systems – PA systems that play pre-recorded messages)


How most people choose

The question that I’ve highlighted is How long should a commercial fire alarm system last for?’.

 The answer depends on the planning at the initial stage. Here’s why…

When you plan a fire alarm installation, whether you know it or not, you’re actually determining how long it’ll last for and the lifetime cost you’ll have to bear.

Most people dive into a fire alarm purchase without any consideration for the things that I am going to explain.

In my experience, the planning most people put into buying a fire alarm revolves around one thing.

‘Drum roll please’

Yep, you guessed it…


Actually, I don’t see this as a real problem.

You should be getting the best value for your money.

But, people often get this so wrong as THE PRICE, is not really THE PRICE…

…Let me explain.


What is the price of a commercial fire alarm?

To determine the price you need to understand the lifespan of the fire alarm. To do this you need to understand how a commercial fire alarm is put together.

To help explain this, let’s talk about a wired commercial fire alarm;

First, you have the wiring or infrastructure.

Then the equipment.

Then – the most important thing that’s rarely considered, but is the rest of the iceberg – the cost of maintenance.


  1. How long will commercial fire alarm wiring last for?

Typically, the wiring, if installed properly, (which means supported above ceilings, terminated within proper back-boxes using glands and fixed to the building structure so that in a fire the cables don’t fall and strangle firefighters) will last you well in excess of 20 years. I’d expect this to be nearer 30 years, but this depends on lots of things that revolve around the quality of install carried out.

  1. How long will commercial fire alarm devices last for?

There’s no one answer to this question. It’s generally around 8-10 years, but some manufacturers won’t give a ‘life expectancy. However, the market leader, Apollo Fire Detectors, have stated that a detector should last around 10 years if installed in an ideal environment. This is generally accepted throughout the industry and is my recommendation to you.


  1. What’s the lifetime cost of a commercial fire alarm?

Knowing that you get 20+ years from the wiring and 10 from the equipment, you can see that your maximum time before replacing fire alarm parts will be 10 years. So in essence, it’s a fairly easy sum to work out. Find the split between parts and labour and add 2 parts to 1.5 labour and divide by 20. You’ve now got the raw monetary cost, which is the easy part, now let’s talk about the ‘living with’ costs;

  • What is the maintenance cost?
  • What support will I need in call-outs to unwanted alarms?
  • What will my expected costs be for changes to the building over the lifespan?

But – and this is a big BUT – whatever these costs are will be greatly affected by one misunderstood factor…

The manufacturer of your alarm system, and its access to the market. This can affect your costs by 25-50%. The variation is so large because often manufacturers have restrictions on supply and maintenance.


My Advice

Do your homework.

NEVER install a system that’s closed or managed protocol.

This requires a whole explanation in itself.

It’s fair to say you’ll pay more if you use anything that has restrictions on its supply to the market. When you raise this issue with manufacturers they bamboozle you with statements about restricting it to ‘trained experts’. That ‘anyone can service it’, without explaining the reality of living with it. It’ll cost you more in the long run.

The best piece of advice is that you should invest time into checking your supplier.

Use a professional company that has recommendations from actual customers. You’ll find that their expertise will help you to avoid repenting a hasty decision over the next ten years.

Take your time in planning your installation.

Involve building users, fire risk assessors, local authorities and other interested parties.

It’s a big decision and shouldn’t be made in a rush.

To talk to us about which fire alarm systems you should be considering, don’t hesitate to give us a call and we’ll be more than happy to chat – the number’s 01277 724 653.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This Article Covers