Monitored fire systems are on the rise in the home

Codes and less-expensive systems are helping to drive this, comprising 50 percent of some installers’ business
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Thursday, July 1, 2004

The home fire protection market is coming full circle. From its days as the primary system installed in homes to its replacement by inexpensive and regulation-required smoke detectors, many dealers and manufacturers see a resurgence in fire detection as part of the home’s intrusion alarm system.
In residential, explained Ed Bonifas, vice president of sales with Alarm Detection Systems in Aurora, Ill., the fire alarm business was the main system installed 35 years ago. “People had to put in a full-scale system,” he said, because smoke detectors, as they are now, didn’t exist then. Over time, though, the price of smoke detectors came down, requirements for the usage increased and security alarms became the main business, Bonifas said.

“Now it is going back to a sale again,” he said of fire systems, with wired smoke and heat detectors providing extra protection for homeowners. “Not putting in life safety leaves the customer short,” he said.

Bonifas said more than half of ADS customers have added fire alarm capabilities to their security systems. That 50 percent-plus number was echoed by Wells Sampson, vice president for Massachusetts-based American Alarm and Communications. And Sammy Faletta, president of Interactive Security Technologies in San Marcos, Texas, puts the figure even higher for his high-end customer base. He noted that between 60 percent and 70 percent have a fire system, as well as a burglar alarm, in their home.

Sampson said customers fall into two categories - those who already have battery or hardwired smoke detectors in their home and thus believe they are all set, and those who want the additional benefits provided by detectors tied to their alarm system.

Those benefits, he said, include the ability to maintain, clean and test the detectors; the ability to reset alarms at the panel; and “most importantly, that they are monitored by the central station.”

The code race

The issue for dealers, all three noted, is keeping up with codes related to detector placement and translating those requirements to the end user. Both Bonifas and Sampson noted that codes in their respective states require detectors in bedrooms for new construction. Faletta said system design to meet code requirements, coupled with cost, is a major challenge.

With fire detection an additional charge beyond the home intrusion system, many customers are looking for the lowest-cost solution. And the addition of detectors, depending on the type and number, Faletta explained, can add 25 percent to 40 percent to the cost of an alarm system.

The panels themselves are designed to accommodate both fire and intrusion. Paul Martin, director of marketing for commercial products for Honeywell Security and Custom Electronics, said the company offers several combination intrusion/fire system panels for both residential and commercial use.

Commercial applications, Martin said, are highly code driven and so the commercial fire business “has always been high and steady.”

Residential, meanwhile, is driven by concerns about life safety, he said.

While home fire alarms is an add-on system, pointed out Tom Hauder, product marketing manager of fire for Bosch Security Systems, “it can be an important source of income for the dealer.”

Customers are already invested in the cost of an intrusion system, he said, “so they’re just adding a few more appliances and some wire.”

Still, Hauder said, the market remains flat because integrated residential systems are not required. “We try to stimulate it,” he said, “but it’s always an add-on.”

Agreeing that residential fire systems are an add-on for dealers, Tom Karl, director of sales for Napco Security, said business in that category “is definitely picking up. It’s nice to be able to sell the extras to the customer,” he said.

Karl said advances in equipment have kept pace with requirements for AHJs such as sounders in smoke detectors used in sleeping areas and more zones on panels to accommodate the additional detectors required in bedrooms.

The move to two-wire from four-wire detectors is also increasing, he said, to the point where two-wire outsell four-wire by 10-to-1.

There isn’t an advantage to four-wire, he said, except that it may be the only thing compatible with some older panels. What may also be keeping that market alive, he said, is “a lot of installers are creatures of habit and install four-wire because that’s what they know.” As a result, he said, the sales are still there to some extent.

On commercial versus residential, small commercial is a much easier sell, Hauder explained, because it’s code driven.

Where the controversy comes in, he said, is on the combination of fire and intrusion on a single panel. “If you want to start an argument in a room full of fire geeks,” he said, ask about combining the two systems on a single panel.

AHJs, Hauder said, often object to a combination panel, “saying you have all your eggs in one basket.” And even though the National Fire Protection Association codes and Underwriters Laboratories listings allow for it, the AHJs still can impose their own restrictions, he said.

A higher acceptance rate, he noted, can be found with integrated building systems, in which fire, intrusion, access control and CCTV are pulled together but aren’t on a single platform.

Honeywell’s Martin said he’s also seeing greater adoption of multiple functions, along with radio backup “and having it work as one, cohesive system.”

The end result is having systems that can take information and react to it in different ways, he said, such as the integration of fire alarms with access control to aid people’s exiting of the building. And maintenance and installation costs are also lower in integrated systems, he said.