Smarter, but not dorky

End users demand control panels that do more, but are easily used
Saturday, August 1, 2009

End-users are demanding not just more information from their control panels, but more intelligible information that can be broadcast to more people.

In terms of broadcast, having panels that are capable of interfacing with mass notification systems have become a top customer request, according to Bob Gomersall, a marketing product manager at Honeywell’s Gamewell-FCI. Basically, said Gomersall, “it’s been the customer dragging us into this.” Spurred somewhat by 9-11, and then further by the shootings at Virginia Tech, schools, malls,  and hospitals, clients are asking about mass notification capabilities first when discussing fire panels, said Gomersall. Previously, a voice component for a system was a sidecar, said Gomersall, a tack-on.

“Now the mass notification is the main feature for the panel,” said Gomersall.

David Ringenberger, president of Protection Systems in Dallas, is a distributor for Honeywell’s Silent Knight Fire Systems. He said he’s seeing small- and mid-sized jobs demanding mass notifications, but also said the concept of mass notification may still be a buzzword that clients have latched onto, without putting “any more gray matter” to the task of determining exactly how, when or why they’d use such a feature.

Dan Cooley, owner of Hi-Tech Fire Detection in Houston, a Gamewell-FCI distributor, said he thought the mass notification products had legs. And speaking of making sense, panel producers are putting out product that provides clear graphical information.

In the past, there’s been an “arrogance” inherent in the panel systems, said Ringenberger. Instead of listening to end-users, they’ve provided them with panels with awkward graphic user interfaces (GUIs). The interfaces were very cryptic, he said. Someone who worked on it every day could figure it out, but for an owner who looked at the system once a month or once a quarter, it was a mystery.

“They’re starting to clean that up a little bit,” acknowledged Ringenberger. “The Honeywells of the world are starting to be a little more customer oriented.”

Geoff Aldrich, an associate engineer with Gamewell-FCI, touted his company’s high-end display, a full-color, touch-screen interface.

“It basically spells everything out in plain English right on the display,” said Aldrich. 

The system utilizes 10 different font sizes, 10 different colors in an intuitive menu-drive system. The company’s E3 series has space for more than 500 unique text messages that can give information on everything from sprinkler systems to the HVAC network.

And when an alert comes over, several “hot-buttons” come up automatically to let the end-users logically work through the incident, said Aldrich.

In a world of ubiquitous computing, there’s little tolerance by consumers for panel systems that aren’t intuitive and easy to understand, said Aldrich.

And that generalization applies to what consumers want their panel systems to be able to handle, suggested Mark Hillenburg, product architect with Digital Monitoring Products Inc.

Customers want to get more value out of their alarm systems, said Hillenburg. They want the panel to work with data from the digital thermostat, and they want to be able to control it all with a text message from their cell phone.

Hillenberg said both integrators and end users are making “more and more requests for time- and money-saving features and functionality.”

For integrators, DMP is looking  at both a wireless keypad and a wireless siren. Those are the last two items that have to be run on a wire to the panel, he said.

“Get them off the wire and then you really have a system you can install in a very short period of time without having a lot of specific skills,” said Hillenberg.