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Advanced's Technical Support Manager, Paul Duffy gives his insight into the diagnostic features of fire panels that can help save time, money and hassle. Fire detection and alarm systems are increasingly complex and sophisticated, benefiting from cutting-edge digital technology.

As a fire alarm engineer installing, servicing and/or commissioning such technology, it can be hard to keep on top of electrical skills and the latest regulations/local installation standards, let alone the many different panels’ features. 

Right tools for fire alarm system installation

Any given day could see the typical fire engineer conducting a wide range of differing tasks, from diagnosing and remedying open/short circuits, earth or intermittent faults, to commissioning a new networked system in line with standards and project specification.

The features of modern fire panels offer tangible benefits to engineers and end users alike

Despite many fire engineers being highly trained, skilled and experienced, without the right tools at their disposal the process of undertaking these routine tasks can be challenging and time-consuming. Thankfully, the features of modern fire panels offer tangible benefits to engineers and end users alike, by delivering versatility, ease of use and time-saving capabilities that were previously unavailable.

Standard logging

Upon arriving at a site with a suspected system fault, one of the first things to do to troubleshoot the problem is refer to the fire panel’s log. In this state, a high-quality system can quickly flag any system faults, within seconds in some cases.

Although useful, standard logging gives only one part of the picture and provides minimal help in cases where the cause of the problem is not straightforward.

Trace-logging mode

Trace-logging mode is a feature of some modern fire panels that lets users see a more complete log of a fire system’s events covering the standard fire, faults, alarms and pre alarms as well as more advanced diagnostic reports on corrupt data and device interrupts. This more detailed view of all the faults on a system can radically reduce the time it takes to establish the true cause of the problem, allowing you to implement a quick, effective remedy.

Another important factor to consider is how easy the panel’s menus are to navigate and some interfaces prove easier to use than others. Advanced’s trace-logging mode has been developed with the engineer in mind. The need to navigate and decipher options from complicated menu structures has been removed. In addition, the data is delivered in easy-to-understand format to help minimize the risk of misinterpreting information and enabling you to diagnose problems with greater accuracy.

Performing diagnostics on fire alarm control panel

Process of fault-finding can be significantly more difficult when working with a fire alarm control panel

The process of fault-finding can be significantly more difficult when working with a fire alarm control panel that doesn’t feature a diagnostic logging mode. These panels may register a number of intermittent faults coming and going, but not necessarily offer any further traceability to these events.

Commonly where a fire panel has a limited ability to trace a fault, issues within a system can go un-remedied for long periods of time, placing the safety of occupants within a building or a site at risk. Some fire systems give the ability to transfer the panel’s event log to a PC where engineers can then use software, such as the Service Tool on Advanced’s MxPro panels, to drill down into specific events and information.

Integrated software allows fire alarm engineers to easily identify particular devices that are returning corrupt messages, and even lets you predict when faults are likely to occur. Once a problematic device or area has been identified, you are then able to investigate.

The oscilloscope

An oscilloscope is a vital tool when commonly dealing with the installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire systems. A scope reading can help diagnose faults by identifying the areas of a site, where problems are coming from. In cases of working across large sites, such as university campuses, tall buildings or hospital settings, identifying disturbances on a loop can prove labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Carrying additional equipment through multiple departments, floors or wings of a development in order to set up at a different panel each time, makes the job of pinpointing faults more taxing.

An oscilloscope, built in to the fire alarm control panel, will not only relieve the engineer of having to carry around additional equipment, but also provides a graphical representation of the signaling voltages/currents and waveforms on the display. In this way, they can get a detailed view of the loop operational conditions, which can’t be seen using multi-meters or volt-meters. 

MxPro 5 fire panels with onboard oscilloscope

As the only intelligent addressable fire alarm control panel in the world to offer an onboard oscilloscope, Advanced’s MxPro 5 provides readings from any loop at the panel, making it easy to identify forms of noise that may be causing faults.

The oscilloscope feature also allows for easy use of trigger-addresses from the loop to identify issues and investigate, which is a particularly useful feature on large sites with multiple panel networks.

The multi-meter

A high-performance fire panel provides powerful tools to enable quick and efficient access of information

A high-performance fire panel will provide powerful tools that enable quick and efficient access of information in order to make key decisions. A multi-meter is an instrument designed to take precise measurements of electric current, voltage and usually resistance across the system.

On a well-designed system, all devices have the optimum voltage in order to be able to communicate back to the panel. However, if that voltage drops below a certain level, devices can drop off the system or report intermittent faults.

Identifying voltage/current levels in real time

Uniquely, Advanced’s MxPro 5 fire alarm control panels come with an in-built multi-meter designed to measure all voltages and currents across the fire alarm system.

For engineers, a multi-meter within the fire panel makes it easy to identify voltage/current levels in real time, without needing to set up portable multi-meter or probing circuits, which speeds up the commissioning process.

Network diagnostics

In large-scale sites, a network of fire panels is the most effective means of protecting life and property. Where a networked system is installed, the most common installation problems are open/short circuit conditions, reversals in wiring or poor termination.

An effective network diagnostics tool, such as that within Advanced’s MxPro control panels allows you to view all CIE node status and access levels in real time. In levels 1 and 2, the CIE will be operating in normal condition, whereas in level 3 the CIE will be in commissioning. In this level, the control panel will be isolated while work takes place, preventing fires and faults from being transmitted across the network.

In addition, the network diagnostic tool has been developed to identify reverse ring faults in systems that consist of one or more fiber optic links, something that is increasingly common across installations.

What next for diagnostics?

Advanced predicts the trend towards more digitally-driven products and remote services will continue

Understanding the tools and built-in features of the fire panel that effectively help fire engineers to install, commission, diagnose faults and repair a system can save significant time and money. This knowledge, in turn, helps to ensure the long-term safety of occupants within a building.

As technology continues to evolve, and the fire panel continues to develop, Advanced predicts that the world will continue to see a trend towards more digitally-driven products and remote services. These will provide commissioning engineers and system integrators with a more global view of the systems that they are responsible for servicing and maintaining.

As the fire industry moves increasingly towards cloud communications and data analytics, the automatic generation of service reports, the remote control of panels and the ability to put zones in and out of test from a web/mobile app will likely become commonplace. These developments will see systems becoming smarter than ever seen before.

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