You’re new to the world of fire alarms, you know a bit of the basics, and now you’re ready to take it to the next level with the purchase of a fire alarm panel. Where do you start? My goal is to clear it all up for you by the end of this post.
So let’s begin.
1. “Where can I find a cheap panel?”
Before you ask this question, you should ask yourself #2:
2. “Am I ready for a panel?”
Setting up a fire alarm panel takes more than just basic knowledge and common sense. Remember that fire alarm panels aren’t really designed to be easy to use for everyone - they’re designed to be easy for trained and licensed fire alarm technicians. That means the manufacturer assumes you already know a decent amount of terminology, abbreviations, wiring methods, and the theory behind how these systems work. The good thing is that it’s not hard to learn. If you feel intimidated, remember that most of us on this forum are not technicians, but once-novices who were able to pick this stuff up over time. You don’t have to be brilliant, just experienced.
3. Okay, I’m ready to learn, but where do I start?
This can be tricky, since there is no “Unlicensed Play Fire Alarms for Dummies”. You can attempt to stumble through a NICET book or stare aimlessly at a manual you don’t understand, but how do you know what information applies to you as a hobbyist and what only matters in the “real world”? There’s just too much! Well, luckily, there have been many hobbyists before you who learned through trial & error, some of whom unwittingly sacrificed expensive panels in the pursuit of learning the hard way. However, those experienced hobbyists can’t do all the work for you. You’ll need to do your homework first and learn how to ask for help. Here’s what I mean - if you don’t feel confident in speaking the language of electricity, get confident. Learn how to wire a light switch to a fixture. Learn the difference between AC and DC. All very simple stuff, but vital to being able to think and speak fire alarm. From there, learn how properly power a horn/strobe, then how to activate a horn/strobe with a pull station, etc.
Once you’re caught up to understanding those basics, it’s time to start expanding your horizons to fire alarm systems - not just pull stations and notification appliances, but different types of panels, detection, modules, wiring techniques, etc. The easiest way is to watch a crapload of hobbyist system test videos on YouTube. Go for the more established YouTubers where the in’s and out’s of their systems are shown, and you’ll get plenty of examples of how a small fire alarm system is set up. That resource got me off the ground when I first wanted to explore buying a panel. If you’re up for the challenge, travel down into the darkest, oldest corners of TFP and you’ll find some great information. If you don’t know already, you can search the forum for anything you like. The burning question that you’re about to post may have already been answered three years ago! Once the other users here see that you’ve already taken it upon yourself to learn what you can on your own, they’ll be more than happy to help.
Finally, here’s a freebie resource that I typed up on another thread:
4. Alright, I’m starting to get the hang of it! Now, about finding that cheap panel. I’m ready, right?
Almost. You now understand how a small fire alarm system works and you have the terminology down, but now it’s time to start thinking about your application. Application is the word used to describe the requirements/limitations of your specific situation. Put simply, what are you going to do with the panel? How simple or complex do you want it to be based on your skill level? What brand will be best suited for your application? How much are you willing to spend?
OK, before you answer, let’s break these factors down further.
Easy vs. Complex
In a nutshell, conventional panels are easier and addressable panels are more complex. For your first panel, I would recommend a conventional panel. Below, I have listed some good (but not necessarily cheap) choices for each skill level, ranked from simplest to most complex.
All of the above panels are fairly “what you see is what you get” and don’t involve programming menus or passcodes. They program using DIP switches. If you want to take it up a notch and get a conventional panel that has a display screen with digital programming, good choices include:
Fire-Lite MS-5UD or 10UD (or Notifier/SK/Gamewell-FCI equivalent)
EST FireShield Plus (or Fireworx equivalent)
Silent Knight 5208
Silent Knight 5204 or 5207
But WATCH OUT - these panels involve passcodes that may have been changed. More on that later.
If you’re feeling particularly daring and wish to plunge into the world of addressability, good choices include:
Again, the passcode thing applies to these. Remember that your Simplex addressable panel will ONLY talk to Simplex addressable initiating devices. That means if you want to use an Edwards pull station or a System Sensor smoke, you will need to buy monitor modules for each device. If this already scares you off, go with conventional at first.
READ THE DATASHEET of any panel you’re looking at to get a better idea of its features. Then READ THE MANUAL thoroughly before you buy. It’s long, but get used to paying attention to that level of detail when working with fire alarm systems. It could save your panel from premature death. If there’s stuff you don’t understand, first try to determine if it’s due to lack of knowledge on your part. If so, hold off on buying anything until you feel confident. If it’s just plain confusing, feel free to post a question on the forums.
Be careful not to accidentally buy a NAC booster, voice control panel, burglar alarm panel, or something else that resembles a FACP but isn’t. There are certain commercial burglar alarm panels that you can set up for fire alarm use, but I don’t recommend them unless that suits your specific application.
Although you may like one brand or model of panel, it might not be right for your application. For example, even though the 90BPM march time on a Simplex 2001 may be your cup of tea, a four-bay AC 31-zone 2001 from 1979 is really not practical for a hobbyist setup. There will be hundreds of unlabeled terminals, high voltage lurking about, and very limited compatibility. Good luck trying to lift the thing. You get the idea. When considering a brand to choose, factor in the availability and cost of compatible devices for the system. Make sure that the panel’s NAC voltage will be compatible with your notification appliances. If you’re looking at a panel not included in the lists above, double-check that it can be programmed from the front keypad. Many proprietary high-end addressable systems can’t.
Here’s the general reputation of each major brand from a hobbyists’ point of view:
Simplex - Good reliable panels with lots of features, but some models (4001, 4002) are especially delicate and intolerant to mistakes. Their LCD-based panels are all very similar. Programming is in-depth, but not difficult.
EST - Newer panels are nice and easy with lots of features (FireShield, FireworX, iO-series). Older panels (2400, QuickStart, EST2) aren’t very well designed and have a poor reliability track record. Programming is a “love it or hate it” kind of deal.
Siemens - Not too many “hobbyist-friendly” panels, but the SXL is pretty straightforward and the System 3 will outlive you if you know how to use it. Stay away from the addressable stuff, though.
Fire-Lite - Very straightforward and easy to use. Programming is “what you see is what you get”. The features are basic, but enough for any small system. Good track record in terms of reliability.
Silent Knight - Lots of features, but programming on addressable systems has a bit of a learning curve. Their LCD-based panels all kind of work the same. I’ve heard mixed reports in terms of reliability.
Notifier - Excellent panels, but the cost generally keeps them away from hobbyists. Lots of features and fairly straightforward to operate.
Gamewell-FCI - The 7100 is a solid and easy-to-use panel. I don’t know much about IdentiFlex systems - probably best to stay away until someone here gets their hands on one.
ESL - Very basic conventional panels. Not very interesting, but easy to set up.
Honeywell - The Honeywell brand can mean many things: lower-end Ademco fire/burg systems, rebranded high-end Notifier or EST equipment, or older originally-manufactured systems designed for huge buildings. Either way, not really hobbyist-friendly.
Bosch, Fike, Autocall, DMP, Firecom - All proprietary. Stay away.
Mircom/Secutron/Summit, EVAX, Potter, National Time, Spectronics, Kidde, Fenwal, Ansul, Protectowire, etc - No one here has much experience with these, so try at your own risk.
Couch, Standard Electric Time, IBM, Auth, older Edwards and Faraday, Acme, Ellenco, etc - All very old AC systems that don’t do much besides relay high voltage. Probably best to stay away unless you know exactly what you’re getting into.
It’s finally time to answer question #1! Except let’s substitute the word “cheap” for “reasonable”. It’s unfortunate, but you’re chances of finding a panel for under, say $50, are highly unlikely. Here is how much I paid for each of my panels (to the best of my memory - not including shipping). These prices are about average:
Simplex 4010 - $300
Simplex 2001 - $250
Silent Knight IFP-1000 - $120
Gamewell-FCI 7100 - $200
EST QuickStart - $250
EST iO64 - $275
EST ANS100 - $250
Fire-Lite MS-5UD - $250
Pyrotronics System 3 - $75
Honeywell FS90 - $300
For you, this may be affordable or beyond your budget. Either way, look at it as a major expense and don’t throw your money away so fast. If you can’t afford one, perhaps it’s a good thing that you need to save up for it - you’ll slow down and buy something that is worth it.
Now, as far as where to find one, eBay is the number one resource. It’s a good idea to purchase from sellers who allow returns in case the panel arrives dead. Many sellers pull these out of buildings awaiting demolition, and don’t know much about their condition. Panels can also get damaged during shipping if the seller didn’t pack well. On one occasion, I received a panel with a faulty keypad, and was able to return it for a full refund since the seller had no way of knowing. It’s just a good idea to have that safety net. Also, don’t be discouraged by all of the overpriced panels on eBay. Just ignore those listings - good deals will certainly come if you’re willing to wait and search regularly.
I found my System 3 on Craigslist. There are far less fire alarm items available, but sellers usually want to get rid of stuff quick and will set reasonable prices. My System 3 came from a different state - I offered to pay the seller to ship, and they happily did so. If you see a good deal out of town, it never hurts to ask.
BEFORE BUYING - make sure that you won’t be locked out of the panel. If it’s used, contact the seller and ask if they have the programming-level passcode. Some panels have backdoor ways to reset the codes, but that information is guarded by the manufacturer. I only know tricks for four panels. However, if the programming software for the panel is available (you can get Fire-Lite and Silent Knight software for free), you can usually reflash the firmware and reset the system back to the defaults. It’s best to just avoid systems that may be locked out, though.
5. Woohoo I just bought a panel! Now what?
READ THE MANUAL. Then read it again.
Before pulling it out of the box, read Dan B’s post on panel safety precautions. This is [size=150]EXTREMELY IMPORTANT[/size] - some of this information will not be found in the manual, because manufacturers assume you already know it. I was going to just put a link to the thread, but on second thought, I’m going to quote it here so you’ll be sure to read it. Following these instructions will keep you and your panel safe.
6. Okay, got it. Is that it?
For now, yes! But you never stop learning when it comes to fire alarm systems. I hope you don’t learn some of this stuff the hard way like many of us have, but if you do, you’ll at least come to understand how it always pays to be careful. Of course, remember to have fun and approach it with an open mind.