So you want to buy a FACP...

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(Last updated on 9/1/15)

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:
OK, here is everything I wish someone would've told me when I first became interested in fire alarm systems. I'll probably forget something.

The fire alarm control panel (FACP) is obviously the centerpiece of any system. They run on 120 volts AC (house current). You will find two main different types: conventional and addressable. This has to do with the panel's initiating devices (aka pull stations, smoke detectors, heat detectors, duct detectors, sprinkler waterflow monitors, and anything else that is an input). There are a few older less common types, but we won't get into that right now.

A conventional fire alarm system is set up similarly to the lightswitches and fixtures in your house, except imagine that any of those lightswitches will turn on every single light in the house. This is basically how conventional systems are wired. All of the initiating devices act like simple lightswitches in a row and are wired to zones (sometimes called IDC's) on the panel. Each zone can support a large number of initiating devices all wired together. Usually, zones will be divided up by the building's floors or type of initiating device. In the event of a fire or false alarm, the panel does not know exactly which initiating device was set off, but it knows the zone which gives you a general idea of the device's location. This is why conventional systems are usually only used in smaller buildings these days. In order to make sure that all devices on the zone are connected, an EOLR (end of line resistor) is used on the very last device. The panel looks for the EOLR's specific electrical resistance in the zone and shows a trouble if it's not there, meaning that a device got disconnected or the line was severed.

An addressable fire alarm system is much more intelligent. Addressable FACP's usually have LCD displays and keypads for this reason. Rather than the initiating devices being simple switches, they each have a microchip that communicates data to the panel. Instead of being wired to several zones, addressable initiating devices are wired to one big SLC (signaling line circuit) on the panel. Systems with more than 200 or so initiating devices may have a few SLC's. In very large systems, multiple addressable panels may be networked together. Every initiating device has an address, similar to IP addresses for computers on a network. The address is usually set either with rotary or DIP switches and often look something like "M1-L2-096" (panel #1, SLC #2, device #96). Every device's address must be programmed into the panel (some panels do this automatically), and the panel will look for these devices to make sure they're responding. When one goes into alarm, the panel can tell you exactly which device was activated and where it is located. Addressable devices are NOT compatible with conventional systems and can't be used without a panel. Only the addressable devices that use the same protocol as the panel will work on that panel.

Some more basic info on initiating devices:
Pull Stations - They generally are either single-action or dual-action. An Edwards 270-SPO is an example of a single-action pull, meaning that it only requires one downward motion to set it off. A Fire-Lite BG-12 is a dual-action pull because it requires you to push in, THEN pull down. Pull stations usually reset with either a key, allen wrench, or screwdriver. For hobbyist purposes, conventional pull stations only use two wires just like a normal lightswitch (+ and - does not matter) and do not require power to work. Addressable pull stations always use two wires, but + and - matters at all times. Some addressable pull stations have an LED that blinks each time it communicates with the panel.

Smoke Detectors - Smoke detectors use either ionization or photoelectric technology. Ionization detectors are rarely used in commercial applications these days, though ionization is always used in cheap 9V smoke detectors. Photoelectric detectors are much more reliable and have become the standard for commercial detection. If you want more info on how these two technologies work, search it on HowStuffWorks. Almost all modern smoke detectors run on 24 volts DC. Conventional smoke detectors are either two-wire or four-wire - a two-wire device draws power from the panel's zone (+ and - matter), while a four-wire device requires the power input and alarm output separately (+ and - on the connection to the zone do not matter). Two-wire is used most often. Addressable smoke detectors are always two-wire (+ and - matter) and act as remote sensors rather than self-sufficient detectors. This means that addressable smoke detectors do not decide if enough smoke is present to cause an alarm, but instead give the information to the panel to make the decision.

Other initiating devices include heat detectors (very simple mechanical devices that detect temperature rather than smoke), duct detectors (a smoke detector inside a plastic housing that attaches to an air duct and samples the air), waterflow switches (detects if a sprinkler has activated), and beam/flame detectors (optical sensors often used in rooms with very high ceilings that activate upon blockage of the beam).

Now, let's talk notification appliances. These include horns, strobes, bells, chimes, and speakers. In the lightswitch and fixture metaphor, these would be the light fixtures. They are the output devices that sound when the panel goes into alarm and are used for the purpose of evacuating building occupants. Unlike initiating devices, notification appliances are almost always conventional. Almost all modern notification appliances run on 24 volts DC. Instead of zones, notification appliances are connected to a panel's NAC's (notification appliance circuits). Sometimes, the panel's NAC's won't supply enough power for all of the notification appliances in the building, in which case a power booster is used (usually Altronix). Like zones, NAC's require an EOLR.

Like smoke detectors, horn/strobes are two-wire or four-wire (+ and - always matter). A two-wire horn/strobe supplies power to the horn and the strobe together at all times unless the panel uses synchronization to intelligently set them apart. A four-wire device requires separate power for the horn and the strobe. The reason you'd want separate control over the horn and the strobe is for audible silence - when the horns are silenced, but the strobes continue to flash until the panel is reset. A NAC set to silenceable will shut the horns off when the "silence" button is pushed, and a NAC set to non-silenceable will keep the strobes going until the panel is reset.

A coding is the pattern that a notification appliance sounds in. The most common is temporal (aka code-3), which is three blasts separated by 0.5 seconds of silence, followed by 1 second of silence. The coding can either be set at the panel or on the appliances themselves.

Unlike any other notification appliances, speakers do not use standard power and do not generate their own tones. Instead, a voice evacuation panel generates and amplifies a sound for the speakers to play. These speakers aren't any different in technology from the speakers in a home theater system. In fact, us hobbyists often test them that way.

Common panel functions:
Ack (acknowledge) - silences the panel's built-in sounder and lets the panel know that the issue is known about.
Silence - silences the notification appliances
Reset - returns the panel to normal condition if all devices have been reset. The panel will go back into alarm if devices have not been reset.
Drill or Manual Evac - sounds the notification appliances without calling the monitoring station or fire department
Disable - bypasses certain devices
Lamp test - flashes all panel LED's to make sure they are working (most panels do this when the reset button is pushed)

Common panel LED's:
Fire Alarm - indicates a fire alarm condition
Prealarm - indicates that a smoke detector is detecting smoke, but not enough to go into alarm, OR that a first-stage device has been activated in the case of a two-stage system
Trouble - indicates that there is a trouble somewhere on the system
Supervisory - an alarm/trouble condition of lower priority such as a tamper switch, temperature monitor, or sprinkler pressure monitor
Silenced - indicates that the NAC's have been silenced
AC Power - indicates that the system is receiving primary power, flashes when primary power has been cut and the panel has switched to batteries
Ground Fault - indicates that there is a dead short to ground somewhere on the system (has nothing to do with the panel's AC power ground)
Monitor - indicates that the panel is in the process of doing something (used on EST systems)

If you'd like to learn more, here are some links worth checking out: - Device-specific information - Andrew's series of videos on the basics of devices
viewtopic.php?f=4&t=3191 - Basic rules for panel care (a must-read for anyone considering a panel) - More about FACP's ... dards.html - About fire alarm codes ... 202007.pdf - National fire alarm code (full 2007 edition)
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.

Good and fairly easy choices include:

Fire-Lite MS-2 (or Notifier/SK/Gamewell-FCI equivalent)
Fire-Lite MS-4 (or Notifier/SK/Gamewell-FCI equivalent)
EST FireShield (or Fireworx equivalent)
Simplex 4001
Siemens SXL
Simplex 4004

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)
Simplex 4005
Simplex 4006
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:

Fire-Lite MS-9200(UDLS) (or Notifier/SK equivilent)
Fire-Lite MS-9050UD (or Notifier/SK equivilent)
Fire-Lite MS-25 (or Notifier/SK equivilent)
Simplex 4008
Simplex 4010
EST iO64 or iO500
FireworX FX-64 or FX-250
Gamewell-FCI 7100
Silent Knight 5700
Silent Knight 5808 or 5820XL

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.

Take a look at this topic while you're at it:

Favorite Brand vs. Most Practical Brand
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 EXTREMELY IMPORTANT - 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.
Here's a quick list of rules for those who own control units. These are delicate electronic devices that are generally designed to be hung, wired, and programmed once in their lifespan, and only tested periodically. They aren't designed to take abuse, and are easy to destroy.

1. Never, never, NEVER, under any circumstances, power your panel up on battery power alone, without first applying AC power. This is bad for the charger/power supply circuit, and WILL eventually cause damage. It may seem harmless if done once or twice, but that's all it could take. Is it worth the risk? Get yourself a power cord and do it right.

a. Plug the panel in without the batteries connected.
b. Wait for the panel to start and the software to load (if applicable).
c. Wait for the "AC power indicator" to illuminate, and for the system to indicate a battery trouble.
d. Carefully connect the batteries, observing polarity. The battery trouble should clear.
For resound systems, set the trouble silence switch back to the normal position.

I did this once on a 4002, hooked the batteries back up before the AC power, and sure enough, I blew several fuses on the board. Just took one shot. I think powering up my 4004 on batteries before AC is what killed the charger. When powering down, disconnect the batteries first, then the AC power.

2. Don't buy, power up, or try to wire a panel unless you have and understand the diagrams and technical manuals. There are a few great resources online for diagrams and technical documents for control units. Don't "tinker" with the zone connections if you're unsure of what you're doing. Some systems have auxiliary outputs for the zones next to the zone loop terminals. Accidentally backfeeding panel voltage into a zone, just once, could destroy it. I destroyed both of my Miniscan 112s by "tinkering" with the supervisory zone terminals, only to find out after looking at the manual, that the supervisory connections are normally closed, unlike the zones. Why buy a panel, only to find out you need certain devices, or an external programmer that you don't have access to? Why buy a 12-volt 5110XM panel and a number of 24-volt signals, without knowing the difference? (Yes, there's a reference to someone here.)

3. If you have a card-based system (Simplex likes to do this), NEVER disconnect or insert cards with power applied to the panel. Always power the system down, plug the cards in, then power it back up. This applies to monitor cards, signal cards, suppression/disconnect cards, whatever you have. A tech killed a 4005 by inserting a zone monitor card with the panel powered up. Only had to do it once. If you have a 2001, which is a modular system, hold in the reset button when removing and inserting cards. if you have a 4207/4208, you can usually turn the reset keyswitch to kill power to the system.

4. Only strip enough wire for what you need. Modern systems have clamp-style screw terminals so that open-end spade connectors or hooked ends of wire (not preferred) aren't necessary. You only need to strip about 1/8" of insulation from the wire. When you insert the wire into the terminal clamp, no copper should be showing, insulation should go underneath the clamp a little bit. Bare copper here is an excellent spot for a short circuit. When you strip the outer insulation from the cable, be very careful not to nick the insulation on the inside wires -- it's VERY easy to do. The best way is to use an oversized hole in a pair of wire strippers, use the strippers to make a "ring" around the cable without actually piercing the insulation, and pull it off with your hands. Then pull back the foil shield (if it's there) and trim it off. If you can't pull the insulation off, grip it with the strippers in a new spot that isn't cut, and gently pull. The hole for 10 AWG wire works excellent for removing the outer insulation from 18/2 fire alarm cable. To prevent a ground fault, wrap the area where you cut the foil in electrical tape.

5. Use strain reliefs and bushings in panel knockout holes. the inner edges of those knockouts can be jagged and are good spots for short circuits and ground faults. If you're using EMT conduit, ream the inside edge with a file or the handle of a pair of pliers (an old electrician trick, works great) so that you don't feel any sharp or jagged edges. Use a setscrew fitting and a plastic threaded bushing for conduit that terminates in open air. For conduit that terminates in the panel or junction boxes, use a plastic threaded bushing inside the panel or j-box for the remainder of the fitting threads.

6. If your panel is used, carefully clean it out before setting it up. A lot of times, panels are surface-mounted to walls, and holes are cut in the back of the panel for wires. When this is done, there's a small jagged metal disc left behind, and a bunch of metal shavings, somewhere in the world. They may be in a junkyard in Phoenix, Arizona, or they may be in a scrap metal yard in Tennessee, or they may be on the floor in a dusty electrical room where the panel was once hung. Or, they could still be in your panel, touching the circuit board somewhere. They could have been in the bottom of the panel when it was hung, but in shipping, could have been shaken around and lodged between the board and chassis. It takes a minute to look.

7. Just a recommendation, but not critical: use good batteries. Panels aren't meant to charge old, worn, or defective batteries. Batteries that have sat while discharged are usually damaged because of battery sulfation. Because batteries in series are charged at the same amperage, you should use two batteries from the same manufacturing date and lot (indicated by a stamp on the battery). An older battery will have a different internal resistance than a newer battery, and one of the two may demand more charging current. If a higher charging current is forced into the other battery, you could destroy it, it could corrode and leak.... or whatever. and be careful, that's a very corrosive acid in there. Periodically check the batteries for leaking and corrosion (corrosion indicates acid leakage. panel batteries are sealed and should NOT corrode - if the terminals corrode, it's physically damaged and must be replaced). Check the charging voltage periodically. As a general rule, 26 to 28 volts is good. For a 12-volt system, 13.5 to 14.5 volts is good.

7. And finally... just be careful. Always power the system down when making connections to the panel. you may know that you're hooking up to the right zone terminals, but, you could still do something - touch a wire somewhere it shouldn't touch, like a circuit board, or you could drop something, or your screwdriver could slip and make a connection you didn't want. Check and double-check your connections before powering up. Know what the amperage rating of your signal circuits are, and make sure you don't exceed that. Understand that just a brief short can kill the panel, and the magical blue smoke means you're out of luck.
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.

Good luck! :D
(sorry for the ridiculously long post!)
Destin L. (thesdx)
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I'm no longer very active on here, but if you wish to contact me, feel free to send me a PM. :wink:
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