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The cost of low cost – the right questions to ask when choosing a fire suppression system

Next week half a million delegates will head to Munich for Bauma, the world’s leading trade fair for construction and mining vehicles and equipment. We’d like to offer some important advice for buyers on the look out for a fire suppression system.

The concept of fire suppression seems clear enough: there is a source of a fire, there is an agent to control it, and there is a system to detect and deliver said agent to said fire. The most effective fire suppression system is obviously the one you go for. Simple, right?

Maybe not. We attended another industry show just the other week and the vast majority of the visitors to the stand (most of whom had had little exposure to fire suppression) had a consistent hierarchy of questions that suggested a different focus.

After taking time to look at the product, the first question was about cost. Then on occasion there was a question about maintenance and replacement if there was a fire.

Very rarely did we receive an enquiry about the effectiveness of the system.

We enjoy a market-leading position across many markets thanks to the good value price of the Firetrace system over its lifetime, its reliability and ease of maintenance, and – most importantly – its effectiveness.

But the effectiveness component, that vital safety aspect which is ultimately the point of the system, is often not very high on the list of things that buyers consider.

We do of course understand that initial focus on cost; we all have budget constraints and controlling costs is a key component of a buyer’s role.

However, when it comes to safety systems, we would strongly encourage companies to look more closely and avoid making a ‘tick the box’ decision based on initial outlay alone.

So what are the right questions?

Will it work?

We are talking about safety, so effectiveness should be one of the first questions asked. And while you can obviously ask a representative of the product, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a biased answer.

A route to a more objective answer is to check out listings and approvals.

The first choice would be an application-specific approval from a respected testing or approval agency, such as the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden’s P-Mark approval for bus fire suppression systems. This test was developed to evaluate system effectiveness in worst-case scenario fires commonly found on buses, and I’m extremely proud that Firetrace International holds this approval with a maximum score of 10 out of 10.

Application-specific tests aren’t always available though, in which case you could consider either looking at the data from a similar application, such as applying the P-Mark data in the evaluation of any vehicle, or even further to any engine environment as many of the same challenges exist in all. Alternatively, a general approval from the likes of UL (Underwriters’ Laboratories) or FM (Factory Mutual) can be a useful indication of quality.

Just make sure that the approval is relevant and that your application fits within the approval criteria and that the whole system, from agent storage to detection, is all covered by the approval.

How simple and cost-effective is the system to maintain?

It’s really important to understand the true ongoing cost of inspection, maintenance, replacement parts and the resultant downtime of the protected equipment. For example, some large bus fleets budget millions of dollars every year to maintain their fire systems and schedule hours of downtime per bus.

Try and look for a system where there are no expensive components that are likely to fail. Ask for the cost of replacement components and take time to understand the process to test and ensure that systems are fully functional. Ask how long it will take and how frequently the system needs inspecting. Find out what the cleanup and recharge processes are if there is an activation, including how long it will take, and ask about the probability of a false activation.

How much does it really cost?

By this point, you’ve really built a case to properly ask the question about cost – and about cost vs value.

Here, ineffective systems should be excluded from consideration – a system that’s cheap but doesn’t work could cost you dearly in terms of lives and revenue lost.

The application will help you choose the right system. While system ‘A’ may work well for a fixed factory location, the vibration and dirt in an engine enclosure could make it unreliable or even non-functional. Similarly, a system that takes too much time, effort or money to keep operational will never be a good choice, regardless of a seemingly inexpensive initial outlay.

Working out the upfront cost is relatively easy – it may even be on a price list for easy viewing. But factoring in installation, maintenance, parts replacement and recharging, the better question is what is the lifetime cost of this system?

Investigating the anticipated cost and effort involved in maintaining a system, and the effectiveness of a system, may take a bit more time at the start. But it will benefit you in the long run, not only in terms of safety but in whole-life costs.

Taking the time to ask the right questions will ensure that you get a system that truly fits your needs and budget – which works as intended when necessary.

You can meet the Firetrace team at Bauma, Hall C4 Stand 515/C from 11 to 17 April.

Next up on the Firetrace International blog – read how not all listings and approvals are created equal and see what you should look out for.