How To Troubleshoot a Fire Alarm System Ground Fault In Half The Time

After reading an old article on my website that describes the “definition” of ground faults, I decided to add a few more tidbits of information that can help fire alarm or security alarm systems technicians cut their ground fault trouble-shooting time in half.

Having been in the fire alarm biz for almost 30 years, the author of this article has hunted down numerous alarm system annoyances. The most frustrating annoyance for many technicians is (more-than-likely) that notorious ground fault… that evil little invisible gremlin that lives and breathes inside all commercial and industrial buildings (smile).

So, what causes ground faults?

Pinched cables, water-filled electrical conduit, scraped insulated wire jackets, sloppy installation practices, friction damage, vandalism, other trade’s installers accidentally burning your cable while pulling theirs across the ceiling or in a cable tray… you name it!

Most of the grounding problems I have found in the past were not just installation problems, but were problems created during post-installation work. To be more specific, many of these troubles and faults were caused by other trades, building engineers or even other alarm company technicians performing work in the building, usually above ceiling spaces.

Of course, use the age of the fire alarm system to help determine which is more likely.

A newer alarm system could mean the problem may have commenced during or immediately after the alarm installation phase, either by the installing contractor or by other trades working in the building in later phases of construction.

An older system could mean a few things…
The building could be settling or damage could have been caused by human intervention or (if the building is older), damage could be caused by rodents or small critters (but no… no gremlins, in this case) .

To determine the age of a fire alarm system, look for an installation tag posted inside the fire alarm system’s front door or cover. It should be white in color and be approximately 3.5 inches X 3.5 inches.

Another set of common findings which can cause grounds (and many other alarm troubles):

  • underground PVC water leakage/seepage
  • storm damage/flooding
  • alarm system panels and equipment going belly up (Internal ground faults).

If you are a technician and want to save hours of trouble-shooting time on your next service call, please try some of the tips I’ve listed below first*.

*(especially if you are working on a Friday afternoon at around 4:00 PM or called out on a 3AM service call):

Tip #1: My advice to any technician reading this article… when beginning any trouble-shooting venture, be sure to ask the customer if they have had any recent construction work or if there had been any water damage in the area of concern.

Many times this information can help not only point you in the right geographical direction of where to begin, but can also cut your trouble-shooting time in half.

It took quite some time to remember to ask the customer this information and there were many times I would tell myself, “why didn’t I just ask the customer if there was a recent incident, problem, or event that could have caused the problem? It would have saved me so much time.”

Tip #2: Before ever touching a single component of a fire alarm system, check the main fire alarm panel to see the status of any and all panel faults (supervisory alarms, silenced fire alarms, troubles, etc.).

    Make sure every alarm problem discovered is documented on paper

. Once you have your documentation, date it and then have the person in charge “sign-off” on the paper document stating that he understands and acknowledges that there are existing faults or problems with the fire alarm system.

To be more professional, have someone in your company print this waiver out rather than use your handwriting. That way, there is less of a chance that the person signing can later say that they didn’t understand the handwriting when they signed the document.

If you have a video camera or phone camera handy, video record the panel troubles along with something that can record the date and time (hint: record the time stamp on the fire panel as you are scrolling through the alarm troubles.

Of course, if your customer has any video tape policies, please respect them… just sayin’!

Also, if your customer feels uncomfortable with having a video rolling, be sensitive to their desires and put the camera away. Just use your common sense and you should be OK.

Tip #3: Before utilizing an existing pull string to run new cables, make sure that the pull string is not tied down with wire ties or that it is not wrapped around other existing cables.

If you find that your pull string is wrapped tightly around the cables, that they are routed through obstacles or they are going around sharp corners, it is probably wise to pull in new cable without the aid of a pull string.

It may take a little extra time pulling the cable, but it could also save you many more hours of trouble-shooting later or prevent some other trade or company for blaming your company of causing problems with “their” system cables.

Tip #4: If you do find a ground fault and it is obvious that another trade caused the problem, use a digital camera or video camera and take a few snapshots or shoot a quick video. You will find that you can not only use these pictures as proof when it comes to getting paid, but many times your customer can go back and use your evidence to back-charge one of the other trades working in the building (if it is found that they were the ones at fault).

Many, many thanks to you, my reader…

Thank you for checking out this article and we truly hope that by reading it, you will have learned something new and you will take action and begin using these tips on your next service call. One of our goals at Houston Fire Safety is to make your life easier and to help educate the best we can.

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If you are stuck, have a business within 100 miles of Houston, Texas and still can’t find the root cause of your ground fault or any other service-related problem, please give us a call or schedule an appointment. We are always here to assist any way we can.

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