SIGN OF THE TIMES: Crown Supply President William F. Donahue IV talks with R.I. Historical Society Director of Collections Kirsten Hammerstrom in the John Brown House, which has been outfitted with wireless technology.
The John Brown House in Providence is known for brick Georgian architecture and its namesake’s place in 18th-century Rhode Island – not fire alarms or wireless technology.
But like a modern mansion whose owner can control the thermostat and lights with his mobile phone, the John Brown House and its new fire alarm are now examples of the ways wireless systems are spreading into a variety of building applications.
In the case of the 1786 landmark mansion, the primary advantage of the wireless system was its unobtrusiveness and capacity to increase the number of smoke detectors without having to cut into historic walls to connect them.
“It offered the greatest protection while disturbing the house the least,” said Kirsten Hammerstrom, director of collections for the Rhode Island Historical Society, which owns and runs the John Brown House Museum. “We had an allowance for cutting and patching and decided the wireless system, with less cutting and patching, had a better cost-benefit analysis for our situation.”
The alarm system installed at the John Brown House tripled the fire-detection capacity with sensors that can tell first responders not just that a fire has been detected, but where in the building the fire has been detected. They can also alert the owner if a sensor is removed or fails.
The distributor of the wireless fire-alarm system for the Brown House was Crown Supply Co. Inc. of Providence, which has been venturing into more- complex wireless systems for commercial, institutional and historic buildings.
For a long time, wireless alarm systems were viewed as inferior to hard-wired systems, but Crown Supply President William F. Donahue IV said the steady advance of wireless technology promises to push it further into commercial-scale applications.
“When I talk about wireless, folks in the electrical trades immediately say they get paid for pulling wires,” said Donahue, who recently wrote a white paper entitled: “Wireless technology: friend or foe.” “But it is going to grow in popularity and become more mainstream in fire alarms and electrical. Where you see light switches on the wall, you don’t need to have those anymore. You can have a wireless transmitter and receiver turn lights on and off.”
In alarm systems, wireless technology first started emerging in burglar alarms, which are not subject to the stringent regulations of the fire code and do not require the same voltage to power flashing lights and sirens that drive people from burning buildings.
Burglar alarms were originally all hard-wired, but as the technology improved, national security companies and manufacturers realized they could mass-produce wireless detection systems that could report to a central panel without the need for expensive and time-consuming installations.
With those remote panels in place, the jump to other building controls, such as lighting or heating-cooling systems, has started to accelerate.
In commercial and high-capacity buildings required by law to have fire alarms, even the wireless-detection systems like the one in the Brown House require some wires running to the strobe alarms that sound when smoke is sensed.
And that doesn’t count the external connections to the local fire department required through either radio boxes or the old red Gamewell Motherboxes, developed more than a century ago, used in cities like Providence.
So right now, Donahue said he still only recommends wireless systems for those clients who, for logistical, aesthetic or historical reasons, get a compelling benefit from them.
For most commercial projects, where aesthetics are less of an issue, running wires to conventional systems is still cheaper, as is the case in new construction, where disruption caused by running wires is not an issue.
“It is not prevalent yet and it is certainly not for everything,” Donahue said. “It is great for retrofits or for multibuilding complexes where you would otherwise have to run overhead lines or dig trenches.”
An example of a multibuilding wireless system Crown installed was Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington, which didn’t want to run wires between buildings for fear of clipping them with the mast of vessels being moved around the boatyard.
Other wireless Crown customers include the newly renovated Columbus Theatre on Broadway in Providence and St. Augustine Church on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Providence.
Donahue said security giant Honeywell International Inc. intends to release a wireless fire system soon that could add significant competition and drive the cost down.
Not everyone is as confident that wireless is poised to take off in the fire-alarm market.
At National Security Fire Alarm Systems in East Providence, President Christopher Morra said the company has experience installing fire-alarm wireless systems in historic buildings and recently did one in the Old Colony House in Newport.
But he sees hard-wired internal systems remaining the best choice for most jobs.
“In most cases you are still better off and we wire almost every job we do,” Morra said. “Because you can only do the initiating devices [detectors] in wireless - the horn strobes still need to be wired because they need power.” •