An ever increasing number of data centersare reaching an important stage in their lifecycle as they near or surpass 15 to 20 years. As such, these data center facility managers are not only focusing on their IT infrastructure and performance, but also on maintaining and upgrading their facilities. 

Fire protection systems are critical elements that require serious consideration to keeping a data center running smoothly while keeping its assets and occupants under maximum protection. Every data center facility manager dreads running the risk of prolonged fire system downtime. Increased repair costs, frequent nuisance alarms or issues, and constant system failures may indicate that it is time to replace the data center’s life safety system. While a proper maintenance plan will help extend the life of the fire alarm system, little can be done in later years when components become scarce or even unavailable.

MXL and XLS panel interface

Figure 1. An example of an MXL and XLS panel interface.

The time to implement an appropriate system migration or modernization strategy is well before this point is reached. Upgrading a large and sophisticated fire alarm system can be daunting, but identifying the right financing option and system migration approach to fit the facility’s needs can help prevent unnecessary headaches in the future.


Data center facility managers will find that a “phased-in” approach to modernizing their fire system will often be more beneficial than following a “one-time swap” approach, which is more suitable for unoccupied buildings. A phased-in approach allows the facility manager to minimize (or even eliminate) disruption to building occupants and operations as sections of the building are transferred over to the new technology in a controlled manner. In this way, the facility manager can dictate how fast the technology transition is conducted, and consequently, how fast the expense is incurred.

Ideally, capital has already been set aside to cover the transition but if not, facility managers may want to consider their financing options. The opportunity to finance will vary with the project size and the credit rating of their organization. If financing the replacement system is not feasible, using a phased-in approach can help spread the expense over an extended period of time.

Knowledgeable life safety solutions providers understand how to migrate systems effectively and can ensure the facility manager of seamless operation over the transition time. In selecting a system, it is important that the products come from a manufacturer with a proven history of providing upgrade paths for its previous systems. This forward-thinking will dramatically simplify future upgrades. Professional installers will also take into account the local codes and standards affecting a data center’s system migration. Depending on the new system’s technical adaptability, the installer can initiate the transition using one of several methods.

Space permitting, the most common approach to migrating is to place the new fire alarm control panel next to the existing head-end, where the required interface will be established. This allows the new system to communicate activity from the new field devices to the existing system, so that all of the activity and control by event continues to work as it formerly did on the old system. Conversely, information from the obsolete system can also be made to report into the new system as necessary.

Once the control panels are interfaced together, properly planning the zones or loops with the installer will be critical. At that point, interfacing the new devices can begin on a loop-by-loop or zone-by-zone basis. Professional installers will know how to disarm the zone and schedule work according to the number of devices to be transferred to the new system. The more field devices that exist on the old system, the more critical it will be to plan ahead and segment out the correct devices for the phase-over.

Knowledgeable installers will offer facility managers incremental testing and thorough documentation to monitor the transition as the new devices are phased in, rather than waiting to do so post-installation. This will help ensure that system phases are integrated as expected and that no surprises will occur at the end of the installation. Eventually, all of the field devices will be connected to the new system, and the old control panel can be removed. To date, only one manufacturer offers a system upgrade path for its legacy panel. It uses the existing back box and provides quick system programming transfer, resulting in much faster and less disruptive system migrations.

In determining whether to schedule installations for after-hours or during the workday, the facility manager should consider such factors as labor costs, ease of monitoring and testing, and reduced disruption to business. Knowledgeable installers will be able to make a building assessment and provide guidance on the best migration options.


When modernizing a fire alarm system, data centers can now take advantage of several new approaches and technologies that were not as widely available, efficient, or flexible at the time that the system was initially installed.

Various approaches exist in fire detection design and technology for data centers. The most commonly used and still very effective form of detection is predominantly based on air sampling smoke detection (ASD). This detection technology provides very early warning fire detection (VEWFD) by detecting a fire in its early stages and preventing downtime while maintaining business continuity.

Formerly, spot-type fire detectors did not typically provide a high level of sensitivity. But multi-criteria spot-type detectors can now provide high sensitivity, meet NFPA 76 (standard for the protection of telecommunications facilities), and are approved by UL and/or FM as VEWFD. These spot-type detectors can be used to protect a data center by providing very early detection and optionally can be used with ASD in a hybrid configuration, offering a cost-effective solution. This is especially helpful if a data center is considering adopting a “hot aisle / cold aisle” approved cooling design. In the past, spot-type detectors had limited temperature ranges of operation that were often capped at 100°F whereas some of today’s detectors operate in conditions as high as 120°F, which make them well-suited for hot aisles.

The broader capabilities of fire alarm systems to both communicate to data center occupants and deliver information to those monitoring the system and/or building have increased as well. For facilities using an air sampling VEWFD application, detectors can now be tied into the fire alarm system via a high level interface that enables the reading and reporting of more detailed information on performance and events.

Emergency communications integrated into the modernized fire panel can help ensure that voice messages are delivered to specific locations on a pre-programmed or event-specific basis for fire and non-fire (intrusion/security breach, attack, etc.). The emergency communication can also be directly linked to a specific smoke detector’s alarm signal. Based on the detector’s location, a specific message is delivered to occupants within the affected area, directing them on the type of action required. Fire alarm systems are also capable of networking into new and improved building management stations that tie all aspects of the operation together — fire, security with real-time video, building automation, and energy performance.


At the end of a fire alarm upgrade project, data center facility managers will be able to rest easy, knowing that they have done everything possible to maintain the safety of their occupants and the operational mission of their building. A properly installed system that is professionally maintained will provide many years of loyal service, while delivering great technological advancements that cover today’s design demands, codes, and operational benefits.

With permission from NEMA, adapted from article that originally appeared in EI, the magazine of the electroindustry, May 2014.