Electrical Challenges Abound When Retrofitting Historic Buildings

How do you wire modern safety and security systems into a building built before the advent of electricity? Very carefully, and with lots of flexibility.

With the continuing popularity of renovating historic buildings into modern workplaces and residences, there’s a growing need for life-safety and asset-protection specialists who can meet the challenges of bringing 21st century technology to the cores of these older structures.

One of the biggest challenges is wiring a building that may have no existing conduits without harming its historical integrity or aesthetic. In new construction, security and alarm installers can simply run conduits or wires in whatever fashion they want. Wiring historic buildings can involve fixes ranging from the inconvenient, such as running wires above dropped ceiling tiles, to the very challenging—coercing wire into place without existing conduits or chases.

Many jobs even require blueprint submittal and design pre-approval, such as buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, to ensure the historical integrity of the building is not altered.

Advantages of Wireless in Historic Buildings

Advances in wireless and repeater technologies have made retrofitting a little simpler, especially during the past couple of years. Fire, intercom, surveillance and intrusion-detection systems don’t always need to be hardwired, and battery lifespan for some systems now approaches three to five years, depending on the system.

But it’s important to realize—quickly—when your initial retrofit plans won’t work. That’s where technicians come into play. Even if your plans have been approved by a design board and cleared by your engineers, technicians need to know when and where the plan is going off the rails—before irreparable harm is caused to the appearance or architectural integrity of a historic building.

One of the principle aspects about retrofitting buildings and doing it well is not getting too emotionally tied to your plan and being flexible as you go.

No matter how much research you do when you actually start trying to work on older buildings, it can become extremely complicated, or you find that things aren’t laid out the way you anticipated. It’s really important to have technicians who know when to stop and contact a project management team and say, “Whoa, this isn’t how we thought it was.” At times that necessitates just a tweak in a given plan. Other times it may require a whole new approach, new equipment or going wireless with some things, rather than trying to get wiring where it’s needed. Wireless systems are a bit more expensive, but sometimes that is one of the only options available to meet life-safety and asset-protection goals.

Owner Input Is Key to Successful Retrofitting

There may come a job that just can’t be done. If a door is exceedingly difficult to wire for access control, for instance, perhaps you need to tell the owner the best solution is simply a mechanical key. Talk with the owners and help them prioritize and weigh their goals. Together, you can make informed decisions about a mix of convenience and function while keeping in mind the historical attributes and importance of the structure.

If you have an experienced installer, there are few challenges that can’t be met. Retrofitting a historical building can be very complicated, but working together can make history work for you, too.

About the Author

Breck Ellison
Breck Ellison is chief operating officer at Gallaher. The Alcoa-based company provides life-safety and asset-protection systems for local and national institutions and businesses. Its Knoxville-area retrofits include Blount Mansion, the Farragut Hotel, the Sterchi Building and Old Knoxville High.

1 Comment on "Electrical Challenges Abound When Retrofitting Historic Buildings"

  1. At Gallaher, we are utilizing the SWIFT line of products by Notifier to meet the unique needs of our customers. SWIFT® Smart Wireless Integrated Fire Technology detectors are intelligent (addressable) detectors which provide secure, reliable communication to the Fire Alarm Control Panel (FACP) across redundant communication mesh network. Wireless detectors create an opportunity for applications where it is costly (concrete walls/ceilings, buried wires), obtrusive (surface mount conduit), or possibly dangerous (asbestos) to use traditional wired devices. For more information please contact us at http://www.gallaher-assoc.com.

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