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The Importance of Fire Protection Commissioning
The Importance of Fire Protection Commissioning

Building commissioning has become a well-developed service due in large part to the prerequisites and requirements of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and local building codes, where commissioning of energy-related systems such as: HVAC and controls, lighting and daylighting controls, domestic hot water systems, and renewable energy systems (e.g. wind, solar), are often specified. However, over the years as building systems have become more complex and owners have seen firsthand the benefits of incorporating commissioning into their design/construction projects, the desired commissioning scope has grown. It is now common to see life safety/fire protection, electrical, building envelope and security/access control listed as line items of “systems to be commissioned” in a Request for Proposal (RFP). Expanding the commissioning scope helps ensure all systems are integrated, communicating, and operating together as originally designed.

An often misunderstood, but critically important service within the life safety and fire protection arena is the commissioning process. Fire Protection Commissioning is often mistaken as “systems acceptance” – performing an inspector’s test water flow, fire alarm testing, or hydrostatic testing at the end of a project, but it can be much more comprehensive and thorough than that. Fire Protection Commissioning is defined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 3 as “a systematic process that provides documented confirmation that building systems function according to the intended design criteria set forth in the project documents and satisfy the owner’s operational needs, including compliance with applicable laws, regulations, codes, and standards.” In short, it outlines the commissioning process and testing of life safety systems to ensure they perform successfully when compared to their designed intent. When executed properly, it can be highly beneficial to the system’s end users.

Since proper Fire Protection Commissioning is a thorough and comprehensive process, it is important to begin early in the project planning phase and continue seamlessly into the intermediate design and construction phases, rather than scrambling in the final occupancy phase alone. During the planning phase, the Owners Project Requirements (OPR) and the Basis of Design (BOD) need to be determined and written as a record of the specific design criteria, requirements, and applicable codes used on the project. Additionally, the project-specific commissioning plan should also be developed and issued during the planning phase. When developing a project schedule at the onset of the project, be sure to include all the required timing, durations and sequencing of the installation, verification, testing, and training. Prior to the construction phase, the project contract documents should be issued for bid and include all the requirements and specifications for commissioning.

During the construction phase, all the systems need to be verified with a recorded documentation method to ensure that they have been installed in accordance with the OPR, BOD, and contract documents. As soon as a system is fully installed and ready for operation, the pre-functional test verification and functional testing can occur. Once all of the integrated systems within the building are installed and tested individually, integrated testing will occur with the attendance and participation of the commissioning team. It should be emphasized that commissioning is not limited to integrated testing; it is only a portion of the overall process. To emphasize and clarify this, the NFPA completely separated the documents for commissioning and integrated testing. NFPA 3 is titled: “Recommended Practice for Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems” and “provide[s] the recommended procedures, methods, and documentation for commissioning and integrated testing of active and passive fire protection and life safety systems and their interconnections with other building systems.” Likewise, NFPA 4 is titled: “Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing” and “provide[s] the minimum requirements for testing of integrated fire protection and life safety systems where such testing is required by governing laws, codes, regulations, or standards.”

The integrated testing phase involves a number of activities that must be performed, witnessed, and documented. Each building contains different systems which may be integrated in a manner unique to the specific OPR document. As an example, consider a sprinklered building which also contains high volume/low speed (HVLS) fans. Per current standards, upon activation of a water flow switch, all the HVLS fans in that sprinkler zone must shut down to eliminate further interference of sprinkler activation. Mechanical, electrical, fire alarm, and fire protection systems must therefore operate as an integrated system to accomplish this. All of the individual system functional tests will not provide sufficient verification of that requirement. The fans must be powered, and upon testing the flow switch using the inspector’s test connection to simulate sprinkler flow, the fans must be verified to shut down. That same flow switch is also integrated with other systems – did the appropriate alarms sound?  Did the pump start up according to requirements? Does the same sequence occur properly on secondary power? The completion of these tests should be documented on the appropriate form including the fire pump test record as well as the contractor’s material and test certificate.

Prior to turning a building over to the Owner, as-built drawings and the Operations & Maintenance manuals should be provided to the facility manager as a record of how the systems were installed. These documents will also provide the prescribed procedures for the successful functional operation and the proper required intervals for maintenance and systems usage. The final step in the process is to provide and document adequate training of the installed systems.

When integrated properly, commissioning of fire protection systems is a highly beneficial process for all parties involved. Just as with the commissioning of a building’s HVAC and electrical systems, it ensures a smooth process for the architects, engineers and contractors, but it’s the end users that benefit the most. First and foremost, the commissioning process provides confirmation that each system actually functions as intended and required. It may seem like common sense, but checks and balances are always important. This process will confirm that all of the individual systems function successfully together as a whole in a fire, emergency or life safety situation. Next, proper commissioning ensures that there will be adequate space and clearance available for the necessary maintenance and operation of all installed equipment and components. It becomes a distinct advantage for building owners and operations personnel because of their involvement with the integrated testing and the thorough training they receive. The end result is that they become infinitely more knowledgeable and familiar with how their building’s fire protection and life safety systems work. This greatly increases the awareness of the necessity and frequency of the specific maintenance requirements for each system. Lastly, the commissioning process provides verification of the installed systems’ successful performance, and Owners receive documented operational instruction and maintenance procedures.

Commissioning is vitally important in fire protection. A building owner must have the confidence prior to accepting ownership that the fire and life safety systems were installed and are operating per the design. Non-commissioned or improperly commissioned fire protection systems are an enormous liability for Owners as they have a much higher rate of malfunction and put the building and its occupants at risk. This liability is too crucial not to perform the due diligence of commissioning and Owners should feel the need to establish a proper checks and balances system to ensure their own piece of mind.

For an overview of the team members typically involved in the fire protection commissioning process, click here.

For an overview of the document used in the fire protection commissioning process, click here.

 

References:

NFPA 3 “Commissioning and Integrated System Testing Handbook” 2012 ed.

Matt Klaus, Presentation on NFPA 3 and 4–Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems

NFPA 3 “Recommended Practice for Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems” 2015 ed.

NFPA 4 “Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing.”  2015 ed.

The Importance of Fire Protection Commissioning

Non-commissioned or improperly commissioned fire protection systems are an enormous liability as they have a much higher rate of malfunction and put the building and its occupants at risk. Expanding the commissioning scope to include fire protection helps ensure all systems are integrated, communicating, and operating together as originally designed.