Top 10 things to know about commissioning fire protection systems
Fire protection engineers should use NFPA 3 as guidance on commissioning for fire protection and life safety systems.
Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems is an overall benefit for projects, with its no-nonsense approach that will assist in validating the intended system design, performance criteria, and proper installation and operation of these systems. In the United States, the 2012 edition of NFPA 3: Recommended Practice for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems is the only national document providing guidance about commissioning and integrated testing for fire protection and life safety systems. Although the document has been out for over a year, many people do not know of its existence or fully understand it. Understanding the process outlined in NFPA 3 related to commissioning of fire protection and life safety systems is critical. Another source of information is the Building Commissioning Assn. (BCxA), which is a national organization for building commissioning, including fire protection and life safety. The following is a list of 10 key items, not in order of importance, that you should know about commissioning fire protection and life safety systems:
1. Commissioning is a process: NFPA 3 defines fire and life safety commissioning 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.” NFPA 3 provides the outline of the process related to the steps in commissioning and the documentation of the commissioning.
2. Agent of the owner: A fire commissioning agent (FCxA) is working as an owner representative, and as such is an agent of the owner. This is a different role, with different responsibilities, than engineer of record, installing contractor, or local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). The FCxA is another set of eyes and ears overlooking the commissioning of the fire protection and life safety systems and ultimately helps to assure the successful design and operation of these systems. The FCxA is a member of the overall full building commissioning team, headed by the commissioning agent (CxA). If the only systems being commissioned are fire protection and life safety systems, then the FCxA leads the commissioning effort.
3. Special knowledge and expertise: The FCxA (or FCxA team) should have special knowledge and expertise related to the specific fire protection and life safety systems to be commissioned. This includes general industry practices on how to properly test these systems and an advanced understanding of the systems’ installation, operation, and maintenance.
4. Commissioning team brought in during design: It is critical that the FCxA team be brought in early to allow review of the design documents, including compliance with the owner’s project requirements (OPR). Issues identified by the FCxA during the design phase and modified on paper are much easier, less expensive, and less impactful to the construction schedule when compared to design/installation modifications during construction after system installation.
5. How to test a system: NFPA 3 outlines a process but does not identify exactly how to functionally test a specific fire protection or life safety system. The specific NFPA standard that deals with that specific fire protection or life safety system identifies testing requirements (e.g., NFPA 72 for fire alarm and emergency communication systems). Furthermore, industry practice and manufacturers’ written recommendations are also utilized in the development of the critical testing plan.
6. Commissioning is not acceptance testing: In the industry, people often interchange the terms “commissioning” and “acceptance testing,” but these terms are not interchangeable. Acceptance testing does not equal commissioning. Acceptance testing is typically done either with an engineer of record or a local AHJ for final acceptance of the system. Commissioning is a systematic process with documentation that extends from design through installation, testing, and training.
7. Comprehensive test scenarios: It is critical that a testing plan with identified comprehensive test scenarios be developed so that all stakeholders understand what will be tested and the coordination of these efforts. The various test scenarios can include an individual system test, an integrated system test verifying sequence of operation, or integrated tests between multiple systems. It is also important to test not only what the systems are supposed to do, but also what they are not supposed to do. As an example, consider a smoke control system that should initiate upon activation of an atrium sprinkler system water flow. One test would be to verify that the smoke control system initiates with the atrium sprinkler system waterflow. Another test scenario would be to activate a non-atrium sprinkler system waterflow and verify that the atrium smoke control system does not initiate. There are also a multitude of scenarios to develop, such as proper operation on loss of building power or prioritization of events.
8. Full-load testing: It is very important to during the commissioning testing to conduct a full load test with no bypasses, silence, or disconnections between systems. This includes testing of the fire protection and life safety systems on emergency or standby Power. The intent of these tests is to create real-world scenarios that may occur in an operational building and verify the fire protection and life safety systems perform as intended.
9. Existing buildings: NFPA 3 also addresses commissioning of existing systems that were previously commissioned, referred to as re-commissioning (re-Cx), and commissioning of existing systems that were never commissioned, referred to as retro-commissioning (retro-Cx).
10. Adopted codes: NFPA 3 can be adopted/required by the owner, project requirements, or contract requirements. Some mandatory commissioning requirements have also made into building code requirements. For example, the International Building Code (IBC) has requirements for commissioning smoke control systems, referred to as smoke control special inspections.
Upcoming NFPA 3 code changes
In the 2015 NFPA code cycle, NFPA 3 is being split into two separate NFPA documents. The 2015 edition of NFPA 3 will remain a recommended practice, but will focus only on commissioning. The Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems is being broken out as a separate new NFPA document, NFPA 4. The 2015 edition of NFPA 4 will become a standard and will not be a recommended practice, due to the committee decision about the criticalness of integrated testing between multiple systems. The updated NFPA 3 and the new NFPA 4 are scheduled for a 2015 edition release. The NFPA window of time for public input and comments for the 2015 edition of NFPA 3 and NFPA 4 was recently closed.
David Joseph LeBlanc is vice president at Rolf Jensen & Assocs. He has a master’s degree in fire protection engineering, is a registered fire protection engineer in various states, is a committee member of NFPA 3 and NFPA 4, is a fellow of SFPE, and has more than 20 years of experience as a fire protection engineer.