BIM and fire protection engineering

By including all life safety systems in the BIM rendering, engineers improve the building’s model as a whole.

04/22/2013


 

Learning Objectives:

  1. Know how BIM can help integrate all fire and life safety systems in a building’s model, not just suppression, detection, and alarm.
  2. Learn how BIM technology can change how buildings operate throughout their lifecycles if it is used to its full potential.
  3. Understand that effectiveness of BIM is limited only by the amount of information available in the model. 

 


Building information modeling (BIM) has been used in various forms throughout the fire protection industry. However, most of the BIM work has been focused on stand-alone models that have historically been proprietary to the contractors that developed them. Specifically, fire sprinkler and fire alarm contractors have been using 2-D and 3-D models of their respective systems, but that has historically been the limit. As BIM technology improves and moves outward from structural and architectural models, the fire protection industry as a whole reaps the benefits because fire protection engineering encompasses not just active and passive suppression systems, but the overall life safety of buildings and the occupants. If the model is being constructed for all systems, life safety integration can be better applied throughout. 

Fire sprinkler contractors have been using specialized and somewhat limited forms of BIM for many years. Customized programs allow sprinkler designers to develop systems in 3-D models and automatically prepare hydraulic calculations, print lists of system components, and even put hangers and bracing on drawings based upon pipe sizes and dimensions. All of these tools are extremely useful for the designer but did not really go beyond the designer, except on paper. They also have been limited to the specific system application rather than shared with the building model. 

Similarly, fire alarm drafting programs have been developed that allow designers to build systems that automatically assign network addresses to devices, calculate voltage drops, perform battery calculations, and prepare riser diagrams. These tools can significantly improve designers’ efficiency by automatically performing tasks that would otherwise take hours, days, or weeks to complete. Once again, however, the program technology historically has not gone beyond the designers’ offices.

With the trending developments of 3-D modeling in architectural and engineering design over the past several years, industry is abuzz about what the future holds. Imagine if the technology that has been limited to the designer can now be extended to the sprinkler fitter or fire alarm technician in the field. Moreover, imagine the power of the models in the field or in the hands of the end users where others can use the information the designer input to troubleshoot or manage the systems better. 

Figure 1: Without specific information from manufacturers, designers can create and input the specific information about system components into the model. Courtesy: JBA Consulting Engineers

BIM allows designers to create intelligent environments that enable all users of the model to have instant access to all of the information available in the model. Therefore, the ultimate limitation of BIM is the amount of information available in the model and input by the designer. If a user selects a specific component of the system, the model can provide make, model, serial number, cost, and all relevant specifications of the system component. It can even include operation and maintenance information relative to the system component. 

Consider fire suppression systems as an example. If a user selects a fire pump or pressure maintenance pump in the system, a powerful, well-established BIM file can provide the user with all of the relevant information. If input correctly, the model can identify the make, model, flow, and pressure of the pump as well as the pump performance curve. If the pump motor is selected, the information may include make, model, voltage, amperage, horsepower, service factor, or any host of pertinent information that the designer specifies. It could also include preventive maintenance information as well as replacement part information. 

By allowing access to the model throughout the design and construction process, installers can modify information as they install it. Field technicians or commissioning agents can take photographs of motor and pump nameplates as soon as they are installed or commissioned and associate the nameplate photograph with the specific pump or motor. This information can be accessed by building engineers and maintenance staff without having to travel to the room where the equipment is located. 

This information could be especially useful for large buildings or campus environments. As an example, consider a fire alarm company that has a maintenance contract with a facility that reports a problem with its system that has been provided with a model. Any 24-hour technician can access the model to see what type of equipment the system has without going to the field to investigate first. The technician can select the panels to view what type of boards might be installed in specific fire alarm panels or transponders and get potential replacements before he leaves his shop. In this example, the responding technician does not need to have intimate familiarity with the system beforehand because he can access the model to understand what components are installed and how. The technician also save time by taking potential replacement parts on his first trip to the site instead of making multiple trips to the site and back. 

On large and/or fully integrated buildings, building engineers often review events on the building management system (BMS) for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing issues as a first order troubleshooting measure. Smaller buildings and buildings without integrated systems do not afford building engineers this luxury. When it comes to fire protection systems, the BMS may not integrate with fire protection systems. However, a well-coordinated BIM can be the single source for building engineers to troubleshoot and evaluate all systems within their buildings. 

The efficiency is not limited to service and maintenance contracts because maintenance personnel often have to respond to common issues. If a campus engineer receives a complaint of a faulty smoke alarm in a dormitory room, he or she can review the BIM and take an appropriate replacement before trekking across campus.


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