Tips and tricks for commissioning, balancing buildings: Fire and life safety

Building commissioning is one of the most important (and complex) types of projects an engineer can be tasked with. Fire and life safety systems—including smoke detection—are discussed.


Jerry Bauers, National director of commissioning, Sebesta Blomberg, Kansas City, Mo. Courtesy: Sebesta BlombergMichael P. Feyler, Co-director, building solutions group, RDK Engineers, Andover, Mass. Courtesy: RDK EngineersRobert J. Linder, PE, Senior project manager, Karges-Faulconbridge Inc., St. Paul, Minn. Courtesy: KFI EngineersJames Szel, Senior vice president, Syska Hennessy Group, New York City. Courtesy: Syska Hennessy GroupGeremy Wolff, Commissioning manager, McKinstry, Bellingham, Wash. Courtesy: McKinstryBarney York, Project manager, RMF Engineering, Baltimore. Courtesy: RMF Engineering


CSE: What trends, systems, or products have affected changes in life safety systems?

A BSL-3 laboratory, with a hazardous waste decontamination system, was one of the systems involved at a recent Sebesta Blomberg commissioning project, conducted for a university in the northeastern U.S. Courtesy: Sebesta BlombergSzel: The increasing use of very early smoke-detection apparatus systems has changed the focus of the fire systems in data centers from personnel evacuation to fire prevention and equipment protection. Being able to detect minute amounts of smoke allows the time to investigate and shut down malfunctioning equipment before a fire occurs. This increased sensitivity presents a challenge for testing and commissioning to be able to simulate a very low level of nonvisible smoke.

Feyler: There has been an increase, especially in schools, to integrate the public address system with the fire alarm system. In lieu of public address speakers throughout the facility, the fire alarm speakers in each room are used for school announcements and broadcast. For a current project we are commissioning, in addition to the public address via the fire alarm speakers, fire alarm message boards have been added to each shop area, displaying textual messages; the LED display boards broadcast messages that are initiated via the fire alarm control panel or via the school’s computer system. 

CSE: What fire/life safety lessons have you learned on past building commissioning projects? 

York: I have learned to simply assume the fire alarm and life safety system is part of the HVAC system. Everyone has varying opinions on what HVAC components are part of the fire alarm system and how and who should test them. My experience has convinced me it is best to see them as one. As a result, I always plan on testing the duct detectors and fire/smoke dampers as part of my HVAC functional performance tests. I have found that by proactively performing this testing as part of the HVAC tests, NFPA testing with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) and local inspectors goes much smoother.

Feyler: The CxA needs to witness or perform the testing of fire smoke dampers per NFPA 90A Chapter 7. Many times the contractor is asked if they have been verified, and normally all that is done is that the damper is checked to ensure it is open for the balancer, for proper airflow. The damper requires to be tested via the duct smoke detector that controls it, and visually verified that the damper completely closes.

Szel: Don’t assume that everything works just because the AHJ has tested and approved it. Even though a space looks complete, a lot of work can still be going on behind the scenes (or above the ceiling) that can impact the wiring and knock out part of the indicating appliance circuits.

CSE: How has NFPA 3: Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems helped guide your work? What changes do you recommend or foresee for the next edition (2015)?

York: I have relatively limited experience with NFPA 3 as the code was released in 2012. From what I can tell, the code is making significant progress toward being very prescriptive about how to test fire protection systems, very much like NFPA 72 has for fire alarm. I would expect the 2015 version to have several clarifications and refinements to the testing procedures as the industry begins to adopt the guideline.

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