Use NFPA 3 for new, existing buildings
NFPA 3 defines commissioning and integrated testing of new fire protection and life safety systems in both new and existing buildings.
Commissioning (Cx) of certain building systems has been occurring for some time, stemming from U.S. Green Building Council LEED requirements or other requirements for green or high-performance buildings, to owners wanting their lighting and HVAC to run more efficiently to save on their monthly utility bills. Commissioning of such buildings and systems in the United States has been on the rise in recent years. There also has been a rise in commissioning of fire protection and life safety systems—not for utility savings, but for owners that want to confirm the fire protection and life safety systems are designed and installed to meet the overall project goals, comply with applicable codes, and provide protection to the building occupants, the building, and its contents.
A number of years ago, the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) was pushing for a set of commissioning documents to set national guidelines. During this process NIBS reached out to NFPA regarding the development of a commissioning document that focused on fire protection and life safety systems. NFPA developed this document, which is called NFPA 3: Recommended Practice for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems (2012 edition)
NFPA 3 was the first nationally recognized document addressing commissioning for fire protection and life safety systems and was also the first nationally recognized document addressing integrated testing of fire protection systems. In addition to outlining a standardized approach for commissioning and integrated testing, NFPA 3 also developed standard definitions for the industry, which were desperately needed. Even the term “commissioning” in the fire protection field had very different meanings to different people. Common terminology and meanings are crucial to having people understand and coordinate with each other during commissioning. For example, commissioning was often confused with acceptance testing with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), which is very far from the truth. NFPA 3 defines fire protection and life safety commissioning as “a systematic process that provides documented confirmation that fire and life safety 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 requiring fire and life safety systems.”
The focus of this article is commissioning and integrated testing of new buildings and new systems. However, NFPA 3 also addresses commissioning of existing systems that have not been commissioned previously (retro-commissioning, RCx) and commissioning of existing systems that have previously been commissioned (re-commissioning, Re-Cx).
NFPA has since published a 2015 edition, but has broken commissioning and integrated testing into two separate documents. NFPA 3 (2015 Edition): Recommended Practice for Commissioning of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, and NFPA 4 (2015 Edition): Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing. The 2015 edition of NFPA 4 was upgraded to the level of standard in NFPA because the committee felt there was a need for a rigorous standard on integrated testing of fire protection and life safety systems. Standards have more adoptable and more enforceable language for reference in building and fire codes because they use terminology such as “shall” rather than the term “should” that is found in NFPA recommended practice documents. This article addresses critical facets of both commissioning and integrated testing.
NFPA 3 (both the 2012 and 2015 editions) defines a process for commissioning, but does not specifically detail how to test a particular fire protection or life safety system. Other NFPA standards provide information on how to functionally test specific fire protection and life safety systems, such as NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code for fire alarm systems.
Roles and responsibilities
The fire commissioning agent (FCxA) implements and leads the commissioning of the fire protection and life safety systems. In the capacity of owner’s representative, the FCxA provides another set of eyes and ears working in the owner’s best interest. Qualified FCxAs have an advanced knowledge of and experience with the installation and operation of the fire protection and life safety system(s) being commissioned.
The integrated testing agent (ITa) implements and leads the integrated testing of the fire protection and life safety systems to verify the proper interface and coordination between various fire protection and life safety systems. Qualified ITas also have an advanced knowledge of and experience with the installation, operation, and interfaces between the various fire protection and life safety systems being connected to each other. For example, fire alarm systems typically have different types of integration with other fire protection and life safety systems, such as sprinkler systems, smoke control systems, elevator controls, fans, card access systems, and emergency generators. The same person can be the FCxA and the ITa for a project, as long as he or she meets the qualifications for both positions.
The International Building Code (IBC) contains code requirements for special inspection of any smoke control system, which is analogous to commissioning. In IBC terminology the qualified commissioning agent may be referred to as the special inspector. The IBC also contains qualification requirements for special inspection agencies. So in regard to smoke control systems, the qualified FCxA commissioning smoke control is sometimes also referred to as the smoke control special inspector.
Commissioning of fire protection and life safety systems occurs in the design phase of the project as well as during the construction phase, with a comprehensive review and documentation of the commissioning process. Commissioning is not just showing up at the end of the project to test a system to see if it performs properly. For example, the FCxA reviews the design teams’ design documents, attends coordination meetings, reviews shop drawing submittals, reviews installation progress, reviews contractors’ pretest documents, and witnesses the systems perform in accordance with the commissioning plan.