Benefits of using professionals for smoke damper investigation and repair services

Smoke damper testing is often overlooked, which can lead to dangerous situations in buildings should a fire incident occur. Testing, though, is a complex process and is best left to professionals who know and understand the codes.

By John Herboth October 4, 2022
Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI


Learning Objectives

  • Discuss changes in enforcement for different types of facilities.
  • Identify best practices in setup, ongoing maintenance testing, access and record documentation.
  • Discuss why damper and fire alarm relay devices need to be regularly tested.


Fire and Life Safety Insights

  • Smoke damper testing in buildings can get overlooked, which leads to products that are defective and/or performing well below their capabilities.
  • The process for smoke damper testing is complex and should only be handled by experienced professionals who are familiar with dampers and the codes behind them.

There are many different types of dampers, components and purposes for fire life safety dampers. Everything from the standard setup for a fire smoke damper that is clearly labeled, color coded and can be tested and serviced easily, to the opposite.

In most cases, especially in buildings where dampers have not ever received periodic testing ever, which is the most likely case, testers can run into a gauntlet of issues from bad installation practices, outdated components, unknown directly replaceable products, defeated devices/components, terrible access to inaccessible dampers and high failures rates of damper assemblies or motors in the 25 to 50% range.

If the locations and quantity of dampers in a facility are unknown, it is likely there are many dampers that will not operate as intended if there is a fire or smoke event. The different types of dampers serve as vital components to help compartmentalize fire, heat and smoke so a building’s occupants have time to evacuate a building. The continuity of the fire and smoke rated barriers relies on damper components and assemblies doing their job, if there is a weak point, it will be exploited. Damper motors fail consistently. Given enough time, the fire damper function was not checked by the installer and fire damper relays can be wired incorrectly.

Quality FSD Configuration. Courtesy: Larry Felker/Belimo from our previous presentation.

Compact FSD Configuration. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI

Fire Damper Access. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI

Making damper testing a priority

The reason most dampers haven’t been tested is it has not been made a priority, it takes time, effort and ability to get them tested. Priority takes enforcement from the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), direction from a facility manager who knows their stuff or a professional to recommend and guide the process. The larger the quantity of dampers, the more time, effort and money it will take to complete testing on the typical 4-year cycle to meet code requirements, unless it is a hospital, which is every six years. Smoke control systems are another animal that require more frequent testing and verification depending on if they are dedicated (every six months) or nondedicated (every 12 months).

Enforcement, though, has been changing at least in the NW region over the last four years in Washington, Oregon and Idaho with the expectation for facilities teams and building owners to know what they have, get it tested and documented.

Suddenly, assisted living, memory care, transitional care type facilities have been asked to get this done in 60 days, by the next yearly inspection or a rare occasion in 30 days due to a long list of deficiencies. Enforcement though has not been consistent regionally and I have seen it focused primarily on high-risk buildings due to occupant type and density.

Poor Fire Damper Installation. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI

Fused FSD. Courtesy: Bruce Gilpin/NWESI

Compromised Fire Rated Access Hatch. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI

Deliverables for smoke damper testing

Depending on abilities, available time and willingness to be in tight and dirty spaces, you can do most of the leg work to identify the locations, types of dampers and condition of dampers assemblies plus their components in a facility as operations and maintenance personnel. There are requirements though for testing in most states ranging from certified testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) professional, certified by the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET) in inspection/testing level 2, a very specific ISO/IEC 17024 accredited certification currently only available to sheet metal union members or a professional engineer to lead the effort.

Outside of being qualified, below is a short list for everyone as a baseline for deliverables to meet internally or externally when doing this type of work:

  • Provide unique identification # and field label by building, floor, HVAC unit service #, service type, device type, damper #
    • SYB-L1-AHU2-RA-FSD-24 for health care type building with lots of dampers
    • FSD-L1-22 for an assisted living site.
  • Have clearly identified labels in the field damper access locations showing “FSD/FD/SD/etc. ACCESS”
    • Confirm local/regional code on labeling requirements. Typical is ½-inch lettering size/font
  • Provide marked up mechanical HVAC layout drawing set preferred or floorplan drawing if none available with the matching identification numbers shown for the location of the damper with the provided testing spreadsheet.
  • Provide a spreadsheet with the individual unique damper #, room location, components, what is needed to access the component, testing notes like if equipment needs to be shut down, scheduling required due to space or occupant impacts, failure notes including component details for replacement and contractor required to repair and even potentially what electrical circuit/panel info or fire alarm relay number. Inspector initials, date and damper pass/fail. For fire dampers, this should include model number and temp rating of the fusible link. For actuators it should also include the torque rating.
  • Photos of failed components and assemblies to help provide specific component setups and failures so functionally correct replacement parts can be provided.

As a facility operator, if you only just get to the location, photos of the type of dampers and the total quantity is a great start to hand off to a professional who can then get an estimate. Professionals can often provide a quote from that information along with access details for what is may take to perform functional testing of all the known dampers, with the caveat that expectation wise the project could get significantly more complicated and expensive due to access issues, failure investigation time and documentation needed.

I often price projects as time and materials with a set not to exceed budget to start for untested buildings or ones with poor to no drawings. New buildings can be fixed price on the testing and documentation side. Daily check-ins are necessary at the start of a project to manage expectations with what is being found in the field. If negligent items are found during testing, then the conversation changes. Now it’s about helping the client navigate the current conditions of their life safety systems and components, make an action plan, investigate further, get other necessary parties involved and bring in the AHJ to discuss the corrections as well as plan any recommended or required life safety mitigation efforts.

For example, during a three-building small campus testing started fine in the newest building. However, in the next two the fire smoke damper relays were not tied in. The fire alarm control panel was replaced almost 10 years ago and all the dampers stayed open during an event. With some direct collaboration with the fire life safety maintenance provider, the owner reps and the AHJ, after months of diligent testing and corrections, the site stayed open with no impact to occupants and reasonable requirements by the AHJ due to our forthright interactions.

Attic Access. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI

HVAC Shaft and Fire Damper Access. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI

FSD/FD Project Drawing Markups. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI

FSD/FD Project Spreadsheet Example. Courtesy: John Herboth/AEI



Smoke damper testing best left to professionals

If testing fire smoke dampers in a building with a lot of unknowns without a lot of experience, do not test dampers in high airflow locations or with large HVAC equipment until shutdown safeties have been checked. Large mass inertia fan wheels can cause extensive damage. While the code requires damper testing to be done with HVAC units in operation, do not risk collapsing/exploding ductwork, damaging equipment or making the system inoperable due to an unforeseen issue.

I do not recommend inexperienced personnel testing dampers without some level of experienced oversight that can help plan testing activities for a successful outcome. The larger the building means more variables and a greater need for an experienced professional to lead a team to perform fire smoke damper testing and repair services.

There aren’t enough experienced professionals out there for the hundreds of millions of square feet of building space in the U.S. and the tens of millions of dampers that are untested in those buildings.

If you are an mechanical installer, TAB provider, commissioning provider, fire life safety alarm/maintenance provider during a new building construction, the contract or owner representative should be informed about periodic testing requirements. They also should know what you or your team can do to help meet those requirements and make sure for new buildings that things are scheduled and contracted to get tested by the end of the 1-year warranty period. For existing buildings, look at what is already in the field and talk with an appropriate party in a helpful manner about their dampers. See if they could use some guidance someone with experience.

This article was adapted from the AABC TAB Talk Webinar, Fire Smoke Damper Testing and Fire Life Safety Systems Maintenance at Your Facility presented by John Herboth, PE, BET-CP, Affiliated Engineers Inc.; Larry Felker, Belimo Americas; and Troy Byers, CxA, Byers LLP.


Affiliated Engineers is a CFE Media content partner.

Author Bio: John Herboth, PE, CxA, BET-CP, EMP, is a senior commissioning engineer at Affiliated Engineers Inc. Since 2018 he was actively involved in leading fire life safety testing and inspection services at NorthWest Engineering Service, Inc. where he started his commissioning career in late 2007. He currently serves as the northwest chapter president of the building commissioning association (BCxA). He believes that sharing project successes, failures, and best practices is a professional duty.