Beyond Traditional Inspection and Testing of Fire-Alarm Systems

Ask a building owner, engineer or contractor what commissioning means, and you're likely to get a variety of answers. Some may say that commissioning focuses on the performance of a building's HVAC system. Others will say that it is glorified testing, adjusting and balancing. Some may even get closer to the industry definition and describe commissioning as a process that starts in the early pla...

By Jeffrey LaSalle, P.E., President, EwingCole, SAFE Consultants Div., Philadelphia May 1, 2004

Ask a building owner, engineer or contractor what commissioning means, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Some may say that commissioning focuses on the performance of a building’s HVAC system. Others will say that it is glorified testing, adjusting and balancing. Some may even get closer to the industry definition and describe commissioning as a process that starts in the early planning phases and continues throughout the life of a building.

Now ask about the commissioning of fire-alarm systems and you might receive some quizzical looks in response. What is fire-alarm system commissioning? How does it differ from what has traditionally been known as inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM)? When is it required? Who is responsible for it? What are its benefits?

To provide some answers to these questions, let’s first discuss fire-alarm system commissioning in the context of comprehensive building fire-safety performance.

Total building commissioning

Commissioning is more commonly associated with HVAC systems than with fire alarms. It is also more common to think of it in buildings with tight environmental tolerances or extremely clean atmospheres, such as R&D facilities and laboratories. But it is gaining popularity as a concept that applies to entire buildings and across facility types.

Increasing interest in energy efficiency and renewable resources has contributed to this heightened awareness and resulted in a greater focus on total building commissioning, which is directed at improving sustainability, workplace productivity and security. (For a description of the role of commissioning in sustainable design, go to the U.S. General Services Administration website at .) Building fire-safety systems can be considered a vital part of this comprehensive building systems approach.

While there may be different opinions about what commissioning means, and when it is necessary to make use of it, the HVAC community provides a handy working definition. ASHRAE Guideline 1-1996, The HVAC Commissioning Process, defines Commissioning as “the process of ensuring that systems are designed, installed, functionally tested and capable of being operated and maintained to perform in conformity with the design intent…”

To define the term in even greater detail, at its core, commissioning represents a true systems approach to building design and operation. Rather than relying on chance, the commissioning process provides a framework to ensure that all required parts of the system work properly and perform as intended and required. It also requires the active participation of several project stakeholders in the testing and acceptance process.

Already happening

The fire protection community has long adopted a systems approach to fire safety. Building fire-safety systems include structural and architectural systems; fire-detection and alarm-signaling systems; water-based suppression systems; special suppression systems; and smoke control systems. The fire-alarm system is at the core of the building fire-safety system, because it connects all the other systems and serves as the interface between the building and its users.

In this context, building fire-alarm system commissioning can be thought of as a series of activities that provide the checks and balances necessary to ensure that the total building fire-safety system:

  • complies with minimum code requirements.

  • meets the owner’s needs

  • interfaces successfully with other building systems.

  • is installed in accordance with construction documents

  • performs as intended.

  • can be operated and managed over the life of the building.

Commissioning vs. ITM

While one cannot find the word “commissioning” related to fire-alarm systems in the International Building Code (2003 Edition), NFPA 5000 Building Code (2003 Edition) or the National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72, 2002 Edition), the requirements for fire-alarm system ITM are clearly spelled out in the codes and standards. NFPA 72 provides comprehensive requirements for testing individual components, connections and frequencies and for test documentation.

Acceptance testing for new fire-alarm systems generally occurs at the end of construction, following the completion of connections between the fire-alarm system and other building systems. For projects with a tight construction schedule, managing the progress of activities by different contractors is imperative to ensuring that the fire-alarm system can be properly tested. If schedules for completion of certain activities are allowed to slip, or if all contractors are allowed to work to the same end date, the fire-alarm system testing can become a chaotic endeavor with the potential for missing key interfaces.

One of the primary goals of the commissioning process is making sure that all system components are properly installed and that system interfaces are operational. In the parlance of commissioning, these activities are referred to as installation qualification (IQ) and operational qualification (OQ). Documentation for these activities is comprehensive and requires sign-off by multiple parties. A brief case study can illustrate the importance of these activities.

A study in IQ and OQ

A single interlock preaction sprinkler system protected a portion of a client’s building. The system had been installed by a contractor several years earlier, and according to the client, had never experienced any problems. The system was provided with a dedicated releasing control panel and addressable spot smoke detectors. The smoke detectors were generally arranged in a cross-zoned pattern, which required activation of two detectors in adjacent zones to energize the solenoid valve controlling the preaction valve release, thereby allowing the valve to open and water to flow into the system piping.

Routine ITM was performed on the system by a second contractor, who would dispatch one technician to deal with the alarm portion of the system and a second technician to work on the sprinkler portion of the system. These technicians were on site on different days. This practice went on for at least two years.

Following an inadvertent alarm, it was discovered that the system piping contained no water; the preaction valve never operated. Upon further investigation, the solenoid valve was discovered to be malfunctioning; it never released the preaction valve.

Technical problems aside, this incident reveals potential flaws of the ITM process. One is the lack of communication and coordination among technicians responsible for maintaining different parts of the building fire-safety system. Clearly, the “handoff” between fire alarm and sprinkler portions of the system did not take place, which the owner only became aware of by the inadvertent system alarm.

But another critical flaw is the potential lack of oversight in the ITM process. At a minimum, commissioning introduces more structure and more people into the acceptance process, increasing the likelihood that such system glitches will be caught.

When is commissioning required?

Even though fire-alarm system commissioning is not required by the major building codes, many institutions and organizations are introducing its use for life-safety systems. Perhaps most common is commissioning of smoke management systems (ASHRAE Guideline 5-1994, RA 2001). Any building smoke management or control system requires many potential interfaces between the fire-alarm system and exhaust fans, supply fans, dampers, doors, windows, elevators and fire-suppression systems.

In addition to the IQ and OQ portions of the commissioning process, there is a third major component of commissioning: performance qualification. PQ is often referred to as functional performance testing. FPT is the stress test or validation of the system. Depending on the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), this could require actual smoke tests. In any case, FPT of a smoke control system requires a detailed evaluation of many aspects of the building fire-alarm system.

NFPA 72 requires each installed initiating device, circuit, notification appliance and panel to be tested upon acceptance and at regular intervals throughout the system’s life. These tests are intended to cover IQ and OQ activities. Specific performance parameters, such as detector response sensitivity, smoke entry, audibility, strobe light distribution and critical system interfaces, are mandated and fall under FPT requirements.

Also, increasing use of performance-based fire protection design is creating an urgent need to commission the whole building fire-safety system. Many PB solutions rely in part on detection of fires of a given size range followed by occupant notification, activation of other systems and certain assumptions about occupant behavior. Ensuring the validity of the assumptions and design goals and verifying system interfaces and functionality become essential.

Who commissions?

Commissioning activities are generally performed by a number of individuals, including the owner, design professional, AHJ, contractor and perhaps an independent commissioning authority.

One theme of the ASHRAE guidelines is the importance of interrelationships among team members and the need for coordinated planning as early as possible in the design process.

A major difference between the commissioning and ITM processes is the designation of a commissioning authority. Unlike the traditional acceptance testing process, in which the sign-off is often left to the contractor, the commissioning sign-off on system acceptance is a multi-party process that requires extensive planning and coordination. Increasingly, the commissioning authority is a third-party agent of the owner who is independent of the design professional and contractor.

One potential benefit of having a third-party commissioning authority is neutrality in resolving disputes throughout the process. This is not to say that the commissioning agent is the final arbiter of decisions; rather, he or she is a disinterested party and can offer alternatives that the design engineer and contractor cannot.

But overall, the most significant benefit of commissioning is the development of a cooperative design and construction process. As opposed to the adversarial process that too often occurs among different members of the design and construction team, the commissioning process fosters an honest dialogue among all parties. The involvement of all stakeholders throughout the process can go a long way toward avoiding misunderstandings and disputes later. This increases the likelihood of a project that is a model of success for all parties.

Commissioning Certification Program

After four years of development, the Building Commissioning Assn. (BCA), Edmonds, Wash., unveiled its new building commissioning certification program this past April. Successful completion of the program will lead to accreditation as Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP).

BCA is holding a formal rollout of the process in conjunction with the National Conference on Building Commissioning (NCBC), which is to be held in Atlanta in May.

BCA officials are looking to launch a certification program that relies on already existing practices in building commissioning. “From the start, our goal has been to create a program that is accepted as the industry standard and conforms to established criteria within the professional certification community,” said Bryan Welsh, chairman of the BCA certification committee. “We think we have succeeded, and it’s time to put it to work.”

The program was launched and supported with contract funds provided by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. The first round of testing will be held on July 31 in New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, Seattle and Las Vegas.

Welsh noted that the application and examination recently completed its beta testing, with a number of adjustments made on both the certification application and the actual examination. Additionally, input from BCA members during a comprehensive survey late last fall resulted in some adjustments to the eligibility criteria that were originally proposed.

“Literally hundreds of people have participated in developing this program,” said BCA President Michael Weiss. “Over the past few years, practitioners have provided important input through public forums and discussions, surveys and specific communication to the certification committee. A great group of volunteers worked hard for several days on writing test questions, and a twelve-person beta group put the process through its paces. This has been truly a consensus-based process.”

Princeton, N.J.-based Knapp and Assocs. International, a leading certification consulting firm, helped with all phases of the program to ensure that it complied with accepted certification standards. The Washington, D.C.-based law firm Dorn and Klamp supplied specialized legal advice. Finally, a contract was recently signed with Schroeder Measurement Technologies, Dunadin, Fla., to provide ongoing test services.

The program will be managed under the direction of the Building Commissioning Certification Board (BCCB), a five-member board that is appointed by the BCA Board of Directors. Dana Murphy-Love, CAE, has been named BCA’s director of certification. Murphy-Love formerly managed a certification program for the International Assn. for Exhibition Management based in Dallas.

“We want the CCP designation after our names to mean something,” Welsh said. “After all is said and done, the important measurement will be how well the credential is received by the owners who retain us to do the commissioning work for them. That has been our goal.”

BCA is a non-profit organization composed of commissioning providers, architects, engineers, contractors, building owners and other individuals and organizations with an interest in building commissioning. For more information, visit BCA on the web at