Fire Side Chat: Commissioning Considerations Becoming More Critical

Commissioning is a process of documentation, adjustment, testing, verification and training, performed to ensure the facility operates in accordance with the owner’s documented project requirements and construction documents. As a fire systems integrator, knowing commissioning fundamentals helps meet expectations for your aspect of the project.

In August, the NFPA Standards Council approved the release of the first edition of NFPA 3, “Recommended Practice on Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems.” During the same meeting, the council also approved work to begin on a new document, NFPA 4, “Standard for Integrated Testing of Fire Protection Systems.”

What is commissioning and integrated testing? Many within the security and fire alarm industry would state that commissioning is verifying that the installed system is free of ground and shorts, and will work as it was designed. Integrated testing would be a component of this, or perhaps one in the same.

The NFPA Technical Committee that was formed several years ago to write NFPA 3 debated this question at length. At the end of the debate, integrated testing is but one component of commissioning. For the typical project a security integrator may design and install, commissioning as specified within NFPA 3 may never be considered. Integrated testing, on the other hand, will, especially if the integrator is working on a life-safety system. The system integrator should have an understanding of both.

It is important the system integrator is informed regarding these two documents as compliance may begin to be a requirement found in project specifications.

The 5 Goals of Commissioning

Commissioning is a process of documentation, adjustment, testing, verification and training, performed specifically to ensure that the finished facility operates in accordance with the owner’s documented project requirements and construction documents. It begins in predesign and continues through design, construction and the life of the facility. The commissioning process varies from the traditional concept of testing and start-up in that commissioning begins at the project inception and continues through design, construction and project closeout; and then throughout the facility’s operations phase.

NFPA 3 defines commissioning as, “A systematic process that provides documented confirmation that specific and interconnected 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 requirements of any applicable laws, regulations, codes and standards requiring fire and life safety systems.”

While this definition centers on life-safety systems, commissioning can be used for other types of projects as well, and began in part within the HVAC trade. Prior to the release of NFPA 3, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) published Guideline 1-200X, “HVAC&R Requirements for The Commissioning Process.”

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) issued Guideline 3-2005, “Exterior Enclosure Technical Requirements for the Commissioning Process.” NIBS has also released a number of other guidelines related to the commissioning of structure, electrical, lighting, interiors, plumbing and so forth. These organizations released the combined document, “The Commissioning Process.”

There are five goals commissioning should achieve:

  1. Provide a safe and healthy facility for employees and the public in a facility.
  2. Reduce operating cost. Improper operation usually induces more frequent maintenance and results in shorter life expectancy for the equipment.
  3. Improve the orientation and training of the staff that will operate and maintain the systems and equipment. Without design documentation, explicit diagrams and operating procedures, and opportunities for effective training, operations and maintenance staff will have difficulties
  4. Provide improved documentation. Include all information needed for operation, troubleshooting and renovation of the facility
  5. Meet the owner’s needs.

Commissioning is not required by any building or fire code at this time. NFPA 3 is a recommended practice, in that there are no mandatory requirements. However, a building owner may elect to have NFPA 3 used for a project. Commissioning should not be confused with construction management, contracting or engineering. The Commissioning Agent (CxA) will work with these professions, but is independent and reports directly to the owner.

NFPA 3 goes one step deeper in the process with a Fire Commissioning Agent (FCxA). A building owner may elect to only have an FCxA for the fire protection systems that are to be designed and installed, or if the project is large, have both a CxA and FCxA.

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About the Author


Shane Clary, Ph.D., is Security Sales & Integration’s “Fire Side Chat” columnist. He has more than 37 years of security and fire alarm industry experience. He serves on a number of NFPA technical committees, and is vice president of Codes and Standards Compliance for Pancheco, Calif.-based Bay Alarm Co.

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