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An FM's Guide to Fire Protection System Inspections
Whether you are enlisting the help of a service provider or doing most of the work yourself, it is important for you to know the basics of fire safety system inspection. Staying code compliant and protecting your building and occupants is a vitally important responsibility. What do you need to do to properly inspect your fire safety systems? For systems that work in conjunction with one another, it is often important to test them together to improve your odds of preventing catastrophe for your building and its occupants.
When to Inspect Sprinklers
Besides the obvious reasons for maintaining fire sprinkler systems on a tight schedule, regularly scheduled checks can save your organization money in the long run. Sticking to a clear schedule for inspections will allow you to keep your system up to date and ready for use in the case of an emergency.
“There are a lot of buildings that have been neglected for years, and all of a sudden, the city comes in and says you need your sprinkler system checked,” says Joe Guerra of the Dallas-based sprinkler inspection service provider American Fire Protection Group. Those buildings that don’t keep up pay much more in the long run.
Providing regular inspections and maintenance for sprinkler systems can cost roughly $1,000-5,000 a year depending on the size and needs of a building. But disregarding this important practice can come back to bite you, with some buildings needing upwards of $20,000 to overcome past inattention, explains Guerra.
Inspection for fire sprinklers is an ongoing process requiring different actions over time. Some tasks will be easy for your facilities staff to do on their own. Other modes of inspection will be more involved, often requiring the use of a fire safety service provider to deliver a greater overview of the sprinkler system.
FMs can take care of their sprinklers during weekly and monthly inspections, explains Guerra. Weekly inspections will involve quick checks like making sure control valves are open, the heating works properly to prevent freezing and gauges are functioning correctly. Each month, you should also check parts of the sprinkler system that are electrically supervised, as well as the basic functionality of accessible and visible components.
Average Failure Rate by Device Type
BuildingReports, a fire and life safety compliance reporting technology firm, has listed in its annual Fire and Life Safety Benchmarking Report a compilation of data on inspections and device failure of fire safety systems in a variety of building types.
Based on the names of the inspection software they sell, the various types of devices covered in the report are grouped into five categories that address similar functionality. These equipment types are listed as the following:
- SafetyScan: portable fire extinguishers, lighting, personal protective and safety equipment in any facility
- SprinklerScan: sprinkler systems and water-based fire protection systems
- SecurityScan: burglar and security systems, access control, CCTV and nurse call stations
- SuppressionScan: clean agent, gas detection and kitchen hood systems
- FireScan: control equipment, auxiliary functions, monitoring equipment and notification appliances
In the accompanying graph, safety equipment including fire extinguishers are most prone to failure, followed by sprinklers and water-based protection systems. Notification systems were among the least defective device types listed in the report.
Enlisting a Sprinkler Inspector
Beyond basic checks, you will need to perform more complicated and time-consuming inspections that ensure all of the mechanisms of sprinkler systems function. These should happen quarterly, annually and in multiple-year increments.
“In a quarterly inspection, you’re going in and checking the functionality of the switches and making sure your supervised valves and flow switches are reporting to the panel,” says Guerra. “You’re basically looking over the system for small defects.”
Annual inspections involve a full run-through of the system, looking more specifically at the hardware that a sprinkler system hinges on for proper day-to-day functionality. In these inspections, “you walk the entire system looking for defective sprinkler heads, rusted sprinkler pipes and anything that looks like it could impair the system while going through the same procedures you did with the quarterly inspection,” Guerra explains.
You get a longer period of time in between the more involved and invasive sprinkler inspection checks. Because they more adequately evaluate the inner workings and quality of a system, they are only needed every three and five years.
On topic: Emergency Management Planning
“In the third year inspection you have the dry pipe valves and preaction systems where you would do full trips on them and make sure you’re getting the right water timing. Do this in addition to what you do for annual inspections,” says Guerra. “During the five-year inspection, you are taking apart the check valves and pulling systems apart to make sure there’s no kind of obstructions or organic matter in the piping. If you have fire pumps, they are required to be flowed off the roof every five years in multi-story buildings. Check the functionality of the standpipes and pressure reducing valves. If you have dry standpipes, they need to be hydrotested.”
Finding a trusted fire inspection service provider to take care of these advanced inspections is key to ensuring your sprinklers work during a crisis.
Connecting and Communicating with Alarms
For facilities facing a fire threat, alarms and notification systems are perhaps the most important component of fire protection systems because they provide the first alert of a threat and they often communicate with other systems like sprinklers. Thus, it is critical to provide regular inspection checks of alarms and notification systems, especially in conjunction with sprinklers.
While the letter of the law regarding mandated alarm system testing will vary city by city and state by state, NFPA 72 provides a strong baseline for addressing fire alarm system testing. Every week you should visually inspect the system, particularly at the panel, any lights and the power source.
Because most alarm systems work hand-in-hand with sprinkler systems, you should inspect how they work in conjunction with one another. For quarterly inspections, testing should scale outward from weekly checks, inspecting sprinkler systems that are connected to alarms and making sure they work together.
Semiannual testing goes even further than quarterly testing by more closely inspecting the electrical mechanisms of sprinklers, as well as batteries and load voltage of the alarm system. Annual inspections add testing and visually inspecting the alert sounds themselves, the various detectors your system employs, voice notification and any other part that relies on electrical operation.
The exact nature of these inspections will vary under monitored and unmonitored systems, so be sure to consult with a fire safety professional to enact a facility-specific plan of action for your systems.
For fire extinguishers, OSHA requires regular inspection, maintenance and testing. The most basic of these involves visually inspecting portable extinguishers or hoses each month. Beyond that, OSHA mandates annual maintenance checks on portable fire extinguishers. Stored pressure extinguishers are exempt from these internal examinations, but you should record when you perform this maintenance and keep the record available for review for at least a year after the last entry or life of the shell.
For dry chemical extinguishers that require 12-year hydrostatic tests, OSHA calls for emptying and maintaining them every six years. Finally, it is important to have a backup plan in place for when you are performing maintenance and extinguishers are out of commission. You will need some kind of alternate and equivalent means of protection.
Don’t Forget Smoke Control
One of the most overlooked fire safety systems is smoke control, in part because regulation hadn’t been codified until more recently compared to other systems and also because they tend to be out of sight.
“Today, buildings are mainly using a stairwell pressurized only smoke control system, and the other main form would be used for malls or atriums, where you generally have three stories or more open to each other through a common communicating space,” says Chris Leaver, Senior Fire Protection Engineer at Summit Fire Consulting in St. Paul, MN.
Buildings with open spaces – like atriums, for example – need the most sophisticated smoke control systems. For the most part, they will already have a system in place, but these types of facilities need to make sure that they fulfill building requirements as codes and standards change because updates to codes now require proof that they operate properly.
Buildings with open spaces need the most sophisticated smoke control systems.
“When you have an atrium or big, open, vertical spaces, they usually need to have a smoke control system designed to handle it,” says Leaver. “For smoke control inspections, we’ll usually go in at the end of a new construction or retrofit involving remodeling. At the end of the project, we are tasked with commissioning to make sure it is tested so the city can spot check and go through everything.”
For buildings with open, vertical spaces that need to make greater use out of an atrium-like area, it might require more thorough examination. If a remodel puts more people on the floor of an atrium throughout the day, a city might require a different smoke control system because of increased activity, Leaver explains.
FMs have an obligation to look at the individual systems that protect buildings against fires, but it is important to remember that they are nevertheless part of the entire facility ecosystem, and actions meant for one part of a building can impact that of others. This is especially the case with some commonly overlooked components of fire safety.
“Because an office space might undergo a lot of changes, you have to make sure that when you change something you are updating where the exits go or that you aren’t blocking exits,” says Leaver.
Stair and exit access is an often overlooked part of fire safety in buildings. Small changes in an office area’s layout can affect occupants’ ability to find and use at least two exits in the event of an emergency.
“People relocate walls or change the space, and they are often smart enough to update the sprinklers for the walls and move them if needed, but they may not remember to change out exit signs the right way or create a corridor,” Leaver explains.
Moreover, older buildings that have used fire protective building materials can be susceptible as FMs make changes to the space. Over time, altering walls and other structural elements to a building that have some level of fireproofing can undo some of its protective abilities.
“You start to lose the integrity of potential fire-rated construction, and over time, if you had structural fireproofing and people have patched things up or hit it, it can become weakened because you might have moved up work and didn’t put dampers in or didn’t seal up penetrations for a new pipe,” says Leaver.
For organizations that want to make a greater effort in ensuring compliance in their existing buildings with fire safety systems, retro-commissioning (RCx) is a process that provides building owners with a representative referred to as the fire commissioning agent (FCxA) who organizes the inspection, testing and maintenance of fire safety systems.
NFPA 3 defines commissioning as “a systematic process that provides documented confirmation that building 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.” RCx includes analysis of current systems and the development of improvements and inspection, testing and maintenance plans.
Much of the responsibility for RCx is coordinated through the building owner and FCxA, but FMs play an important role as well. FMs and operations personnel are then expected to do the following:
- Attend systems training sessions
- Review and comment on the Owner’s Project Requirements
- Review and comment on the systems manuals
- Organize, coordinate and implement system inspection, testing and maintenance as required by the systems manuals
Justin Feit was the Associate Editor of BUILDINGS.
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