By Matt Klaus
From the April 2017 Issue
Water-based fire protection systems are primarily designed to serve two purposes: provide property protection and life safety. In order to make sure these objectives are sustained for a building’s life cycle, an inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) program is vital. In addition to implementing an ITM program to meet fire code requirements, an ITM program is extremely valuable to facility managers because it keeps building occupants safe, reduces liability, and allows for accurate capital forecasting on fire protection systems.
When it comes to a standard of care for water-based fire protection system ITM program, NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems is the industry standard. NFPA 25 is adopted in many states through building and fire codes. In other instances, it is required by insurance underwriters and even private companies (hospitals, universities, retailers, etc.). NFPA 25 is commonly referred to as the “sprinkler system maintenance” document, but it covers much more than sprinkler systems.
While the design of certain water-based systems may be covered by installations standards like NFPA 14: Standard for the Installation of Standpipe and Hose Systems and NFPA 20: Standard for the Installation of Stationary Pumps for Fire Protection, due to the interconnection of these systems, all of the ITM requirements for these systems have been consolidated into a single standard: NFPA 25.
Scope Of NFPA 25
NFPA 25 therefore becomes a very important document to facility management. Before the facility manager dives into the various ITM tasks for their systems, it is imperative that they understand both the scope of the document and what the assigned roles and responsibilities are. The most common misconception is that NFPA 25 requires the person conducting an NFPA 25 inspection to confirm compliance with the original design documents. In reality, NFPA 25 inspections are intended to address wear and tear on the system, not recommissioning the system. Recommissioning the system is outside of the scope of an ITM inspection per NFPA 25.
The standard works off of the premise that the systems being inspected were deemed to comply with applicable codes and standards at the time of construction or last modification. This means that an ITM service provider coming to do an annual sprinkler system inspection is not looking to make sure that the correct sprinklers have been installed, spacing is correct, no obstruction issues exist, or that the correct density has been calculated for the system. All of those items are assumed to be compliant. The service provider conducting an inspection per NFPA 25 will be looking for damaged components, leaking components, rust, closed valves, paint on sprinklers, and other deficiencies to the system that have occurred since the day the building became occupied.
Where changes should be made to a system based on operational decisions (change in use, stored goods, storage height, etc.), NFPA 25 assigns the owner or their designated representative (often the facility manager), the responsibility of managing those changes. Assuming that the building originally complied with all the appropriate design standards, if a change of hazard, use, process, or storage takes place, the owner or their representative is responsible for acknowledging the change and determining if a system modification is needed. Although many facility managers rely on their service provider to identify these changes, that is explicitly outside of the role established for the service provider in NFPA 25.
In the simplest terms, NFPA 25 assigns “wear and tear” issues to the service provider and “management of change” issues to the owner and their building personnel. This becomes important because many owners or facility managers do not understand that the changes they’re making to their building can have an impact on fire protection systems. In these instances, the facility manager may need to ask their service provider to go above and beyond and perform a design evaluation or bring in an engineer to assess the impact of their changes or recommission one or more systems.
Beyond Sprinkler System Inspection
When it comes to carrying out the ITM activities in NFPA 25, most facility managers are aware of the required annual inspection for the sprinkler system. However, there are some other critical activities that need to be performed on a periodic basis that are frequently overlooked. This includes testing critical systems like the fire pump and standpipe systems.
Where installed, the fire pump is the lifeblood of the sprinkler system. If the fire pump does not operate as designed, the water reaching the sprinkler will be insufficient in flow and pressure. NFPA 25 requires the fire pump to be operated on either a weekly or monthly basis, depending on whether the pump is electric or diesel-driven. This operating test, commonly referred to as a churn test, does not require the flow of water but ensures that the pump turns on and is in working order.
In addition to the operating test is an annual flow test, which is performed to confirm that the fire pump still operates within an acceptable range when compared to its performance at the time of installation. This test requires the service provider to flow water up to 150% of the rated capacity of the pump, so being able to discharge the water without washing out soil, mulch, or plants on the site must be coordinated ahead of time.
Another critical fire protection system that is often neglected is the standpipe system. A standpipe system is used by the fire service for manual firefighting operations. Standpipe systems remain stagnant for long periods of time but are critical for property protection during a fire event. To ensure that these systems will be functional for firefighters during a fire, NFPA 25 requires a series of inspections and tests to be periodically conducted.
One of the most important standpipe inspections is simply the weekly visual inspection to confirm that the control valves associated with the standpipes are in the open position. This assures firefighters that when they open the hose valve on the fire floor, they will actually get the water they need. On the other end of the frequency spectrum is a five-year requirement to perform a flow test of the standpipe system. This test, while conducted fairly infrequently, allows for a confirmation that the standpipe system can still meet the hydraulic demand identified when the system was originally installed.
Of course there are dozens of additional ITM requirements associated with these systems, but getting comfortable with the systems and their functionality is critical for the facility manager. Knowing how far NFPA 25 asks the service provider to go in looking at these systems is also critical. Between properly managing change and conducting these activities as required by NFPA 25, the facility manager plays an important role in keeping the building occupants safe and keeping their systems in good working order.
Klaus is principal fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association. As part of his work, Klaus is the staff engineer responsible for NFPA sprinkler and commissioning documents.
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