Fire & Life Safety: Commissioning Defined

Feb. 11, 2013
Know your terms and what commissioning means

Q. Isn’t “commissioning” another name for the “acceptance test?”

A. No. In the past, commissioning may have been used generically to describe the final inspection and approval of a project by the owner, engineer, or the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ)—a more ‘professional’ way of saying “final inspection” or “final approval.” Today, commissioning is a test performed by a qualified individual hired by the owner of the building. Commissioning has never been a term defined or used by the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NFPA 72). The test required before approval of the local AHJ is more properly called an “acceptance test” and is to be performed by a qualified fire alarm installation company or individual. After the installation company has performed the test of the system, they will notify the local AHJ that the system is ready for the AHJ to verify proper installation and sign-off on the completed installation.

The AHJ’s job is to verify that the system was installed in accordance with the approved plans and specifications and meets the minimum requirements of the adopted codes and standards. To do so, they may witness technicians spot checking critical functions and features, or the AHJ may require the installing company perform a complete 100 percent test for their benefit/amusement. Satisfied the system meets code requirements, they will indicate their approval/acceptance of the system by signing the Record of Completion form you provide for this purpose. Some jurisdictions have their own forms they use to indicate approval. Whatever form is used, be sure to get an official copy for your records.

Q. Then, technically, what is “commissioning”?

A. When a commissioning is performed, it is at the request of the owner and performed by a qualified/certified Commissioning Agent (CA) hired by the owner. The CA’s job is to make sure the system meets the owner’s performance criteria established during the design phase of the building project and that all systems work together as described by the agreed upon criteria. Certainly getting the approval of the local AHJ is required and most of the owner-required items such as proper sprinkler supervision, HVAC fan control and elevator recall will be also be required by the building code. However, some of the things verified by the CA will be requirements specific to the owner, such as the type of communication method to be used. While the local inspector must accept any code-specified method, the owner may have specified that the system use the company’s private data network to ensure “nearly instantaneous communication to their loss-prevention department” allowing for redundant cellular communications to a remote central station. Throughout the project, it is the CA’s job to make sure there are no conflicts between trades and the specific operation of all building systems will function together as intended.

Q. How do I find out what the commissioning criteria will be for a building?

A. The commissioning requirements are determined long before construction begins and will be spelled out in the “construction documents.” Only very large projects are expected to have a CA and only the largest fire alarm companies will ever bid on projects of this scale.

Q. So to be clear, a “100 percent acceptance test” as required by NFPA 72, is supposed to be done by the alarm contractor before calling the local AHJ for their approval?

A. Yes. In fact, NFPA 72 requires that you verify this successful 100 percent test by sending a completed copy of a “Record of Completion” (except for the signatures) to the AHJ when requesting their final approval. Commissioning, if applicable, will be performed on all of the building’s systems, by an agent of the owner, certified and/or qualified to do these types of evaluations.