Opportunities for new business in the commercial/industrial/institutional market continue to grow for electrical contractors. Two in particular—commissioning and integrated testing of fire protection systems and mass notification systems (MNS)—have a lot of potential for growth and new business.
Although commissioning is not a fresh subject, the development of new documentation has made the need for it more apparent as an important step to ensure integrated fire protection systems will perform correctly when called on. As you are well aware, this documentation is now available. In late 2011, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released the 2012 NFPA 3, Recommended Practice for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems. Now that it is in its next code cycle, it is being divided into two documents. NFPA 3 will cover the commissioning process, and the new NFPA 4 will cover the testing of integrated fire protection and life safety systems. NFPA 4 will be released in late 2014 as a standard.
This subject is not without controversy. There were hours of discussion about whether NFPA 3 should be a standard, making commissioning a requirement or if it should be a recommended practice with guidelines for commissioning if owners decide to proceed. For now, it will be solely up to owners to decide if they want to commission their fire protection systems.
Why should a system be commissioned? In an ideal world, if everyone did their jobs on all their respective systems, everything would be tested to ensure the integration works properly. But, in reality, codes today do not specifically say who is responsible for verifying all the documentations (a big part of commissioning) and performing the integrated systems testing. Historically, a lot of it was left to the fire alarm company. It makes sense that if, let’s say, a smoke detector connected to a fire alarm was going to perform some other fire safety function when actuated, the fire alarm company would verify the systems work end to end, right? However, how many fire alarm technicians are qualified to test dampers, air handlers, fire pumps, generators, etc.? Many times, each individual trade tests its portion of the system, and the integration of the two slips through the cracks and is never checked.
Another controversy is that, during the 2013 NFPA 72 code cycle, the technical committees were instructed to not go beyond their scope and to remove requirements for testing other systems. NFPA4 will cover this area when it is released, but for now, there is a gap in the requirements. It will not be as clear (not that it was all that clear before) who is going to test the interface. There also has been controversy regarding if retesting commissioning systems should be done at some interval, such as every five or 10 years. At this time, it looks like it will remain a recommendation, not a requirement, for the next code cycle.
Commissioning agents must be qualified to manage a team to ensure all systems work together as required and document this information. Testing agents must be qualified to manage a team to perform the testing of the integrated systems. Commissioning and testing integrated systems presents a great opportunity, primarily in larger facilities, but only if the owner sees the value in it. Once the economy picks up again, I believe you will see many more commissioning jobs become available. Now is the time to prepare for it.
The other opportunity I mentioned was MNSs. Military bases and educational institutions are leading the push for better notification in an emergency. Today, many manufacturers host seminars and webinars on their products. Check them out. There are many possibilities to consider for an MNS. Proper planning and design is essential for a successful program. Determination of the objectives, potential threats and solutions, and how to integrate them, should top the list of subjects that need to be addressed. More than ever before, you will be working with the information technology departments and sound specialists.
If you have not already started using the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, you will want to get familiar with it. The new chapter on emergency communications systems details requirements for the installation of these systems, which include MNSs. There are no model code requirements to install them, but there are requirements on how to install them correctly.
I’d like to wish you all happy holidays and a very prosperous new year! I look forward to sharing some thoughts with you in 2013.