Automated and Remote Inspection and Testing of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems
Remote inspections and automated testing were trends that were gaining momentum in codes and standards and field application for several years. Then in the first half of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages and strict lockdowns were being enforced, it pushed this trend to progress even faster as many more realized its potential. During this time, the development of a proposed new standard NFPA 915, Standard on Remote Inspections, continued. While the proposed NFPA 915 will be broadly applicable to any inspection or testing allowed by the AHJ, there are already provisions in NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, that allow for inspections and tests to be conducted in an automated manner.
Automated inspection and testing can be a very useful option but what steps must be taken to ensure it is equivalent to a person being at the location? If a fire pump demonstrates an abnormal condition during a test what must the response be and how is the condition corrected? Let’s take a look at the requirements in NFPA 25 to allow the use of technology for automated inspection and testing and the criteria to ensure it meets the same objectives as when they are conducted in person.
The first thing to address is when and where automated inspection and testing can be utilized. NFPA 25 does not limit the use provided automated inspection equipment can meet the intent of a required visual inspection and automated testing equipment can produce the same action as required by the testing requirements. Beyond that there are a few other criteria specific to when automated inspection and testing is utilized such as where automated tests do not discharge water that at least once every 3 years the discharge must be visually observed. At that point it becomes a cost-benefit analysis for the stakeholders and primarily the building owner. Activities required at greater frequencies might present more of a benefit while those required less frequently might see less of a benefit.
Let’s review the requirements specific to automated and remote inspections. To start, automated test devices must be listed for the purpose of the test being conducted if they are subjected to system pressure or are integral to the operation of the system during a fire event. The equipment must be such that its failure does not impair the operation of the system unless that failure can be indicated by a supervisory signal to the fire alarm system. Similarly, any failure of a component or system to pass an automated test must result in an audible supervisory signal and failure of automated inspection and testing equipment must result in a trouble signal. The monitoring and signals required ensure that instances where there are issues with the automated testing or inspection equipment or an unsatisfactory inspection or test result notification will be made and the situation can be remedied. The testing frequencies of NFPA 25 must be maintained regardless of the functionality of automated testing equipment and a record of all inspection and testing must be maintained in accordance with the requirements that apply to all inspection and testing.
One of the benefits of automated inspection and testing is that there is not necessarily a need for personnel on site. However, certain circumstances might need to be addressed quickly. This is specified for no-flow testing of fire pumps. This testing is required on a weekly or monthly basis depending on the type of pump and the building it is located in. The 2020 edition of NFPA 25 requires that when remotely monitored automated testing of the no-flow fire pump test is being performed qualified personnel must be able to respond to an abnormal condition within 5 minutes. In all reality, this means that a qualified person must be located on site. For the proposed 2023 edition which will be approved this summer that timeframe is to be changed to 4 hours. This additional time means that someone does not need to be immediately on site but can respond quickly enough to take the needed corrective action.
The use of technologies to perform automated inspections and testing will only grow in future years. As it becomes more widely used, as building owners, service providers, and AHJs gain more experience, and the use expands into other areas of fire protection and life safety with the future publication of NFPA 915, it is very likely that the requirements will continue evolve