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Life-safety systems for commercial buildings Q&A: Don’t overlook basics like inspection, maintenance

What are the basic needs of a commercial building in terms of life-safety and electrical systems?

When you lose power, your emergency lights that show you your egress path have to stay on for 90 minutes, your exit signs have to stay on, and your fire alarm has to stay operable. All of these life-safety systems have to continue to work even if you lose power.

Relative to life-safety, if you are a new occupant of an older building, what should you be asking?

The building is going to be designed to have life-safety. But more often than you might think, even in large buildings, nobody checks these systems once the buildings are turned over and sold. The fire alarm and emergency lighting should be inspected several times a year. If there is a generator, it should be put on a test and a tune-up cycle with an oil change. Same thing with UPS (uninterrupted power source) systems. The batteries are only good for three or four years and need to be replaced regularly.

Also check to make sure that the emergency power system isn’t overloaded and that you aren’t trying to power too much equipment with it.

Emergency lighting has to stay at full brilliancy for 90 minutes. If powered by battery, it will just barely give you 90 minutes. Larger buildings often use generators to power life-safety systems, and these require additional code requirements.

Ask to see the inspection logs for your life-safety systems. If they don’t exist, you need to schedule a full test as soon as possible to ensure that these critical life-safety systems are in working order.

Given your experience, what are some of the problem areas that people don’t pay enough attention to and really should?

Many new occupants don’t realize that when they opt to rent an office space “as is,” the emergency lighting and exit signs and other important life-safety systems have not been upgraded. The electrical code is revised every three years, so it’s easy to see how many code cycles and how many improvements have been overlooked.

The buyer of a commercial office building recently asked Interstate to create a due diligence report listing potential problems with the building’s life-safety systems. We came up with a list of items that needed to be fixed either immediately or in the future. Much of the building had no emergency lighting, and where there was emergency lighting, the batteries were so old they didn’t operate anymore. They were also lacking a sufficient number of exit signs and fire alarms.

On an even more basic level, many businesses don’t pay enough attention to testing the fire alarm and life-safety equipment they do have.

When does it make sense to ask for input from an electrical contractor or engineering firm?

I would recommend that a company considering renting an existing space bring in an electrical contractor to do a walk-through before they sign the lease. We see many buildings where literally nothing has been done to upgrade the life-safety systems in 20 or 30 years.

It is particularly important to know the status of the fire alarm system. We were asked to test a fire alarm for a client who had just moved into a space. Our test and inspection showed that what was there worked, but based on DB meter tests we determined that the alarm wasn’t audible in the back of the warehouse portion of the building – a major safety concern.

We also check to make sure that all the components are clean and free of dirt and dust that can trigger the alarm and bring the fire department to the scene of a false alarm.

Interstate is UL-certified listed for fire alarm testing. What does that mean?

It means we meet the UL requirements to be a UL testing company. We have to follow their mandate and their paperwork, and we have conducted tests according to their rules and regulations. In addition, we test fire alarms systems in accordance with local rules and regulations, because they can vary from town to town and state to state.

Beyond life-safety, what other continuity systems should a business consider?

When you look at your business, what you’re really looking at is your lifeline – what do you need to stay operational? What does it take for the business to survive? Different businesses have different needs.

How important is your data center to your business, regardless of whether it’s large or small? For example, here at Interstate we have a relatively small data center, but if if goes down, we lose the ability to do business across the rest of our New England offices. So it’s critical to us.

Our building also has a UPS, which provides emergency power through a battery backup until the building generator kicks in. The UPS also “cleans” the incoming power before sending it to the outlets and computers and servers and other electronic equipment.

Power that is lost for a fraction of a second could potentially damage electronic equipment. The UPS will replace that fraction of a second and smooth it back out. So if we lose power, the UPS takes over, all computers continue to run without interruption and a generator starts-up in 90 seconds or so.

What about do-it-yourself situations?

We’ve seen some strange stuff. One guy daisy-chained a number of UPS systems and he said, “I’ve got this much UPS power.” And I said, “No you don’t. As a matter of fact, you made it worse. A UPS is designed to take a curved sine wave and convert it to a square sine wave. Now that you’re plugging into another UPS, you’re sending it a square sine wave and it’s not operating properly.”

It’s not designed to operate that way. If you want a larger UPS, just buy one. Don’t try to create one your own.

How can design-build capabilities help a customer with specific needs?

As a design-build shop, Interstate oversees all phases of the life-cycle of a project – from conception, to design, to execution. While we also work successfully with outside engineers and designers, design-build is a very efficient process because we know right from the start what’s going on.

For a large customer, we recently designed a new gas-powered generator and UPS system and connected it to to the equipment that is critical for their business. We managed the subcontractors and installed it for them. Now they have a state-of-the art system. Employees are safer and the business lifeline is protected. These are very important benefits, as is the peace of mind that comes with them.

int_exec_sloanJohn Sloane, Vice President of Interstate’s Central and Southern New England Service Team, holds multiple state electrical licenses, including master electrician for Massachusetts and Rhode Island and journeyman license for Connecticut. John, who joined Interstate as a field project superintendent in 1980, also holds fire alarm licenses for Boston and Newton, Mass. In this interview, John addresses some key points businesses should consider when it comes to life-safety in commercial buildings.