12 Best Practices for Fire and Smoke Damper Inspections


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Fire and smoke damper inspections present a number of challenges no matter what industry you are in, but it’s especially challenging in the healthcare field. Most often facility professional have to work around the hospital’s needs – the inability to access operating rooms and patient rooms when needed, large equipment blocking rooms, budgets that seem to be getting smaller as each day passes, and not to mention the extra stress on the healthcare industry because of the pandemic. A facility manager’s job is harder than ever.

We’ve put together our top 12 list of best practices that will help guide you through these inspections should you choose to perform these ever-important asset inspections in house (in no particular order). Dampers are a tricky beast. These tips should help you tackle their maintenance and testing that is required by code. 

  1. GET TRAINING –  You can’t perform a damper inspection unless you know how to do them. It’s important to understand the codes behind them as well as the different types of dampers and their functions. The performance of fire and smoke dampers could mean life or death during a fire emergency. Take the guess work out of how to perform these inspections throughly be seeking out the training you need to do so from a reputable company.
  2. SUIT UP – First and foremost, suit up.  PPE gear isn’t just for front-line employees anymore. Protective equipment such as hard hats, sleeves, gloves and now the ever-important face mask, will ensure that you can get into those hard-to-reach ducts without the worry of having to be slowed down due to a cut or bruise from metal ductwork. Don’t let the worry of getting hurt (or getting sick) slow you down.
  3. WORK AT NIGHT – Ok, so this one isn’t the most ideal, especially when you and your team are already stretched to the limit handling day to day facility emergencies.  Through our years of experience, we’ve found that with a little planning and communication with hospital staff, performing damper inspections during the overnight hours is a sure-fire way to get the inspection done without getting in the way of normal day-to-day operations. It’s not uncommon for fire and smoke damper inspections to be completed exclusively overnight and it works. The inspections get completed more efficiently because not only will you be out of their way, the hospital staff will also be out of yours.
  4. GET AHOLD OF LIFE SAFETY DRAWINGS – Before starting the inspection, get a hold of your facility’s Life Safety Drawings and review them in their entirety before beginning the inspection. If you are using a contractor and they don’t ask for your facility’s drawings, this should be a big red flag to you. Drawings give the technician an idea of where to start the inspection – locating the fire-rated walls and fire doors should give them an idea of the general location of the damper instead of having to root around in the ductwork to find them. The quicker they can be located, the quicker the inspection can be done and they can move on to the next asset.
  5. REVIEW CODES – Take a minute to re-familiarize yourself with the NFPA codes that require fire and smoke damper inspections, specifically NFPA 80 and NFPA 105.  It’s always important to have a refresher on codes but considering fire and smoke damper inspections are only required every six years, it’s likely been a bit since you reviewed the codes. Don’t forget, different manufacturer’s have different recommendations on how to perform the inspections, specifically smoke dampers that have actuators on them. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the manufacturer’s requirements for testing in your facility. Examples of damper manufacturers are Ruskin, Greenheck, and Tamco.
  6. GET TO KNOW ACTUATORS – Speaking of actuators, let’s talk about them for a second. Smoke dampers resist the passage of air and smoke within the ductwork. They are typically operated by a smoke detector, which would also be located in the duct. Once smoke has been detected, the smoke detector sends a signal to the dampers actuator, which uses the jackshaft and linkage to open and close the blades of the smoke damper.  There are two types of actuators:  1) Pneumatic Actuators, which need air to function properly and 2) electrical actuators, which need power to function properly.  If the damper has a Pneumatic actuator, then you must bypass the airflow.  To do this, remove the airline from the actuator.  The internal spring of the damper should drop the damper. If it does not, this is considered a failure. If the damper has an electric actuator 24v or 120v, you must disconnect the power prior to closing the damper. To disconnect the power, if you can gain access to the actuator itself, there should be a test switch on the actuator to flip the switch to deny power.  In older facilities, actuators may be hard wired into a junction box. In this event, you will need to un-hardwire the neutral wire to break the circuit of the actuator. Before starting the inspection on a smoke damper, you’ll need to to make sure you have access to the electrical panel and other areas to test them.
  7. ACCESS IS KING Make it easier on yourself by gathering the appropriate size ladders and access doors to install (if needed) prior to starting the inspection. Having the right tools for the job is important before ever lifting the first finger towards the inspection.
  8. HANDY HAND TOOLS- There are certain hand tools you’ll need to make sure you can to dampers that are far back in the duct. Having these tools handle will ensure you can move from one damper to the next efficiently. Examples are needle nose pliers, a crescent wrench, and screwdrivers of various lengths.
  9. KNOW YOUR NUMBER SCHEME – Code requires that each damper be numbered. Our training gives you tips on how best to determine a numbering scheme to label assets. Some suggestions are by floor, notating whether or not it is a fire and smoke dampers, and subsequently numbering the dampers there after. This will make it easier to locate them when it’s time to think about repairs.
  10. FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH REPORTING REQUIREMENTS NFPA requires that the following information be recorded and available for the AHJ when it comes to damper testing. NFPA says, “All inspections and testing shall be documented, indicating the location of the fire damper or combination fire/smoke damper, date of the inspection, name of the inspector and deficiencies discovered”, (NFPA 80 19.4.9)
  11. USE SOFTWARE FOR GUIDED INSPECTIONS Gone are the days of performing asset inspections with the traditional pen and paper. Technology makes our lives a lot easier – but make sure you are using a software that is trusted with these important inspections and that can produce a report that has all of the information required by code. It would be a shame to go to the trouble of performing the inspection (because let’s face it, damper inspections are not easy), only to learn that your AHJ isn’t satisfied with the report. You don’t want to have to perform these inspections a second time just because you didn’t collect the right information your AHJ wants to see.
  12. KNOW THE NEXT STEP FOR REPAIRS –  Dampers can fail for all sorts of different reasons. Failures can range from something simple like a broken link, to more complex problems with the damper itself, such as the blades rusting shut or an inoperable actuator. Know when it’s time to call in a professional to help with the more mechanical aspects of a non-compliant damper and be sure to do your due-diligence in selecting a reputable damper repair contractor.  Be sure to require pictures of the damper before and after the repair to ensure the damper repair was made. With dampers out of sight, there are a lot of contractors out there who aren’t performing repairs ethically, as sad as that is to admit.

So, there you have it! Our top 12 best practices for performing fire and smoke damper inspections. At the end of the day, following the testing and maintenance requirements of NFPA and other applicable building codes that your jurisdiction has adopted, will contribute to the successful operation of fire and smoke dampers.  This can mean the differences between a controllable fire and an uncontrollable disaster.  Most natural disasters cannot be prevented, but they can be less destructive if we understand how to control them.  Proactively maintaining fire and smoke dampers is the fire line of the defense in the event of a fire and is the best way to keep them functioning properly and protect against avoidable injury.