How important is testing fire dampers?

Correct maintenance of fire dampers is essential to guarantee that they will properly operate in the event of a fire. You must ensure fire dampers are tested regularly and in accordance with regulations and manufacturers’ guidelines.

This article explains the importance of testing fire dampers, how you can test your fire dampers and the regulations regarding testing in the UK.

Why should they be tested?

Fire dampers are a key component of a building’s fire safety system. It is important that they are tested regularly to ensure that they are in the best condition to do their job and work effectively in the event of a fire.

Yet, a large number of building owners are still unaware if they even have fire dampers installed in their properties. Whilst building owners may be proactive in organising the testing of fire alarms and carrying out regular fire drills, the dampers - a vital part of the fire safety system - are often forgotten about and, therefore, left untested.

Correct testing procedures also check whether the fire dampers need any parts replacing. It also often reveals fire dampers that have been installed incorrectly. It is not uncommon to discover dampers that have been installed upside down or propped open – meaning the damper is completely ineffective in the event of a fire!

In January 2017, an update to BS 9999 made it obligatory for fire dampers to be tested by a competent person on completion of the installation and at least once a year thereafter. Previous to this, the building standards only identified a handful of dampers requiring testing every 2 years. However, it is not unusual for fire dampers to still only be tested every 10 to 15 years, or in some cases having never been tested. Not only is this worrying for the safety of the building and its occupants, this could also result in a significant fine or even imprisonment for the building owner if dampers are found to be uncompliant or missing. 

How are they tested?

Drop testing is the method used on dampers that do not have an actuator fitted.

The first step for a drop test contractor is to identify, locate and access all fire dampers within a building. Often, there are more than you may realise.

Next, the dampers need to be checked that they have been installed properly. If they are found to be installed incorrectly, they will need to be reinstalled and then tested once in the correct position.

The contractor can then clean, lubricate and drop test every fire damper to confirm they are all in satisfactory working conditions. If the dampers have passed the test, the building owner will receive a written report that you can use as proof of your compliance with BS 9999:2017.

It is also advised that business owners collect as much evidence as possible that further proves that the dampers are compliant. It is a good idea to take photographs which document all of the dampers, before and after the test, including the location and the damper number. Building owners can also keep a record of the inspection results, any detailed explanations or actions in the case where dampers fail to operate, and a set of drawings detailing the location of all of the dampers and their associated damper number. The more evidence that building owners have, the easier it is for them to demonstrate to a fire safety compliance officer that the fire dampers do conform to the regulations.

Why can it be difficult to test?

It is sometimes difficult for fire dampers to be accessed, and this is a common reason why testing does not get carried out. All too often, fire dampers are installed with no access point to allow for testing and cleaning as they have may have then been covered by walls, false ceilings and stairs. It must be noted here that even if the damper is wired into a control panel or an actuator is fitted, it still necessary for this access to be provided for visual inspection of the blades inside the ductwork.

Additionally, for dampers that do not have an actuator, the most common actuating mechanism is a fuse and link. This mechanism is difficult to access and reset, which makes testing challenging. A damper with a cassette mechanism, such as the FireShield, is much easier to use as it allows for one arm reset.

How can I make it easier for my dampers to be tested?

There are dampers that have been manufactured with the end user in mind, with various features to make the job of testing easier.

As stated above, where manual fire dampers are installed in a building, it is much better to choose ones that are fitted with a cassette mechanism. But, automatic fire dampers perform better, are activated earlier when wired up to the BMS and are safer than their manual equivalents. They are designed to be controlled and maintained through a dedicated damper control panel. This inclusion as part of the BMS makes dampers more easily detected in a building and means their testing can be done through the control panel. This provides a visual indication on the panel interface. We recommend that a small number of dampers are still physically inspected every year in addition to using the panel interface, to confirm the status that the control panel is providing.

Control panels provide real-time status of the dampers across the building and can be configured to notify users if there are problems with any of the dampers – something which can happen remotely.

The selection of a fire/smoke damper and dedicated panel will ultimately result in safer buildings with reduced maintenance, costs and labour required.

UK Business Development and Product Manager for Actionair

Andrew has more than 11 years' experience in the construction industry. The majority of this time he has spent working with consultant engineers and contractors to develop solutions for controlling smoke within buildings, such as hospitals, large mixed-use offices and tower blocks.

See more from Andrew Collard