The most important consideration of performing a commercial property inspection is safety. One potential liability and a primary safety concern is testing and operating commercial building systems and components. These elements tend to be on a larger scale than those of residential properties, with more hazards that can potentially cause harm to the inspector, the building’s occupants, and the building itself, if not handled properly. The International Standards of Practice for Inspecting Commercial Properties – the ComSOP – is designed to help inspectors implement safe and consistent procedures. Inspectors should study it and follow the scope and exclusions as a first step in workplace safety. From there, inspectors can adjust their protocols based on their comfort level, specific situations, and client needs.
The first safety principle is related to the basic definition of the Walk-Through Survey. The ComSOP states that an inspector should make non-intrusive, visual observations of readily accessible areas of the subject property. The three most important terms in this description are “non-intrusive,” “visual,” and “readily accessible.” These terms are the first layer of safety and consistency.
Consider the following:
- “Non-intrusive” relates to not being destructive, such as by dismantling something or disrupting the operation of a system.
- A “visual observation” is similar to being non-intrusive. The inspector should only assess what is visible to the naked eye based on current conditions.
- “Readily accessible” means to inspect the systems and components that don’t require removing obstacles, detaching or disengaging devices that secure or connect them, or performing other potentially unsafe or difficult procedures in order to gain access.
The other basic safety principles build on these three. They set the general expectations for testing and operating various systems and components “using normal operating controls,” as well as accessing items that are within the scope of the inspection.
What Should an Inspector Test and Operate?
There is a wide range of systems and components in commercial buildings that vary in complexity. The first step in understanding what an inspector should inspect and what they are not required to inspect is to review Section 6 of the ComSOP, the Walk-Through Survey. It outlines the specific scope for each building system. A common theme in this section is inspecting systems using normal operating controls. This pertains to any control that doesn’t require special tools or knowledge. Generally, this leads to a predictive outcome compared to using other means (i.e., electrical panel breaker, water main, gas shutoff valve, complex building management systems, etc.). If it is a control that an ordinary occupant would use, it is most likely considered a normal operating control. The inspector should be able to reasonably predict what the control will do. For example, one can reasonably expect that raising the temperature on a thermostat will activate the heating system. When multiple thermostats are present in a commercial building, their labels should ideally indicate which unit is being operated by a particular thermostat.
Here are some normal operating controls and the systems they relate to:
- thermostats (HVAC equipment)
- switches (electrical and mechanical)
- photocells (electrical)
- motion sensors (electrical)
- fixture handles (plumbing)
- buttons (electrical or interior operating devices)
- remote controls (HVAC, electrical, plumbing)
The next step is reading the “Limitations, Exceptions, and Exclusions” outlined in Section 8 of the ComSOP. Here is the main portion related to operating and testing equipment.
II. The inspector is not required to operate:
A. any system that is shut down.
B. any system that does not function properly.
C. or evaluate low-voltage electrical systems, such as, but not limited to:
- phone lines;
- cable lines;
- lights; or
- remote controls.
D. any system that does not turn on with the use of normal operating controls.
E. any shut off-valves or manual stop valves.
F. any electrical disconnect or over-current protection devices.
G. any alarm systems.
H. moisture meters, gas detectors or similar equipment.
I. sprinkler or fire-suppression systems.
Together, these guidelines give inspectors a clear picture of what to test and operate. Any normally operated control that is inoperable during the Walk-Through Survey should be identified and documented in the inspection report. The following examples demonstrate the importance of reviewing these sections carefully and observing visible conditions before operating a system.
Exclusion: Any system that does not function properly.
The inspector can infer by assessing the general condition before an operational test that the fixture doesn’t function properly. If a system is in a poor state or poor condition, the operation of the system might cause further damage. For example, flushing a toilet with a cracked or damaged bowl might cause water to leak onto the floor. In this case, the inspector should document the toilet’s condition and state in their report that an operational test couldn’t be performed.
Exclusion: Any system that is shut down.
If the inspector finds that the thermostat is in the “off” position, they are not required to test the system. Turning the system on could lead to damage. The last time the unit was operated cannot be reliably known – it could have been in the previous month or even year. The unit could have been turned off due to its poor condition. There are too many unknowns to move forward without additional information from the site’s contact. The inspector should not test the system and should instead document the limitation in their report.
The inspector should also be cautious about testing the system in different modes. This may also involve activating a system in the “off” position. For example, the inspector may choose to not test the cooling mode of a split system in a vacant building if it’s found in the heating mode. Activating the cooling mode would entail turning on a separate unit, and, although testing would be done using normal operating controls, there are too many unknowns. The inspector cannot be aware of the condition of the cooling system at the time it was last activated. In this case, the inspector should not adjust the thermostat for the cooling mode, and state in their report the limitations of the inspection of that system.
Exclusion: Any system that does not turn on with the use of normal operating controls.
If the inspector finds that the lights in an office space do not operate properly with a light switch but notices that the lighting isn’t plugged into a receptacle, the inspector is not required to plug in the lighting. Similar to the example above, this could potentially cause damage or a dangerous situation.
Another example would be turning on an exhaust fan or other system using the breaker in a service panel. A circuit breaker is not considered a normal operating control. It could operate multiple devices, or damage the devices on the circuit. The inspector cannot predict what has been designated to operate on that circuit.
The following example demonstrates the importance of becoming familiar with Section 6 of the ComSOP. As mentioned earlier, each section of the ComSOP has a slightly different level of operational goal and expectation of normal operating controls.
For testing HVAC systems, the ComSOP states that the inspector should inspect them using normal operating controls. In the Cooking Area section, the ComSOP states that the operation of the exhaust hood switch is not required to be operated. The operation of exhaust hoods may involve using a basic device, like a switch, but turning this system on or off could affect active cooking operations or exhaust a space in unexpected ways. For this reason, the ComSOP excludes it from a baseline inspection. The inspector should be mindful of the potential effects of testing a system.
There are exceptions to every rule. There will be situations and properties that may require the inspector to adjust their inspection methods.
Hospitals, Nursing Homes, and Institutional Properties
These types of properties are considered to be critical care properties. The simple flickering of a light bulb or activation of a switch can cause an unexpected problem in the building. Before starting the inspection, the inspector should thoroughly interview the site coordinator and determine the limits of the inspection. This would include the extent of access to the systems and components present in the building. The site coordinator may limit access to the HVAC or fire control rooms. They may only allow the inspector to photograph the systems, but not perform an operational test. Operating systems could risk harming occupants, such as patients requiring power for medical equipment. The methods and limitations of the inspection should be documented in the report. The inspector should also be wary of any switches or normal operating controls adjusted to mitigate potential issues.
Data and server rooms have become more prevalent in commercial buildings. These rooms often have their own HVAC and specialized electrical systems. These rooms or buildings usually cannot be placed offline for any reason. Even moving through these rooms needs to be performed with care. The inspector does not want to be responsible for knocking a cable loose or disconnecting part of the system. As with other critical properties, the inspector should interview the site coordinator and determine the limits of the inspection. In the case of server rooms, the racks of data components are low-voltage and do not have the same dedicated space rules as high-voltage components do. At a minimum, controlled movements are strongly recommended. The inspector should be mindful of operating any system so as not to cause damage that can lead to critical issues with the overall operation of the building.
Food Establishments and Cooking Areas
Restaurants and other establishments with commercial cooking areas can provide instances when an inspector will have to take extra precautions. Depending on the time of day, the cooking area could be in use or shut down. The inspection should never disrupt the operation of any business. The inspection of the cooking area does not include the operation or testing of any of the cooking equipment or appliances, so there should be no reason for the inspector to come into contact with or disturb the kitchen staff. The inspector should inspect the exhaust system’s interior surface, inspect for grease buildup, and verify the components of the hoods, filters, and baffles. All of these tasks can be performed visually and from a safe distance, and without the operation of the exhaust fan.
Other Potentially Dangerous Conditions
Many commercial inspections are performed in buildings that are currently in use. These buildings can range from small vehicle repair shops to large industrial manufacturing facilities that produce the vehicles. All buildings have dangers and hazards around every corner. It is important to remember that when inspecting any building to never activate or operate any switch or device without first determining what the condition will be after the activation.
The inspector should ask themselves before activating any switch, “What is this switch going to control, or what do I hope it will control?” The simple activation of a switch on a wall could cause a fan to turn on and the fan could cause damage to another component in the building, or even harm occupants.
Should the Inspector Open or Uncover a System?
The exclusions in Section 8 of the ComSOP also include dismantling, opening, or uncovering any system or component. This generally applies to unscrewing or unfastening elements to expose concealed parts. This could potentially put the inspector in a dangerous situation or damage the item. The inspector’s prior experience may influence their decision to go beyond the standard in this regard. Exceeding any standard is done at the inspector’s discretion. In any case, the inspector should put their safety first and consider the predictive outcomes for any operational test or dismantling of systems. Consider the following examples related to dismantling systems also discussed in Section 8 of the ComSOP.
The inspector is not required to remove the panelboard’s cabinet cover or dead front. But if an inspector was a master electrician in a previous career, their comfort level with this equipment might be different than an inspector who does not have such a background. The first inspector might remove the cover to perform a deeper assessment based on their experience. Another inspector without such experience may be more at risk for injury.
An inspector who has experience as an HVAC contractor might remove a cover and expose the interior components of an HVAC system while they are in operation in order to perform exhaustive tests. This is beyond the scope of a commercial inspection, but due to the inspector’s experience (and possibly also the client’s needs), the inspector may choose to exceed the standard. Dismantling systems may also entail removing HVAC unit panels to look at filters, or opening a hinged up-blast fan to view the inside of the ducting from the room. Such items are a baseline inspection exclusion and up to the inspector’s discretion.
Beyond dismantling items and opening components, exclusions also include removing obstructions to perform the inspection. These obstructions could include:
- rugs and floor coverings;
- ceiling tiles;
- window coverings;
- installed or portable equipment;
- foliage; and
Inspectors should document any limitations and avoid removing obstructions. It should be described in the service description or agreement that providing access to systems and components is the client’s responsibility. Some inspectors choose to charge a re-visit fee if the client decides they would like the inspector to return to complete the inspection.
Some tools have been developed that can help the inspector identify conditions without coming into contact with a system or component, or that can help them identify conditions that might otherwise render a system not readily accessible. These tools, when used properly, can aid in keeping the inspector safe. Common tools include an infrared camera and infrared thermometer.
The most important part of a commercial property inspection is inspector safety. The ComSOP was written to provide the inspector with protocols to perform a thorough inspection without taking undue risks or damaging the property. When it comes to operating and testing systems, and dismantling, opening, and uncovering systems, as well as removing obstructions, the inspector should think back to the basic definition of a Walk-Through Survey, which is a non-intrusive, visual observation of readily accessible areas of the subject property.
The inspector should follow the guidance outlined in Sections 6 and 8 of the ComSOP related to what the inspector should inspect, and what they are not required to inspect and other related exclusions. The general takeaway is that inspectors should only use normal operating controls. In identifying normal operating controls, the inspector should consider whether an ordinary occupant would use it.
Commercial property types are diverse and can pose unique risks to inspectors, building occupants, business operations, and potential damage to building systems and components. The inspector should be cautious during the Walk-Through Survey, discuss need-to-know items with site coordinators, and consider predictive outcomes to make sure their inspection goes smoothly.
Written by: Rob Claus and Maggie Aey
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