Pipes in Basement For the surveyor, system identification is the most difficult of the three. For the client, it is one of the most important. Every space needs telephone, electricity, water, sewer, heating, cooling, and exhaust air. Most spaces also need sprinkler, fire alarm, and smoke evacuation. A few spaces may need relief air, fresh air, natural gas, fiber optic, and an energy management system.

I am also going to include structural in this list because it is a core element of the building that is extremely critical, and a licensed structural engineer has to design it. Structure holds it all up and most of the time, stores and businesses design their spaces around the structure and leave it in place.

All of these systems are usually hidden away behind walls, below floors, and above ceilings. It takes a lot of effort to find, identify, and document all of this so the client can know what is available to re-use, or demo out and tap back into. For a surveyor to do this accurately, it takes a lot of experience. To do it thoroughly, it takes a lot of determination.

Rex Bernard My job is to be a detective to locate and identify all the systems for the client's engineers and consultants. My information has been used by MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) engineers, structural engineers, civil engineers, code consultants, roof consultants, construction consultants, and, of course, architects. Their job is to assess and evaluate the systems. Since our project album will be compiled into a single PDF file and iPad optimized, it will be easy for them to review it both in the office and in the field.

With 5 years of carpentry experience, 20 years of construction contracting, and 15 years of architectural surveying, I have an experience base that enables me to do a excellent job with system identification.

Here is a list of information I provide for system identification:

Mechanical System Information

  • Type of system (i.e. package RTU, VAV, split system)
  • Location and mounting info (i.e. roof, suspended, platform)
  • Fuel for heating (i.e. gas, electric, steam, etc.)
  • Fuel for cooling (i.e. electric, chilled water)
  • Return air types (i.e ducted, open plenum, etc.)
  • Make-up air (fresh air), relief air, exhaust air, etc.
  • Toilet exhaust
  • Smoke evac, smoke shelves, smoke testing, etc.
  • OPP ducts passing through space
  • Red flag mark-ups of potential problems
  • Photos

Electrical System Information

  • Electrical service size (i.e. 200 AMP, 277/480 Volt)
  • Electrical meter and disconnect
  • Tenant panels and circuit breakers
  • Remote electric cabinet (distance from space)
  • Main electrical conduit run (size)
  • Wire (size and type of main run)
  • Remote disconnects, circuit breakers, and meters
  • Phone service (location, age, etc.)
  • Fiber optic service (availability and distance)
  • Fire alarm (type, location, and equipment)
  • OPP (other people's property) passing through space
  • Red flag mark ups of potential problems
  • Photos

Plumbing System Information

  • Sewer under floor (size, location, and flow direction)
  • Sewer vent pipes (sizes, location, and penetrations)
  • Existing roof drains (sizes, location, and flow direction)
  • Water service (size, meter, and location)
  • Sprinkler (size, location, risers, etc.)
  • Gas piping (meter, size, location, etc.)
  • Condenser water piping (type, size, valves, etc.)
  • OPP (other people's property) passing through space
  • Red flag mark ups of potential problems
  • Photos

Miscellaneous System Information

  • Elevators (location, size, brand, etc.)
  • Escalators (location, size, brand, etc.)
  • Dumb waiters, conveyors, safes, etc.
  • Specialty alarm systems (i.e. methane gas)
  • OPP (other people's property) passing through space
  • Red flag mark ups of potential problems
  • Photos


Is the mechanical system the HVAC equipment?

Yes. HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning.

What different kinds of HVAC systems are there?

The HVAC equipment in a space or building is the most challenging of the three categories of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP). This is because there are so many different types of systems. It takes a long time to learn about them and understand how they work.

Package Roof Top UnitThe simplest is the package roof top unit (RTU). It is called "package" because the air handling unit (AHU) and the condensing unit (CU) are packaged together in one cabinet on the roof. You can compare it to a simple residential window air conditioner. Ducts usually go down from the unit into the building.

Condensing UnitThe next simplest is the split system. It is called split because the AHU and the CU are split apart and separated. Usually the CU is on the roof and the AHU is inside the space or building. You can compare this to a typical house's system where the furnace (AHU with a heater) is in a hall closet and the air conditioner (CU) is outside in the bushes on the side of the house.

Air Handling UnitFrom there, it gets more complicated with variable air volume (VAV) systems, chilled water systems, condenser water systems, heat pumps, boilers, and more.

What do you look for when documenting the HVAC?

Roof Top Unit LabelI start finding and locating all of the units both in the space and on the roof. I get the manufacturer name, model number, and serial number. I get the approximate dimensions and locate them accordingly on my field notes. I look for issues that may be a problem. I take a generous amount of photos including the labels.

Suspended AHU For the equipment in the space, I document how high the units are above the floor. Are the units suspended from the ceiling, on a deck above a room, or sitting on the floor? I determine what pipes and ducts serve each unit. (i.e. chilled water, condenser water, boiler water, steam, refrigerant lines, condensate drains, fresh air, relief air, exhaust air, etc.) I document return air types, high sidewall grilles, toilet exhaust, duct heaters, space heaters, smoke evacuation fans, etc. I also look for pipes and ducts that are "Other People's Property" (OPP) that pass through my space. Who do they belong to? Are they too low? Are they hogging the plenum space? Do they have to stay? Is my space required to allow maintenance access by others?

CraneFor the equipment on the roof, I get the units' curb size. Is it electric heat or gas heat? I search for and locate the closest place a crane can get to lift up new units. I look for issues that may present a problem (i.e abandoned units that need to be removed, restaurant exhaust fans nearby that are spewing offensive odors into the air, or OPP units nearby that are noisy or hogging roof area).

The bottom line is that I am looking for anything that can help my client avoid last minute problems when building out the new space. I am looking for things that can provide options if changes are needed. I am looking out for my client's interests!

What problems can the client have with the HVAC?

The most common problem if a space is in a mall and using the mall's central cooling system is that it may not provide enough cooling. Mall RTUIf that is the case, it must be determined if the mall can boost it. Sometimes they can't and supplemental units are needed. Some malls don't allow supplemental units so you can see how this can be an important issue. The challenge for the surveyor is to anticipate all the possible options and try to retrieve as much information as possible for each one.

If the building is a streetfront with multiple OPP floors above it, and there is no roof available for units, then the HVAC equipment must be placed inside the space. Wall LouverIt will have to be located where fresh air can come from an outside wall and exhaust air can go to an outside wall. The challenge for the surveyor is to specifically search for those areas. If the only area available is outside the perimeter of the demised space, then the surveyor needs to check out what will be involved to run ducts through OPP areas to get to that spot.

Tell me more about condenser water and chilled water.

Cooling TowerCondenser water is for removing heat from AC units (as opposed to air). They are usually part of the landlord's system, and the pipes travel up to the roof to a cooling tower. I will document the size of these pipes, if possible, and note in my documents the contact information of the building engineer who maintains the system.

ChillerChilled water is exactly that. It is usually part of the landlord's system that has a large chiller located somewhere on the property. From there, chilled water pipes travel to the space. The chilled water is run through coils in a tenant's air handling unit that blows air through them into the rooms. I will document the size, if possible, and location of the chilled water lines, and I will note in my documents the contact information of the building engineer who maintains the system.

Some tenants do not want to depend on the landlord's cooling system and want to install their own. If this is the case, I will meet with the landlord and investigate the options the client may have to do this.

What do you look for when documenting the electrical?

Remote ElectricElectric service has to come from somewhere and my job is to find it. Where does it start before coming into my building or space? How big is the service? What condition is it in? Is it in a remote closet or on an exterior wall? What is the size of the conduit run? What is the distance of the conduit run going to the space? What is the wire size and type inside the conduit?

In the space, usually in the rear, I look for the incoming conduit run and note its size. I also document all the electric panels and their circuit breakers by drawing a small elevation of them. I take lots of photos.

Remote Fire Alarm PullI document the fire alarm system. Are there smoke alarms, pulls, horns, strobes, etc.? If there is an energy management system, I document that. If there is fiber optic, I get that information. If there is not fiber optic service to the space, and the client needs it, I will look for it somewhere in the mall or on the property. I will document how far away it is.

What problems can the client have with the electrical?

Circuit BreakerMany clients need more electrical service size than was previously piped into the building or space. They are depending on the surveyor to get answers for that. Is there enough power available? Is there enough wall space available for bigger disconnects? Is there a free conduit path to install new pipe? As you can see, these are questions that take an experienced surveyor to anticipate and follow up on.

Another problem is if the available service, from the landlord, is only 208/120 Volt. All clients prefer 480/277 Volt. In this case, I look out for alternative solutions. One thing I do is to look for the closest 480 volt service in the area. It may be on a pole in the alley a few hundred feet away... but it may still be an option. Another is scouting all the neighboring stores' electrical services to verify if they are also limited to 208/120 service. TransformerMore than once, I found a neighboring store getting 480/277 directly from the utility company's transformer nearby, and I was able to report this possibility to my client.

What do you look for when documenting the plumbing?

Water MeterFor the water service, I look for the location of the incoming pipe, its size, and if it has a shut-off valve. I look for the water meter and its size, and whether it measures in gallons or cubic feet. I find out if the water service is from the mall or the municipal water company. I document existing hot water heaters and boilers and photograph their labels. I look for leaks. I listen for rattling pipes.

Gas MeterFor gas, I look for the incoming pipe and size. I find the meter no matter how far it may be from the space. I document the meter size, the label, the manufacturer, and the name of the gas company.

Sprinkler Shut-OffFor the sprinkler, I look for the location of the incoming pipe, its size, and if there is a shut-off valve specifically for the space (as opposed to a shut-off valve that turns off an entire zone). I look for risers and drain-down pipes.

For sewer, I document all the restrooms, janitors' closets, and kitchens. I document floor penetrations including floor drains, floor sinks, clean outs, and stub-ups. Floor Sink I review the base building drawings and try to note on my drawings where the under floor sewer main is located. If I can find a clean out, I will try to open it and measure down to the pipe below.

What problems can the client have with the plumbing?

Incoming Water PipeSome clients need a 2" water pipe for their flush valve (tankless) toilets to work properly. If this is the case, the challenge for the surveyor is to find the nearest 2" water line and document how far away it is and what obstacles would hinder the installation.

Often, clients will be putting in a new bathroom in a different location than the existing. If the available sewer pipe under the floor is too far away or not deep enough, it can be a problem. The challenge for the surveyor is to try to locate the sewer line through mall drawings, observation of clean-outs or visible saw cuts of previous trenches, or anything they can find that will be a clue.

Vertical Sewer PipeAlso, overhead sewer pipes, from the tenants above, can leak or have potential for leaking. This can be serious if my client's space is directly under a movie theater's huge restroom. Mall restrooms and food court kitchens are also bad to have above. Sometimes those overhead pipes drain into a vertical pipe that goes down through my client's space and into the floor. These can infringe upon available floor space for new design (they may also be a little noisy).

It is rare but sometimes a mall or building can have an underground sewer main problem that is consistently backing up with sewage. It will usually back up till it can find a place to go out. Sometimes this place may be a store's floor drain or toilet. A surveyor should always be on the lookout for water stains on the floors and walls and question the occupants about problems. Here's a true story: Just a Little Stain?

What do you look for when documenting the structure?

The first and foremost thing I do, is find the structural base building drawings. Then I walk through the space to do a quick check to determine if the columns are located where they show on the drawings and are the same type (i.e. wood, steel, or concrete). I measure the columns and compare that with the drawings. Structural BraceI am specifically on the lookout for bracing between the columns because these greatly hinder passage openings inside the space. Sometimes this bracing is in the form of huge "A" brace which, of course, extremely limits the designers.

Above the plenum, I document all the structural beams overhead, and how high they are above the floor. I document the penetrations of the existing HVAC. I look for SOFP (spray on fireproofing). I look for previous modifications (i.e. additional beams, missing beams, additional bracing, etc).

What problems can the client have with the structure?

The biggest issue for a client is finding additional columns or braces inside old walls as the space is being demolished to make room for new construction. Oftentimes they will land in the middle of important areas, like a storefront opening or a passage way between two rooms. This is usually a huge problem because last minute changes have to be made on the drawings and on site. Many times the changes are less than ideal and cause a tremendous hardship for the designers to come up with an alternate design. If construction progress is delayed, the store may not open on time. Trucks bringing initial product inventory have to be rescheduled to arrive later. A critical sales season, like Christmas, may be missed. It could be bad... very bad.

Hidden Steel ColumnThe challenge for the surveyor is to find all columns and braces in the space. Most of the time, all of these are covered up with walls and ceilings. Reviewing base building structural plans are a great start but sometimes this is not enough. More than once, I have found columns in my space that were not on any drawing. Here is a true story: Tons of Mall Bulkhead

Another issue is the roof framing and whether it can hold up some additional HVAC units. If a space is cooled by a central mall system, many times clients will want to install their own equipment. Most likely the roof beams overhead are not sized to carry the additional load.

What about the heights above the floor?

Low Mall Duct This information is some of the most important for the client. Most clients have a proposed ceiling height for their new store or business. They need to know how high all the existing pipes and ducts are above the floor to know if their ceiling will fit under them. They need to know how high the roof deck is and how high the roof beams are to know if their new HVAC ducts have room to get installed between them and the ceiling and all the other pipes.

This is information we provide on our drawings. You will have heights on everything in the plenum including: ceiling heights, roof deck, beams, joists, sprinkler pipes, water pipes, electrical conduits, roof drains, tenant ducts, mall ducts, and high sidewall grilles. Simply put, if it is in there, we document it.