Professional Development: Commissioning No Longer Optional

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By Paul Liesman, CFM
Published in the January 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Current business financial pressures and uptime demands have created an environment where facility managers (fms) can no longer afford for a building to go through its classic phases of design and construction and then progress through a “teething” stage to become fully functional. Instead, fms must be sure their complex systems and infrastructure are performing as designed on day one.

Additionally, today’s buildings are constructed under severe time and budget constraints. Regulatory requirements, critical business processes, building codes, and the desire to achieve LEED certification have added multiple layers of complexity to construction projects.

Together, these forces have driven the status of building commissioning over the last 10 years from an optional service to a widely accepted project component and crucial part of the holistic building process. Commissioning’s multi-disciplinary effort involving all building team members from owners and architects to building engineers and contractors can provide fms with the quality assurance tools needed to understand how the design and construction project is progressing.

A properly initiated commissioning process can also keep fms abreast of project issues in real time and can therefore be a great advantage. From project planning to delivery, commissioning can also reduce operating costs by optimizing and testing MEP systems, improving building systems documentation, ensuring proper systems operation, verifying sustainable procedures, and conducting staff and equipment training.

Building projects vary in almost every aspect, with a variety of technical demands, schedules, and other facility management (FM) needs. It is idealistic to assume the perfect commissioning program is set up on every project. Instead, the process can assume two forms.

The first, and most ideal, is when the commissioning agent (CxA) is brought onto the project as early as the pre-design phase and maintained through construction completion and occupancy. In this expanded project role, commissioning allows time for peer review, a process that can correct drawing errors and discover missing information that may be needed later to streamline the building process across disciplines. Here, the CxA adds commissioning specifications to the construction package, allowing members of the project team to understand their individual roles in the process and identify the type of testing and documentation required to ensure sufficient time and resources are allocated for testing.

As the LEED process specifies fundamental commissioning as a minimum prerequisite, the CxA in these projects will be brought on during the creation of the construction documents. While the emphasis on commissioning a LEED project is on energy consuming devices, the natural process of ensuring functionality to the basis of design and to the fm’s project requirements generates benefits that transcend energy efficiency and extend into complete performance verification and reliability.

Many fms engage a third-party design review during this project phase to test certain assumptions made by the engineer of record as well. It is important to note this process differs in scope from a Commissioning Peer Review (CPR), as design review tests basic project assumptions while the CPR looks for clarity in the drawing package and for testability of the system to be commissioned.

The second (and more traditionally understood form of commissioning) takes place when the CxA is enlisted during the construction phase of the project. This is common when a building is undergoing a major piece of infrastructure replacement or on a fast track construction project where commissioning may not have been considered at the project onset. For various reasons, fms engage the commissioning process at this late phase as any project can benefit from commissioning services prior to completion. Both commissioning methods provide improved project delivery results to varying degrees.

The reason commissioning is such an effective process has its roots in the fundamentally simple, yet logical way in which a facility is tested. Tests are staged from the component level to a systems level and finally to an integrated systems level to assure that manufacturing or construction defects are caught prior to assessing the facility’s systems as a whole. It’s like a buyer inspecting the tires before the whole car.

Component level tests will include factory acceptance testing (FAT) where the CxA travels to the factory to conduct on-site equipment evaluations. This is crucial, because defects and issues found during the FAT are often very difficult to diagnose once systems integration has occurred.

Pre-functional checklists are executed on equipment installation to verify the installing contractor has married the components correctly to the building. This includes mundane verifications like equipment orientation, correct power connections, and equipment mounting techniques. Functional tests are then undertaken with as many of the system components as practical during construction to verify operations in as many modes as possible.

Finally, integrated testing will examine the building’s systems together as a unit, assuring that all systems interact as required. For example, fms may want to verify that their standby power plant works as planned and that it can support its intended load when called upon.

Beyond day one testing, the commissioning process also provides a significant safety net to fms in the form of warranty reviews and opposite season testing. Conducted 10 months after facility operation commences, warranty reviews by the CxA help fms assess current building system functions to determine which equipment can benefit from manufacturer assistance prior to warranty expiration.

Opposite season testing allows a building that was originally commissioned in the summer, for example, the ability to test the heating and piping feeds, to assure optimal year-round performance. These processes provide the fm with one more verification that the systems are operating as intended, while the CxA can impartially assist in resolving any issues along with the engineer of record, contractors, and manufacturers.

The commissioning process promises to grow as LEED certification becomes more mainstream and its benefits become less of a rumor and more obvious. Like all other building functions that face a growing demand, the golden opportunity of commissioning will continue to evolve as organizations discover ways to streamline the process and standardize procedures through the use of state of the art technology and new AEC industry trends. Trends such as online documentation, paperless commissioning, specification integration, automated test techniques, and the total integration of the CxA into the building process promise to make commissioning more effective and its benefits more widely realized down the road.

Liesman

Liesman

Liesman is the national marketing leader for Syska Hennessy’s Facilities/Commissioning Group, managing a team of commissioning and facility management engineers to deliver technical solutions. With over 22 years of experience in specialized engineering consulting, Liesman serves as an associate professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, teaching Mechanical and Electrical Building Systems.

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