Professional Development: Getting Your Money’s Worth Out Of Commissioning

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By Reza Hosseini, PE, LEED AP and Paul Liesman, CFM
Published in the March 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Once a luxury for facility managers (fm), commissioning has evolved over the last decade into an industry standard that confirms everything is working as designed. A direct result of time and budget constraints (along with regulatory and sustainable compliance requirements), this trend has left fms with their own questions, namely: How can I get my money’s worth out of commissioning? How do I know if the commissioning is being done correctly? What guidelines can be built into the process to maintain the right checks and balances?

The answers lie in a greater understanding of the process itself. More than just testing systems and securing energy efficiencies, commissioning is the holistic process of assuring full reliability and functionality throughout building systems and equipment and beyond baseline LEED commissioning.

Do your homework. If it is your first time hiring commissioning services, gain a greater understanding of the process through research. When you’re ready to select a commissioning agent, brainstorm your expectations. What type of project involvement will be required of the agent? To what extent do you want the agent to be involved in the project? Ask the agent for references of fms with which similar projects have been completed.

Know your business. Understanding and communicating which areas of your business and its operations are most crucial and what risks exist will help the commissioning agent determine what systems and equipment must be tested at various levels. When the commissioning agent understands your business, commissioning can both maximize and streamline building operations.

Set the expectations. The agent should be brought on board early in the process. You may not attain LEED certification if certain commissioning tasks are not performed during early project milestones. Communicate up front, clearly and effectively, what you expect from the commissioning agent. Specify the number of on-site visits you expect, if you want 100% equipment testing, or if you’d like the agent to use the sampling method. Discuss your expectations with the commissioning agent early, and ask for feedback if there are any areas not agreed upon. When this is the case, find a common ground. Then let each member of the building team know what you expect from the agent during the process. Do you want the agent to act as the project quality watchdog for all disciplines?

Support the team. Attending commissioning meetings and supporting the commissioning agent in the presence of the other building team members is crucial to the success of the commissioning process as a whole.

Don’t forget the warranty period system review. Before your systems’ warranties expire (typically eight to 12 months after installation), have the commissioning authority return to evaluate the equipment for early signs of aging, deterioration, or malfunction. Significant costs can be incurred for issues that are not caught during the warranty period. This service can be negotiated into the initial commissioning contract.

The best way to optimize commissioning is to understand the actual commissioning process itself. While it may seem complex, commissioning is straightforward and logical. Here are the steps a commissioning agent will take to assure a building’s systems are performing as designed.

Commissioning begins with an Initial Building Systems Review in which the commissioning agent gains a greater understanding of the building and its intended mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems design. This initial review applies to both new and existing facilities. In new construction, this will include a review of drawings, project schedule, and specified equipment and systems. In existing buildings, this process can be more challenging, but it will include an existing MEP systems review to assess the building’s current usage and applications. This will also include conducting thorough interviews with the building engineer and facilities personnel to gather real-time performance data and understand existing issues.

After the building analysis is complete, the commissioning agent will prepare a commissioning plan to be submitted to the fm. Based on the information gathered during the Initial Building Systems Review, this plan will outline which tests will be performed—from pre-functional and functional to integrated systems testing—while also creating a tentative schedule for them. This step serves as an opportunity for the fm to review the commissioning agent’s plan, further creating a team dynamic and providing the first opportunity for checks and balances in the process.

Next, Installation Verification will confirm that all the building’s systems have been installed correctly prior to their testing and verification. This will include all MEP systems and will highlight any potential installation gaps or issues with them. For example, if a piece of equipment is situated above the ceiling tiles, early verification that it is installed correctly, before the tiles are put in place, is crucial. If a system is not correctly installed (even if it works properly), it will lead to problems including a loss of energy efficiency down the road.

Testing and verification is the meat of the process and what commissioning is known for. This includes start up and functional equipment level testing. During this portion of the process, major pieces of equipment will be tested and individually optimized, including chillers, cooling towers, boilers, and air handlers. For equipment in higher quantities, like VAV boxes and fan coils, the commissioning team may use a sampling method.

The commissioning agent will now follow up with issues discovered during the testing and verification stage and ensure the appropriate building team members correct them. This significant step closes the quality control loop and is crucial to resolving any issues found. This step may also include another round of systems or equipment testing and optimization after issues have been resolved.

Next, the commissioning agent verifies the training of building operators. This step is often overlooked, but it can be the most crucial to maintaining trouble free systems operations. Without proper training on a building’s systems, maintenance and operations personnel can cause undue complications, compromising the efficiency of the system down the road. [For more on this topic, see "Energy Improvments."]

The final commissioning report given to the owner serves as the fm’s proof that the overall commissioning process has been a success and that all the building’s systems are ready for operation. This report will detail the type of tests that have been performed and their results. It will verify training and the implementation of deficiencies or repair of deficiencies found during the process, providing a baseline for building equipment operations down the road. This report is the fm’s final check and balance that will not only prove valuable at the time of completion, but will also serve as a long-term reference for building systems operation.

When armed with a thorough understanding of each step of the commissioning process and how it can lead to systems and equipment optimization, fms can create a built in system of checks and balances for their projects. This is both as a direct result of the process itself and of the fm’s involvement within.

Getting true value from the commissioning process is a natural outgrowth of this knowledge and direct involvement. From optional to mainstream, current commissioning practices begin with Initial Building Systems Review and end with a final commissioning report, reaching beyond baseline LEED commissioning to true systems optimization on day one of facility operation and beyond.

Hosseini

Hosseini

Liesman

Liesman

Hosseini is Syska’s commissioning project manager, working out of the firm’s Los Angeles office. He has nearly 10 years of experience including the management of and extensive involvement in all aspects of major building systems commissioning projects, testing, engineering coordination, and quality assurance. Liesman is the national marketing leader for Syska Hennessy’s Facilities/Commissioning Group, managing a nationwide 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 teaching Mechanical and Electrical Building Systems.

Part one of this article can be found here.

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