Building commissioning has taken root. In the last decade, implementation of the commissioning process has expanded greatly throughout the commercial market. This is due in no small part to the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory’s landmark 2009 study “Building Commissioning: A Golden Opportunity for Reducing Energy Costs and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions.” However, the majority of building owners’ awareness still tends to come abruptly when a code official requests a commissioning report during inspections or prior to building turnover.
In this context, commissioning becomes another box to check, rather than a process from which owners can extract real value. Approaching commissioning in this way is a little like learning your car may have an issue with its brakes and just asking the mechanic to make sure your seatbelt is functional. Operating this way, we lose the value in letting an expert assess a system and recommend potential fixes so optimum performance can be achieved and prevent real issues from arising.
So instead of discussing how to simply check our boxes and move on, let’s talk about how we can change the perception of commissioning from a process that’s required to something that’s desired.
VALUE IN BUILDING COMMISSIONING
We’ve discussed what commissioning is – but what about the value for owners? As stated by the Lawrence Berkley study, benefits of commissioning include:
- Financial – The payback on initial commissioning is returned in as few as 1.5 years on new construction projects.
- Environmental – Building systems properly aligned and installed with the oversight of a commissioning team reduce CO2 emissions by about 340 megatons per year).
- Operational – Commissioning agents provide operations and maintenance staff with detailed documentation that gives them the knowledge base to make sure the first two benefits are achieved.
As energy codes tighten, particularly in areas like Washington and California, these things are changing from fringe benefits to baseline requirements. To meet strict codes; to support the integrity of innovative engineering and architectural designs; and to ultimately net timely and realistic ROI, early and collaborative engagement with a commissioning team is crucial.
Commissioning teams act as a bridge between the owner and project team. Ideally, they join the design team during conceptual design – helping provide checks to make sure owner’s goals are on track – and stay on through at least the first year of operation to provide operations and maintenance staff the tools they need to maintain continued high performance.
ISSUES PREVENTED BY COMMISSIONING
Glumac’s commissioning team regularly encounters issues that could go unnoticed if the project wasn’t going through the commissioning process. Examples include:
-A VRF economizer configured backwards in a mixed-use retail space, leading to drawing in too much cold air when the system is in heating. Glumac identified the issue during the functional testing process and helped the team troubleshoot the cause of the issue, reducing inefficiency, saving money, and improving general comfort, all before the building’s occupancy.
-Sump pumps with incomplete control panel connections in below-grade parking garages that could lead to a failure to notify the operations team a pump had failed or, worse yet, a flooded basement. Glumac has experienced this issue multiple times on a number of projects and the cause of the issue isn’t any one contractor’s fault. Instead, since the panels are typically ordered by the mechanical or plumbing contractor and installed with coordination between the mechanical, plumbing, electrical contractors and the pump and control panel vendors, it’s very easy to mistakenly miss one connection. The commissioning process helps verify all parties have coordinated properly and the pumps run as required.
-On a museum office project, Glumac reviewed the design of the standby generator and automatic transfer switch. Our commissioning team suggested performing testing with a total building blackout. The result was the discovery that the VRF system for the room and storage area was not functioning. The fan coil unit and outdoor condensing unit had power but were not running. Glumac assisted with a design change. Without total blackout testing, the project team would not have discovered this issue.
ACHIEVING DESIRED VALUE INSTEAD OF REQUIRED VALUE
There are three takeaways here.
First, find out early if you’ll be required to have commissioning on your project and understand what systems or equipment will need to be included. In the case of LEED projects, the LEED Reference Guide is very good at spelling out which systems are to be included. When it comes to energy codes, if the applicable section isn’t clear enough, there may be other organizations that can help you understand the required scope such as NEEC, or the AHJ may have helpful documents like Seattle’s CAM 419, which breaks down the Cx section of the code in easy-to-understand language.
Second, commissioning providers are your advocate. Their role is purely to make sure you’re getting what you need from a building, and they’re eager to help. Don’t be afraid to ask your commissioning providers what credentials or certifications they have and do some research to learn more about what each certification entails. This will help you feel confident that you’re getting the best advocate out there.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, don’t be leery of hiring a commissioning provider early, for fear of cost. Hiring commissioning at the beginning of a project is negligibly more expensive than hiring at the last minute, as the deliverables and field work will be roughly the same. Plus, early involvement facilitates early identification of issues. Making a change in CAD or Revit is much easier than re-routing ductwork and conduit after it’s been installed. Additionally, through early involvement, the commissioning provider can help form a cohesive team, with a unified goal of delivering the best possible product from day 1 to year 100.
On a project, don’t buckle your seat belt and hope for the best. Embrace the commissioning process and let it help achieve the best outcome possible.