How to start a retrocommissioning business

In a recessive construction market and in increasingly regulated and incentivized energy and environmental markets, retrocommissioning services represent a new business opportunity for engineering firms.

01/20/2010


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In a recessive construction market and in increasingly regulated and incentivized energy and environmental markets, retrocommissioning services represent a new business opportunity for engineering firms.

 

The recession has been, by most accounts, industry selective, and continued strength of the building energy efficiency sector and green movement has driven many companies to align themselves with energy and environmental efficiency opportunities. In 2009, energy efficiency rose to a new level of recognition in the United States. Also, the current economic downturn is not sidetracking state-level efforts to make the most of energy efficiency as the path of least resistance to a sustainable energy future. The growth in government regulation, tax credits, and utility incentives indicate these trends will continue into this year.

 

There are four types of commissioning.

 

  1. New buildings are commissioned.

  2. Existing buildings are retrocommissioned if they were not commissioned when new. Some organizations refer to retrocommissioning as “existing building commissioning.”

  3. Recommissioning is the commissioning of a building that was commissioned or retrocommissioned.

  4. Ongoing commissioning is the commissioning of the building well into occupancy. It can include a continuous or nearly continuous tracking of building performance through special software, as well as scheduled or unscheduled examinations by facilities staff, with or without commissioning contractors.

This article provides an overview for engineers interested in getting into the retrocommissioning business. For greater detail, readers should consult the guidelines published by the various commissioning organizations, such as the Building Commissioning Assn . (BCA) and the National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB).

 

Why retrocommissioning?

With millions of commercial buildings in place in the United States and roughly 300 billion sq ft of space, retrocommissioning existing buildings represents a huge potential for reducing energy and carbon emissions. It also represents a large opportunity for conducting retrocommissioning and engineering services.

 

Retrocommissioning can be completed on a building of any age. In fact, some of the most successful retrocommissioning projects I have worked on have been on facilities only a few years old. As a building ages, degraded controls systems or strategies, faulty equipment, and deferred maintenance may result in system inefficiencies that often are not readily noticeable. Retrocommissioning helps restore a building's comfort and IAQ as well as its efficiency.

 

The retrocommissioning process targets energy-saving opportunities through the systematic evaluation of HVAC, refrigeration, lighting, and electrical systems. Retrocommissioning also examines the building envelope, operational procedures, and building and system documentation. The results of audits and analyses are called “findings”; costs for resolving the findings are presented to the owner for consideration.

 

A true recommissioning project involves no- and low-cost findings, such as resetting thermostat setpoints during unoccupied periods. However, the recommissioning findings may also list capital cost-intensive projects that warrant future study, such as replacing chillers. Taking budgets and priorities into account, owners must decide which, if any, recommendations will be implemented. A savvy recommissioning agent will work with the owner's team—from maintenance engineer to management—from the onset to ensure that the recommendations can be implemented.

 

Utility rebates and state and federal tax incentives also are factors. There are federal tax incentives for energy retrofits; for rebates, you can check the database at www.dsireusa.org for what the building's utility provider offers. Retrocommissioning providers should be aware of all funding opportunities available to building owners.

 

If the owner is pursuing a certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED EB) , you need to check the LEED EB retrocommissioning requirements, which are different from other LEED versions because they pertain to an actual building. Retrocommissioning is covered in the Energy and Atmosphere section, credits EA 2.1 and 2.2.

 

Get educated

Before you rush to add retrocommissioning services to your company's portfolio, there are some prerequisites.

 

  • Be sure your company has the personnel or outside resources to effectively engage in quality retrocommissioning projects.

  • Staff should be knowledgeable and field-savvy with BAS, controls, data acquisition, analysis, calculations, building system interactions, and the O&M of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems.

  • People skills are essential. These include oral presentation skills (to get the jobs), report and technical writing skills, and conversational skills (you'll be working elbow-to-elbow with operators, vendors, managers, and utility representatives).

Certification and training

One way to help assess the skills of your staff is to examine existing guidelines for retrocommissioning projects. Can members of your staff perform the duties described in the BCA's “Best Practices in Commissioning Existing Buildings,” or in NEBB's “Procedural Standards for Retro-Commissioning of Existing Buildings” ? (The guidelines are free at www.bcxa.org , and www.nebb.org , respectively.)

 

In addition to guidelines, BCA, NEBB, ASHRAE, and other organizations offer credentialing opportunities for obtaining a commissioning or a retrocommissioning certification. Some require experience in addition to taking a test; others only require taking a course and a test. It's up to you to decide if certification is a valid way to build a retrocommissioning process. Early on, however, it's probably best to focus on getting training, experience, and successful projects under your belt.

 

Speaking of training, organizations that offer certification usually have training opportunities. Training also exists outside the certification programs. It's best to get training that includes field experience because so much of retrocommissioning success rests with how to work with operational systems (and operating staffs).

 

Engineers also are encouraged to join one or more of the associations and to attend their conferences for additional education, training, and networking. The National Conference on Building Commissioning ( www.peci.org/ncbc ) is another independent venue to consider.

 

When seeking to build retrocommissioning business, realize that there are many paths to take. There is no one sure way of building a strong retrocommissioning business.

 

Finding your first customer

After you have the education and training to perform well in the field, your next step is to find your first customer. You could sink tens of thousands of dollars toward a marketing strategy, but why not test the waters with a single client?

 

It may be easier than you think. Examine your customer base to find customers with existing buildings that may benefit from retrocommissioning. Avoid hospitals, laboratories, data centers, and other complex facilities until you've gained enough experience to tackle these complex projects.

 

Retrocommissioning can be successful on any size facility, but to ensure that savings are realized, retrocommissioning is often done on facilities with BAS that have trending capabilities. Also, many local utility companies offer retrocommissioning programs that partially or fully offset the cost of a retrocommissioning study and provide monetary incentives for reducing energy. Partnering with these utilities or their approved contractors can be a good way to find a retrocommissioning customer.

 

Use your first successful project to build your reputation. Celebrate your customer's success through your company's marketing channels, such as newsletters, trade publications, conference case studies, and seminars. With your customer's participation, write up the most important findings from the effort, how much energy was saved, and what the expected payback time or return on investment will be. Be sure to take high-resolution pictures of the chief findings to help communicate the nature of the problem and the solution.

 

The process

If you are participating in a utility program, the utility may require you to follow a retrocommissioning process. If you have to provide your own process, it's probably best to first adopt the BCA or NEBB process and then refine it for your company as you go along. The retrocommissioning process also may depend on whether LEED EB is being pursued, how much the owner can afford, the available time to complete the project, and (especially) the size and type of building as well as the age and condition of the its systems and controls.

 

Below is a generalized procedure that aligns with LEED-EB credits EA 2.1 and 2.2.

 

In the building performance profile and scoping phase, the recommissioning agent establishes baseline performance (i.e., a building performance profile) to understand the building's original and current design and construction and its operational performance. This step also involves reviewing the existing system control sequences as programmed as well as the original design intent. At the end of this phase, you generate a scoping report that provides the owner with high-level findings and rough economic projections for payback or return on investment.

 

Controls are documented, trends are logged, and documentation is examined. In the end, you create a performance profile to serve as a baseline against which recommendations are compared and ultimately verified after being implemented. How much energy was saved? When will the fixes and upgrades pay for themselves? Answering these inevitable questions is easier with a good building performance profile.

 

Items addressed include temperatures, power draws, and run times of chillers, cooling towers, boilers, water heaters, air handlers, refrigeration units, lights, and other large-energy consumers. Water consumption might also be addressed should water savings be a goal of the owner. Utility programs for retrocommissioning might pay for some or all of this phase. This work will give owners a sense of the scope of the planned work, and help them determine if they have the time, staff, and budget to go further.

 

Detailed investigation and recommendations

If work progresses to the next phase, you must perform detailed engineering on the findings that the owner and the facility team have chosen to pursue. Collect more information and trending of building systems. Complete a detailed site assessment, including a record of all installed energy-consuming name plate data, confirming occupancy scheduling, and detailing comfort problems, O&M practices, and sequences of operation.

 

Additional retrocommissioning measures may be identified during this phase and preliminary measures may fall out. At the end of this phase, you'll deliver a detailed investigation report to the owner that summarizes findings, recommendations, calculations, and expected post-installation measurement and verification (M&V) procedures. Utility programs for retrocommissioning might pay for some or all of this phase. Owners might have to commit to fund a significant number of the findings in order to get funding for this phase.

 

Implementation

This involves the correction of equipment and system deficiencies found in the investigation phase. The retrocommissioning provider can directly implement all or some of the measures, but typically works as an adviser while an installing contractor completes implementation.

 

Utility programs for retrocommissioning might pay for some implementation work. If so, rebates usually are based on how much energy is being saved over an expected timeline or lifetime. Rebates might also depend on the type of energy being saved; electric utilities might not pay for gas savings, and vice versa. Owners might have to commit to fund a significant number of the findings in order to get funding for this phase.

 

Measurement and verification.

During this phase, the retrocommissioning provider analyzes the results of the retrocommissioning measures that were implemented. Work with the installing contractor and client to understand how each measure was implemented, how the actual implementation followed the recommendation, or if it deviated from the recommendation. Visit the site to verify the measures have been implemented and review trend logs to confirm sequence and measure implementation. Saving assumptions also are verified and if assumptions significantly differ, recalculations should be performed. All findings are presented to the owner in a verification report. Utility programs for retrocommissioning might pay for some M&V work, and rebate programs sometimes provide M&V contractors for internal audits that do not charge the owner.

 

The size and energy intensity of the commercial-building portfolio in the United States represents a lot of low-hanging fruit for retrocommissioning. Energy and carbon regulations, energy tax incentives, and utility rebates are driving the retrocommissioning business in the United States into high gear. Voluntary commitments by U.S. businesses, universities, and municipalities looking to green their bottom lines (and their market position) are also contributing to the growth of retrocommissioning.

 

Because of the recessive new construction market, engineering firms are looking for new services to offer and new markets to penetrate. The retrocommissioning market could offer a fertile source of projects and worthwhile work. Although very specific knowledge and experience are required, there are opportunities and resources for acquiring them.

 

Good retrocommissioning providers are in high demand, and with retrocommissioning business increasing, they're becoming harder to find.

 

Author Information

D'Antonio is the president of PCD Engineering Services, and a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer Editorial Advisory Board.

 

 

Vetting a client and building

 

 

Here are some keys to ensuring the client and project are ready for retrocommissioning:

 

 

 

• Determine the level of investment the customer is willing to commit to retro-commissioning. Don't be in the business to provide dead-end studies.

 

 

 

• Review maintenance records to get a sense for the facility's problem areas. (However, a good maintenance record on specific equipment does not mean the building performance is optimized as a system.)

 

 

 

• Learn generally about the types of business conducted in the facility, building envelope, energy-consuming equipment in the facility, the operational profile of the facility, and any existing operational and maintenance issues.

 

 

 

• Learn about any known opportunities to improve O&M procedures at the facility.

 

 

 

• Review occupant complaint logs. (Note that a lack of complaints does not necessarily mean that the building is operating well.)

 

 

 

• Evaluate high energy consumers on the parameters of peak kW/sq ft, kWh/sq ft/year, and Btu/sq ft/year. (Keep in mind that even good performers can have room for improvement.)

 

 

 

• Look at fluctuations in utility data in concert with building usage and operational profiles. Check operator logs or conduct interviews for large variations.

 

 

 

• Have a potential customer complete a short questionnaire summarizing the above information.

 

 

 

 

 

Additional resources

 

 

Commissioning process templates: Free PDFs of the Building Commissioning Assoc. checklists and sample documents: www.bcxa.org/resources/templates/index.htm .

 

 

 

Cost-benefit analyses with statistics of commissioning by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: cx.lbl.gov/cost-benefit.html

 

 

 

Document database: Free online database of commissioning documents, reports, and templates by the California Commissioning Collaborative: www.cacx.org/resources/providers.html .

 

 

 

Functional Test Guide: A commissioning and retrocommissioning tool: www.peci.org/ftguide .

 

 

 

Proceedings from the National Conference on Building Commissioning, 2005 to 2009. Excellent papers and presentations for business and process aspects of retrocommissioning: www.peci.org/ncbc/proceedings.html .

 

 

 



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