Closing the loop—how commissioning can come full circle

Just about every building project, from a skyscraper to a small hospital renovation, must be commissioned to ensure its safety and functionality. By focusing on proper systems operation, problem solving, and teamwork, commissioning can ensure systems function as intended.

By Mike Haemmerle, PE, & Eric Stephens, PE, CxA, Korda Engineering, Columbus, Ohi October 16, 2018

Learning Objectives

  • Know whom to hire to commission a building project and when to bring them on board.
  • Understand what the whole project team needs to know to ensure a successful outcome.
  • Learn about how modern technology and current issues, such as energy efficiency, affect commissioning.

“All systems are go” is what NASA personnel needed to hear back in the 1960s before they could launch a rocket into space. A decade later, that concept-that everything was checked and ready to run-had become the final frontier of commissioning.

These days, just about every building project, from a skyscraper to a small hospital renovation, must be commissioned to ensure its safety and functionality. For example, hospitals require this to ensure the systems can justify The Joint Commission accreditations from day one. As an unfortunate side effect, commissioning has become its own industry and strayed from its original purpose of making sure systems function as intended. It has devolved instead into a contest of fancy checklists and proving one’s “value” by making unnecessary comments as opposed to offering solutions.

There is hope, however. Focusing on proper systems operation and teamwork is the key to putting commissioning back on track, so building construction projects don’t experience a failure to launch.

Commissioning started as a means to verify that a building’s subsystems were designed, installed, tested, and capable of being operated and maintained as envisioned by the building owner and as designed by its architects and engineers. The job was originally performed by mechanical engineers, who had the knowledge to close the gap in understanding among the original design engineer, owner, contractor, and the people tasked with making the system work. But the gap is back.

Commissioning gains acceptance

Today, as commissioning has grown into a larger industry, third-party companies that do only commissioning have gotten involved, removing the engineer and his or her problem-solving skills from the picture. Software is now available to make the commissioning process simpler for everybody, including those who do not have extensive knowledge about how building systems work. You could say that in modern commissioning, “forms” follow function, as web-based checklists are all the rage these days.

Commissioning agents (CxA) or commissioning professionals (CxP) are being hired based on how glamorous their checklist looks, or how easy it is to share with the team. But the forms are just a tool. The real measure of the value of having a project commissioned is how well the overall system works in the end. The best process is a marriage of effective forms and function.

Because commissioning has become a larger industry, some CxAs feel they need to justify their role on the project. This mindset causes them to look for problems and point out items that they would like to have changed, which may not be required for the system to operate properly, or add value to the project. In essence, they are missing the forest for the trees by looking for minor issues, such as the way information is presented on a drawing. That type of comment is irrelevant to making the system work and can waste time that could be better spent on improving the system.

What leads to this situation is that too often the person who hires the CxA or CxP does not understand the most important goal of commissioning. It is more than a matter of installation verification. Commissioning should be about obtaining that next level of knowledge and interpretation, beyond simply making sure that the right boxes are checked. It is an opportunity to take advantage of a third set of eyes-designer, owner, and commissioning party-and gain from that experience.

Commissioning is about systems (not just individual pieces and parts) and how they interact. Take the complexity of controls on air handling systems, for example. An interaction exists between static pressure reset, where the system controls the speed of the fan, and discharge air temperature reset, where the system adjusts the temperature. Someone checking those components might expect a particular operation based on one of them, but not necessarily on both. Understanding the interaction between system components is essential to proper commissioning, which is why experienced design engineers who perform commissioning are a better fit than those without design experience.

A CxA might show up with a fancy web-based checklist to identify items that need to be corrected, adjusted, or replaced, but they will not offer solutions. Whereas engineers, by nature and profession, want to be part of the solution. And on every project, they are required to make systems work.

Commissioning from the start

In addition to hiring an engineer to commission a project, bringing them on board early-before the contract is bid and the project is well underway-is essential to a successful outcome. The CxA should be involved in design review meetings to learn the owner’s goals and contribute their additional level of knowledge to the project. If they are involved at the beginning, the CxA can provide feedback to the design engineer that can be incorporated into the plan to avoid major changes down the line.

Once construction starts, the CxA or CxP can observe the construction, working with the controls contractor, design engineers, and other contractors on the project. This strategy ensures that everybody has a set of eyes on everything, making sure they are all doing what they need to do, so when the time to verify the systems arrives, everything already works.

As important as it is to the building project that all systems work together, that goes for the project team as well. Therefore, when commissioning a project, it is important that everyone-owners, architects, contractors, and engineers-checks their ego at the door. Each member of the project team brings a unique set of skills, knowledge, and experience and adds their own value to the project.

Whoever performs the commissioning should be confident enough that people will understand their value without specifically trying to prove it or feel the need to show anybody up. The whole team should work together to solve problems to the benefit of the project. In short, be collaborative, cooperative, and respectful of everyone on the project, no matter who signs the checks.

Even when working as a team, it can be easy to get stuck in a silo. Each project participant should try to understand the others’ roles and how their parts all fit together. This synergy can be accomplished through discussions held in frequent, open meetings, where questions can be addressed. Engaging people with more senior experience in mechanical and electrical systems and making sure the commissioning process is part of the project schedule, helps the process go smoothly as well. It is important to continue to track progress and backcheck work throughout the whole process to make sure the loop is closed.

Another goal for the project team that will make everyone happy is to try to achieve the owner’s desired outcome in the fewest steps possible. If that can be accomplished, it will save everyone time and money. It does not mean cutting corners. It means being efficient, and efficiency comes from experience.

A good CxA will base their work on their experience. They will be part of the solution (not just the one who identifies problems), know their role, and allow those specifically responsible for resolving issues to take the lead in bringing resolutions. However, the best commissioning agents don’t hesitate to provide information and suggestions based on their insight and experience to help prevent issues before they happen.

Technologies enhance commissioning

Experience is valuable, but it does not mean being set in your ways and unable to adapt to change. Everything is becoming more sophisticated, and doing commissioning right involves being able to understand newer technology. Although much of the specific devices that are being monitored, measured, and moved are not dramatically more advanced than they were years ago, the programming that goes into making them operate is. A controls contractor handles the programming, but the CxA still has to make sure it works. In fact, the more complex and larger the systems involved, the more important commissioning is to the whole process.

An example of such a complex project is a tissue processing facility. These buildings have intricate systems with strict pressure-control relationships, user interfaces, tracking and trending values, and points for certification from different federal agencies. They contain the entire gamut of systems: air handling units, chillers, boilers, steam systems, etc., and the control processes are very delicate (tight range of control). Temperatures are usually set point plus or minus one degree, or even a half degree, and the humidity control set point is plus or minus 2%. Such a project demands an experienced CxA to get it right.

The single biggest technology issue facing today’s commissioning agents is incomplete controls programming. Complex control loops are usually associated with energy efficient systems. Energy savings is a huge topic affecting industries across the globe right now. It is part of U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification, which also requires commissioning. However, despite the growing complexity of these systems and the programming involved, construction schedules are shrinking. A lot of work goes into programming and testing to make sure everything functions, and it can’t happen overnight. If time runs out due to schedule constraints, the bottom line is that systems don’t get tested properly.

For this reason, the commissioning agent should be actively involved in the review and development of the construction schedule. An experienced CxA can help the construction manager create a schedule that will ensure that all systems will be ready to be tested with sufficient time before the building is occupied.

In the end, it’s not so much about the technology but about the human experience and being able to listen and add value to the whole process, as opposed to just documenting issues and placing check marks in a box. A CxA’s most valuable “technology” is their experience, and their most valuable resource is their ability to form and work with a team. Nothing can be substituted for good old-fashioned expertise when it comes to solving problems that could be discovered during the commissioning of a building construction project. What is needed to bring commissioning back to what it was meant to be is teamwork, experience, and problem solving.

The ideal building construction project

  1. A commissioning agent (CxA) is hired during the design phase.
  2. The CxA is included in design reviews and the development of the commissioning specifications (defining the procedures and expectations of the commissioning process).
  3. The contractors understand what they need to do and can accurately bid the project.
  4. During design, the construction manager, with the input of the design engineer, architect, and CxA, creates a schedule that is:
  • Well-planned
  • Reasonable
  • Includes progress inspections designed to limit rework
  • Carves out sufficient time to perform functional performance testing with the team working through all issues together in the presence of the owner’s facility staff
  • Sets aside ample time for owner training to occur
  • Includes the completion of off-season testing.

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