Commissioning and the technology evolution

With smarter application and availability of technology to achieve and drive longer-term performance results, commissioning providers (CxPs) are finding themselves at the forefront to learn, coach, and lead the application of technology in the built environment. Learn the challenges, roles, opportunities, and recommended methods for incorporating technology solutions into the commissioning process and improving building performance.

By Michael Chimack, PE, CEM, and Jesse Sycuro, PE, CEM March 17, 2016

Learning objectives:

  • Demonstrate how technology is affecting the commissioning marketplace.
  • Show how commissioning providers (CxPs) can leverage technology to increase business and offer their customers a more comprehensive building performance solution.
  • Apply commissioning (Cx) best practices to technology-driven commissioning applications.
  • Navigate technology challenges and opportunities in the built environment through the commissioning process.

Building technology solutions are accelerating at an exponential pace, rapidly changing the building industry. The challenges at this nexus are to keep up with innovations and be able to marry technology solution capabilities with appropriate and successful implementation for building owners and managers. Commissioning providers (CxPs) are jumping into this technical evolution to ensure building owners’ project requirements are fulfilled.

The impact of technology on the commissioning profession is dramatic. Technology applications provide platforms for multilevel data gathering, analytics, performance assessment, and problem identification, and allow project teams to reach consensus faster. Although there is not yet a single "all-in-one" commissioning technology solution, a host of available technology applications are available today that can acquire real-time building and systems performance data, test for various conditions, simulate seasonal performance, and provide monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx) over time.

Market challenges

This technology-based commissioning market is in its infancy. The building-focused "technology bubble" has created a multitude of technologies rushing into the market at a high rate of speed, adoption, and consequent confusion. Data, analytics, and business intelligence solutions are viable and available; yet, with myriad applications, they are not easily integrated together. Like the bubble, there are currently no gatekeepers or metrics for building technology solutions that deliver what owners intend, except through the process of commissioning. Challenges include:

  • Best practice gaps. Professionals with diverse backgrounds—from engineering consultants to systems integrators and architects—are jumping on the bandwagon without the necessary knowledge, skills, or experience to understand the best practices for technology applications, or the best use of data they acquire. There are more players than ever in the marketplace, and CxPs need to stay on the leading edge to learn continuously about technology offerings that allow them to supplement the commissioning process.
  • App choices and data deluge. Building owners and managers have picked up on the buzz. They are hearing about the efficiency and savings potential as well as the speed and ease of data analytics that they can achieve if they purchase the latest shiny new "big data" applications. As a result, they are savvy but confused by the deluge; they read blogs, run their days, and coordinate tasks through handheld apps. They understand that information can lead to efficiency, but more data is only better if they know what they need to do with it. Without guidance from leaders of technological building applications, the big data market will continue to evolve undirected, creating further market fragmentation and additional confusion for the buyers of commissioning services.
  • From the building owners’ perspective, the array of technology choices, analytical methods, and outcomes can be daunting. The knowledge necessary to make the right choice, for the right reasons, is time-consuming and does not always produce the desired result.
  • Performance goals. Building project owners, planners, designers, and other stakeholders need to understand the building-performance improvement goals before shopping for a big data analytics solution. They need to vet big data applications to determine if their needs are met by the features and functions of the solution. They also need assistance in understanding how much data is enough and how much is overload that bogs down both system and operations performance. A complete picture of building performance is only available when one has and analyzes all building data, automation system data, energy data, equipment data, service work orders, etc. Each set of data provides valuable information. Big data analytics firms may position their work as comprehensive, but if they are examining just one set of data, it is only a partial picture of building systems operation at best.
  • Limited holistic solutions. Not many experts provide holistic solutions. Fragmented information sources such as trade shows, presentations, blogs, technical websites, and other resources make it hard to differentiate ecosystem solutions. Most provide individual value by the piece; at this juncture there are a lot of startups and intercompany consolidations, rendering many software solutions unsupported. For example, Cisco jumped into this market for a short time 5 years ago, deploying its building management tool, Mediator, which intended to "tap into Cisco’s deep networking skills to hook up the many and disparate software networks used to heat, cool, and otherwise operate big commercial buildings." After trying to improve and expand, it discontinued the entire line of building energy-management products, leaving customers without recourse for servicing their investment.

Where does all of this leave the commissioning profession, which is focused on boots-on-the-ground building science and high performance underpinned by a construction-industry mentality? CxPs have been slow to accept "unproven" technology tools, waiting and evaluating the outcomes they see, knowing there may be financial and resource risk implications if they get it wrong.

The role of CxPs in technology-centric buildings

Despite some pessimistic opinions, technology is not causing commissioning to go away. In fact, technology as a commissioning tool enables providers to assess more data points and deliver more depth, efficiency, and value to owners. As technology advances in buildings and as the line between information technology (IT) and facility-centric systems blurs, commissioning is becoming even more critical to ensure whole-building performance across integrated, advanced systems applications. More—and more effective—use of data also means less sampling of building systems, more accuracy, and lower cost of projectwide performance measurement.

Technology tools speed up access to useful data. Well-conceived and integrated technology assists CxPs to test data quality and commission the analytics, run trends, identify fixes, analyze issues, and conduct point-to-point functional-performance testing at scale. CxPs can use technology to cast a wider net by monitoring control points and subsystem energy use and by relating results to the utility meter. Technology helps CxPs evaluate performance back to design, closing the long-existing gap between design intent and ongoing operational performance.

The role of CxPs in a technology-centric building environment is changing, and new questions are springing up along the way:

  • Where does technology fit in the commissioning value proposition?
  • How can CxPs further leverage and apply technology solutions for the design, construction, and operation of buildings?
  • To what degree should CxPs compel IT/building software personnel and building industry professionals to come together as technology blurs the line between fields?
  • How do CxPs deliver commissioning services that address big changes in building approaches like security, resiliency, and technology advancements?
  • Data volume and quality—how much is enough?

The answers to these questions are evolving as CxPs expand their use of technology tools in the commissioning process.

Opportunities for CxPs, project teams

To stay on top of their profession, CxPs will need to do more to represent owners’ best interests in technology applications by identifying efficiencies and deficiencies in systems integration and working with project teams to manage integration efforts that meet owners’ project requirements. Historically, decentralized data-monitoring devices and older versions of direct digital controls (DDC) have been used for trending. Specifically, CxPs analyzed data using spreadsheet software—an unstable and time-consuming platform.

Now that more sophisticated controls allow for easier and more reliable data access, it is time to make use of these applications for trending and comparative analysis. It is no longer necessary to double-check data quality or analysis using Excel. Here are tips to make use of these options:

1. Use smart commissioning. A recent presentation at the National Conference on Building Commissioning by Jim Meacham, PE, principal at Altura Associates, "Smart Commissioning: Leveraging Analytics Tools to Deliver Persistent Performance," provides a case study of the Caltech Beckman Institute in Pasadena, Calif. This project included retrofitting 27 laboratories from analog to digital controls. It involved capturing information on trends, running analytics as part of functional testing, using data to reapply analytics to past situations, and testing all setpoints—a good way to avoid costly random sampling and up-level commissioning effectiveness.

In addition to a description of the process used for the Caltech Beckman Institute, Meacham describes important achievements resulting from the use of technology to commission the facility, which would not otherwise have been possible:

  • Demonstrated potential for future cost reduction through automated testing
  • Faster identification of issues—the issues log was available at commissioning kickoff
  • Ability to test all labs with the "hit of a button"—retesting was made much simpler
  • Significantly reduced field hours for all players.

2. Update owner’s project requirements (OPR). The goal of the OPR is to align owners’ expectations for project outcomes with how buildings will be used and operated. As a key instrument in the operations and performance of buildings, technology must be addressed in the project OPR for a successful project. At a minimum, the OPR should address the following technology-centric requirements:

  • Data requirements and application of technology to provide measurable project results
  • User interface and functionality required by building operators and occupants
  • Systems necessary to meet project performance outcomes
  • Commissioning plan and approach for verifying project metering/sensors accuracy and communication
  • Monitoring plan and process for leveraging building analytics to meet project goals 
  • Purpose, requirements, and methods for systems integration
  • Roles and responsibilities of stakeholders responsible for technology-specific solutions
  • Technology-specific training requirements based on building staff capabilities.

Getting ahead

CxPs who get in front of the technology evolution and use best practices will provide the best value to building owners and ultimately to the building industry.

CxPs are in a position to guide owners and practitioners in the evolution of technology-based building performance, and leverage technology for the benefit of project stakeholders. To achieve and sustain that position, CxPs need to understand types of products, software, and services available in the marketplace, and how these advance their ability to communicate and sell commissioning services effectively.

To move CxP teams to technology-based commissioning solutions, it is critical to develop educational resources, events, and networking within the commissioning profession and the building community. The cost of not embracing technology in the commissioning process affects everyone, especially owners and facility operations teams who lose out on the future ability to control their buildings efficiently.

Current resources for learning more about state-of-the-art technology-based commissioning are scarce to-date, but growing. They include venues where manufacturers, systems integrators, CxPs, and relevant service providers are presenting products, software, and services, such as trade shows, in-person events, webinars, and workshops.

CxPs must embrace technology. It is a tool that increases project productivity, without which CxPs may price themselves out of the building commissioning market. By embracing technology, CxPs send a message to the market that technology is a tool by which building commissioning can be executed efficiently and effectively, and that it is intended to supplement knowledge, skills, and experience.

Michael Chimack is the director of the energy services center of excellence for Siemens Building Technologies, providing comprehensive building performance optimization solutions throughout North America.

Jesse Sycuro is account executive for energy and facility services at McKinstry, providing smart building solutions nationwide with energy management, monitoring-based commissioning, and analytics solutions for building optimization. This article is authored by members of the Building Commissioning Association, a Consulting-Specifying Engineer content partner.

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