Commissioning: Bridging the gap between construction and operations

Learn the basics of maximizing operating efficiency after building completion

By Charles W Jackson III October 28, 2022
Courtesy: Sustainable Building Partners


Learning Objectives

  • Focusing on operational and energy conservation deliverables during the design can save money and time during the lifetime of the building.
  • Specifying metering and trending during the design and establishing trends during construction allows the building to build the framework for ongoing monitoring.
  • Commissioning can be leveraged as the gateway between construction and operations and help with knowledge transfer.

Building operations and maintenance insights

  • The building can operate more smoothly and efficiently by including operations and maintenance as part of the early phases of a design and construction project.
  • Commissioning can improve energy efficiency and provide ongoing O&M checkpoints.

One of the biggest challenges with new construction is transferring the knowledge gained during the construction process to the operations and maintenance team, who must manage the building for its lifetime. Far too often, the O&M staff have not been hired until after the project has been completed.

As a commissioning professional, I’ve had a unique perspective being part of the construction team and meeting with the operations team during training and the warranty period. From an O&M standpoint, there can be many challenges during the first year of operations, ranging from creating a preventive maintenance program, energy management initiatives and just learning how to operate the new systems in the building. Understanding the operational needs throughout the phases of a project can set up the framework to allow the building to operate successfully.

Design is where we can develop requirements that are not only followed through the project but can be used by the operation team. Also, once these requirements are established, the construction team can plan accordingly to implement those requirements without the additional cost of making changes during construction. Engineers, consultants and commissioning professionals should also use this opportunity to focus on the importance of data collection. This ranges from the type and formats of documents submitted to what data points are extracted from equipment to be monitored.

Commissioning for energy efficiency

Energy conservation mandates continue to push at the forefront of our industry. Although requirements continue to change, the metrics used, kilowatt-hour and kBtu, remain the same. Energy use intensity is still used as a baseline to compare buildings for various rating systems such as Energy Star.

When developing specifications, it is essential to ensure that metering is available for mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection equipment and systems, along with trending parameters that can capture this data. Most manufacturers understand these requirements and their equipment is designed to provide the information needed. The data points are often available and we must ensure our specifications clarify what points the project will use.

Educating owners on maximizing the equipment’s capabilities and stressing the importance of building the infrastructure during initial construction is paramount. In predesign meetings with the owner, it is essential to have those conversations about how they plan on maintaining their building and the importance of knowing the energy metrics, especially the financial implications on utility bills and jurisdictional penalties for not having a grasp on how to decrease energy usage.

With the metering and trending already established during the project, the transition to fault detection and real-time analysis during the life of the building becomes a lot simpler. Having a grasp of this data from the beginning has been shown to increase operating efficiency, which helps decrease your operating budget.

Additionally, specifying when to begin trending is equally essential. Establishing trends on data points during the construction phase through functional testing can add tremendous value to the building far after construction. This would force the controls to be ready earlier in the construction process and help gather baseline information about the MEP systems that can be compared during the building’s life cycle.

Energy modeling is a tool that does wonders for design but does not have the same impact after construction. Running a new energy model with the final project data is necessary to properly understand the building after construction and commissioning have been completed. A final “as-built” energy model as a requirement in the closeout specifications will help the owner have a more realistic expectation of the building’s energy usage.

Figure 1: Trend analysis: This building demonstrates a baseline consumption of 3- to 4-kWh in 30-minute intervals. Courtesy: Sustainable Building Partners

Ongoing operations and maintenance

Typically, closeout requirements listed in specifications call for final O&M documents, as-built drawings, warranty information and training. When the project is completed, the operating staff often has not yet been hired. Requiring recorded training sessions provides more value that can be used by future staff. Documentation is excellent and offers added benefits, but unfortunately, these documents are rarely reviewed once the building is in operation. They require alternating methods of delivering the documents, like visual presentations, such as laminated single-line diagrams that can be posted in electrical rooms or valve tag schedules in a mechanical plant.

No matter what preventive maintenance system the operations staff uses, specific equipment information, such as equipment name, serial numbers and locations, will be needed. Requiring the contractor that installs and starts the equipment to provide this information in a usable format will enhance the operator transition.

One of the operational staff’s biggest tasks is creating detailed shutdown procedures for the installed systems. Many projects require this information to be included in the O&M manual. Project-specific shutdown and maintenance procedures should be provided separately, detailing the areas affected and the upstream equipment from which the equipment is fed.

For example, suppose there is an issue with a school’s variable refrigerant flow system. In that situation, knowing what classrooms the VRF feeds, its condensing unit, panels and breakers associated with the VRF can save the operational staff valuable time in an emergency. Adding this detail as part of the closeout documents makes operating the building much more manageable.

Throughout the commissioning process, there is an opportunity to successfully collect the information needed to transition from construction to operations. Starting in the design phase, armed with the contract documents, the engineer and commissioning professional can ensure those deliverables are incorporated into the various design stages, submittal review and verification during testing.

Monitoring-based commissioning

U.S. Green Building Council LEED offers monitoring-based commissioning as an enhanced credit option path. Much of the equipment already have meters installed. This is a no-brainer option if metering and trending are identified in the specifications. The designer’s job is to educate the owner on the benefits of implementing this option beyond construction. Besides adding additional credits for a LEED scorecard, having real-time monitoring and using fault detection software can help increase operating efficiency for the life of the building and help prioritize the preventive maintenance program.

Monitoring-based commissioning through design, construction and testing provides documented results that the O&M team can continue to use as they take ownership of the building. The documents can be used to develop the ongoing commissioning program with established test procedures and baselines.

Commissioning software becomes vital on multiple fronts throughout the commissioning process. The software can export project information and import it into the operator’s computerized maintenance management system. The commissioning professional can provide real-time information on the documentation and project deliverables throughout the commissioning process.

CMMS software can also integrate with project delivery programs. This helps commissioning become a gateway touching all aspects of a project. Using the software to collect reports such as test and balance, factory testing, pressure testing, electrical testing and startup reports provides an easy transition for the owners to access at the end of the project.

The warranty period becomes the last opportunity to provide that transition. Most commissioning scopes call for a 10-month review before the warranty period ends. All the closeout documentation deliverables, such as training, shutdown procedures and the as-built energy model, should be available during this phase. Pushing for endurance testing after substantial completion allows the system to operate once the construction is over and helps develop the baseline that will continuously be measured throughout the life of the building.

Instead of one 10-month review, having quarterly visits with the operating staff throughout the first year can provide a much more significant impact. Quarterly reviews of the trend data and providing analysis compared to the baseline from testing and the final energy model will provide that starting point to allow the O&M team to transition smoothly. These visits will enable the operating staff to digest the information in a usable manner instead of the one-time visit at the end of the ten months.

Closing the knowledge gap provides the building operator with comfort and trust in the new building. The knowledge that the piping system has been pressure-tested to twice its operating pressure without a leak provides a level of assurance in the system. Finding the best way to transfer this knowledge through training and firsthand expertise will improve the O&M life of the building. The benefits will be actualized through the reduced equipment downtime and the time required for troubleshooting.

This topic will be further discussed at the CxEnergy 2023 Conference & Expo, an event on commissioning, building technology and energy management (May 2 to 5, 2023, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas,


Author Bio: Charles W. Jackson III, PE, PMP, CxA, CEM, is a commissioning manager at Sustainable Building Partners who serves on the board of directors for ACG. He was a Consulting-Specifying Engineer 40 Under 40 award winner.

Related Resources