Commissioning commercial buildings: Automation and controls

Ideally, all nonresidential buildings would be commissioned, and the team would start at the onset of the project. Because that’s not always the case, commissioning authorities and experts offer advice on building projects in various stages of commissioning, recommissioning, or retro-commissioning. Automation and controls are important to this process.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 27, 2015


Mark A. Gelfo, PE, LEED Fellow, GGP, CxA, EMP, Principal/Vice President, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Jacksonville, Fla.

James I. Givens, CxA, EMP, Division Manager, Field Services, RMF Engineering Inc., Baltimore

Jim Huber, CEM, CDSM, CMVP, LEED AP, NEBB CP, President, Complete Commissioning, Annapolis, Md.

Brian Lindstrom, PE, DCEP, National Director of Commissioning, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo.

Paul Meyer, PE, CBCP, LEED AP, CEM, GBE, Senior Vice President, WSP, New York City

CSE: When commissioning monitoring and control systems, what factors do you consider?

Lindstrom: There are three primary considerations:

  1. Flexibility of the monitoring and controls system to be able to control various types of systems
  2. Verifying the system can be customized for specific configurations beyond just “typical” setup
  3. Having clear sequences of operation.

Another important aspect to consider is the knowledge of the control-system technician and programmer. Most systems are capable of being customized to the application, but not all technicians/programmers have the experience to configure them beyond a standard setup. 

Meyer: The first thing you need to do when commissioning building automation systems (BAS) is to get a complete sequence of operations from the design engineer. In our company, we feel strongly about this and have full-time staff focused on just that. Next, we need to review the contractors’ submittals to see if they have taken into consideration the design engineers’ sequence and are supplying hardware and especially software to meet the requirements. Lastly, we work closely with the installing contractors to follow our custom-made test scripts, which demonstrate that the building actually does operate as designed.

Givens: The operator workstation is critical—it is often the only real interface personnel may have to sophisticated controls and monitoring systems. The integrity of the information that these systems provide, as well as the accessibility (and usefulness) of the information to personnel, determines the overall value of such systems, and the effect on the performances and efficiencies of the building systems. We ensure that graphics are accurate and truly represent system metrics and/or capabilities. We validate the accuracy of data presented, either through “canned” program logic or manual customizations (or, typically, combinations of both). We also encourage the use of any trending capabilities these monitoring or control systems may have to record historical data, which is a very useful tool to monitor the overall health and efficiency of the system(s) with which they are interfaced, as well as the facility in which they are installed.

CSE: What types of cutting-edge sensors, biometrics, or other controls are you commissioning in nonresidential buildings?

Lindstrom: Several examples that we are increasingly seeing are:

  1. The use of dewpoint- and humidity-ratio sensors, rather than typical temperature and humidity control, and use of localized weather stations to improve and enhance some of the controlling programs
  2. Proximity sensors that log the number of people in a space and determine correct outside air requirements to limit wasted energy
  3. Monitoring-based analytical commissioning/fault-detection programs that are able to trend data over time and perform preventive maintenance conclusions before a failure happens. 

Meyer: Today’s buildings are stuffed with low-voltage sensors and controls. What was once science fiction is now commonplace. Fingerprint readers are even on my laptop and smartphone. We see smart security cameras and software that can identify if a package has been left unmoving for a period of time. The software then alerts security personnel. Ideally, all of these should be commissioned.

CSE: What are some common problems you encounter when commissioning BAS?

Meyer: Some design engineers do not supply detailed, if any, sequence of operations. Controls contractors have been known to install what they think the building should have and not what was designed. There is also the loss of accuracy as the project trickles down through the controls contractors’ staff. The programmer is thinking one way and the hardware installers are doing something else. I saw one programmer who found that his installer did not install and wire a freeze-protection sensor; he simply put a piece of code in to act like a freeze-protection device, but it negated the intent.

Lindstrom: The most common issue is a lack of controls integration and upfront coordination with the engineer and owner before programming and installation occur. This typically leads to mistaken understanding regarding sequences, causing increased RFIs late in construction as well as increased identification of deficiencies during functional testing. We also frequently see inexperienced controls technicians during functional-testing activities. Often they were not the individuals responsible for the programming, and, when issues arise, they have to spend considerable time deciphering the engineer and programmer’s intentions. Additionally, we see greater problems on projects where the controls contractor has not taken advantage of some form of precommissioning. Our process is intended to be an “open book test” with the singular intent of making sure everyone has the right answers ahead of time to succeed. There’s noticeably greater first-time success when the control contractor reviews our tests early, buys into the process, and verifies performance during installation and start-up as opposed to letting us test and debug it for the first time.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome, and how did you do so?

Lindstrom: The most common issues can be traced to the lack of a systems-integration plan. Often, controls contractors will show up on a project expecting to auto-detect points and hoping they will be able to integrate with everything. Commonly, this results in not having the correct register maps and/or not being able to communicate with other installed devices and systems. If you want to prevent issues before they become installed problems, it is paramount to have a proactive systems-integration coordination process that maps points, devices, communication protocols, hardware (including gateways), and even power sources during the design and submittal phases. This level of coordination prevents issues such as schedule delays and cost overruns due to unexpected hardware like communication gateways or an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system needing to be installed late in the game.

Meyer: We do a lot of work in systems-integration management and have several full-time staff members dedicated to it. While commissioning engineers make good systems integrators, the intent is different. Systems integrators need to work with multiple subcontractors to locate gaps and work to find a remedy when each sub says, “Not in my contract!” For a system integrator to be effective, he needs to work directly for the owner, or the general contractor.

CSE: In your commissioning projects, have you worked to incorporate the Internet of Things (IoT), the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), or Industry 4.0? Are other countries more, less, or equally advanced when compared to U.S. projects?

Lindstrom: We jumped into the IoT when we created our own Web-based commissioning platform that goes beyond making the commissioning process paperless. It’s evolving into a project-integration tool that allows data to be migrated from BIM, to test form, to issues log, to final report, to asset management system. We also believe strongly in having a device-agnostic interface so that all project members have access. The intent is to prevent big data and increase efficiency and accuracy by eliminating data-collection redundancy and replication while increasing collaboration. From a global commissioning perspective, I believe we are far more advanced in the U.S. in terms of both the capability of our commissioning professionals as well as our ability to integrate the commissioning process into project teams effectively. Our global clients frequently tell us they are challenged in finding quality, local commissioning providers in emerging international spaces such as Asian Pacific and Europe, Middle East, Africa. Commissioning is still an emerging industry, especially outside the U.S., and even more so when considering the use of advanced technology.

Meyer: We have not worked with IoT/IIoT/Industry 4.0 yet. We do commissioning overseas, and I would judge them as equal or slightly less.