Commissioning commercial buildings: Codes and standards

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 codes and standards advice on building projects in various stages of commissioning, recommissioning, or retro-commissioning.

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: Please explain some of the international codes, standards, and guidelines you use as you commission buildings or systems.

Huber: I have never been a believer in guidelines; these documents are seen as suggestions of what should be done versus a requirement in a standard. ASHRAE Standard 202: Commissioning Process for Buildings and Systems was a big step in the right direction, and NEBB’s procedural standard for technical commissioning and procedural standard for technical retro-commissioning have always guided our work.

Meyer: There are many standards and guidelines for the commissioning process. The granddaddy of these is ASHRAE Guideline 0: The Commissioning Process. ASHRAE changed ASHRAE 202 to a standard in 2013. This will allow the commissioning process to be code. Many other groups have commissioning standards such as the balancing organizations, including Associated Air Balance Council and NEBB, and the U.S. General Services Administration. There are also specialized guidelines such as National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) Guideline 3-2006 for Exterior Enclosure Technical Requirements and Guidelines 2-200X and 4-200X through 14-200X for technical commissioning guidelines dealing with structure, electrical, lighting, interiors, plumbing, etc.

CSE: How have International Building Code (IBC), NFPA, ASHRAE, and other codes affected your work on commissioning? What are some positive/negative aspects of these guides?

Givens: In general, building codes and guidelines are trending toward increased efficiency and resiliency requirements. This, in turn, can have a positive impact on the commissioning process by yielding more detailed design requirements and clearer operating sequences and protocols. This increased design clarity, together with the requirements spelled out in the codes and guidelines, helps to define the functional testing rigor and pass/fail criteria required for commissioning. NFPA has actively integrated the commissioning process and integrated testing of fire protection and life safety systems through the development and publication of NFPA 3: Commissioning and Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems and NFPA 4: Standard for Integrated Fire Protection and Life Safety System Testing. This demonstrates a huge, positive step in formalizing the commissioning process and requirements in an area that has often been clouded by many shades of gray. However, with such a positive development also comes the risk of inadvertent negative impact—this progress also has caused many to expect a full and clear standardization of the commissioning process and requirements related to fire protection and life safety systems. While this is easy to see, and perhaps even request, we must all acknowledge the vast diversity and possibilities of unique systems and situations that are encountered when dealing with life safety systems and integrated testing in any number of imaginable facility types and applications. As commissioning providers, we cannot become complacent and allow ourselves to rely on industry standards/publications to drive our practice. Instead, we must appreciate that the industry is embracing our practice, and use the tools provided to us to enhance the value of the services that we have built while remaining objective, responsible owner/facility advocates.

Gelfo: In Florida, the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which has already been adopted by many jurisdictions around the country, became effective with the adoption of the Florida Building Code 5th Edition 2014. The commissioning requirements in IECC C408, although relatively minor when compared to what we might consider a best practices Cx scope, will be completely new to many building owners, contractors, architects, and engineers. We have been conducting training and education sessions for our staff, our clients, and our AEC partners on the commissioning requirements in the new Florida Building Code. The focus is on understanding the scope of code-required commissioning, the process, the opportunities, and the potential pitfalls. Having building codes such as the Florida Building Code and IECC require commissioning definitely can have a positive impact; ensuring building systems are operating as they are intended—the primary goal of commissioning—is always a good thing. However, commissioning done poorly, done by people unqualified to perform commissioning, or not done at all, can give the term commissioning a negative connotation and a bad reputation. We worry about the commoditization of commissioning services that may come about if building owners are more interested in checking a box than realizing the true value that comes with commissioning, or if local code authorities do not properly enforce the commissioning requirements.

Meyer: These codes are driving the market to place more scrutiny on installers, which is causing more denial in the industry. There is no requirement for quality construction in the codes. Codes are not enforced and, therefore, builders are not concerned. The owners do not have any will to force quality over cost or schedule. NFPA 3 has recommended the practice of commissioning for these systems. Prior to this, the testing of these systems was left up to the installing contractor demonstrating his system to the fire marshal.

Huber: We have actually picked up a fair amount of commissioning work because of the IBC; particularly as it pertains to stairwell pressurization and smoke-control systems.

CSE: What building type has the most unique codes or standards that you must adhere to as you commission a project?

Huber: Hospitals have the most code-specific requirements we have to deal with during commissioning; however, we also have several customers that have very specific institutional requirements—particularly cleanroom facilities and data centers.

Meyer: I would say health care and biotechnology. Health care has many layers of codes that need to be met as well as all of The Joint Commission requirements. There are many systems in hospitals that the public does not know about, such as how you integrate infant-abduction prevention systems with fire alarms, to let people escape under a fire alarm but not let someone pull a fire alarm and carry out an infant. How do you give guests free WiFi and protect patient data from hackers per Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)? Also, biocontainments such as BSL 3 and BSL 4 bring life-or-death situations. If ventilation systems fail to operate correctly, lab staff might be exposed to deadly organisms.