Tips and tricks for commissioning, balancing buildings: Codes and standards

Building commissioning is one of the most important (and complex) types of projects an engineer can be tasked with. Codes and standard dictate many test, measurement, and verification techniques.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer August 28, 2013


  • Jerry Bauers, National director of commissioning, Sebesta Blomberg, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Michael P. Feyler, Co-director, building solutions group, RDK Engineers, Andover, Mass.
  • Robert J. Linder, PE, Senior project manager, Karges-Faulconbridge Inc., St. Paul, Minn.
  • James Szel, Senior vice president, Syska Hennessy Group, New York City
  • Geremy Wolff, Commissioning manager, McKinstry, Bellingham, Wash.
  • Barney York, Project manager, RMF Engineering, Baltimore

CSE: How have changing HVAC, fire protection, life safety, and/or electrical codes and standards affected your work in commissioning?

Wolff: NFPA requirements have changed the way we handle measurement on mechanical systems. It used to be pretty common for one of our engineers to open up the electrical panel on a rooftop unit to take amp/volt readings or install a data logger without thinking twice. Arc flash training has taught us this is something to be very careful with and there is a proper procedure to follow and personal protective equipment (PPE) that must be used. In Washington state, commissioning has been a requirement under the energy code since 1997. However, this code has been tough to enforce. The most recent version provides some additional compliance requirements with a compliance checklist that indicates the commissioning has been completed. We are now seeing inspectors looking for this document before they sign off on the final permits. One of the biggest challenges we face with regard to commissioning codes is one of education. There are a fair number of code officials that admittedly do not fully understand commissioning. We, the commissioning industry, have recently started to work closely with the International Code Council to provide educational programs to the AHJs on what commissioning is and, more importantly, what it is not.

Feyler: Building, mechanical, fire protection, life safety, and electrical codes change on a cycle, allowing for designers and CxAs to keep informed of changes as the codes update. Projects to be permitted after a code cycle change are the most difficult to perform design reviews of, so the CxA needs to become familiar with the adopted changes prior to the issuance of the new code. The CxA also needs to be familiar with the state the project is to be commissioned in, and be aware of what the adopted code is for that state and if the state has amendments to the adopted code. The CxA also needs to verify if the jurisdiction, city, town or county he or she is working in has the right to amend state adopted code or choose not to adopt portions or parts of state code. An example of this is Massachusetts; the state has the Stretch Energy Code, an addition to the building code. It provides a more energy efficient alternative to the standard energy provisions of the code. A municipality may choose to or chose not to adopt the addition.

York: I find more and more codes are now beginning to require that systems be commissioned as part of the acceptance process. The end result for CxAs is our scope of services has expanded, and we must find talented and highly skilled individuals to oversee and validate these systems. Building envelope, special inspections, and electrical testing are now becoming common request in requests for proposals (RFPs).

Szel: The changing codes are taken into consideration during the design process. We stay abreast of these codes to ensure the field installation is in compliance with the appropriate codes and standards. It is important for the design and commissioning teams to have full knowledge of all local codes and requirements, by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). The design and commissioning must be in compliance with those requirements. 

CSE: Which codes or standards prove to be most challenging in commissioning work?

York: The energy code has recently evolved as the most challenging. The local building codes have begun adapting the ASHRAE 90.1-2010 standard for energy performance and have increased the energy performance baseline dramatically. This increase in minimum energy performance has left designers with no choice but to design and implement more complex systems. These systems require CxAs to stay current with the latest technology and also knowledgeable enough to develop testing methods that verify equipment and system performance for systems not yet common in industry.

Szel: Challenging codes and standards are those related to energy and environmental issues, such as federal, state, and local standard and guidelines on air emissions, water, and wastewater disposal. Those are constantly changing. For critical facilities, such as data centers, meeting the guidelines or standards for high Tier level reliability requirements and high Tier level on emission requirements for emergency power generators can be challenging. The performance of system integrated testing or the final testing performed prior to turnover of the facility to the owner is challenging, but extremely beneficial. The performance testing is executed to demonstrate that the facility meets the facility basis of design basis (BOD), the applicable standards and guidelines, and the uptime facility reliability, integrated system performance testing is performed to demonstrate that the emergency power system (emergency generator, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) modules, battery systems, etc.) work on loss of utility or outside power supply. This test is done to validate that the design and installation are reliable with the required redundancy, to maintain the operation of all the supporting electrical and mechanical systems to support the continuous operation of the critical facility/data center equipment.

Wolff: Most commissioning standards or guidelines provide a very comprehensive process for commissioning, but the level of effort associated with each step isn’t clearly defined. This not only confuses owners when they are reviewing proposals, but doesn’t allow for a scalable program that meets the owner’s needs.

Feyler: Any time a project includes systems that are covered under the International Building Code Section 909: Smoke Control Systems, which inherently coincides with additional IBC code sections, applicable NPFA codes, and ASHRAE guidelines. The project becomes challenging to ensure that the design meets the applicable codes but also that the installations meet the design intent. Although the CxA is not normally acting as the special inspector, all the systems’ auxiliary equipment that forms the smoke control systems are commissioned by the CxA. The CxA looks at air handlers, exhaust systems, emergency generators, and fire alarm to ensure the installation requirements, control, and monitoring follow the applicable codes for the type of system designed.