Control sequences for HVAC systems


Step 7: Identify the setpoints. Setpoints are values the system tries to maintain during operation. Space temperature is a common example of a setpoint. The space sensor or thermostat is the input device that measures the current space temperature. The control system evaluates this condition against the setpoint value. Setpoints are not limited to temperature. The duct static pressure sensor controlling fan speed will also have a setpoint. Likewise, a setpoint must be identified for the carbon dioxide (CO2) sensor that serves as the input for the demand controlled ventilation strategy.

Step 8: Work through the actions and functional responses. The initiation and functional response are the key aspects of the sequence of operation. It is probably what comes to mind for most people when they hear the term “sequence of operation.” It is best to work through these as a numbered list.

Let’s look at the temperature control for our example. The space temperature sensor is the input device. It measures the space temperature and sends the value to the brain of the system. In stand-alone packaged equipment, this will likely be an equipment controller with preset control sequences. In larger, more complex systems, the value is reported to a BMS. The BMS acts as the brains of the operation and evaluates whether the measured value is within the operational parameters—at setpoint. Assume the system is operating in the cooling mode with the chilled water control valve partially open and the heating coil valve fully closed. If the value is above setpoint, then the space temperature is higher than desired. The chilled water control valve must modulate open to provide additional cooling and lower the space temperature.

Figure 4: Redundant packaged air handling units (AHUs) connect to a common supply and return duct. The sequence defines the control damper positions and how the units are cycled. Courtesy: JBA Consulting EngineersThe sequence of operation should concisely list these evaluations and how the system needs to respond. Recommended language for the last example may be similar to the following:

In cooling mode, the setpoint shall be 75 F ± 1 F (adjustable). If the space temperature rises above the cooling setpoint, the system shall first modulate the chilled water control valve from 0% to 100% open according to the proportional-integral-derivative (PID) and the supply fan airflow shall remain at the minimum position. The supply fan speed shall be modulated from minimum to 100% design airflow if the control valve position is greater than 70% (adjustable) open. If the space temperature drops below cooling setpoint, the system shall modulate the chilled water control valve closed according to the PID. If the control valve is less than or equal to 50% (adjustable) open, the supply fan speed shall be reset to minimum supply airflow.

The designer needs to systematically work through all of the ways the system may be required to modulate. Consider all of the modes in which the system must operate and what system components need to operate differently in these various modes. Think about the supply and exhaust fans in our system. Our example assumes that the air handling unit exhaust fan also functions as a smoke exhaust fan. The fans and control dampers will operate differently in smoke control mode than they will in normal operation. The sequence of operation should specifically identify requirements for each of these modes.

Table 2: A matrix can be used to outline the various operating modes during design. The designer can use this brainstorming exercise to help write the actual control sequence. Courtesy: JBA Consulting Engineers

Note that normal operation mode may also have under it several modes. In our example, we have economizer operation and recirculation operation. A matrix like the excerpt shown in Table 2 is an easy way to identify the required parameters for the various operating modes. While this matrix does not necessarily need to be included in the construction documents, it provides the designer with an overview summary that helps develop a written sequence of operation. The various analog and digital inputs and outputs should, in some form, be clearly identified in the construction documents with a corresponding written sequence of control.

Step 9: Identify failure scenarios. At some point, system components will fail. Quality products help reduce the frequency of failures, but they are still inevitable. If the designer plans for these failures in the sequence of operation, then he may be able to reduce the resulting operational impact when a failure does in fact take place. Again, be careful to not over specify. Resiliency requirements for a typical office building will be substantially different from those of a data center. Life safety requirements should also be considered.

Figure 5: Multiple variable frequency drives (VFDs) are used with a group of exhaust fans. The sequence modulates the fan speeds together to maintain differential pressure within the space. Courtesy: JBA Consulting EngineersFailure considerations should look at both the input devices and the controlled system components. The failure of a supply duct static pressure sensor may lead to improper control of the supply fan variable frequency drive (VFD) speed. If the value measured at this sensor varies significantly from the expected value, then a false measurement may be received. The sequence of operation could specify that this reading be ignored if the value is some percentage outside of the expected value. Some input devices may also have an invalid reading function built into the sensor.

Consider a low static pressure sensor reading. A sequence that identifies the failure of this component can reset the supply fan to some fixed speed that keeps the system in operation and provides at least partial capacity until the maintenance team can properly address the problem. A system that does not anticipate this failure will continue to control the system using the erroneous static pressure measurement. This system will likely increase the supply fan speed until the system eventually shuts off on high static pressure if a high static pressure setpoint was considered in the original points list. This typically requires a manual restart and the system will have a longer downtime compared to the one that incorporated fail-safe scenarios. This is an important consideration for systems where environmental conditions are critical or safety could be compromised.

Now consider the failure of a controlled device such as a control valve actuator. Failure of this device will lead to loss of space temperature control. The importance of a fail-safe position for this actuator can be debated, but a spring return open actuator may be considered for a chilled water coil in a hot climate. Although the system no longer has accurate control, this arrangement errs on the side of caution and will overcool the space until the system can be repaired. This may be more important for cooling equipment that serves telecomm rooms, data centers, or other process loads where a loss of cooling has significant consequences.

A supply fan motor failure in a single supply fan system has no real fail-safe position. However, a system with multiple supply fans and motors may be able to respond to this failure scenario with no decrease in supply airflow rate. This is a prime example of how developing a sequence of operation may lead to changes in which hardware components are specified for the system. The impact of the supply fan motor failure may have been overlooked prior to this stage of the design.

Step 10: Review the sequence. At this point, the designer has completed the first pass to developing the sequence of operation. A successful sequence is iterative and often requires revisiting the previous steps. It was mentioned earlier that a designer may begin writing the actual functional responses of the system and realize he does not have all the required input and output devices. This may require an update to the flow diagram initially developed. The process of developing the sequence of operation may also identify features or options that were not originally specified. This is the time to adjust and refine those specifications.

The best way to review the sequence of operation is to step through all of the actions and responses. Try to break the system by identifying scenarios that your sequence of operation cannot properly respond to. Rewrite the sequence as necessary to address these scenarios. A peer review is a great way to ensure the intent of the sequence is clear to others.

In complex systems, consider how individual pieces of equipment interact with the sequence of operation of the other equipment. A multi-zone VAV system will have a sequence of operation for the individual terminal units and the central air handling unit. These sequences must be coordinated to ensure they work in harmony to provide the most efficient operation. The successful operation of one is dependent on the other.


Functional testing during commissioning helps ensure the constructed project operates according to the design intent. The tests are largely based on the designer’s sequence of operation. The equipment should not be expected to perform functions that were not required by the sequence.

Discrepancies noted during the commissioning phase of the project should be reviewed with the designer. It may be necessary to update the sequence of operation based on data gathered during the functional testing. Refer to the static pressure sensor example mentioned earlier. Commissioning is the appropriate time to verify the fail-safe strategies function as expected. The intent was to keep the system in operation. The commissioning authority should test the operation of this feature and the team should modify setpoints as required to achieve the desired results.

Commissioning is the last chance to evaluate the sequence before turning over the project to the owner. The designer should be involved in the commissioning process and review the final commissioning report. The sequence may need to be modified based on observations during the commissioning period. Changes this late in the project schedule may have large cost and schedule impacts. That being said, the designer should not rely on the commissioning process to make up for lack of adequate foresight during the design phase.


The building operator should fully understand the sequence of operation. This ensures the facilities maintenance group operates the equipment consistent with the design intent to recognize the full benefits of the system they have been provided. The building operator may override the supply air temperature in response to space temperature complaints. He or she should understand the consequences of this override as they relate to sacrifices in energy efficiency. Identify root causes of operational deficiencies and solve problems at the source.

Although the designer should consider the operational requirements during the design phase, these specific details may not always be available. The sequence may need to be refined as the building operation evolves over time. The sequence of operation should be considered a living document that is continuously maintained throughout the life of the system. Doing so allows for seamless transfer of knowledge within the operations group. Understanding the control logic for existing equipment is important for designers working on building renovations or tenant improvements within an existing space. Without this knowledge, the new design may work against the base system instead of in sync with it.

An up-to-date sequence also becomes a benchmark for how the system should be operating. The sequence for existing equipment may be modified to optimize energy efficiency and better suit the evolved building functional and operational requirements. Retro-commissioning and energy audits are great ways to identify deficiencies in the sequence of control for existing equipment. Existing equipment without a well-defined sequence of operation may be a good target for energy optimization.

HVAC systems use considerable amounts of energy in commercial buildings. Developing a well-thought-out sequence of operation helps minimize the energy consumption of these systems. In addition, it allows the system to meet the criteria for which it was designed. The designer must develop the sequence to a level of detail that is appropriate for the project at hand and maximizes the success of that particular project.

Although it is not uncommon to see sequences included in project specification manuals, the best location for this information is often directly on the construction drawings. Keeping the sequence of operation closely tied to the equipment schedules, plans, and control diagrams increases the transparency of information throughout the project history. This arrangement is advantageous as the project specification manual is not always available in the field and often becomes separated from the drawings.

The steps outlined can be translated to almost any system regardless of size and complexity. The important thing to remember is that the sequence of operation should not be written in haste as the project is going out the door. An effective sequence of operation begins early in the design process when the systems are being developed and equipment is being selected. Doing so allows the designer to develop the most effective system.

Jason A. Witterman is a mechanical project engineer with JBA Consulting Engineers. He has experience in various market sectors including data centers, commercial office, aviation, medical, and government projects. His expertise is data centers, sustainability, and energy codes. Ed Butera is chairman of the board at JBA Consulting Engineers and has more than 40 years of experience. He specializes in master planning and design of complex systems for health care, high-rise buildings, central utility plants, and large hospitality resort projects. 

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