Retrocommission for a Better Building

10/01/2013 | By Jennie Morton

Improve system performance, energy efficiency, and operations

Want to improve your building’s performance but don’t know where to start? Use existing building commissioning (EBCx) to shine a spotlight on inefficiencies and create a list of improvement options.

Whether your building is 5 or 50 years old, chances are the property has been modified over time – changes to interior layout, shifts in occupancy, or structural alterations. These adjustments can weaken performance by slowly chipping away at energy usage, water consumption, equipment life, and occupant comfort.

“The purpose of existing building commissioning is to use a structured process to confirm that the building is operating in a manner that meets the current facility requirements,” explains Paul Levy, a certified commissioning professional with Kirlin Mechanical Services, a subsidiary of the John J. Kirlin Group.

As part of the performance investigation, EBCx also reveals no- and low-cost strategies that will help you resolve weaknesses in your building systems.

Is Your Facility Compatible?
Many owners are familiar with commissioning, a process that verifies a new building operates according to the design plans. Existing building commissioning, commonly referred to as retrocommissioning, uses a similar approach to ensure that a property’s operations support its current needs. EBCx evaluates performance regardless of the facility’s original design or whether commissioning has been performed in the past.

EBCx is compatible with virtually all building types and ages, particularly those that are older or are large consumers of energy and water. According to the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Building Upgrade Manual, facilities that experience

persistent equipment and system failures or encounter continuous complaints about occupant comfort are strong candidates. Those without obvious explanations for a low ENERGY STAR performance rating or a high energy use index can also benefit.

“Just because a building is new or uses efficient equipment doesn’t mean that it’s performing well,” stresses Alena Hutchison, an environmental protection specialist with the EPA and coordinator of the 2012 National Building Competition.

Not sure if your building could benefit? ENERGY STAR outlines these key factors that impact performance:

  • Changes in room equipment or furniture that can affect heating and cooling
  • Shifts in occupancy patterns or space layouts
  • Equipment that is short cycling or has frequent failures
  • Significant build-out projects
  • HVAC and lighting controls adjusted by occupants.

Note that EBCx won’t replace the need for renovation nor can it address a significant backlog of deferred maintenance, says Mark Miller, a principal with Strategic Building Solutions and president of the Building Commissioning Association (BCA).

Tackle these projects first and then use retrocommissioning to establish a new baseline and refine operations.

Use EBCx to Your Advantage
Retrocommissioning is a valuable FM tool because it focuses on improvements that cost little to no money. Those that need funding often have paybacks of two years or less. Fixable issues typically include simultaneous heating and cooling, excess lighting, improper building pressurization, ineffective VFD settings, and broken economizers.

But these trouble areas are often hidden, overlooked, and take time to discover. It’s easy to look at a CFL and say it’s time to upgrade to an LED, but how can you decipher whether your HVAC adequately supports your operational needs? EBCx helps you tackle those tough questions.

It’s important to recognize that an energy audit is a separate undertaking from EBCx. Commissioning is a whole-building approach that reviews and tests the interactions between all systems, whereas audits are narrowly focused on energy consumption, explains Levy, who also serves on the ASHRAE committee for its Commissioning of Existing Buildings guidelines.

Energy audits are a great way to address your utility bills, but they won’t cover O&M practices, equipment life, or occupant productivity. EBCx, on the other hand, can uncover opportunities to improve water conservation, sustainability, lighting, life safety, security, and data infrastructure.

EBCx also eschews large-scale investment projects or equipment upgrades in favor of strategies that augment existing resources.

“Unlike the expensive capital retrofits that are typical with energy audits, EBCx allows owners to focus on low-cost repair and optimization opportunities,” adds Miller.

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