Commissioning Excellence

Jan. 1, 2005
Greener Facilities Newsletter

I had one of those “a-ha” moments the other morning as I stiffly slid into my car, started it up, saw “–9 degrees F.” on the information display, turned the key, and found an oddly locked steering wheel. Not frozen – locked. That’s when it dawned on me that most of us never bother to read the owner’s manual. True, most of us already know how to shift from “P” to “D,” but there are some parts that are worth the time. Like the section that tells you how to change the automatic climate control settings from “summer” to “winter” mode (especially helpful to those of us who can never remember the intricate sequence of buttons to press to make it change).

The same is true for building commissioning. Right now, it’s not on the radar screens of most building owners and managers because it’s too expensive, expendable, difficult to cost-justify, etc. This is not altogether different from the argument 10 years ago about high-performance buildings, and now look – they’re everywhere! So here’s your opportunity to become an early adopter and help bring commissioning into the mainstream. How else will you know everything that your building is capable of unless you have it documented?

Commissioning is defined as the process of ensuring that building systems are designed, installed, functionally tested, and capable of being operated and maintained according to the owner’s operational needs. Commissioning also can restore existing buildings to high productivity through renovation, upgrade, and tune-up of existing systems.

Building commissioning is an important prerequisite of the USGBC’s LEED® Green Building Rating System™ because it helps identify ways to maximize energy efficiency and thereby minimize environmental needs. A second LEED point is available through additional commissioning which ensures that the entire building is designed, constructed, and calibrated to operate as intended, enhancing integration activities. The additional commissioning can uncover operational flaws and further optimize the building systems. 

When commissioning is properly executed, operational cost savings can be substantial. Commissioning often increases energy efficiency by 5 to 10 percent.  The Oregon Department of Energy studied direct energy savings for two buildings after applying commissioning.  In a 110,000-square-foot building, energy savings of $12,276 per year (equivalent of $0.12 per square foot) were realized. In a 22,000-square-foot office building, energy savings of $7,600 per year ($0.35 per square foot) were achieved.  I encourage you to check the Oregon Department of Energy’s website – it provides a primer on commissioning.

The Pacific Northwest is on the leading edge of commissioning, with the state of Washington very active, too. Sue Wasserman ([email protected]) is public relations manager at Heery Intl. (, a 1,000-person architecture/engineering/project management/interior design firm with northwest regional headquarters in Seattle. She submitted this excellent piece on commissioning at the University of Washington: 

Performance is a critical word at the University of Washington. Through its core mission of education, administrators and educators strive to elicit the best personal performance from each student.

Of course, student performance is driven not just by instructor quality, but by the quality of the facilities in which they live, learn, and work.

Consequently, facilities must be high-performing, too. Savvy administrators know that high-performing facilities not only impact student comfort, but also the school’s financial bottom line.

Commissioning is one of the ways the university shows its commitment to student comfort and health and sound business practice, not to mention a high regard for the environment. According to Bill Earhart, University of Washington senior facilities engineer, the school requires commissioning for all new and renovated facilities. Projects under $5 million are handled by in-house engineers. Third-party commissioning agents manage larger projects.

Some of the key issues the university addresses through commissioning include whether facility support systems have been installed properly. Is the airflow appropriate? Does the HVAC equipment turn on at the right time to ensure comfort?  Do systems operate for peak energy efficiency?  Are systems easy to understand and maintain?

“Essentially, commissioning is the verification and validation of system and component performance and operations,” notes Matt Beckingham. Beckingham is a senior associate with the Seattle facility services arm of Heery Intl., an architecture, engineering, and project management firm. Heery has been retained to manage a variety of commissioning projects for University of Washington.

“A lot of people think the university is set up to allow a full-time operations employee per building,” Earhart says. “In truth, we might have one control technician per 15 buildings on the main Seattle campus. For this reason, it’s important for our systems to operate as intended from the start. Our staff also needs good records (commissioning documents) to understand how a system was put together and why it operates as it does.”

Complexity Drives Demand

“Heery’s commissioning team is my expert as well as my advocate,” notes Norm Menter, University of Washington project manager, Capital Projects Office. “Buildings at the university tend to be fairly complex in terms of HVAC and laboratory systems. When it comes to proper installation and function, I have no way to judge whom among the engineers, contractors, or architects [is] telling me the right story. Heery listens, gathers information, and provides me with the information I need to make sure contracts are properly filled.”

Doyle Hughes, Heery commissioning agent, has enjoyed the challenges. “At only 20,000 square feet, Merrill Hall, for example, is unique among campus buildings,” he cites.  “Despite its size, the building has four science labs with fume hoods and separate control systems. Because it also houses a horticultural library, it requires excellent lighting as well as a quiet HVAC system. There’s also a greenhouse and space set aside for other outreach programs.” In reality, the facility houses four buildings in one, each with its own complexity. “The amount of equipment in the mechanical room is pretty unbelievable,” Hughes says.

“I don’t know if most people realize the complexities involved where science buildings and HVAC systems are concerned,” Earhart comments. “Our goal is to provide and maintain safe, comfortable working conditions for students, researchers, and staff.” Earhart credits Heery with discovering 25 heating valves that didn’t close tightly. “Those valves allowed hot water into the science building even when we were trying to send cool air. We were just wasting energy.”

Finding the root cause of the problem, not just the symptom, is Heery’s goal. “We might,” Beckingham notes, “find improper air or water flow. The actual cause of the problem, though, may be that the logic of the building control software is wrong.”

Enhancing Commissioning Success

Beckingham believes a key reason commissioning agents should try and get involved in the design phase is to study not only system specifications, but control software, too. He explains the software is written to turn on and shut off fans, for example. The fans then trigger other equipment activity. “Often, there’s a statement in the middle of the software that gets ignored,” Beckingham adds. “It may not be discovered until an emergency generator goes on. We ask the controls contractor to walk us through automated systems logic to help us understand exactly what the systems are meant to do and then put them through their sequences.” 

The more commissioning agents can study systems before their installation, the easier they make life for the operations staff once the building is up and running. Given financial limitations, Beckingham believes schools are looking more for ease of maintenance.

Helping the facility staff understand how the buildings function is another responsibility Heery has taken on. “Merrill Hall takes advantage of natural ventilation,” Beckingham offers. “We have to understand the building dynamics all the way down to showing staff which windows need to be opened to maintain proper air flow.”

Dollars and Sense

Menter agrees that commissioning makes good business sense. The university will test that belief by extending the process at Merrill Hall. Initial commissioning helped the facility earn points required to receive the USGBC’s Silver LEED rating. “As occupants move in,” Menter adds, “They’ll have their own modifications for operating systems.  Heery will return in 10 months to re-commission and recalibrate the system to make sure the design is running at optimum levels for comfort and efficiency. “Merrill Hall,” Menter adds, “will operate at 30-percent below the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) standards. I believe we’ll see significant energy savings over time.”

Heery Mechanical Engineer Marty Novini, PE, believes more universities will look to commissioning to enhance facility comfort and operations. “According to a Department of Energy study,” he says, “a building’s use changes every 25 years. Mechanical systems are typically not sufficient to meet those changing needs. By adjusting the systems, not only can we meet the building’s needs for the future, we can do it in as cost- and energy-efficient a manner as possible.”

You’ll be learning more from people like Sue Wasserman via this column in the coming months. Because my duties as the full-time president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council take up the majority of my time, I will be introducing a number of new faces and themes to you in coming issues of Greener Facilities. This is good news, because you’ll get to hear from some of the best and brightest in the industry on such topics as LEED-EB, LEED-CI, LEED-ND (Neighborhood Development), and LEED-CS (Core and Shell).  Also, you’ll hear one-on-one facility manager talk from some of the “greenest” FMs in the country as they share information on new products and services; federal, state, and local initiatives; and critical and contentious issues in green buildings. I’m grateful to Buildings and Stamats Business Media for their support in helping bring the green building message to facility managers around the world over the past 2 years, and in seeing this column as being worth the investment. The best is yet to come!

Rick Fedrizzi is a principal with the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions and president of Green-Think LLC, an environmentally focused marketing and communications consulting firm providing services for the residential and commercial built environments. He also serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, of which he also is founding chairman, and president of the World Green Building Council. Contact by e-mail: ([email protected]).

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