Back to Basics for Energy Code-Required Commissioning

by Shaun May, EIT, CEM and Jacob Odell

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

The latest Washington State Energy Code (WSEC 2015) requires Fundamental Commissioning performed by a Certified Commissioning Professional. For many of our clients, commissioning isn’t a new concept—projects pursuing LEED require Fundamental Commissioning, so if you’ve participated in a LEED project, you’re probably familiar with the commissioning process and its benefits. In our last commissioning newsletter, we discussed how WSEC 2015’s new commissioning and metering requirements make it even easier to reap benefits from the commissioning process.

For some clients, commissioning may be something they’ve never included on a project before. If you’re wondering what commissioning is and why the energy code says you now must include it for your current and upcoming projects, this article is for you! We’ll explore how to on-board a quality commissioning team, what the code-minimum commissioning process looks like, and how to know that you’re getting good results from your team.

First Off…Why Is Commissioning Now Required?

Building code officials are involved in new construction projects from the beginning to verify that all systems adhere to their specific building code (mechanical, electrical, etc.), from reviewing the drawings for compliance before issuing permits to inspecting constructed projects before they’re declared complete. We often see that the energy code receives only passive enforcement after the drawings are approved for construction and a work permit is issued. It seems that officials are of the mindset that the intent of the energy code is met through the design and a designated inspector post-construction is not needed.

Perhaps it’s considered less important to enforce a code that assures that building systems save energy than a code that has been refined to save lives. However, energy conservation and energy management are important! That’s why the code exists, and that’s one of the reasons commissioning is included as a requirement: the commissioning provider is an energy code vigilante, of sorts. Through design review, functional testing, and systems optimization, the commissioning providers assures that building systems operate as designed and meet the intent of the energy code.

How Do I Get a Commissioning Provider for my Project?

WSEC 2015 requires that commissioning be done by a “Certified Commissioning Professional.” This is defined as “an individual who is certified by an ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024:2012 accredited organization to lead, plan, coordinate and manage commissioning teams and implement commissioning processes.”  The code’s requirement for an ANSI-accredited certification actually makes whittling down the field of commissioning providers a little easier; there are upwards of 20 different commissioning certifications, but only a handful are ANSI-accredited. These include the Building Commissioning Association’s Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP), the Associated Air Balance Council’s Certified Commissioning Authority (CxA), and National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB) Building System Commissioning (BSC) certification.

Question number one to your prospective commissioning provider would be, “Are you an ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024:2012 accredited commissioning provider?” Question number two should be about qualifications. WSEC 2015’s requirements for commissioning tests and documents are not overly specific, leaving the content largely to the interpretation of the commissioning professional. Unfortunately, this creates the potential for owners to end up with low-cost, but likely low-value service, due to unfamiliarity with the commissioning process.

Certification doesn’t tell the whole story; qualifications-based selection (QBS) helps assure you get the best commissioning provider for your specific type of project. In a past newsletter article we looked at some different factors for evaluating commissioning providers’ qualifications to determine if they’re right for your project team, including field experience, education, certification, their project approach, and how well you and your team gel with the commissioning team.

Procuring a commissioning team may look a little different depending on what delivery method you’re using for your project—design/bid/build, design/build, integrated project delivery, etc. Our colleague Nick Baker goes into more detail on some of the differences in a previous article. Functionally, each delivery method results in a different contractual relationship between the commissioning provider, the owner, and the other project team members. In any scenario, the commissioning provider’s job is to find issues and recommend solutions. Part of a commissioning provider’s skill and qualification for the job is their ability to successfully navigate these different relationships and help the team reach the mutual goals of a successful project with all systems working as intended and meeting the owner’s standards of performance.

What is the Code-Required Commissioning Process?

WSEC 2015 outlines the documentation required for the commissioning process and what those documents should entail. In a nutshell, these documents include a commissioning plan, commissioning notes in the construction documents, field-executed functional test documents for all major energy-consuming equipment, and preliminary and final reports summarizing the commissioning activities. These field-executed documents are submitted to the owner as proof of WSEC compliance.

Code-required commissioning begins in the project design phase with the certified commissioning professional developing the Commissioning Plan. This document outlines the organization, schedule, resource allocation, and documentation requirements of the project commissioning process. The commissioning plan lists the systems to be commissioned: WSEC 2015 requires that the mechanical equipment (HVAC), service water heating, lighting, metering, and those systems’ controls be commissioned. Design engineers are also required to incorporate commissioning into the construction documents; notes are required to clearly indicate provisions for commissioning.

In the construction phase, the systems to be commissioned are subjected to functional performance testing. For each system, the commissioning provider writes procedures that describe the systematic tests, expected system responses or acceptance criteria, and the actual response or findings. Functional performance testing is required to demonstrate and document that each commissioned system operates as designed and that operation, function, and maintenance serviceability are confirmed.

Functional testing is the main component of the construction phase commissioning process. Detailed functional test scripts are essential for facilitating efficient system testing. The commissioning provider develops these scripts from the contract documents, providing specific sequences of operation to the system installers and integrators. Detailed functional tests describe, step-by-step, each check and verification that will be performed on the installed systems. The system integrator prepares for commissioning by walking through the functional tests. If they pass each step, then they are ready for the commissioning provider to witness final and correct system operations. If they have questions or challenges with the testing process, they can address them before final commissioning.

The whole team references the same functional tests, creating a common ground for understanding and documenting the testing process. They even help translate the design intent. This reinforces the commissioning team’s common language and empowers them to align on sequences, issues, and resolutions. For example, functional test scripts enable design engineers to concisely validate that commissioning is asking for the correct performance metrics. Functional test scripts enable installers to clearly identify each component failure and its impact. The commissioning team collaborates around these impacts and assists each other in resolving issues until the whole system is fully operational.

The results of functional performance tests, deficiencies found during testing, and details of corrective measures are collected and submitted in the Commissioning Report. The commissioning provider must provide the building owner with a preliminary commissioning report that is also made available to the code official prior to final mechanical, plumbing, and electrical inspections or obtaining a certificate of occupancy. Once commissioning is complete, the final commissioning report is issued.

How Will I Know if My Commissioning Provider is Delivering?

Commissioning is an inherently collaborative process. Quality commissioning providers are experienced at guiding teams through the commissioning process with a proactive approach and collaborative mindset during design, construction, and all the way through to the successful turnover of the building to the owner. Anticipating and proactively resolving issues is key to successful commissioning processes. Quality commissioning means frequent status updates with documented solutions. On the other hand, if commissioning entails frequent meetings over numerous issues, lack of coordination amongst the commissioning team, and few proposed solutions, these are red flags.

A great example of a commissioning provider’s proactive approach is whether they conduct a controls integration meeting early in a project. The commissioning provider leads a meeting to review the controls submittal with the design team, mechanical, electrical (lighting), and controls contractors prior to functional testing. This discussion helps prevent issues regarding controls components and installation “provided by others.” It is an opportunity to review functional test sequence of operations with the contractors to assure that controls integration is complete prior to functional testing. Ultimately, the controls integration meeting helps reduce construction delays and RFIs by identifying coordination issues early.

A proactive commissioning provider will provide a preliminary commissioning report to the client/owner in anticipation of building occupancy to fulfill the WSEC requirement. Ideally the commissioning provider anticipates the need for this report, before the code official asks the client/owner for it. The report should go beyond the issues to action items and resolution paths.

The intent of the Washington State Energy Code is to create buildings that operate in a stable, energy-efficient manner, as designed. Code-required commissioning processes help verify and document that this intent is consistently realized for all projects. A quality commissioning provider rallies the team together, proactively bring issues to the surface, and works with the team to collaboratively solve problems to enable efficient construction and project turnover. The process culminates in optimized and maintainable building systems that support energy efficiency and conservation for the life of the building.

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