Commissioning: On the Fast Track to the Future

by Nick Baker, EIT, CCP, GPCP, LEED AP BD+C

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

Commissioning has evolved over the last 20 years from an engineering add-on to a thriving specialty, third-party service. It has grown in application from building HVAC systems to all energy-consuming systems (HVAC, lighting). We are seeing continued growth in commissioning for communication and technology systems, fire and life safety systems, back-up power generation systems, central utility plants and campus distribution, specialty systems like electric vehicle charging stations and solar photovoltaics, and much more.

Commissioning is also no longer relegated to vertical construction. Another change that we’ve seen and been a part of nurturing is the growing use of commissioning in the transportation industry. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Sound Transit are two major local players helping define a new era of horizontal commissioning. Wood Harbinger has had the good fortune to participate in commissioning some of the new Sound Transit Link light rail stations, as well as horizontal infrastructure including the SR-520 floating bridge and the current West Approach Bridge North project. With the recent passage of the massive $54 billion “Sound Transit 3” measure here in Washington, the commissioning industry will likely see lots of further involvement in this sector!

More Changes Coming

As commissioning expands into the transportation market, there are further evolutions coming our way. Foremost (and this is true in the buildings sector as well) we’re seeing more emphasis on involving the commissioning team earlier in the project during design or even in helping owners craft their project requirements. Commissioning services are also increasingly being procured through qualifications-based selection, as opposed to bringing on the lowest bidder during construction. Owners are realizing the importance of qualified, certified commissioning providers to lead a complete commissioning process on their projects.

For example, Sound Transit is evaluating potential commissioning providers during the qualification proposal review along with the design and construction team qualifications for the new design/build Operations and Maintenance Facility East project. WSDOT is continuing to update and improve their commissioning requirements on the new floating bridge as well as the under construction West Approach Bridge North project. Looking forward to the future SR520 bridge replacement project that will connect with I-5, commissioning will continue to play a key role in assuring all mechanical, electrical, fire protection, and bridge control systems are installed per design intent and working at optimal capability.

Rise to the Challenge

With the massive transportation growth we are preparing to undergo here in the greater Puget Sound area, commissioning providers will need to deepen their knowledge of systems well beyond traditional building HVAC and lighting to meet the needs of the transportation market. As my colleague Shaun May described in his article in May 2016, commissioning horizontal structures encompasses many unique elements as compared with building commissioning, such as an emphasis on electrical systems, the multifaceted controls systems, a different set of user-experience goals, and a whole lot of ground to cover, depending on the length of the bridge.

The best way to increase one’s systems knowledge is learning from your in-house, subject-matter experts. It is now imperative for commissioning firms to have staff with both mechanical and electrical backgrounds to provide that specific expertise. Providers can go further with more specialized subject- matter experts, such as fire protection engineers, communication specialists, or other specialized technical and engineering staff to provide expertise in these new systems.

Owners will also need to become well versed in vetting the comprehensive qualifications of their potential commissioning providers as well; the more they are asking their providers to do, the more crucial it becomes for them to hire a team that can get the work done right. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) foresaw a need for greater standardization in evaluating the skills of commissioning providers. They developed a schema of guidelines for commissioning credentials and honed in on a requirement for ANSI ISO 17024:2012-accredited certification. Currently, the Building Commissioning Certification Board’s Certified Commissioning Professional (CCP) is the only ANSI-accredited credential out there. While not a comprehensive means of evaluating qualifications, this marker can help an owner get the best provider and team.

Exciting Times Ahead!

This is an exciting time for the commissioning industry and providers. I personally am thrilled to see how the Sound Transit expansion will change the face of the greater Puget Sound area. Not only will it provide jobs and transportation options for locals, it is also a game changer for tourism. It is a massive undertaking, both in time and cost. However, the economic growth potential in construction and operation jobs, tourism, and increased property values provides the long-term payoff.

My first experience with light rail was in Zagreb, Croatia, a former Soviet bloc country. Their light rail system connects its suburbs to the downtown core. Since that time, it has struck me that the Seattle area is leaps and bounds ahead of this small Eastern European country in so many ways, but they have us beat in mass transit! When I travel, I find it is often easier and cheaper to utilize the robust local public transportation options available in other cities. Renting a car can be upwards of $100 per day not including parking. It’s high time the Puget Sound area got the mass transit system it needs and deserves, moving beyond busses into truly integrated transit solutions. Bring it on!

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