Let’s Get Real: Commissioning Misconceptions

by Nick Baker, P.E., CCP, GPCP, LEED AP BD+C; Shaun May, EIT, CEM; and Jacob Odell

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

After letting their imaginations soar to new heights and depths, our commissioning team sat down and got real. Client and owner understanding of commissioning’s role and value has increased over the years, but misconceptions still persist. Here’s a few that stand out to our team:

“The Testing Guys”

The most recent misconception Jacob has run into is a lack of understanding about what constitutes a commissioning scope of work. We are often pegged as “the testing guys,” and are asked to test systems not related to those under the purview of commissioning. For example, toilets and sinks. When in the field, I have been asked if I need to make sure all the toilets flush and sinks spit out water. I can do that, but it’s not a “commissioning” thing. Functional testing is part of the commissioning process, but “testing” and “commissioning” are different.

Most people don’t realize that what commissioning providers do is driven by the Washington State Energy Code (WSEC), the latest version of which requires Fundamental Commissioning.  Our baseline scope is defined by its contents. There are a few exceptions to that, but those are probably less than 5% of what we do. LEED defines deeper level scope through Enhanced Commissioning and monitoring-based commissioning.

For plumbing systems, WSEC requires commissioning of the domestic water heater and circulation pump systems because those energy consuming pieces of equipment and affect the overall efficiency of the plumbing system. The toilets and sinks are part of the building plumbing system, but are not a “system to be commissioned” or part of the plumbing commissioning scope.

Not Just Functional Testing

The number one misconception Nick encounters about commissioning is the belief that it is just functional testing, and that we only need two days at the end of the project to accomplish “commissioning.” In reality, the commissioning process has many different levels: a good industry practice has it starting in the design phase, a best industry practice is having the commissioning team involved during project concept development, and the Washington State Energy Code requires construction-phase commissioning.  In all cases, commissioning is more than showing up after the testing and balancing team, performing a couple of tests on HVAC systems, and writing a report.

Construction phase commissioning begins with installation verification through onsite inspections during installation, with installation checklists drafted by the commissioning provider to help communicate installer progress with the owner, design team, and commissioning provider. Next is functional testing on all HVAC systems, lighting controls, and controlled receptacles, at a minimum. From this information, we develop a preliminary report prior to beneficial occupancy indicating that systems are mostly operational. The commissioning provider tracks ongoing issues and works with the construction team to resolve them and finalize system operation and optimization. We compile the final commissioning report at project completion to document the commissioning process, installation, functional testing, issues resolution, and system operation. The final commissioning report is a real testament to all the things that commissioning actually includes.

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Shaun finds that different parties have differing thoughts on what commissioning means and what the commissioning providers do. To General Contractors (GC), commissioning often means starting up and testing equipment. To the Controls Contractor (CC), we’re there to test the controls. The Commissioning Provider (CxP) thinks they’re there to verify and document that the equipment including in Cx scope operates per the design intent, and to achieve optimal functional and energy performance. In reality, it is a combination of all three, and it’s beneficial that all parties (GC, CC, and CxP) have an awareness about each part, not just the part that relates most closely to them.

Confusion over the meaning of commissioning leads to misunderstandings. For example, the CC notifies the CxP that equipment is ready for functional testing before the CC has personally verified that all controls function per the Contract Documents without issue. Symptoms of this kind of misunderstanding is a project issues log that is more than 100 issues long, with the majority showing CC in the responsible category.

Another example of this misunderstanding comes when the GC underestimates the time that commissioning takes and allots only a few short weeks, despite the schedule which shows “Commissioning” (including start-up, controls integration, testing, verification, and issue resolution) taking place over a few months. If the construction schedule slides, we might be left with only a few weeks for the CC to implement the controls and the CxP to commission the equipment.

As Jacob mentioned, there’s often confusion over what systems/equipment is included in the CxP’s scope and what commissioning “testing” looks like. Certain systems are selected for each project Cx scope, typically energy-consuming equipment like HVAC, lighting, and controls, sometimes specialty systems unique to a certain facility type, like nurse call or dust collection, and the like. The CxP does not test everything; we test the systems included in the Cx scope. There are also certain systems and tests we don’t have the insurance, expertise, and/or budget to include. The TAB contractor balances HVAC systems, manufacturers’ reps and controls integrators optimize system setpoints to fulfill the Contract Documents, and so on. Commissioning’s role is to provide a quality control check that these specialists fulfilled their roles effectively.

Wait, We Need Commissioning?

Not everyone is used to needing a commissioning partner on the project team. Sometimes Nick finds commissioning still gets overlooked all together until the very end of the project when someone’s asking for the preliminary Cx report.  Commissioning has become a requirement of meeting the Washington State Energy Code, and Sound Transit and WSDOT have both made commissioning and important part of their project processes. Building systems contractors generally remember to bring us onto the project team, since commissioning for energy-consuming systems has been part of the vertical construction process for decades. Contractors in the transportation and horizontal infrastructure arena are still figuring out what commissioning means. Contractors! Set yourselves apart! Make sure a commissioning firm is part of your core team!

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  1. Peter G
    Posted October 9, 2018 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Although the article is spot-on in identifying the industry misconceptions, what is more significant is the trend in the industry to use these misconceptions as excuses. The CC will purposely not test their systems to confirm proper operation prior to FPTs with the intention of having the Cx agent perform the CC’s QC, in order to shorten the CC’s official schedule time. And, other trades do the same. Then, the “oh, we thought…” misconception becomes an excuse to buy additional time by focusing on the rework as a result of Cx efforts instead of poor trade QC. Unless building owners begin penalizing the GCs for the delays, this trend will continue, just as trades have replied on owner QA to perform their QC in the past. It is just a new set of players to fill in for poor GC/trade QC.

    • Shaun May
      Posted October 11, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Peter, this is a great point. The Owner and the Commissioning Provider (CxP) need to advocate for each other to be most successful. Developing that solid relationship in the project begins with the CxP assistance in developing the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR). Later, solid commissioning specifications provided by the CxP and enforced by the Owner can serve as leverage to improve the project delivery process. Cx specification requirements such as Construction Checklists, Contractor’s Construction Issues Logs, and Commissioning Tracking management help to keep the team on schedule and document parties responsible for delays. Specifying a contractor Commissioning Coordinator (CxC) can also help.
      For example, the CxC monitors the progress of the Construction Checklists and notes that equipment startup activities have fallen behind schedule in the Contractor’s Construction Issues Log. The CxC notifies the CxP, who flags the relevant system(s) in the Commissioning Tracking [log]. The CxP provides this update to the Owner’s Rep, who may apply pressure to the GC. In this way, the commissioning team may track Cx progress against the construction schedule, document those responsible for delays, and assist the GC to manage staffing up accordingly to maintain schedule. This framework comes from the BCxA Building Commissioning Handbook. The challenge as you know, is in writing thorough specifications and communicating the intent to the team, with Owner’s support, to actualize this idealized process management.

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