Getting Beyond “It’s Been Like That For Years”: Systems Assessment

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.

Facility condition assessments are a proactive path towards assuring that building systems are operating the way they should be (per design) and/or the way they need to be (per facility requirements) in pursuit of a quality user experience. Assessments give owners and operators a chance to find and fix systems that are not operating at peak performance.

We have recently seen an uptick in facility owners seeking facility condition assessment services. Some owners are looking to solve acute system problems or to generate the business case for funding building upgrades, while others seek whole building or whole campus assessments for master planning purposes. In this two-part series, we’ll explore the benefits, differences, and processes of facility conditions assessments for whole buildings/campuses and for specific systems. This article features the system-specific facility condition assessment option. Read more about whole building/campus assessments here.

When is a Systems Assessment Beneficial?

Systems assessments can take many forms, depending on the initial motivator. Several that readily come to mind are such things as acute problems, a desire for greater energy efficiency, equipment life cycle analysis, and so on. However, something doesn’t have to be “wrong” to benefit from a system assessment. The best motivator may be hidden in plain sight: when a building or campus system is operating normally but the staff or users find themselves saying, “It’s been like that for years,” the facility may benefit from a system assessment.

For example, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island had multiple resident halls that would get too hot in the winter. The solution proposed by the operations and maintenance (O&M) staff was to open a window because that was the easiest fix and how it was dealt with in the past. After all, it did happen every winter. It turned out that the actuators for the radiant heaters were not operating properly because they had been disabled by previous maintenance staff to remedy the cold complaints. This heating issue, coupled with a few other problems, lead to a base-wide evaluation of the HVAC systems in the resident halls, and controls replacement for the HVAC and hydronic systems in almost every building at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

One often assumes that O&M staff should be able to fix all the issues a system can throw at them, but their primary goals are successful day-to-day operation, routine maintenance, managing end-user feedback like complaints (thermal comfort is a common issue), or building systems not working as desired. Too often, busy O&M staff implement a “solution” to “make it work,” such as a control override. Adjusting system operations to solve an issue can cause a systemic issue, resulting in a larger, but less noticeable problem; when a system really begins to underperform, it needs help.

For example, Wood Harbinger recently assessed and recommended corrections for a compounding pharmacy that was found to have systemic problems. The symptom presented was that the pharmacy was not maintaining differential pressure or airflow patterns and was in danger of failing its bi-annual certifications. Our investigation revealed that the pharmacy HVAC design was based on airflow volumes provided by both the AHUs serving the general area, along with an inline fan coil unit fan. The fan coil unit’s internal controls allow the fan to run only when the cooling coil is enabled to provide cooling. This resulted in only half the design airflow volume during the heating season, since the fan in the fan coil unit is off.

As a temporary solution, we re-balanced the four pharmacy rooms to reduce airflow into the one room with a HEPA filter, and redistributed that air to the other rooms to maintain the differential pressure and airflow patterns needed. Our long-term recommendation was to add controls programming so that the fan coil unit fan can run independent of the cooling mode to enable the same airflow volumes during heating and cooling modes.

Systems Assessment Process

A systems assessment is a scaled-down version of the facility condition assessment process, focused on specific equipment and systems. As discussed in the companion to this article, the Existing Building Commissioning (EBCx) methodology is arguably the most effective option for whole building/campus facility condition assessments, and it is also applicable at the systems level. EBCx at the system-specific level brings the same holistic perspective; we’re still looking for root causes, not symptoms, and a spectrum of solutions from low/no cost initiatives, to full capital initiatives, if needed.

The facility condition assessment process, like everything, starts with good planning. Before diving in to building systems operations, we meet with the owner, interview facilities staff to get a working history of the facility, and interview the end-users to learn how they use the space and the issues they experience. This initial orientation helps streamline the assessment process by identifying focus areas. During these meetings we create an investigation timeline and discuss space access to limit disruptions to the owner, facilities staff, and end-users.

Next, we perform a site investigation of the system, its components, and any secondary systems or components that could be a part of the issue. This hands-on investigation is used to determine the remaining life of equipment as well as operational issues or abnormalities. Issues that are found are compiled into a log for easy tracking and overview. In a whole building/campus assessment, this process goes further to assess multiple systems as well as operations across the facility or campus.

From the investigation, we compile a finding and recommendations report, which includes a short narrative detailing planning and approach, assessment scope, findings, and recommended corrective actions. Life cycle cost analyses and cost estimates for improvements and recommendations may also be included, and require engineering knowledge to properly formulate.

With EBCx, recommendations take the form of Facility Improvement Measures (FIMs), which are compiled into a table that includes a description of each issue, relevant pictures, criticality level, recommended resolution, and cost estimates for corrective action. Especially useful for the larger-scale whole building/campus assessment option, the FIM table represents a convenient, condensed version of the full report.

An assessment may conclude once the owner receives a findings and recommendations report. The EBCx process differs from other assessment methodologies in that it extends support through executing improvements, following up with system testing and trending, training, and ongoing commissioning to assure peak performance is maintained. Contractually, this is usually accomplished in two stages—one contract for the planning and investigation phases, and a second contract for implementation and follow up, once the implementation scope is defined.

Implementation begins by meeting with the owner to evaluate and select proposed recommendations for action and then to document the corrective action plan. This plan defines the implementation timeline and considers location, cost, operations, and equipment grouping, to provide the most cost-effective execution with minimal disruption.

Sometimes corrective actions are simple adjustments to systems that have minor cost impacts, and other corrective actions will incur larger capital costs. In both scenarios, the assessor or commissioning provider is involved to verify corrections are successful and newly installed equipment works as intended. We follow-up after corrective action is implemented to test and trend the system to confirm proper ongoing operation. At the completion of the assessment, we train the facilities staff on what the assessment accomplished. This includes issues discovered, implemented corrections, and the background of the systems operation.

When a Systems Assessment Transitions to a Whole Building Assessment

If a system assessment points to systemic issues, like multiple underlying causes to a problem, or a root cause to an issue discovered in another system, it’s a good idea to take a step back and consider a whole building assessment.  For example, an HVAC system assessment may reveal abandoned mechanical equipment from a separate system. These findings indicate the building’s use has changed in the past. This might be a good indicator that additional systems assessments might be beneficial. If multiple systems are affected or need to be investigated, there’s potentially greater efficiency in shifting gears to a whole building assessment.

A systems assessment already considers mechanical, electrical, and plumbing disciplines. Each of these tendrils may lead to additional assessment findings; for example, if an HVAC system is backed by generator power, you may find the need to assess the generator system, and this may also reveal a need to assess the fire alarm system, and so on. Multiple system assessments tell the story of the building and can be compiled into a single report.

To transition from a system assessment to a whole building assessment, we would go back to update the assessment plan, meet with the facility owner and users again to discuss additional systems, conduct additional investigations, and look for efficiencies while continuing the process. It doesn’t mean starting the process all over again from the beginning.

This is one of the many reasons the existing building commissioning process is so ideal for facility condition assessments: it is scalable and fluid throughout the life of the assessment, whether adding additional systems or whole buildings.

What We Know Can Help Us

The goal of the EBCx process for system assessments is to uncover the root cause of problems, known and unknown, and develop solutions, not fixes, that last for the long term. This approach improves the facility overall by optimizing operations and engaging the owner, facilities staff, and end-users in the operational success of their building. Whether starting at the individual system level or the whole building, investigating systems to define their current requirements and capabilities sets the building, the facility operators, current and future occupants, and the building owner up for success.

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